What’s wrong with our learning apps?

Most of the EdTech is dead wrong. Here’s why.

If you go to the Google Play store and search for the top education apps, you are unlikely to notice anything unusual. But delve deep into the top apps and read their description, and you will see that they contain marketing pitches like:

  • Complete syllabus coverage for classes 4–12, Chapter wise tests
  • Preparation for IITJEE, CAT, AIPMT
  • Mapped as per the CBSE, ICSE curriculum
  • Best app for exam preparation
  • Current affairs and GK for IAS and SSC

Technology-driven education is supposed to be the future of education. But do these apps sound futuristic at all?

We always complain about our ailing education system which does not prepare our children for life. We complain about our obsession with exams, our rigid boards and obsolete curriculum which put India at the bottom of the international tests like PISA. After all that whining, it is indeed sad that the future of education — technology-aided learning — is also firmly rooted in the past with its unthinking focus on curriculum, boards and exams.

Technology puts more power in our hands. It enables us to do anything faster, smarter and better. But the question is — do we want our technology to help us do the wrong things faster and better? Do we want our educational apps to help us run even faster in the backward direction? Do we want our technology to deliver the same content that put us at the bottom of the world education rankings, creating a pool of unemployable youth — so much so that our PhDs sometimes apply for peon positions?

Most of the educational apps and software available in Indian market now have the wrong focus. They are often an online, self-learning version of the textbooks — helping our children to memorize better, prepare for the exams better. Most of them do not focus on skill-building, which is really the need of the hour.

In addition, most of the apps do not even exploit the full power of technology. Most do not feature adaptive learning — where the app figures out the skill level of the student continuously and serves problems of appropriate difficulty. Most of the math apps have pre-fed, limited number of sums, rather than exploiting the ability of technology to generate unlimited sums algorithmically. Almost none of them use big data to benchmark performance and skill levels of the large population of students.

We do not need those textbook replicas, masquerading as apps. We must have cleverer, smarter educational apps that address the skill-gap in our curriculum, rather than mapping themselves to the outdated syllabus. In 2018, let’s hope to see some great apps/software in some of these areas:

1. Logical reasoning: Japanese puzzles like Sudoku, Shikaku, Nonogram etc. can help build logical reasoning abilities in children. In addition, they are a lot of fun as well! While the app stores are full of Sudoku apps, there is almost no Sudoku app focusing on children, serving Sudoku in smaller, 4x4 or 6x6 grids.

Similarly, puzzles like Multiplication Kakuro can really help children learn calculation along with improving their reasoning skills. I hope in 2018 we get to see a lot more apps in the Play Store mixing calculation and logic.

2. Reading: Reading is the most elemental skill, but I see almost no app/software in the market that focuses on development of reading skills.

Reading is very amenable to self-learning. Most of us developed reading skills by reading books, magazines and newspapers. I can imagine an adaptive program using the same principles cleverly. It can have a large number of stories and passages of varying difficulty, along with exercises and hints. The stories and passages can be served to the students based on the skill level of the student, which is constantly gauged by the program. Instead of addictive social media apps, it will be great if we have an addictive reading program!

It is not just our technology that needs to get smarter. Our educators need to get smarter as well. With all due respect, a lot of the principals are not particularly tech-savvy. Sometimes the old-guard masks their lack of comfort with technology with a holier-than-thou approach. They take a stand that all technology is harmful, and we must have a teacher-centric education rather than technology-aided education.

But it’s not really an either-or debate. We need teachers who can be mentors to our children, who can interpret the complex world to them, connect concepts and diagnose learning difficulties. But such teachers are rare breeds. Most teachers spend their time doing repetitive tasks — checking homework, giving sums on the board, giving ineffective explanations. Those tasks can and must be replaced by technology. In the future world, you should be a teacher only when you can do tasks that an algorithm cannot.

If we have principals who are more technology savvy, they will do more than turning their classrooms into so-called smart-classes. The true smart-schools must teach their children how to communicate through email, how to create and deliver presentations using PowerPoint, and how to do research using online resources, rather than just submit copy-paste projects. Those smart-schools will also talk to their students about the evils of technology: the ills of social-media addiction, the spread of fake news, and the danger of online trolling and harassment.

The true smart-schools will also go beyond learning-apps and will embrace technology in numerous other ways. Maybe they will have a Twitter handle for each student and teacher, which could become a lively forum for exchanging ideas. Maybe they will encourage the children to maintain their personal blogs for expressing opinions. Maybe they will have their students manage the school’s technology infrastructure. Maybe they will even teach their children to code, right from the middle school itself.

Technology is going to transform our lives, and education is a preparation for life. So we cannot have a limited vision of how technology should be used in schools. As we usher in the new year, let’s bring in a new mindset towards technology too, a mindset that goes beyond the learning-apps and smart-classes.

Founder, The Levelfield School. Writes on education and society.