The potential, promise and pitfalls of blended learning in India

This story was written by Liz Willen and originally published on The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

Photo: Kim Palmer

JAISALMER, India – In a rural desert school, students from this corner of Northwest India sit on the floor, squirming and awaiting instruction They have few desks and supplies and not a single computer. The setting seems highly unlikely for an innovation like blended learning to take root.

Yet throughout India, a number of digital initiatives are underway aimed at improving education in areas that lack sufficient trained and experienced teachers. The Hechinger Report visited schools in India recently and talked to experts about blended learning – which includes an element of online learning with in-class instruction – and the potential it has for helping both teachers and students in the world’s second-most populous country.

Progress is desperately needed: The UNESCO Institute for Statistics estimates that India, where half of the 1.2 billion population is under 25, will need some three million new primary school teachers by 2030. India’s education system has long lagged behind others, despite the country’s enactment of the 2009 Right to Education (RTE) ACT, which was supposed to give every child in the country the right to a full-time elementary education “of satisfactory and equitable quality.”

India has also had long had a problem with keeping girls in school. And many of the public, government-run schools – where 70 percent of all children study – have no computers or tablets.

So why is there so much optimism about blended learning as a solution? Many believe it has to do with both the huge population of India, the country’s many education needs and its chronic shortage of qualified teachers. If done well, blended learning can help all kinds of students – including slow learners – get up to speed, while boosting the ability of those who learn more quickly to master competencies and move ahead.

“I think blended learning has the potential to have a huge impact on education in India,” said Aarushi Prabhakar, an education specialist at Mindspark (also known as IACApplications), a company that that promotes a personalized interactive approach to math and language instruction catering to each child’s pace and style of learning.

Prabhakar acknowledged the lack of computers and connectivity in many Indian public schools, but said plenty of efforts are afoot to build offline solutions or add basic internet connectivity. In addition, the private sector operates 25 percent of the nation’s 1.5 million schools; those schools tend to have better facilities and more up-to-date technical equipment.

She and others are heartened by a public push from senior education officials in India on the potential of technology-aided solutions, and by the “e-India,” strategy led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Tulsi Parida, a director of growth for English learning apps at Zaya Learning Labs in India, said Zaya largely works in schools that have their own digital equipment, or finds ways to persuade outside entities to get computers donated or loaned to the schools. The education nonprofit, which provides after-school programs, designed its own blended learning model and apps to work anywhere in the world. We first heard about Zaya via the  Christensen Institute, a nonprofit think tank that has been out front in studying blended learning and student-centered design around the world.

Zaya’s team “trains the teachers throughout the year, with school visits at least once a month, to share best practices on blended learning,” Parida said, adding that the insights teachers gain from the school visits inform their training, as well. School “implementation managers” visit schools regularly to make sure teachers are trained in blended learning techniques and synchronize the data to double-check progress.

“We are trying to make it more intuitive for teachers in the coming year,” Parida said in an email.

It wasn’t possible to see Mindspark in action, so we asked the company a question many who follow blended learning want to ask: how can we be sure blended learning is working? Prabhakar told us about a randomized trial of the product that showed a large improvement in learning after only four months of a child’s exposure to the program, some of which is outlined in this video.  (Keep in mind this comes from the company itself, so we couldn’t independently verify the results.)

A more nuanced view of how blended learning is working in India can be seen in a 2015 report done by the membership and advocacy group CoSN. A senior delegation including a number of American educators visited the country, and also wondered how blended learning “could be implemented in the absence of electricity and internet access.”

It’s a question worth following, and reading more about in the report.

The new digital efforts come at a time of deep concern over the decline of education standards in India, both in government and private schools. They also come as India’s government is pushing to increase digital literacy in the country and add more projectors, speakers, whiteboards and interactive learning opportunities – and could have fascinating implications for countries struggling to catch up with technology and new ways of reaching students.

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