Take a surgeon from 30 years ago, put her in an operating theatre today and she won’t know what to do with all the machines she has at her disposal. Ditto with a TV remote control, telephone and any number of gadgets. But take a teacher from 30 years ago and put him in a classroom, and chances are he will walk up to the board, pick up a piece of chalk, and just start teaching.
Technology has changed so many aspects of our lives, and the smartest users of technology are kids. But the one area that has still not felt the real impact of technology is the classroom and the way students are taught.
While there have been a number of technology interventions in education—school managements systems, attendance, accounting, assessment platforms—all of which have made the process of education more efficient, the content and the actual delivery of teaching still happens mostly through textbooks, lectures and tests. That is not very different from the way students have been taught for decades.
The smartest users of technology are children. Give a child your mobilephone and within minutes he or she will be doing things with your phone that you didn’t even know the phone could do. So why are children still being taught in a—in technology terms—prehistoric manner?
Our analysis of schools in India particularly, reveals two trends. Firstly, there are many schools and educators for whom procuring technology is merely an arms race. It is an investment they have to make to stay current and relevant, and so they introduce smartboards, tablets and laptops to the school. However, they have no intention to change how learning is actually delivered in the classroom. Secondly, there are schools and teachers who have embraced change and introduced technology-based learning solutions into classrooms, and leverage it to improve student learning. The latter group is relatively small and unfortunately a large number of them are already disillusioned with what they see and are not very optimistic about the adoption of more technology in their schools.
My hypothesis is that this is mainly because of a lack of good quality technology-driven content. A true intervention of technology in education will only happen when technology is paired with effective and engaging content.
Current content offerings can be put into three broad categories. For some publishers, a PDF, HTML or eReader version of their traditional publications can be considered a huge technological leap. Other EdTech offerings have created large numbers of animated presentations with a lot of text, a voice-over essentially reading out the on-screen text, and the occasional animation or film to illustrate a point. And then there are hundreds of hours of videos of teachers speaking to camera or just a film of a lecture being delivered in a classroom. None of these serve to inspire today’s bored students or help them to understand concepts better, primarily because none of these really use the power of technology to its full potential.
For the last few years my startup has been building a system to teach children using the power of a mobile device. Marksharks is an Android-based learning application where children use mobile devices to construct their own knowledge and learn classroom concepts in a truly immersive, multi-sensory and meaningful manner through games, simulations, virtual experiments and interactive exercises.
We are building science and maths content, currently being mapped to the Indian curriculum, for middle- and high-school students. The big differentiator at Marksharks is that the learning process is not unidirectional; children touch, feel, see, listen and most importantly ‘do’ the various experiments and simulations on their devices, making their learning more interactive than reading text books, watching videos or even sitting in a classroom as the teacher teaches.
We are not trying to replace the teacher, only make them more efficient and effective by giving students the opportunity to immerse themselves in the learning process and actually understand concepts, rather than learning formulas and definitions as if they were poems to be recited in an exam.
While our primary focus is a B2C model where children download the app and use MarkSharks as a supplemental learning tool at home, we are also working with a few schools around the country and have some excellent results to show for it. The Class 8 and 9 apps have so far been downloaded more than 250,000 times and feedback from engaged users has been very positive.
A teacher in a low-income level school in Gurgaon, on the outskirts of Delhi, says, “Science has come alive for [the students]. We don’t have too many resources in school, especially related to science. But now we don’t really miss them too much. Children do experiments virtually, also removing the risk element that we would otherwise have to face in a real lab.” A mathematics teacher in the same school says, “I can feel a tangible improvement in [the students’] interest in the subject. Our students come from deprived backgrounds and their interest in the subject, because of the MarkSharks programme, has increased a lot.”
From home users, we have parents reporting more interest shown by their children. Parents themselves are using MarkSharks to learn or revise a concept before explaining it to their children. Their levels of interest and confidence in math and science have increased since they started using MarkSharks.
At MarkSharks we are now customizing our content into other Indian languages and we have also customized a few lessons into Spanish for an experiment to be conducted in Latin America this summer. We continue to develop more content and are already experimenting with new forms of technology, for instance, using sensors to feed real world data into the app so that the learners can fortify their virtual learnings with actual data.
It’s only a small step, but it does reinforce our theory that true intervention in EdTech will happen when good content is created and made available on a large scale and at affordable prices. Mobile phones and tablets are very powerful devices, but they will only be able to really change the way our children learn when the content that sits on them harnesses their power in meaningful and usable ways.