By Shruti Appalla
Recently, the HRD Ministry Secretary, Anil Swarup, confirmed the launch of a scheme to introduce tablets in government schools across four states in India. The move is aimed at keeping track of different parameters measuring the quality of education like school-level infrastructure and dropout rates. Larger aspirations linked to the scheme includes creating a real-time national education database. The tablets are also used to keep track of teacher absenteeism and record attendances.
How harmful is teacher absenteeism in India?
The public education sector in India is fragile and ill-equipped to deal with the growing need for skilled and semi-skilled human resources in the country. Based on data gathered from unannounced visits to government schools, 25% of teachers are absent from school on any given working day and only about half of them teach. Extensive reports by organisations like Pratham indicate how in 2013, close to 78 percent of children in Standard III and about 50 per cent of children in Standard V cannot read Standard II texts.
Drop-out rates in middle and high school have often been attributed to teacher absenteeism and lack of training and motivation. Teachers in government schools are often burdened with administrative, non-teaching work like promoting family planning schemes, conducting health camps, recording frequencies of mid-day meals and ensuring maintenance of school level infrastructure. Thus, motivation is attributed to regular attendance and completion of administrative work instead of quality teaching. Most rural and urban government schools do not have regular supervisions. In the absence of any checks and balances, the lazy attitude has propelled a vicious cycle for years. With no teachers to actually teach in classrooms, students are hardly ever motivated to come to school, preferring to stay at home and help in family occupations.
What are the tablets for?
The programme has been part of the 39 point agenda tasked by the PMO to the HRD Ministry early in 2016. These tablets will be used to record drop-out rates as well as school level information like availability of drinking water, toilets, laboratories and teacher attendance. They are also proposed to be equipped with tagging mechanisms that dont allow teachers to mark their attendance from external locations. Biometric checks connected to State-level teacher databases are said to cut down on proxy attendances too.
The tablet trackers were to be tested out in Chattisgarh, but Jharkhand, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh have also shown interest in joining the programme without seeking financial assistance from the centre. Thus, the tablet tracker programme shall be tested in these four states for three months, starting from August, before being implemented nationally depending on the results.
Schools with large number of students could be provided with one or two tablets with a biometric reader and basic 2G connectivity. On the other hand, block and cluster resource coordinators from the Education Departments will use tablets to track other schools and empowered to undertake surprise visits. As per the plan, all schools would be asked to put in place an information technology-backed system in place that feeds data periodically into a comprehensive state-level school database.
How beneficial is a national real-time database?
Real-time databases offer access to data otherwise kept hidden from the public. Transparency doesnt just ensure proper data collection but also ensures that periodic data collection does take place. This data could be used to formulate custom-made, efficient national education policies and monitor their impact. Thus, the Government can be held accountable for misrepresentation of data and faulty policy making.
On a critical note, the scheme to introduce tablet trackers concentrates a lot on material aspects of ensuring infrastructure for educational institutions. As a stand-alone programme, it might not improve teaching quality. The programme also requires to be linked to teacher training workshops, content creation and methods to enhance motivation. Many scholars have criticised the government of turning India into a database nation where all information is held centrally. They claim such centralisation has made public details more susceptible to misuse and manipulation by both government agencies and external agents. The recent ransomware attacks both in India and abroad has brought to public notice the threat from cyber crimes to essential services.
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