‘We are not in a policy vaccuum’

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In conversation with Subhash C Khuntia, Joint Secretary, Ministry of Human  Resources Development, Govt. of India

India has been a major learning seat in the world for centuries. While it has some of the best educational centers and institutions in the world, it  still has to deal with challenges in its primary education, strive to reach 100% literacy, and struggle to bring in any innovation to the whole education system. For the country the need of the hour is to try integrating ICT in the existing education scenario to catalyse the change process and to reduce the skew in education and knowledge dissemination. Ministry of Human Resource Development in India while implements the central government’s responsibilities in educational matters, also coordinates Information and communication initiatives that are geared towards development of the education sector. Subhash C Khuntia, Joint Secretary, Department of Education, Ministry of Human Resources  Development, Government of India, in a face-to-face conversation with Rumi Mallick of Digital Learning shares more of such responsibilities, challenges and visions, which are part of the country’s attempt to give a new dimension to development through education with innovation

? What is the most pressing educational challenge India is facing?
The current challenge to education in our country is three fold that of access, equity and quality. At the level of secondary schooling, only about 40% of the children with the age group of 14 to 18 are in school.  Access to secondary education is not available everywhere in the country;  there are still pockets and long distances that need to be covered.  Secondly, every section of society
needs to be equally represented in the educational system, where they  participate equally- this is still not addressed in India. The isadvantaged  sections also need to be brought into  the education sphere. The enrollment rates of girls are much lower than the  boys and physically disabled section is also not represented well.  Then of course quality of education is a major challenge, which needs to be  addressed on a priority basis. All the three aspects are interlinked. If there is no quality then parents wi  feel discouraged to send their children to schools. So when they feel that after this much education, their children are not well qualified to enter in a job market, they would rather send their children to the job market  without education. That is why quality is important. If quality is good  then of course participation rate will improve.

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? How have we progressed in last 10 years?
We have progressed to a large extent. More students are in schools in numbers and also in terms of percentage. But it is not satisfactory.  We need to insure this at the very first stage that everybody from standard  one to eight aged six to thirteen should be in school. Actually it is  desirable to extend it till the age of 16 so that from class 1 to 10 they have  skills to enter in the job market. Now the challenge is to bring it to a kind of satisfactory level. At first stage we are  hoping that by 2010 most of the  children up to 14 years age are in the school and after that we have to concentrate on secondary stage

? The status of the teaching profession has plummeted in all regions of the world. What are the current measures the ministry has  undertaken to keep this fraternity motivated and to build their capacity as well?
This itself is a societal problem and it is not only seen in India, but is a problem for several other countries of the world too. This is  because of salary differentials in between this sector and the private  sector. Right now the economy is in  boom and there are alternate employment opportunities available; hence we do not see many people in  the teaching profession. But at the  same time there are people who are interested in teaching. The motivation has to come from society, appreciating the decision of person  who chooses to teach and adopt this  profession that helps the next generation. There is also a need for the teachers to continuously  upgrade their skill through training  programme and our responsibility is to give them other facilities and  amenities that helps them in teaching.   So, ICTs can provide an opportunity for the teachers to upgrade their skills.
? Information and Communication Technologies are supporting many of the recent gains in education worldwide. Do you believe in the context of India, ICTs have any real potential to transform education?
There is a tremendous role for ICT in education everywhere and India is no exception. The problem in India is that when we talk of ICT  infrastructure we find schools do not have a room for computers and many schools do not have
electricity, telephone connections, etc. However all this will not only  be possible but will be essential in few years from now because we  have to adopt technology to keep up with time and without ICT we will be  left behind. So it is not to choose between ICT and no ICT but to  equip ourselves such that we make the best use this technology in education.

? What initiatives has your department taken to integrate ICT in
schools (in secondary education)?
We have from time to time started different initiatives, there was a class programme earlier and there was a satellite and computer literacy programme, now we have reformulated the scheme called ‘ICT in  schools’ where we give assistance to  the centrally sponsored schools and government aided schools which are equipped with infrastructure and the  learning material. In this scheme, one,  we focus on teaching computers to children and second, use computers as an aid in teaching and also for self-learning. Now the results have started coming, but in a small way. About 500 schools in a  year are able to access this scheme, and we have a long way to go. We  have about 100000 secondary  schools in government and government aided sectors and we

Ideally every school from standard one to twelve should have the adequate numbers of computers but because of  resource constraints we had failed to prioritise this. Now we have one programme for  secondary and higher secondary schools, which is the ‘ICT in schools’ programme, where we feel that computers can be used in a big way

have to scale it up so that all schools can avail this facility. Ideally every school from standard one to twelve should have adequate  numbers of computers but because of resource constraints we had failed to prioritise this. Now we have one programme for secondary and higher  secondary schools, which is the ‘ICT
in schools’ programme, where we feel that computers can be used in a big way. It provides an aid in teaching particularly hard subjects such as  science, languages and mathematics. Through animation, science and  geography can be made more interesting, that is why ‘ICT in  schools’ programmes has been started. At the same time we also  understand the implication of teaching children in schools. The  secondary schools are easier to manage because there are 146  thousands schools in the government and government aided sector where as primary school it is even larger numbers. Since  ideally we should cover all the schools, several elementary  schools are also being targeted under
the Sarva Shiksha Abhiayan (SSA), are being assisted with computers.  Over a period of time we have to look at the pupil-teacher ratio in  availability of computers.

