The new education policy has a commendable vision, but its potency will depend on whether it is able to effectively integrate with the government’s other policy initiatives.
India introduced its new National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 last week, laying out the Narendra Modi government’s vision and broad direction conceived for educational reform. It was considerably overdue — the NEP is only India’s third education policy document; the previous one was revised in 1992. The policy introduces a whole gamut of changes and reads as a very progressive document overall, with a firm grasp on the current socio-economic landscape and the prospect of future uncertainty. Education for a new generation of learners has to necessarily engage with the increasing dematerialisation and digitalisation of our economies, requiring a completely new set of capabilities in order to be able to keep up. This seems to be an even more urgent prerogative now, with the trend towards digitalisation and disruptive automation being accelerated by the pandemic. The NEP seems to acknowledge this, but how far do the document’s prescriptions go in paving the way for India’s future workforce to be prepared for a new economy?
The future of work promises to be much more nebulous and fast-changing than the world we inhabit today, with a much larger gig economy. It shall, therefore, need an agile workforce, which can quickly adapt to changing labour force requirements. The NEP has done well to recognise this shift and provide for it, by putting flexibility at the core of its vision for education. The policy’s focus on conceptual rather than rote learning, and the concurrent emphasis on soft skills like communication, leadership and teamwork is heartening. Emerging challenges such as building resilience to climate change, pandemics and disruptive emerging technologies shall require a workforce able to draw on cross-cutting competencies. The NEP has, therefore, shown commendable foresight in seeking to break down silos and encourage interdisciplinarity, which shall lead to a workforce with a much more holistic sense of the world.
The policy recognises the crucial feedback loop with regard to technology and education: the fact that technology enables superior learning, but wielding it effectively requires digital skills and education as well. But even while acknowledging this, the NEP leans much more towards the enabling aspect of technology, without fully dwelling on the need for building the capabilities required for engaging meaningfully with it. The NEP is big on Edtech, and contains some potentially great ideas such as the use of adaptive software to provide tailored and flexible lessons <1>, blended learning and the use of AI software to track student progress. These are interesting examples of technology deployed right, without distracting from the fundamentals of learning and sapping its communal aspects. The conceptualisation of the NETF (National Educational Technology Forum), for instance, to brainstorm on the deployment of technology to improve the systemic performance of the entire educational system is also promising.
However, the policy does not go nearly far enough in working to foster technological capabilities — arguably the much more crucial aspect of the two. In this regard, the NEP’s focus on promoting socio-emotional intelligence and foundational literacy and numeracy is an excellent move. However, as per the world standard, these foundational skills must also include digital literacy. Children today begin engaging with technology at a precociously young age and, hence, need to be taught how to engage with technology in a healthy and productive way, right as they enter school. Countries across the world now include a technological element in their curriculum at the Foundational Level itself: The UK and Sweden, for example, teach the principles of computer programming to children from the age of five. President Obama’s ‘Computer Science for All’ initiative focused on providing coding and programming skills to children from kindergarten onwards, whereas the NEP prescribes the introduction of coding only at the Middle Stage i.e. class 6-8.
The future of work requires going beyond just learning how to use technology, children now need to go a step further and also learn how technologies are created and designed, at a very intuitive level. The NEP has cited the need for computational thinking at the foundational level, but does not conceptualise the integration of digital skills into the core curriculum. Computer literacy and programming is something that can be integrated into curricula early on. To make it fun and engaging, it can even be used for story-telling and games. The advantages of an early beginning cannot be under-estimated: the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) found that economies like South Korea and Singapore were far better at analysing digital texts than other developed countries, simply because their students had greater experience in navigating technology and were, therefore, notably better at task-based browsing. These subtle differences eventually add up to a significant competitive edge.
Much of the debate around the NEP has predictably centred around one aspect of the policy — its focus on local languages. The policy promotes regional languages as the medium of instruction — where possible — till secondary school. Without delving too far into the debate, if the question is considered solely from the perspective of the demands of the digital economy, the policy could well be an inspired move. Indian languages feature nowhere among the top languages in use on the internet, and most have not ventured into cyberspace at all. This has affected access to the internet for millions of Indian users. FICCI estimates that the availability of online content in regional languages would enable the digital enfranchisement of about 200 million Indians. The narrow linguistic scope available online has also limited representation, by restricting the access of different voices expressing their lived realities, creating vacuums in the production of information on certain geographies and cultures.
Research suggested that multilingual people contribute significantly to the diversification of digital content. The NEP’s focus on promoting multilingualism and reviving proficiency in local languages could help create a workforce to do just that. However, considerable effort shall also need to be expended to create markets and demand for regional languages, in order to make their promotion a success. Additionally, the emphasis on regional languages must not be to the detriment of learning foreign languages, especially English. Proficiency in the English language is needed to tap into global networks — and English is still very much the language of the internet. It determines access: a Google search in English brings up about 5 times more results than one in Arabic. It is also the language of code, at least as of now, and therefore comprehending technological creations and traditions requires English.Therefore, bilingualism on the part of teachers (as encouraged by NEP) will be imperative to encourage fluency and greater use of English, especially for the majority of children hailing from non-English speaking backgrounds.
The absence of digital skills has the potential to greatly exacerbate increasing inequalities. The NEP recognises the need for inclusivity and makes provisions for policy design to address existing disparities. However, it will need explicit sustained effort to ensure that India’s digital transformation does not leave some of us behind. Women will need a push from the education system to pursue STEM. Research suggests that they often display greater anxiety with respect to entering the field. Also, since discrimination tends to find its way into the technology we design, education systems shall need to incorporate gender and race sensitisation as well as ethics (which NEP already recommends), as a part of syllabi. Equitable access also demands that the policy’s goals of employing technology be complemented by efforts to increase digital penetration and create foundational digital infrastructure. India’s internet penetration currently stands at 40.6%. A large percentage of children without access to computers at home shall depend on school labs, which must therefore be well-provisioned, else the digital divide will exacerbate inequalities further.
The new education policy has a commendable vision, but its potency will depend on whether it is able to effectively integrate with the government’s other policy initiatives — Digital India, Skill India and the New Industrial Policy to name a few — in order to effect a coherent structural transfiguration. For instance, policy linkages can ensure that education policy speaks to and learns from Skill India’s experience in engaging more dynamically with the private sector to shape vocational education curricula in order to make it a success. There is also a need for more evidence-based decision-making, to adapt to rapidly evolving shifts and disruption. NEP has encouragingly provisioned for real-time evaluation systems and a consultative monitoring framework. This shall enable the education system to constantly reform itself, instead of waiting for a new education policy every decade for a shift in curriculum. This, in itself, will be a remarkable achievement.
<1> India’s introduction of the Mindspark adaptive learning software in some public schools was a great success, helping to improve math scores by 38% in just a few months, scalable at the rate of just about Rs 200 per student per year.
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Sangeet Jain was Junior Fellow at ORF. Her researchRead More +