India is currently experiencing an economic boom, mainly due to its Information Technology (IT) led services sector. But the highly skilled workers that are responsible for this IT boom in India, have masked the real educational issues – India has 22% of the global population, and 46% of world’s illiterates. The quality of education in India is poor; and a drastic, immediate reforms are needed to fix this issue.
India’s Young Demography – a Blessing or a Curse?
India is in the midst of a major demographic transition. About a quarter of the projected increase in the global working-population between 2010 and 2040 will occur in India. Fifty four percent of the Indian population (of 1.2 billion) is under the age of 25. Hence, India will be the largest single positive contributor to the global workforce over the next three decades. With 10 million people expected to enter the Indian workforce every year in the coming decades, there is an immediate need to reform the Indian education system. Failing to do so, there will be a huge uneducated young disgruntled population in India, which could lead to a social unrest; and the blessing of a young demographic could soon turn into a curse and a disaster for India.
Issue of Teacher Absenteeism:
One big issue contributing greatly to the poor quality of education in India, is the lack of teacher accountability – which has resulted in high rates of teacher absenteeism. A study of teacher absenteeism, observed through unannounced visits to about 100 randomly selected schools, found an average of 51% of teachers absent in India. India’s high rate of teacher absenteeism is an eye-opener, and it is more that 13% points higher than the next highest country. This begs the question, what role can ICTs play, in improving the accountability in the Indian education system?
Indirect Access to ICTs (especially mobile phones) in Education:
ICTs for Education are generally used in a direct manner, for example – computer-aided learning, teacher training, and “One Laptop Per Child” program. But I think there is tremendous untapped potential for harnessing the power of indirect access to ICTs (especially mobile phones), for empowering the school administrations and the local communities. With teacher absenteeism being a major problem in India, improving teacher accountability is critical. Also, studies have shown that empowering local communities and getting them involved in the education system, can have a positive impact on quality of education.
Why Mobile Phones?
Mobile phone usage is exploding in India, with 10 million new users being added every month. Currently there are around 300 million mobile phone users in India  and the penetration rates are growing rapidly, due to their low prices, ease of use, and their benefits. The mobile phone technology is now reaching the most rural and remote places in India, and I believe we can exploit the power of this technology to empower the administrative side of the education system and the local communities, and hence assist in improving the quality of education.
A) Use of Mobile Phones to Empower the Administrative Side of Schools:
A-1) Monitoring Teacher Attendance: Mobile phones will make the monitoring of teachers in school easy, and efficient. Various methods can be used to implement this – a simple way would be to have someone in school text information about teacher attendance to the central school monitoring system.
A-2) Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) Programs: Mobile phone based cashless CCT programs can be used to pay teacher salaries, or incentives in the form of a bonus pays or mobile call credits, based on teacher attendance rates and/or student performance.
A-3) Creating Competition: A good way to improve the quality of education is to create competition amongst schools. This can be achieved by giving mobile phone based Conditional Cash Transfer Vouchers to schools based on student performance, attendance rates and teacher absenteeism rates in those schools.
B) Use of Mobile Phones for Empowering the local Community:
B-1) Crowdvoicing: Studies have shown the empowering the community and getting them involved in the educational affairs, helps improve accountability and the quality of the education system. Hence, mobile phone technology can be used for empowering the local community with school-related information, by sending them reports containing teacher/student enrollment/attendance rates and student performances for different schools.
B-2) Crowdsourcing: Locals can be given incentives in the form of small payments, or calling credit, when they provide information (using a mobile phone) that is critical for improving/monitoring school operations (Examples – reporting if the books/meals were provided to students, or reporting incidents of corruption). Mobile phone technology makes this process easy, private, and efficient, and it further helps community participation.
B-3) Cashless Payments: Bankless Mobile Money can be used by parents to pay the school fees for their kids, making the payment process easy and accessible even in the more rural areas.
C) Combining the Power of Mobile Phone and Radio Technologies:
Interactive Radios: Radio technology is cheap and accessible in most remote places. Studies have shown that radio-based school instructions can be very effective in improving the quality of education. Mobile phones can add a true interactive element to this concept, with the students and teachers calling and/or texting back to the radio station from the classrooms, fostering two-way communications and discussions in schools, further improving the quality of education.
Education is a make or break issue for India. And I think empowering the school administration and the local communities by indirect access to ICTs (especially mobile phones), will help in improving teacher accountability, and hence will definitely make a huge impact in improving the quality of education in India.