Rohini Nilekani’s talk on the role of societal platforms in education made at the Akshara Foundation’s event on Maths: #ItAllAddsUp. How can we distribute the ability to solve issues together and restore the agency of every person in the system, so that they can also become part of the solution?
I’ve been at the Akshara Foundation from its inception until 2007. Under Ashok’s leadership, it has continued to grow from strength to strength. Today the Akshara Foundation is not just about itself, but it is about the 200 million children in this country that need serious help. The ASER 2018 has shown us that within the education sector, progress is very slow, in this country, if it is happening at all. Every time we look at ASER, it’s hard to understand how we are managing to let the children of this country down, despite all of the people who are working so hard to avoid this. Why are we not able to fulfil the basic needs of the children, so they can learn better? When you read that only one-third of children in the fifth grade can do basic arithmetic, you really begin to reassess the impact of the work that you’re doing. We need to re-energise ourselves and continue, because when we talk about education, it is a societal mission.
It’s not just the responsibility of teachers, the school system, the government, or the parents to ensure that the young people of this country get a good education. It’s a societal need, a requirement that should concern everyone, that children should be educated, in order to become good citizens and participate fully in this democracy. I’ve always thought of this work as a societal mission, and the samaaj, bazaar, and sarkaar must come together to solve a large, complex societal problem like education.
So if these three bodies – the samaaj (civil society), the bazaar (markets), and the sarkaar (state) – must work in a continuum to solve problems like education, then we need to start thinking of these as a team. How do we make their collaboration easier? How do we reduce the friction between these sectors, so that they can collaborate and give the best of themselves? They all have different talents. Civil society is good at working from the heart, being passionate and forming the grassroot level of projects, as well as innovating and taking risks since they can see the results on the ground. The government has the mandate and the ability to take things to massive scale, and no other entity can compete with the amount of power and effect of the state. Meanwhile, the market is good at identifying spaces that can be financially viable and sustainable. We need all of these aspects, for everybody to work in sync. So the question of reducing friction and collaboration was one that the Societal Platform Team is concerned with. We believe that societal platforms are therefore one way to address these large, complex, socially dynamic, and ever-changing problems.
Part of the Solution
We are more than the sum of our parts. So how can we distribute the ability to solve issues together? How can we restore the agency of every person in the system, so that they can also become part of the solution, and just not remain part of a problem that somebody else has to solve? Restoring people’s agency is incredibly important when we think about designing societal platforms. It’s not just about telling somebody what to do, but igniting their own ability and imagination. This is especially crucial in a country as diverse as India.
The model of one person having a great idea that is implemented across villages and cities, would never work here, where a distance of 100 kilometres may mean a different language and culture. Even within a small village you can have so many kinds of communities and cultures. However, we do need a unified system, because there are some common goals that we all share. So how can you have a unified system, but not a uniform one? How can you allow diversity to play at scale? This was another fundamental design principle that has been occupying us for the last four years that we’ve been talking about this.
The other factor to consider is scale. If I work with one child, it’s wonderful because that’s what I am able to do. But the need is for 300 million children. That’s the scale that at least some of us need to be thinking at, because unless every last child is looked after, we have not solved the problem. Meanwhile, the problem keeps getting more complex. So, if we’re aspiring to solve this issue at scale, we need to keep these principles in mind: to restore agency, distribute the ability to solve, and be unified but not uniform.
Nandan and I realised that we would also need to use technology to our advantage. We are not going to be technology-led but we have to be technology-enabled. So all these marvellous new digital technologies that allow us to WhatsApp recipes and share photos, can also help us to do all kinds of other social good. So we began to think about how we could converge the best of those technologies to allow the kind of scale and participation that we are aiming for.
In the meantime, we started EkStep in pursuit of an answer to some of these questions about how to increase access to learning opportunities for children. Our target is to reach 200 million children, so hopefully in the next couple of years I can talk about how far we’ve come. After 20 years of experience in the field, I think we’re somewhat poised to get to that number. There are a few things that make me very hopeful. Our team has been working very closely with the Government of India, and with several state governments. Some of the infrastructure that we have built, has resulted in the DIKSHA platform, the National Teacher Platform, which now puts a lot of power in the hands of teachers to learn from other teachers directly without a hierarchical system. So they’re able to build content, to use their creative abilities, and to be part of a system that gives them many more abilities that would be impossible without such a platform. So far, there are millions of teachers already on this platform, and our eventual goal is to have 15 million teachers on the DIKSHA platform, learning from each other in a dynamic way.
Meanwhile, we have been working with several governments to put in QR codes in textbooks. Two billion textbooks are published every year in this country. If nothing else, a textbook will find its way into every Indian home. So we can think of textbooks as an entry point, right to families, inside their homes. Unfortunately, a physical thing can only be static. But the minute we add in the QR code, we are able to bridge the physical and digital world. Even if the textbook was published before the latest scientific discoveries were made, students can scan the QR code and find a world of knowledge and possibilities open up to them. If the National Teachers Platform is working as it should, and if the teachers are engaged in providing the information to the children, it would allow children immediate access to evolving knowledge. Again, this intermediated from any hierarchical structures, since a child can directly access this, once the content is uploaded. I think between the QR codes and the National Teachers Platform, all of us in civil society, all of us in government, and even market players, can play a role to support education though these twin pillars.
The Framework of Accountability
In education, when you look at it, we have teachability, learn-ability and accountability. Any of the work you do will fall into these categories. If you want to improve the ability of students to learn (learn-ability), or you want to improve the ability of teachers, parents, or tutors to teach, it has to be within a visible framework of accountability. Otherwise how will we know whether the learners are learning, and the teachers are teaching better? So we do need the accountability framework.
I believe that we now have, through societal platform thinking, a fairly evolved understanding of how to create these pillars, and the continued involvement of civil society actors, i.e. the samaaj sector, is going to be incredibly important to make that happen.
When we have millions of teachers who are engaged with children every day, thousands of good and sincere civil society organizations working directly with children, emerging technologies that can be pulled in to support the work of government and civil society, the education sector will have its best chance to crack some of the problems that have plagued us for so long. When we build up a kind of momentum over time, there will come a tipping point, and we will be able to see the change. Of course, change doesn’t happen overnight, but I sincerely believe that we are at a place where we may see that tipping point in the next five years or so. It’s only by doing the work of distributing the ability to solve, restoring agency to everyone in the system, being unified but not uniform, and ensuring our approaches are not technophobic, that we can amplify and scale the work that we good work that we all aim to do.