An Indian education

Darcy Moore

Students use street theatre to explore the impact of digital technology on society

In New Delhi recently as part of an Asia Education Foundation exchange project for educators, I was particularly interested in understanding the “Digital India” moonshot led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Advertising abounded showing the Prime Minister speaking at “Youth for Digital India” conferences. The push for digital transactions seemed to suit many middle-class Indians but many had concern for the impact on tribal and rural people.

India has an English-speaking middle class of more than 200 million people and the largest software and film industries in the world. Unfortunately, much of the population still has very limited access to educational opportunity. As when I first visited the country a qurter-century ago and today, extreme wealth and poverty live hand-in-hand.

The ruling party of the National Capital Territory of Delhi is the very new Aam Aadmi Party (AAP, Common Man’s Party), only formed in late 2012. Manish Sisodia, son of a teacher, is Deputy Chief Minister of Delhi but is extremely focused on his education portfolio. His stated goal is to make government schools better than their private counterparts.

The doubling of the education budget to 25 per cent (most states have 10–12 per cent) of the total state allocation seems to provide evidence that this is a very genuine policy direction.

There is frenetic action by the state government in education and it is difficult to gauge what is working and what is not but there is certainly a renewed focus on the practical and the innovative.

Some of the initiatives seem contextually popular with Indian educators although they will make many Australian teachers cringe. For example, CCTV is being rolled out in classrooms to ensure safety and that teachers are on time and in their classes. One principal showed me the cable after I addressed a class and said that lessons could be streamed too.

There is a large building and renovation program. Principals and education department officials have been suspended for not ensuring students have access to appropriate and clean facilities.

Significantly, I awoke one morning to a newspaper report claiming that half of government schools in Delhi were without a principal. This must make rolling out reform very problematic. There was, however, a feeling of optimism amongst educators.

Engaging parents is a priority and the government advertised that parent-teacher meetings would take place on one day across the entire government school sector. One school I visited, with more than 4000 students, told me 85 per cent of the families attended. The government schools have large, prominently displayed signs that advise parents about their rights and who they can contact to complain.

I was told the teacher to student ratio in government schools was 1: 100 (but was usually 1:80) and in private schools 1:50 but I did not see any classes that were this big in either sector.

Minister Sisodia has approved plans to buy tablets for around 50,000 teachers and principals of the 1024 government schools in the national capital. There is currently a lack of infrastructure in most Indian schools to support government technology initiatives.

The principals and educators I spoke with — regardless of whether they worked in public or private schools — were all certain that the government should not be filling the coffers of edubusinesses. I saw no evidence that this was happening in New Delhi but certainly the conditions — including the government push for digital technologies in education and the increasing education budgets — are ripe for this to happen.

The private schools are feeling under pressure with recent amendments to the Delhi School Education Act and other bills. I was told that no government funding is provided to private schools but they are required to take 25 per cent of their student population from the poorest sections of the community.

My exchange was focused on how digital technologies can be used to connect Australian and Indian students to facilitate homestays and grow cultural understanding. Our students are currently connecting using Adobe Connect and Edmodo while the teachers use Twitter and Facebook with the occasional email.

The students are planning to explore issues of mutual interest that can be performed using traditional Indian street theatre known as Nukkad Natak. The performances about the impact of digital technologies on society that I saw from young Indians made this educator’s heart sing. They explored many a paradox — the need for change and the importance of continuity - quite brilliantly. They certainly understood the impact of greed on society.

Living with an Indian educator and talking with her husband — who was working with a partner to create affordable lots for organic farming — and children, one being educated at university in Melbourne and the other at a Delhi arts college, also proved to be an education about India’s current context.

My exchange partner’s return visit to Australia is in May and I have many questions piling up for her. I plan to visit India again, this time with my own teenage daughter, in January next year. It will be interesting to gain her perceptions of how the federal and state governments in Delhi are faring with their push for all things digital.

Darcy Moore teaches at Dapto HS and blogs at darcymoore.net