Over the last two decades, several private ed-tech companies have rolled out ICT programmes in government schools using the BOOT model and proprietary software. However, the BOOT model bypasses the teacher and fails to demonstrate significant impact on learning processes or outcomes. This article discusses why we need non-profit, free and open source models of ICT in education to address the concerns of equity and inclusion, and points to Kerala and Karnataka’s exemplary models.
Our society is variously referred to as a “digital society”, “network society” or “information society”, because of the widespread use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in every sector of the economy and society. ICT is increasingly seen as a basic necessity. However, the actual dispersion of ICT is unequal. The digital divide appears to be aggravating existing socioeconomic divides.
The digital divide seems to apply to the education sector as well, with government schools facing challenges in implementing ICT integration, while elite private schools have invested in personal learning devices and sophisticated digital systems. Equitable learning is an important aim; this article, based on the research and programmatic experiences of the authors, explores how ICT programmes in the public education system can be designed and implemented effectively.
Private corporations and ICT
The birth of the internet was largely due to research in US public institutions, but ICT adoption is now being driven mostly by transnational corporations. The network effect (in which the value of a product or service increases as more people use it, creating a positive spiral) results in large monopolies and oligopolies. For instance, since many people use the Microsoft operating system and office suite, more opt for it to ensure compatibility of their work products. More and more people use Facebook as the social media platform since their friends are already on it, and thus it has become the default social networking platform. The use of proprietary standards makes these products incompatible with alternatives, and this lack of “interoperability” promotes monopolies.
The network effect has led to the monopoly of ICT companies such as Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook (the Big Five1), which dominate their areas of business globally.
The largely “market” orientation of ICT infrastructure in society means that the needs of the rich will find higher priority vis-a-vis the needs of those who cannot pay. This is inherently inequitable. We need to actively explore non-profit ICT in education models that can address the concerns of equity and inclusion.
Private sector-driven “Ed-Tech”
In the ICT and Education space too, corporations have been dominant. Initially it was the “Wintel” duo of Microsoft and Intel—most ICT programmes in schools would use computers containing the products of both these companies. In Microsoft’s Academy of Learning that the company established in many Indian states, the MoU with the education department explicitly limited the curriculum to Microsoft products and prevented alternative free and open source software (FOSS) applications from being learnt, ensuring its monopoly.
Over the last two decades, large-scale ICT programmes in government schools have been rolled out by companies such as NIIT, Aptech and Educomp, using the BOOT (Build, Own, Operate, Transfer) model. In the BOOT model, ICT labs are established by the private vendor, owned and operated for the BOOT period (usually three to five years), at the end of which the lab is transferred to the government. The operation of the programme includes providing a faculty to the school, who conducts the sessions for students in the lab and maintains the infrastructure.
Evaluations of the BOOT model suggest that the programme runs in a standalone manner, without involving schoolteachers. The programme largely focuses on computer literacy and not much on subject integration since the faculty (usually poorly paid) has a technology/computer science background, rather than an education background. During this period, the hardware is usually not renewed or enhanced as this imposes additional costs and reduces the vendor’s profit margins, which are already low due to competitive bidding processes. The BOOT model bypasses the teacher and the school’s mainstream learning processes, and has failed, by and large, to demonstrate significant impact on learning processes or outcomes in schools.
Public institutions must define ICT appropriation
In 2002, Kerala initiated a programme driven by its teachers. The teachers were trained to use a variety of FOSS (free and open source software) generic and educational applications for integrating ICTs in teacher professional development (TPD) and subject teaching. Technology training was co-ordinated and managed by the state inhouse, using the cascade model, resulting in state-wide training of all teachers.
The school ICT lab was managed by one teacher designated the School IT Coordinator (SITC). The textbooks in different subjects also provide digital activities to be carried out in the ICT lab and teachers taught both digital literacy and their subjects through these.
The Kerala programme has been successful in facilitating teacher ownership and supporting ICT integration across subjects. It is expanding to cover higher primary schools and to include school administration and resource development. The programme is an exemplar for all state governments.
Learning from the Kerala example, the Subject Teacher Forum (STF) programme was implemented in Karnataka (2011–15) by the Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan (RMSA) Karnataka and Department of State Education Research and Training (DSERT), in collaboration with IT for Change (ITfC). In addition, teachers became part of state-wide virtual forums (mailing lists) to stay connected with one another after the training programme. Teachers also created open educational resources 2(OER) and shared them on the mailing lists.
The Kerala and Karnataka experiences have informed the National Council of Educational Research and Training’s (NCERT) National ICT Curriculum, 2013, which provides a structured curriculum for teachers and students studying in higher primary and high schools. The themes of the curriculum focus on processes such as “connecting and learning” and “creating and learning”, avoiding mention of specific software names. At the same time, NCERT also established the National Repository of Open Educational Resources (NROER) platform, on which state governments and teachers are encouraged to upload their resources. Since NROER is an OER platform, it is possible to freely download and adapt these resources.