? Under this scheme, is there any central learning content that is being prepared or is the learning content being initiated at state level?
Under this programme we have asked the state governments to make use of funding to develop the content or  procure already developed content. Generally in states, contents are  generated in SCERT (State Council for Educational Research and Training),  but it varies from state to state. We have not emphasized that there is only one kind of content that could be  taught in schools and some flexibility  has been given to the states to innovate. Otherwise there will be no  innovation at all. We are looking at the process where some model  content can be developed but we do not want uniform content all across
the country, because content should  be area specific and hence the state governments will be encouraged to take the initiative in this regard. Several states have made good progress in creating content through  some parallel schemes, which are run by state governments, for example,  Government of Karnataka Rajasthan  and Uttaranchal. They have developed good content and most of  them in their local languages, which is distributed among the schools.
Sometimes school teachers themselves develop content which is helpful in teaching.
? In this whole programme of ‘ICT in  schools’ what do you think is the real challenge in terms of scaling this ICT in education programme?
One challenge is that of teachers’ skills and motivation to use ICTs. We need every teacher to be trained and use ICT for teaching. For this, we  need to have a massive programme to retrain teachers. At the same time  during their pre-service training they could also be trained in the use of  ICTs. We are going to implement a  small pilot project with the help of UNESCO where we would like to  introduce new curriculum  pre-service training so that new teachers can be trained.
? Please let us know a little more on this new curriculum? Is it still in  the planning stage?
Some curriculum development has already taken place, but it has to be looked into in a more comprehensive manner. Teacher training syllabus is  not the same everywhere in the country; it depends on which  university the college has an affiliation. We will have to take a  comprehensive view so that it becomes a part and parcel of the curriculum. In fact, many of the  training colleges also vary in having adequate amenities. Some  programmes have to be done so that
these colleges themselves can have  ICT infrastructure. ? Several countries have ICT policy  and ICT in education policy and the policy status is already quite developed though not established,  notably in Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia. What is  the status or the scope of such a policy in India?  Such a policy would be relevant but at the same time it is not as if we are in a policy vaccuum. There are policies, each state government  here has got an IT policy and a part of policy would be how IT can be  used in education. All these policies have something mentioned on  education. We can bring out all that and put it at one place, which will  have focus and thrust on ICT in education so it will be worthwhile to work upon that.

? Some private companies are providing their financial and  practical support in the realisation of the infrastructure requirements for education. Please  elaborate on such idea of partnerships. How do you envisage  involving such private companies in other areas of education system as well? 
We need every teacher to be trained and use ICT for teaching. For this, we need to have massive programme to  retrain teachers. At the same time during their pre-service  training they could also be
trained in the use of ICTs. We are going to implement a  small pilot project with the help of UNESCO where we  would like to introduce new  curriculum in pre-service training so that new teacher’s can be trained

Such partnerships are most welcome and private sector has a big role to play. If India is recognised in the field of software today it is basically  because of the private players, particularly in those situations when  private players are providing infrastructure or acting as service  providers. There is a huge scope from private players.
? In which time frame do you think most Indian schools be sufficiently connected and equipped with ICT tools to carry out ICT-enabled teaching and learning activities?
We still have 60% of students outside the school at the secondary stage. We  cannot say only ICTs or getting children back to school will help achieving ‘ICTs for all’. I do not visualise that every school will be  fully ICT-enabled in next five years, but we would definitely like to make a dent in the next five year plan that
starts from next year, where at least secondary schools, should be provided with adequate infrastructure so that ICTs can be  used in education.
? In your role as Joint Secretary of Secondary Education, Ministry of
HRD, what do you feel should be the most critical steps that your department should take to achieve the goals and objectives of education in India as well as connecting the country’s human resource to the knowledge society?
The purpose of education is to develop the intrinsic personality of every human being and of course another very important purpose is  that education should enable person to be gainfully employed. The main  goal is the personal development of a  person so that education becomes really purposeful and people feel that by being educated they have added  value to life. The Department would like India to be an educated nation.  We are a very large country with a huge population so this formidable  task has to be accomplished.
There is a role for ICT to play at plus-two stage (standard eleven and  twelve) also, because this is a stage which bridges between school  education and higher education. We would like children to diversify  to vocational fields so that if the
need arises, they can go for employment after plus two and later  when they feel like, can come back for higher education.

? What education event in your lifetime would you consider as a milestone for your country?
When you see every child from the age group of 6 to 16, that is from class 1 to class 10 is in school and 99% of children of that age group are in school, that will become the milestone for the country. We are in the right  direction now.

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