Professor Sugata Mitra did not need much convincing when a school teacher from Korakati that lies deep inside the Sundarbans, suggested a remote village as the perfect site to set up a School in the Cloud in 2013. It was the fourth of the seven Self Organised Learning (SOLEs) locations that Mitra planned to set up under his $1 million TED Prize-funded project on non-conventional education for children. Mitra’s 14 years of research experience led him to believe that a group of children with internet access can learn almost anything by themselves.
Speaking about the importance of the Internet of Things (IoT) in the education sector, Dr. Utpal Garain, Professor, Computer Vision & Pattern Recognition Unit and Coordinator, Centre for AI and Machine Learning (CAIML), Indian Statistical Institute (ISI), said to BE, “The need of IoT in education was felt even before the Covid-19 disruption. As IoT facilitates connected and collaborative learning, use of this technology in educational institutions was evolving as a valuable tool and as we entered into the current disruption, the technology emerged as an essential part of our education system.”
IoT can give access to teaching materials, online classes by excellent teachers, even live and animated demonstrations of different topics which will be beneficial for students at any level. In absence of teachers for any particular subject, an institution taking IoT help to connect its students to the relevant classes taken by other teachers ensuring that students’ learning is not hampered due to some local and temporary problem of the institute. It is not only that students can access to resources which were otherwise out of reach, IoT can help teachers too in understanding their students in a better way.
Industry insiders pointed out the different approaches of teaching undertaken by the institutions during pandemic as:
a) Teachers using the video calling interface to communicate and teach students.
b) Teachers using specialised E-Learning Platforms that are designed to empower teachers to manage the teaching process, helps access to pre-loaded content and has features to help teachers navigate the virtual classroom better.
c) Teachers of government schools who use the medium of smartphone applications like WhatsApp or local TV Channels to share videos/audios and other learning material to have them reach as many government school students as possible.
Reacting to this, Vinesh Menon, CEO -Education, Skilling & Consulting Services, Ampersand Group, told BE, “The pandemic has ensured that technology as a platform has been seen by almost the entire school fraternity across the country to be a key enabler to the teaching process. The degree of adaptation and deployment varies from school to school and from location to location.”
Industry insiders also point out the economic benefits associated with IoT. Often institutions invite stalwarts from different countries to access their expertise, IoT will save such efforts and expenses. Also, practical classes for several subjects can be virtual. Dr. Garain pointed out that in most cases schools have only one lab for each subject like Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Geography, etc. Hence, it becomes difficult to schedule lab classes for all the students and as a result only senior students get access to lab classes. He stated, “With IoT help this limitation can be overcome and junior students can also have virtual access to the labs and learning become more interesting for them. This is cost effective as well as it is achieved without spending money for buying space for more labs and their equipment.”
Though it is certain that in the long run, the use of technology will help bring down the cost of education delivery per student significantly through scale deployment, this may not be the case, in the immediate short run. Menon informed, “The suddenness with which the pandemic has struck has led to many schools needing to invest more in computers and learning tools and applications to help teachers continue to teach the children. The short-term challenges have been further compounded due to continuing expenditure to maintain key resources in the private school domain and lack of clarity in parent understanding and ill-informed perceptions leading to a significant drop in fee collection thus leading to a huge cash flow imbalance for schools.” Industry insiders are of the opinion that cost effectiveness is a certainty provided the sector is supported to manage the economic imbalance created by the present crisis.
IoT in education is something new in India. Government was very much aware of this need and hence, started projects like NPTEL (National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning (NPTEL), NDLI (National Digital Library of India) etc. which are a part of IoT-based education. However, the ongoing disruptions have made it clear that IoT is no more just an elective tool but an essential platform. However, certain challenges must be addressed in order to ensure the maximum outreach of this technology. Industry insiders point out infrastructure and the multi-lingual nature of Indian society as the two main hurdles.
As this technology requires good bandwidth and internet connection facility, it is still a problem for the students in rural areas. Experts emphasis on the fact that the very purpose of IoT is to give access to resources to students living anywhere and so it has to be ensured that this form of education is not only limited as an urban concept. The other challenge in using IoT is that majority of the resources available in IoT are in English. According to available data, only 17% of Indian students go to English medium schools and so the majority is not comfortable with the resources available in English. In order to overcome this shortcoming, an effort is required to make resources available in vernacular languages and also to train teachers to adapt to this new form of education.
Reacting to the popular notion that the use of such technology will threaten the teaching profession, Dr. Garain emphasised, “IoT in education is not to replace teachers but to assist teachers and the teachers should be properly trained to make use of this new assistance in the right way.” He cited the ePathshala initiative by the Ministry of Human Resource and how it looks forward to bridge the gap between the urban and the rural students. The national testing agency (NTA) has also taken a noteworthy initiative by uploading mock test series for the forthcoming Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) and National Eligibility Cum Entrance Test (NEET) examinees. Such mock tests were previously available to those students who could afford the high charges of coaching centres. With NTA’s initiative, the examinees just need a net-connected smart phone to download these mock tests, practise, evaluate their preparation and improve their knowledge with explanatory notes available there.
Menon said, “The rate at which internet penetration and device penetration is taking place, a sure steady movement has commenced that will soon see a child in every corner of India getting access to education content. With a little more nudge from the government and some more policy changes towards successful public-private partnerships, India is well poised to deliver a much better education system in the times to come through a judicious blend of technology and brick and mortar platforms.”