Telangana has begun a programme similar to the Karnataka Subject Teacher Forum since 2015. It has developed an ICT textbook based on the National ICT Curriculum and licensed it as an OER, which allows other states to freely re-use and adapt it.
The Connected Learning Initiative3 (CLIx) of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) is working in around 1,000 schools in four states since 2014 to build Communities of Practice, integrating ICT for teacher professional development (TPD) and for teaching English, mathematics and science. This programme adopts similar principles of free and open sharing of digital resources, connecting teachers for community professional development (CPD) and embedding the programme within the public education system.
These projects are exemplars whose ideas, principles and processes can be borrowed by public school systems across India in their system-wide ICT integration programmes. Drawing from these experiences, ITfC has published a toolkit4 on the “professional learning community–open educational resources” model of teacher education.
School-level ICT integration
ITfC worked with government high schools on a programme of school- and class-level integration of ICT for subject teaching in the South-3 block of Bengaluru. ICT labs in these schools were renewed through donation of used computers from large IT companies (ITfC inspected these computers and ensured working condition). In some cases, non-working computers were cannibalised to provide working components for other computers. In some schools, internet connectivity was provided, pending electricity bills were paid from school funds or community contributions.
A few schools were able to appoint a paid faculty (with support from local community organisations) who could assist the teacher in ICT-enabled transactions as well as regular upkeep of the lab. Where the ICT lab is under the custody and “ownership” of the school, the teachers/head teacher have an incentive to approach local institutions/community for support. In Kerala too, many schools have added to the devices in the ICT lab from community contributions. Many teachers and schools purchased laptops as well, which are used with the school projector to demonstrate ICT-integrated lessons in classrooms.
The labs used FOSS applications, similar to those used in Kerala’s Subject Teacher Forums. Teachers learnt to use these for generic resource creation (text, image, animation, audio and video resources) and subject-specific resource creation. They also became members of a virtual forum for regular sharing and peer learning. With support from ITfC, teachers demonstrated lessons using their laptop and school projector in the classroom, or took the students to the school ICT lab for digital learning activities. Teachers used student-created digital artefacts for assessment. The lab availability increased teachers’ confidence in using ICT for teaching.
Free and open source software
Digital tools and resources are easy to share, but proprietisation5 prohibits sharing. We do not own proprietary digital tools even when we “pay” for them, but can only obtain a licence for their use. The cost of proprietary software can be prohibitively expensive in large-scale adoption for public education systems.
In the Kerala IT@Schools programme, the department created a “custom distribution” of FOSS applications, comprising operating system (Ubuntu GNU/Linux), educational applications, generic editors and utilities, and shared copies with each school. Teachers (and students) could legally make copies of these distributions and install them on their home computers, expanding the reach of the digital resources. In the Karnataka and Telangana Subject Teacher Forum programmes, IT for Change prepared and shared similar custom distribution of the Ubuntu GNU/Linux operating system with more than 3,000 FOSS packages6.
Since FOSS upgrades are free, the labs can have the latest versions. In the BOOT model, there is no funding for upgrading the proprietary software used, resulting in obsolete versions over time. Unfortunately, even now, some NGOs provide proprietary e-content or proprietary software in their ICT and education programmes in schools.
Elements for meaningful ICT programme design
There is a need to move from learning of specific software applications towards digital literacy, which includes building a critical perspective on the impact of ICTs on education and society. For instance, exposing young children to digital tools can carry the dangers of addiction, or vulnerability to cybercrime and violence. The uncritical use of ICT can lead to sub-optimal learning outcomes too, or even waste time or hinder learning (research suggests that the use of tablets at an early age can hamper reading skills, for example).
Box 1: ICT integration in education should focus on learning processes, not technology products
If we can see a software application as offering a set of functions or processes that can be implemented in multiple ways, we would be able to focus on learning the processes and be willing to navigate different interfaces of different products. A student uses a geometry box, not “Camlin box” and hence can use the geometry box of anther producer. Similarly, a student should be seen as learning to use a “text editor” rather than a specific product.
It is critical to break the link between processes and software products. The link is harmful in two ways—it constrains the imagination of teachers and learners in identifying and learning multiple applications for a set of processes, and it tends to lock-in the teachers and the system to specific applications. This lock-in allows monopoly vendors of proprietary software to make super profits from renting their software.
If, instead of proprietary applications, the student learns to use FOSS alternatives, focusing on the processes instead of the product, she is more likely to feel empowered enough to switch/add software applications whenever required.
