A disastrous K-12 system
India’s National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) faces the un-enviable task of ensuring effective learning for 300 million K-12 students . As the nodal body for school education reporting to the Ministry for Human Resource Development, NCERT is responsible for preparing textbooks and educational materials, organising training of teachers, developing innovative educational pedagogies , and supporting 1.5 million schools  to provide quality education. The situation today is dire – in 2016, only 48% of grade V students could read a grade II level text, and 50% of grade V students could perform subtraction functions . However, digitization offers the opportunity to transform the traditional education supply chain.
Education has long followed the Industrial Revolution era model of linear assembly line teaching . Inputs include students who receive a defined set of physical teaching materials through a prescribed and uniform pedagogy. The school is the factory and teachers are workers. The output is supposed to be student learning, measured at the end of the year through mass examinations and marked by credentials .
The flaws are glaring. Different students like to learn in different ways, using different materials and pedagogies, but are all taught in a standardized fashion . Teaching materials are physical books, which are expensive and time consuming to print and transport, leading to multi-year cycles between updates. Teachers, faced with 40 students, have no choice but to follow a one-size-fits-all model. There is zero information flow and therefore no responsiveness – ‘customer’ feedback in terms of learning is only through the single assessment at the very end, and customer demand in terms of student engagement is never measured.
Digital disruption has started
That digitalization of learning offers an unprecedented opportunity has been noticed. India’s New Education Policy draft, published in 2016, mentions the role of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in making knowledge easily available, aiding teachers and encouraging self-learning by students . The NCERT has created digital books, an ‘e-Pathshala’ (online portal with digital content) and an online content repository ‘e-Basta’ which sources different types of content from different sources . It is also using satellite technology for online lectures .
These innovations, provided teachers and students are trained to use them, can allow for quick cycles of content updates, lower cost of materials and more customization through provision of alternative content inputs for different types of learners. NCERT’s initiatives, once fully developed, will also allow diversification of content ‘suppliers’, allowing individual teachers, parents and organizations to make their own content accessible to many others.
The need for digital learning, not just digitization
However, these measures stop short of their goal, by focusing only on digitization of books, instead of true digital learning. I recommend the logical next step of replacing digitized books by interactive videos, which would allow users to engage with the content inputs. App-based tracking of viewership patterns would provide instant feedback on user demand, based on engagement with different pieces of content. Digital methods create the possibility of easily administrable and repeatable assessments, helping the software and teachers adapt themselves to customer feedback in terms of the level of the child. This form of personalized adaptive learning would give students control over their own education while allowing 10 million Indian teachers to become facilitators, rather than perpetually stretched between 40 students at different learning levels. Overall, education could be made non-linear – from a single product to allowing customers to order their own preferred products, in their own time.
These measures are easier said than done – we see very few successful examples even in the global North. To achieve success, NCERT will need to partner with private sector and civil society. Organizations such as Khan Academy and Ek Step are building out these advanced technologies and could work with NCERT to adapt them for the India government school context. Social enterprises such as Pratham and Mindspark are creating localized content and developing models to increase student engagement with technology. Only a collaborative effort can put the puzzle together.
There are massive challenges even if the technology and content pieces are solved. Internet penetration in India is increasing but still limited, especially in the poorest regions; offline models can work but are restricted compared to their online counterparts. Digital literacy is low among students, but more problematically among teachers and parents – a lot of work will be required to develop the know-how and comfort to use digital models. Last but not least, how do you get first time, low-confidence learners, in unsupportive environments, to enjoy learning enough to engage with it consistently and under their own steam?
The road ahead is still difficult, but digital learning offers the opportunity to change the fundamental education model.
 Government of India’s Ministry for Human Resources Development Website, “Statistics Report” (2016)
 National Council of Education Research and Training (NCERT) website (2017) http://www.ncert.nic.in/about_ncert.html
 ASER center, Annual Status of Education Report (2016)
 Davidson, Cathy, “Standardized tests for everyone? In the Internet age, that’s the wrong answer.” (Sep 23, 2011) https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/an-assembly-line-education/2011/09/26/gIQA8RJR5K_story.html?utm_term=.e9368e399107
 Chavan, Madhav, “Re-imagining India” book (2013)
 Christensen, Clayton, “Disrupting Class” book (May 14, 2008)
 National University of Educational Planning and Administration, “Draft Report on New Education Policy” (2016)
 NCERT e-basta website (2017) https://www.ebasta.in/content/about-ebasta
 Government of India’s Ministry for Human Resources Development Website, “ICT policy” http://mhrd.gov.in/ict_overview