Computer Graveyards and Museums

The Ministry of School Education and Literacy recently released the 2021-22 Unified District Information System for Education (U-DISE) report, which provides information about all schools, teachers and students in India. A whole host of information; student enrolment, teacher deployment and school infrastructure including drinking water, library, electricity, access to computers and Internet, can be analysed to understand the status of education across the country.

The push for digitalization due to the pandemic triggered school closures, and the emphasis given to digital and online education by the National Education Policy 2020 has made many feel that EdTech is the way for achieving quality universal school education. Nearly a third (32.54 %) of government schools are reported to be having computers, but this perhaps is a misleading picture on EdTech implementation in India. Electronic devices are fragile and can have a short life (especially if numerous students use them), unlike a blackboard which is potentially indestructible. Computers suffer hardware failures.  Software bugs, virus attacks, obsolescent versions can make computers dysfunctional. The school may not have uninterrupted power supply.  Which is why U-DISE provides statistics on both schools with ‘computers’ as well as schools with “functional computers”.

Even if the basic setup – lab room, electricity, hardware and software is available, teachers may not ready or ‘prepared’ (trained) to use the computers. Though teachers may know how to use computers, the pressures of syllabus completion and preparing students to write examinations discourage them from using computers for teaching. Syllabus and examinations do not require knowledge of technology, and the holy grail of the 40-minute period too inadequate to design a technology-integrated lesson. Hence, even if the school does have functional  computers (in a working condition), they may actually not be “functioning” (used at all or little). Government schools in India are thus sites for both Computer graveyards (housing dead equipment) and Computer museums (housing unused working specimens). Hence the statistic of 32.54 % of government schools having computers is likely to be atleast double of those where computers are being regularly used for teaching-learning.

One exception is Kerala, where, by and large, government schools have computers that are actually used. Firstly, all teachers are trained to use computers, not only for computer literacy, but also to for subject teaching. Subject-based technology integration is a part of Kerala textbooks. The choice of high quality free and open source software allows widespread use, ensuring scalability. It provides the ability to regularly upgrade to latest versions free of cost, which facilitates sustainability. Decentralized hardware procurement is a more recent innovation. Schools in Kerala can decide if they want computers and approach different funding sources (from MLA to Panchayat to community) to fund this sizeable investment. Decentralisation promotes a high sense of ownership over the lab, leading to a higher computer usage.

On the other hand, the current model of centralized funding in Education, where most investment decision are taken at Delhi or state capitals is arguably a key cause for the dismal state of infrastructure in government schools. The Right to Education Act (RTE) is clear; Section 22 requires the School Management Committee (SMC), consisting of parents, to prepare, in collaboration with the teachers, the annual ‘School Development Plan” (SDP), provisioning for infrastructure and other requirements of the school. While the RTE mandates that government and local authority grants be given based on such plan, education budgets of the union and state governments are utterly agnostic to these SDPs. Untied funding to schools, allowing them to spend based on their local priorities and wisdom (within broad guidelines provided by the union, state and local governments), would better serve the cause of quality public education. The SMC may want to build a classroom, hire a music guest teacher, buy library books or make their toilets functioning, than buy computers. Such untied grants would also promote school autonomy and teacher agency, two very important factors for school quality.  Using digital technologies to support participatory planning and budgeting (Barcelona, Spain is an example where such a budgeting program has thrived) to increase transparency and accountability, would be impactful for strengthening of the public education system.

The Ministry has made information on each school available on the U-DISE site. Potentially, SMCs can access this information on their phones to validate it through actual verification of their school’s infrastructure, as well as use it as an input to their preparation of the SDP. This information with some digital technology extensions can also support the SMCs in school management and school social audit (pioneered in MNREGA) activities. Technology could help in grievance redressal through recording and tracking of lacunae and problems relating to the school infrastructure and functioning.

Traditionally, community and technology are seen as two divergent resources for school education. However, technology in education can go far beyond providing computers to schools, and support SMCs in effective school development planning and monitoring, which is a key missing piece in the Indian education quality puzzle.


This article was originally published in the Deccan Herald, read it here.

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