ICT for creation
One of the most powerful uses of ICT is the creation, revision and sharing of digital resources. Teachers can revise digital content to make it relevant to their contexts. Since digital resources can be easily replicated, the cost of sharing digital content is negligible. In the STF and Teachers’ Community of Learning (TCOL) programmes, teachers learnt to use a variety of software applications to create and edit images, simulations, videos, infographics, semantic maps and richer representations of “textbook” content.
In the TCOL schools, teachers and students also created digital stories, which were shared on the school websites for other schools to re-use. One theme of these stories was interactions with local institutions such as library, health centre, police station, post office, local government, bank, as well as local small businesses. Documenting these interactions through digital stories helped deepen understanding of the working of these institutions, and helped connect learning across subjects in a holistic manner.
The default copyright for content is “all rights reserved”. This means that, if there is no explicit licence permitting such copying or editing, it is illegal to do so. Teachers are usually unaware of this and believe that anything that can be copied or downloaded from the web and shared. The concept of open licensing needs to be understood by teachers.
ICTs have thus changed the processes of learning and spaces of learning. The availability of the “global digital library” (the internet) has meant that learning can shift from mere content acquisition to meaning-making. New formats of content representation also allow us to explore and understand knowledge in new ways. This also means that new capacities— interacting with the ICT environment, analysing, meaning-making and representing the information available—need to be developed.
Teacher capacity-building and networking
Capacity-building of teachers is integral to ICT integration for quality education. In the Subject Teacher Forums, the focus was on introducing teachers to multiple tools and applications. Teachers joined mailing lists (created using Google groups) in which they shared resources, discussed issues, and requested help. These forums provided spaces for peer learning and support.
Such virtual forums are needed to create a virtuous cycle of OER seeking-access-creation-revision-re-mixing-sharing-publishing. These virtual spaces allow access to resources for classroom teaching and teacher professional development, and sharing of digital content created (or accessed and modified). Resources so shared can be vetted and curated, and those meeting quality norms can be made available on the web for easy and universal access. The Telangana education department has established the Telangana Repository of OER (TROER) as a state portal for all digital resources relevant to teachers, including resources developed by teachers, similar to the Karnataka Open Educational Resources (KOER) portal. Both KOER and TROER use the MediaWiki free and open Content Management System, which is used by Wikipedia, the world’s most popular OER repository.
The National Curricular Framework for Teacher Education, 2010 says that teacher education should help teachers engage with the curriculum, syllabi and textbooks, critically examining them rather than accepting them without question. The processes of accessing, creating, reviewing, revising, sharing and publishing OERs can serve as an opportunity for teachers to engage with the curriculum, and go beyond the textbook.
As the integration of ICT matures, the department can launch blended learning models to complement and strengthen the regular pre-service and in-service teacher education programmes of the education department.
The ITfC team supported the integration of digital resources and applications in the teaching of mathematics, science, social science and languages for the TCOL programme. For example, a mathematical software application called Geogebra was used in the following ways:
Demonstrating a Geogebra resource (created earlier as part of lesson plan preparation) to illustrate a concept.
Constructing a Geogebra resource in the classroom with students to explore a topic in relatively open and unstructured ways.
Challenging misconceptions in mathematics through Geogebra files (such as “the base of a triangle should be parallel to x axis” or “A line and a straight line are different”).
Using a Geogebra resource to ask questions to assess student learning or conducting a formative assessment on the Geogebra resource created by a student.
Telangana math teachers create open educational resources using Geogebra
Similarly, in other subjects too, ICT integration enhanced content and the pedagogic practices of teachers:
Simulations were used to explore scenarios in a scientific experiment. For instance, asking what factors influence the swing of a pendulum—length of the pendulum, weight of its base, type of material used for the pendulum, gravity, temperature, pressure—can prompt students to ask questions and become exploratory, reflective and creative.
Recording interviews of people in the community to document oral histories can help develop historical thinking—the need to explore the past, being aware of the biases and beliefs of the present. These “digital stories” can become resources in themselves, supporting open-ended discussions in the classroom. This also brings the lived experiences of the learners into the processes of learning.
Preparation of picture stories (including bilingual ones) and audio stories by students to support expression and language learning.
Running the ICT programme in the school in an outsourced mode seems easier because the activity is entirely executed by the vendor faculty. However, the schoolteachers do not own the lab and the ICT programme remains a standalone. In the case of a school-owned programme, the following requirements need to considered:
Since the lab has valuable assets that are vulnerable to damage or theft, security is important. Also, the lab has to be kept clean and dust-free to protect ICT equipment. The lab should be kept open to allow teachers to bring in their students. If the lab is not kept open throughout the day (for reasons of security), the opening and closing of the lab, handover of the lab to the teacher taking the class and return of the keys post transaction are important processes to be taken care of.
