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These educationists are equipping South Asian children for a digital future

Educationists from South Asia discuss how to prepare children for the demands of a digital world, and the role that technology can play in innovative learning.

By Ria Gupta

With the changing career landscape in South Asia and the world, and with new challenges facing the educational system in the post-Covid world, stakeholders in the domain need to evolve as well. “There’s no debate about traditional versus digital learning, but about how technology is a tool to be used along with traditional teaching and learning,” says Monica Malhotra Kandhari, the managing director of one of India’s largest publishing houses MBD Group, which also has interests in real estate, luxury retail and five-star hotels.

When the pandemic hit India’s education system in 2020, Kandhari’s publishing house – which has partnered with the Indian government as the official printer in 15 states – saw large quantities of already published study material being returned for lack of use.

“But at MBD, we are pioneers of both books as well as e-learning facilities, with augmented reality, robotics, and other facilities catering to the learning gaps that children face. Consumption patterns have changed in schools since then, and so customisation will be required as each school handles post-pandemic education differently. Thanks to technological advancement, we are prepared,” the trailblazing entrepreneur said at eShe’s South Asia Union Summit Led by Women on a panel titled “Pathbreaking Education: Raising Global Citizens of a Digital World”.

Joining Monica Kandhari were co-panelists Shahneila Saeed (director, Digital Schoolhouse, and head of education, UKIE) from London and Faiza Yousuf (technologist and founder of WomeninTechPK and CodeGirls) from Karachi. The panel was moderated by Sabin Muzaffar (feminist publisher and editor of Ananke magazine) in UAE.

The session’s discussion revolved around why the old ways of education are not enough to equip South Asian youth for a digital future, and the role that technology can play in raising the bar of innovative learning if employed strategically.

Sabin Muzaffar, in setting context to the conversation, said, “A US news agency reported that in India, 80 percent of children aged 14-18 have reported lower levels of learning [during the pandemic] than physical schooling. In a world of rapid digitisation and modernisation, it is tantamount to a crime if a child lacks access to education and innovation. For only education can lead to an evolutionary future.”

She also added that, according to UNICEF regional director for South Asia George Laryea-Adjei, school closures in South Asia have forced hundreds of millions of children and their teachers to transition to remote learning in a region with low connectivity and device affordability. “Even when a family has access to technology, children are not always able to access it,” she noted.

Shahneila Saeed, stressing on the role of innovation in education, shared that the aim behind starting her endeavour Digital Schoolhouse was to use play-based learning to teach creative computing to students while also helping teachers.

“They go on a school trip during school days, and it just happens to be to one of our schools. The teachers learn alongside the children, and that’s big, because there’s recently been a lot of discussion around teacher workloads. Till now, if a teacher in UK wanted to upskill herself, she would have to do it in her personal time without compensation,” says Saeed, who is the author of the book How to Raise a Tech Genius.

According to Saeed, teachers hence remained apprehensive about learning basic computational skills or opening up to digitisation of learning. “Suddenly, the pandemic created a need to teach kids online; now everyone had to use technology and teachers had to figure it out. Some teachers needed training for basic things like screen sharing,” she says.

With a network of about 52 schoolhouses across the UK, Saeed’s programme delivers free weekly workshops to teachers and school children within the community. In her opinion, this kind of learning aids the child in understanding theoretical concepts along with its practical application in the real world. Her work focuses on adding computational thinking to the basic reading, writing and arithmetic for younger children.⁠

In light of this, placing openness to technological innovation and digitised learning at the top of the priority list becomes fundamental. Where time, distance, and traditional systems fail, digital structures can help students, teachers and parents alike – but only as long as access is ensured with the parameters of equality.

As issues around access to education for both students and teachers escalated since the hit of Covid-19, digital education evangelist Faiza Yousuf from Karachi shared that for women, the effect was doubly worse. Yousuf has been a champion of community effort in making education accessible for driven young girls in Pakistan.

“Families usually don’t invest in technological education for girls. That’s the problem we were trying to solve with a training program that was free of cost,” she says about her initiative called CodeGirls.

According to Yousuf, this kind of detrimental attitude was multiplicated during the pandemic. Women across the world find it difficult to remain consistent with their own learning when home and hearth comes into the balance. In her experience, many students preferred coming back to the premises to avail on-ground resources as well as remain focused on their studies so as not to miss out. This posed the flip side of the coin, where while technology was doing wonders in education, socio-cultural aspects made its access a complicated affair.

“However, Covid-19 helped us in placing 150 women in remote opportunities in the local and international tech ecosystem. In that aspect, it was a productive period. However, private entities such as ours cannot solve the problem holistically. This is where the need for government intervention comes in, for that is the only way to reach out to each and every student with the appropriate resources as per their need,” she adds.

According to Monica Kandhari, learning of today is not based on numbers or rote consumption, but on learning outcomes and honing of skills that can prepare children to become global citizens thriving in the digital age. This, coupled with the abysmal student-teacher ratio and lack of on-ground access to resources are the reasons why technology is a pertinent tool in facilitating individualised learning.

“Some children understand concepts faster, some slower. Technology again comes to rescue here – you have video lectures of teachers from around the world now, who teach online. In case the child is in an (geographical) area where there is a lack of good teachers for a particular subject, they can avail the knowledge from the internet,” she added.

South Asia Union Summit Led by Women is a nonprofit initiative by eShe, and is supported by WISCOMP. See all the sessions here.

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