E-Education Playing Professor Henry Higgins

Technology is being deployed not to replace teachers but to support them to improve learning outcomes
E-Education Playing Professor Henry Higgins

"The rush of children borrowing books and reading in the school library has suddenly gone up," says V. Mythali, principal of the Delhi Tamil Education Association (DTEA) Senior Secondary School in R.K. Puram, with some satisfaction, attributing the change to use of technology over last two years to improve English reading and comprehension skills in classes 6 to 8.

As English is generally not spoken at home by most the students in the school, many of them have difficulty or are diffident about speaking in the language mainly because of issues with pronunciation. To offset the handicap, all the seven branches of DTEA in association with the America India Foundation have been using the ReadtoMe software of the Boston based EnglishHelper, a global company that offers technology-enabled solutions to promote language proficiency.

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The technology enables the teachers to pause, replay and correlate a word in the recorded lesson for greater clarity. “I find the interactive lessons have helped many children to shed their shyness, improve their language skills and speak up more confidently on stage during school functions. Their reading habit has also improved,” says Mythali, adding that she would be happier if the lessons were introduced in lower classes as it would help the children to pick up the right pronunciation at the onset rather than having to unlearn later.

The EnglishHelper works on the concept of how a child picks up his/her first language by first listening to the repeated use of a word, speaking and later reading and writing. The emphasis is on phonetics and using visuals to put words in context.

Sanjay Gupta, CEO of EnglishHelper, says, “The multi-sensory experience greatly enhances comfort with the English phonics such that they don’t question why similar words are pronounced differently. In English, out of around 1 million words, research shows that just 25 words are used 33 per cent of the time in everyday writing, 100 words are used 50 per cent of the time and 1,000 words 90 per cent of the time. If you repeatedly expose the early learners to these 1,000 words, they not only become familiar with the sounds of those words but also learn the meanings and how to use them in various phrases and sentences.”

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The importance of ability to read for improving learning outcomes is slowly but surely percolating from the education experts to policy makers with several states coming forth to support such initiatives. Delhi government for instances embarked on an “Ability to Read” initiative a few months back in government schools targeting thousands of middle school children who could not read even class 2 books. A review earlier this month showed improvement in around 50 per cent of the children.

Even as English Helper, in collaboration with American India Foundation and the IL&FS Education has witnessed positive outcomes in some 5000 government schools spread across eight states, studies of other similar initiatives show the growing and evolving role of technology as an education tool to promote not just language skills but also make learning more engaging. Experts emphasis that technology is being deployed not to replace teachers but to support them to improve outcomes.

Rukmini Banerji, CEO of Pratham, “Like many others, we are also in a very early stage of thinking and experimenting with technology and learning. However, even at this stage, a few things are becoming clear.  First, once a child can read, a lot of possibilities open up. So it is essential that children learn to read with understanding quite early in their primary school career.  Second, we see that once children have learned to read, they work quite well in groups to explore digital resources through the devices that are available to them. Third, support from the ‘environment’, especially interest from family members, is important for children’s learning and technology seems to break the usual barriers that stand between children’s learning and illiterate parents.”

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Studies by Pratham have revealed that in the absence of a push to ensure quality education, nearly half the children in grade five are not even at the grade-two level. They fail to make meaningful progress after grade five, when the textbooks get bigger and the curriculum gets heavier. More and more children lag behind. The outcome is that children drop out after eighth or tenth class without adequate reading and writing or basic arithmetic skills.

Banerji states that efforts are on to study how children interact in groups with digital content on tablets. Left on their own with a menu of options that include games, apps and videos, Pratham has found that children’s groups explore content quite freely.

“Our view is that a lot of experimentation is needed in this space to see what children do, what content is popular with whom and how all of this adds to their wider exposure and knowledge about the world and also to their overall skills,” says Banerji.

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Pratham is currently partnering with Bangalore based EkStep, a venture by Nandan and Rohini Nilekani together with Shankar Maruwada, to assess whether there are letter, word and number games on tablets that can supplement other instructional activities that it undertakes and whether this supplementation improves results more than where there are no tablets.  Further as a follow up step in case of children who have already completed an instructional program to improve basic reading and math, the two organisations are in the pilot stages of figuring out what community based groups of children (age 9/10 and above) do with digital content. To engage the parents, most of whom are not literate, daily SMS are sent with suggestions for an activity they could do with their children like read simple para or do a basic word problem. The SMS have received good response and helped to connect parents to their children’s learning in ways that the usual textbook based inputs could not, stresses Banerji.

Author and social activist Rohini Nilekani states that technology in education is not a simple thing. “It is not just about putting mobile phones or some content in children's hands and expecting everything to be alright. You have to make sure the technology is appropriate, easy to use, useful, relevant and engaging for the child to use,” states Nilekani. “It should also be useful to the caring adult engaged in teaching or helping the child, otherwise it may not work. But new opportunities have emerged which allow us to take a very different approach to technology in education.” 

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Focusing on primarily school children, EkStep is currently engaged in developing an open source, free to use platform for those interested in children’s learning, and for children themselves to use. “We are not wedded to any one pedagogy, but are open to all pedagogies that people want to use for children. Our goal is mainly to enable society to help children get their fundamentals of learning to be rock solid,” states Nilekani. “While there is some complicated technology at EkStep’s backend, we want to create a front end platform that is easy to use. We will deploy many toolkits for parents, teachers and caring adults to use. Our hope is that the parents, teachers, the NGOs and even the government will be interested in the EkStep platform which they can use in any way they feel appropriate to reach out to the children for their learning needs.”

Given that many children are unable to attend school owing to varied reasons including need to earn a living at a very young age to supplement family income, or alternately there are many schools without good teachers, easy to use technology could well be an answer. Vijay Kulkarni, who has anchored several education initiatives, is all for technology interventions “as it will bring a level playing field for children in rural and government schools…However while technology can replace chalk and talk, it cannot be a substitute for a good teacher.” 

Just like mobile technology, Kulkarni feels technology in education will have to go through many stages before it impacts children. Even as organizations like EnglishHelper are playing Prof Henry Higgins to Eliza Doolittles by helping to bridge the gaps in English learning and gearing children for the competitive job market, education experts see tremendous scope for deploying technology in vernacular languages as most children study in local languages. Even as EkStep is gearing to meet this demand, there are many other NGOs in the e-education field like E-Vidyaloka which is using technology to provide a platform to high quality teachers from across the globe, keen to volunteer to help raise educational standards.

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