September 18, 2020
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Importance Given To Technology In NEP Is Welcome But The Approach Is Flawed And Counterproductive

The policy proposes the creation of a National Educational Alliance for Technology (NEAT), with an expert body to facilitate decision making about education technology to central and state governments. This approach is deeply misguided.

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Importance Given To Technology In NEP Is Welcome But The Approach Is Flawed And Counterproductive
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Importance Given To Technology In NEP Is Welcome But The Approach Is Flawed And Counterproductive

The New Education Policy (NEP) has been received with both praise and criticism, and the extensive commentary need not be repeated here. Instead, this article analyses a part of the policy—Section 23, titled ‘Technology Use and Integration’. It puts forth a vision for the role technology will play in a new and improved education sector. It is a positive sign that India’s policymakers are finally waking up to technology’s disruptive implications for education, rightly noting in Clause 23.7 that failure to adapt “would place us (individually and nationally) at a perilous disadvantage in an increasingly competitive world”. Unfortunately, however, the approach taken in the NEP’s Section 23 is questionable on a number of counts.

The main problem is in Clause 23.3, which states that all technology for improving education will be supported, but with a strong caveat: “provided these interventions are rigorously and transparently evaluated in relevant contexts before they are scaled up.” The policy thus proposes the creation of a National Educational Alliance for Technology (NEAT), with an expert body to “facilitate decision making on the induction, deployment, and use of technology” and make recommendations about education technology (or ‘Ed-Tech’) to central and state government agencies. This approach is deeply misguided.

The concept of ‘NEAT’ is indicative of a top-down, prescriptive, paternalistic model of policymaking that designates an oligarchy of individuals as ‘experts’ entrusted to be the sole arbiters of quality. With 4,000 Ed-Tech companies already operating in India and new ones registered almost daily, it is naïve to imagine that any government body can evaluate them all fairly. Moreover, as the NEP itself acknowledges (Clause 23.2), the “explosive pace of technological development” means “it is certain that technology will impact education in multiple ways, only some of which can be foreseen at the present time” – in which case, how can NEAT’s members possibly keep themselves sufficiently up-to-date to be able to perform the role of evaluating and advising on education technology?

The Ed-Tech success story is a testament to the power of free markets in India. India boasts the second-largest Ed-Tech sector in the world, which includes the world’s highest-value Ed-Tech company (BYJU’s). There has been massive acceleration in EdTech adoption and investment, with analysts projecting that Indian Ed-Tech will be a $3.5bn market by 2022. This unprecedented growth, success, and value has not resulted from government red tape, but from independent interactions between progressive educators, conscientious parents, and innovative entrepreneurs.

It is difficult to understand, then, in what way the NEP’s proposed NEAT body would add value. Clause 23.4 is patronising when it states that NEAT “will act as a forum for harnessing the distributed energy that democratising technology can unleash, particularly among the youth of the country who continually prove their capacity to innovate and lead”, as it is abundantly clear that this has already been happening without government intervention. When knowledge-sharing through Ed-Tech events and other mechanisms already takes place constantly as an organic by-product of supply and demand, what is the need to distort this natural process with a proposal that “NEAT will organise multiple regional and national conferences, workshops, etc.”?

Critics of this free-market argument might suggest that NEAT could create value by reducing information-asymmetry. Parents and educators are not always discerning customers—they may be drawn in by smooth sales pitches or flashy user interface designs even when a product is of low quality—and hence filtration by NEAT could assist them to make better choices. There are two simple responses to this. Firstly, Ed-Tech is already self-regulated by market competition, and websites that transparently rate Ed-Tech platforms based on user feedback have also emerged. Secondly, we may invoke the NEP’s own good suggestion of judging schools on outputs such as student learning attainment, instead of inputs such as infrastructure. A school evaluated on the basis of its learning outcomes will naturally be careful not to waste limited funding on ineffective Ed-Tech products, so the interference of an additional government agency is not needed to prevent bad choices.

This argument is not intended to peddle some hard-line libertarian zero-government ideology. The examples of high-performing education systems show how government can be helpful by creating the conditions for a quality Ed-Tech market to flourish: for instance, the UK’s Department for Education strategy on ‘Realising the potential of technology in education’ emphasises securing digital infrastructure, developing digital skills, and promoting digital safety. But transferring decision-making power from individual stakeholders to NEAT is not the way for government to help. The sad reality of past experience suggests that this would simply create another avenue for bureaucratic corruption, with government Ed-Tech contracts awarded to the highest bidder regardless of merit.

Another red flag is the conflation of two separate issues: ‘education technology’ and ‘technological education’. On the one hand, the section discusses education technology: interventions for improving teaching, learning, evaluation, access, and administration (Clause 23.6). On the other, it talks of technological education through “PhD and Masters programmes in core areas (such as Machine Learning)” and other targeted training (Clause 23.10). Other sections of the NEP discuss specific educational content, where it would have made sense to include technological education – in particular Section 17 on Professional Education already details plans for agricultural, legal, healthcare, and technical education.

It is thus unclear why technological education has been subsumed under the separate section on education technology. It is perhaps easy to see how, for instance, ‘AI for education’ and ‘AI education’ may be elided, but in reality the two are separate areas requiring different expertise and policy, and the distinction should have been given due recognition. Their conflation suggests some confusion on the part of the NEP’s framers, and is a lost opportunity to properly flesh out three important areas of policy that the NEP only lightly touches upon: how efforts towards supporting digital literacy and training can enhance the effectiveness of Ed-Tech usage in schools and universities, how the quality of technological education programmes can be developed, and how public awareness about technological progress can be raised.

In summary, the importance given to education technology in the NEP’s Section 23 is welcome, but its proposed method of recognising that importance is flawed and counterproductive, and it misses opportunities to do more good. The government should create the basic conditions for a functioning EdTech market, and then let school accountability and the free market do the work of regulating Ed-Tech quality instead of establishing a new committee for the purpose.

(The author is Director of Strategy, City Montessori School, International Ed-Tech consultant & Startup mentor. Views expressed are personal.)


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