India will soon have the youngest and largest workforce in the world, adding roughly 12 million people to the 15-29 age group annually. The flip side is that only 2.3% of the country’s workforce is formally skilled. Automation is predicted to reduce jobs relying on physical labour across all sectors, thereby increasing the demand for higher cognitive skills such as critical thinking, creativity, communication, decisionmaking and collaboration. It is expected that by 2030, nearly 9% of work activity hours will be automated, leading to 6% of the working population switching occupational groups. In all, some 60-120 million people will be displaced from the workforce as automation takes over.

Clearly, India needs to revise its approach to education and employment. The country’s vision for technology, specifically education technology or ed tech, will be key to riding the next wave of change.

By 2030, nearly 80% of India’s households are expected to belong to the middle class if the current rate of economic growth holds. As prosperity increases, there will be a proportional rise in the adoption of technology. It is expected that by as early as 2021, around 635.8 million Indians will become internet users.

The goal, however, is not just an increase in the number of people surfing the web. It is to ensure the people have mastered the art of working with data science, artificial intelligence and the works. Because while some jobs will be rendered obsolete, new sectors and roles will be defined in the near future. But in a country where many places do not even have functional schools and where competency in foundation skills such as literacy and numeracy are low, ed tech is seen as a privilege and the notion of equipping first-generation technology users to obtain high cognitive skills seems too lofty a goal.

So the big question is: how do we make the leap from digital literacy to digital mastery in rural communities, where even a smartphone is still a novelty?

Preparing for the future

Since the youth of 2025 would need to master skills to work in sectors which would be invented in 2030, the cohort that would mentor them has to be upskilled in 2020. It is not feasible for a system to train and retrain millions of workers every few years for jobs that haven’t even been invented yet.

We do not merely need to integrate technology into our classrooms. Replacing textbooks with tablets is not quite the transformation the country requires. Rather, the very nature of content for learners must change. If we expect the next generation to adapt to the changes of the 21st century, our education system must prepare them accordingly.

The buzzwords have been around for a while. Several organisations are pioneering ed tech models that promise to effect real change. From mobile apps that can be used to clear all kinds of exams and Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, run by universities from across the globe to assistive technology for learners with special needs, the opportunities are immense. Data suggests the paid user base for online education will rise to 9.5 million by 2021 at a continuous annual growth rate of 44%. We are clearly on an upward trajectory as far as the use of technology goes.

'If we expect the next generation to adapt to the changes of the 21st century, our education system must prepare them accordingly.' Photo credit: ConnectEd

But if we are to thrive through the automation wave, we need to debate even the fundamental aspects of our education model, ranging from the curricula to the methods for testing learning to even learning outcomes that we desire for the learners of tomorrow. Here is what the country needs to work towards:

  • Making technology socially acceptable: We need to dispel misconceptions around technology that are centred around gender, caste and social norms. Access to smart devices and the internet is still subject to gender biases, with studies by such organisations as LIRNE AsiaPew Research and GSMA affirming that a significant population of women and young girls in India are restricted from using even cell phones. If this trend persists, valuable assets to the Indian workforce would be compromised.
  • Adopting new subjects for the future: Curricula need to go beyond the ambit of language, mathematics and science to incorporate communication skills, digital literacy and safety, design thinking and much more. If we are worried about children believing “fake news” on the web, then rather than banning them from using the internet, we need to demand social media literacy to be taught in schools. If the current system lacks the logistical bandwidth to tackle the new subjects, organisational experts need to be brought into education planning.
  • Testing ability and not memory: When technology giants such as Google are creating repositories of information, why must we spend time and resources in simply memorising volumes of data. The rote learning approach of Indian schools has been frequently criticised, yet we are still waiting for change. The current assessment process is by and large a memory game rather than a true evaluation of abilities and skills. Starting from anganwadis all the way to higher education institutions, assessment methodologies need to focus on evaluating the mastery of a subject and quantifying learning outcomes.
  • Cultivating an entrepreneurial mindset: If there are no jobs, then India needs people who can create jobs. While there may be restrictions around capital and opportunities, the bigger task is effecting a shift in social attitudes towards entrepreneurship. Young people need to be able to explore, experiment and expand if they are to build a future for themselves. The education system should be a platform that allows youngsters to take risks that the real world may not permit. Aspirations need to extend beyond “finding a good job” to creating something new for themselves.
  • Inculcating lifelong learning: The education system must inculcate self-driven learning from an early age so that millions of people would yearn to learn new skills every few years. This would allow them to keep up with the times and avoid displacement. Given the opportunities offered by game-based learning, virtual reality, blended learning, and the rising number of non-profits working in the sector, there is no reason why people should not be able to realistically practise lifelong learning regardless of their socioeconomic backgrounds. Rather than being tied down to a fixed set of skills, they would be able to master the art of expanding their skillsets organically.

Technology was never meant to fit into the social boxes that we have designed for ourselves. The term “disruptive technology” was coined precisely because its application will render several existing practises obsolete while generating new avenues. Speculations about the chaos the next phase of technology would unleash are not entirely misplaced. But if we could navigate our way from the Stone Age through the Industrial Revolution to where we are today, we are certainly capable of taking the next big leap.

Annette Francis is with the Pratham Institute for Literacy, Education and Vocational Training.

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