Supply of electricity (and back-up systems in case of power outages, to ensure program uptime).
ICT equipment can be fragile and need more regular maintenance than other school fixed assets –such as buildings, classrooms and furniture.
The allocation of periods for teachers to conduct sessions in the lab also needs to be planned7.
In the inhouse model, especially in larger schools, an ICT lab attendant may be required to manage the infrastructure. In smaller schools, or where teachers are sufficiently available, one of the teachers can take care of this. Teachers should also be trained on basic hardware maintenance and software configuration, as has been done in the Kerala programme, so that many minor technological issues are locally resolved.
The future: Big data
Where download or sharing of educational e-content is not permitted, teachers have limited opportunities to adapt resources for their use. These constraints to free sharing are likely in programmes based on the cloud (digital resources stored on the web), where the vendor who owns the cloud infrastructure arrogates ownership and exclusive control over content. The data created by the use of digital devices in schools—resources used by students, patterns of use, applications accessed, responses to tests and so on—can reveal learning inclinations and preferences of students, and provide insights on their learning processes and practices. This will be the Big Data of education in the future. The question is who will own and use this data to diagnose learning contexts, predict learning possibilities and recommend curricula and pedagogies? Ownership of this data by vendors can make students and teachers vulnerable to privacy violations.
Secondly, the business model of some corporations allows them to provide free of cost services to people in return for their data or inputs. For instance, Google Maps is free for individuals to use. While the content on this platform has been largely created by the users of the platform itself, it does not belong to them, but to Google8. The data created by students and teachers on the platforms can be owned by private technology vendors (especially those with cloud offerings in education, such as Google or Microsoft). Their algorithms will suggest learning paths to teachers, but being opaque, it will become impossible to assess if there are any invisible or hidden biases in these algorithms. Since these algorithms will shape content and pedagogies, it is necessary to regulate the ownership of data of schools and the use of algorithms. This could include giving the school and its community ownership of this data, and a full say in its use and protection.
By and large, ICT programmes have not had much meaningful impact on teaching processes or outcomes. However, ICT has the potential to make teacher professional development powerful and effective. There are models in the public education system that can be adapted by states across the country.
The government should provide a minimum nucleus of infrastructure and ICT devices to set up the lab as part of regular school infrastructure investments. As in Kerala, teachers should be encouraged to seek donations (in cash and kind) to augment the hardware devices in the lab.
Proprietary ICT cannot be a systemic solution in education. It does not provide the teacher and learner the freedom to use, re-use, modify, share and publish. The need to generate surplus value (profit) on the renting of digital resources will be inimical to universal access. It is quite possible for the public education system to integrate ICT In education without any lock-in to proprietary software or content.
State governments need the support of academic or civil society institutions working in the area of ICT and education9 to build the initial set of teachers as state resource persons. Once there is an adequate pool of resource persons in different subjects, the department can continue the programme with its own resources, treating ICT in Education capacity-building on the same lines as any other capacity-building programme where the processes and resources are not the property of a for-profit vendor.
The key principles for meaningful ICT integration include:
Strengthening teacher agency to improve the effectiveness of ICT integration. Supporting teachers in integrating ICTs for learning in multiple subjects through the use of free and open applications.
Embedding digital technology in learning processes, recognising the many possibilities ICTs offer students and teachers for creating, connecting and learning. Teacher development programmes must allow teachers to experience continuous and peer-supported learning.
Making content available as open educational resources will support teacher development as well as the creation of a resource-rich environment.
Hand-holding and practice for the integration of digital technology in the classroom, and additional resources as well as a change in instructional processes and schedules.
Giving institutions autonomy in the choice of ICT implementation. Schools must be able to decide on the actual implementation plan—from additional teachers to changed time-tables to modified instructional and assessment processes—to enable a responsive and relevant ICT integration. Local communities and organisations must be tapped for support in terms of technologies and resources for the school.
Box 2: Commonly used applications and FOSS alternatives
Box 3: Educational applications
Termed thus because they are free to re-use, revise and redistribute.
Refers to the legal and technical obstacles to free sharing placed by the creator.
The custom distribution reduced installation time and effort, as the bundled software applications were installed along with the operating system.
The Telangana teacher handbook provides school-level implementation guidelines—see https://teacher-network.in/OER/index.php/ICT_teacher_handbook/School_le…
The monetisation and proprietisation of data of users will adversely affect individuals and communities by enabling political and economic surveillance. This is a contemporary socio-political danger.
Teachers from neighbouring states that have implemented in-house programmes on the lines discussed, can also be requested to build the initial set of master resource persons in a state. The Karnataka STF programme began with Kannada-speaking teachers from the neighbouring Kasargod district, Kerala, conducting trainings for the Karnataka resource persons.
Article published by CCDS, August 2018