Interview

We are not in a policy vaccuum : Subhash C Khuntia, Joint Secretary, Dept. of Education, MHRD, Government of India

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 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 will 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.

 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 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 in 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?

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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