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Building a Technology-Driven Environment for Collaborative Learning at Schools

Opinion: Pratik Mehta, Head of Education & Skills in Microsoft.

Education is a key priority for governments across nations. Education has the most profound impact on the growth of a nation and also how the society evolves and the values it upholds. It is an era of digital transformation with rapid changes happening at a great pace. As a part of education, along with leadership and vision as well as building the capacity of teachers and the Millennials, creating the right learning infrastructure is equally important. Access to technology can facilitate and empower the educators to build 21st century skills, which are around critical thinking, problem solving, attention to detail, collaboration and teamwork among several others. UNESCO’s framework for 21st century skills strongly postulates a competency based approach to learning and teaching. Learning and teaching should not only focus on exposure to knowledge but also build competencies that matter for employability and entrepreneurship.

A Framework for Innovation in context of Education

The Innovation framework on Education draws from UNESCO’s work in this area, where the focus is on the learner. In order to drive excellence at an institutional level, there are four key areas to be addressed.

The student has to be at the center of the learning experience. The role of the teacher needs to be that of the facilitator. An educator helps deploy technology meaningfully to drive engaging learning experiences in the classroom.

  1. Leadership and culture of innovation at the Institute
  2. Building the capacity of teachers
  3. Creating learning environment for students
  4. Relooking at Teaching and Assessments to drive collaborative and innovative experiences for students

Creating an environment of excellence and role of technology

The role of the leadership and teachers is extremely important for excellence at an institutional level. A culture of innovation needs to be created at the Institution. However, this needs to be coupled with creating the right learning environment and infrastructure at an institution. This is not only at the classroom level but at the institution, district and state level.

The focus of this article is to share insights on how technology and ICT infrastructure can greatly influence the learning, management and governance at an individual, school, district, state and national level. Artificial intelligence, machine analytics, cloud technologies, data analytics and education tools can be deployed in meaningful ways to provide better insights into students’ work and performance. The vision has to be in place for driving digital transformation in education. Digital technologies enable ubiquitous access to information. Learning is about making connections. This range of teaching-learning connections permeates the teaching and learning environment, a learning space that can be physical or virtual. The connections are created in several ways. Technology can be a big enabler in all of this. We connect

  • New knowledge to existing knowledge
  • The digital world with the real world
  • Students to information and content
  • Students to students
  • Students to teachers

We connect the learning space to the world, competencies to skills, individuals to groups, and groups to communities. And, most importantly, we connect technology to information – information to knowledge and knowledge to application in the real world.

Learning at the classroom level and role of technology

There are several aspects that contribute to excellence in education at an individual, institution, state and policy level. As an individual, it would be helpful to not only build academic foundations, but also build experiential learning. This would involve collaboration within and outside the classroom. This could mean working on collaborative projects, bringing in experts to the classroom, talking to people and learning from projects and doing activities outside the classroom. In the classroom, the teacher could play a very important role in bringing the world to the classroom. The role of the teacher transcends to being a facilitator. He/She deploys technology meaningfully to create some distinct learning experiences, which could enable deep learning. This would also perhaps involve some live projects and an inter-disciplinary approach.

For instance, there are students across the globe working on Climate Change projects, which involves documentation of their experiences. These students are led by a few Microsoft Expert Educators. Skype as a technology tool can enable such collaborations across the globe. In a year, there are thousands of Skype calls, which are conducted across classrooms during which students learn about geography, science and are virtually present on visits to museums, national parks and so on. There could be an impact on how 1:1 (one to one) learning could be facilitated in digital classrooms. This could be very powerful as students could work collaboratively on projects during and outside the classroom. It could involve the use of Digital Class Notebook and also be an important way of getting feedback. A digital classroom can be created through the use of One Notebook.

Microsoft’s One Notebook enables powerful learning experiences as the teacher can create Digital Notebooks for all students and can monitor their work.

Assessments and feedback also constitute an important element of the learning. Microsoft’s One Notebook enables powerful learning experiences as the teacher can create Digital Notebooks for all students and can monitor their work. The students can work on the same document and also record feedback. One Notebook is a powerful tool for having multiple formats, documents, videos, Excel, Powerpoint and word files all at the same location. It is a great tool for fostering collaborative learning.

The use of Office 365 enables a rich, collaborative and a dynamic environment for learning. Bing as a search engine provides a safe search environment for students. Intune enables management of devices in educational context. So there are several Apps and tools that can take classroom learning to a very different level.

The use case scenarios and an understanding of the benefits of this engagement would have policy implications as well. Merely deploying technology is not sufficient. Investing in capacity building of teachers and also providing a robust infrastructure, which facilitates power backups, internet, use of devices that have inking capability can take learning to a very different level. Understanding the entire framework for implementing such solutions is important and must be considered when planning for ICT implementation at schools.

The Government of India is also building up exposure to newer technologies and promoting the spirit of innovation in schools. Niti Aayog’s (Government of India’s policy think tank) initiative- Atal Tinkering Labs is an amazing program, which has been developed to support innovation and out of the box thinking by school students. Niti Aayog has invited the industry to also step in and extend support to schools and expose them to innovation and new technologies that can help students build projects to solve problems that matter to India. Several industry players have come forward in support of this initiative and are working with schools. Microsoft has also adopted 25 schools to build exposure to emerging technology areas for students and teachers in these schools.

The possibilities of transforming the digital landscape are massive. The ability to . . . tracking journeys of students and teachers as well as taking steps to empower them at every step by building unique identities can be leveraged in so many ways.

Technology solutions in Education

There are several innovative solutions available, which are around technology infrastructure management, content, student management, creating identities for students and employees, managing the examination and admission systems, alumni network, creating research infrastructure and storing data and backups for the Institution.

From a learning perspective, there could be digital repositories, resource materials across grades, assessment frameworks, platforms for learning such as MOOC, LMS, Flipped Classroom. Microsoft has piloted several Digital Classrooms in several states in India where the infrastructure- Digital class notebooks with inking capability, internet, power back up and projection system were facilitated. This was also supported with content and exposure to technology led teaching for the teachers. Both these interventions and support from the government brought in very distinctive experiences for students and teachers. There are some wonderful tech start ups in education who have done some amazing work in the domain of education solutions. Whether it is about designing assessments, which link to Bloom’s taxonomy for learning; writing report cards which give deeper insights into the progress of a student through various grades and demonstrating dashboards at a school level, the possibilities are many. These solutions could alter the way decisions are made for capacity building and monitoring progress at the school level.

Governance at a District/State Level

For governance at an institutional or a state level, cloud could be meaningfully utilised to drive insights into student performance and impact the dropout ratio from schools. High school dropout rates pose challenges to the demand for a skilled manpower. Approximately 250 million students are enrolled in our schools, however a huge number drop out every year, leading to lost opportunities. The Government of Andhra Pradesh leverages Machine Intelligence and Cloud to understand the risk of post 10th class dropouts with an objective to enable ground officers to develop targeted intervention in order prevent potential dropouts. These initiatives may include subsidies, programmes and other interventions to help schools improve graduation rate. This has enabled 600,000 predictions each in 2015 & 2016 .

“Education is a key pillar of development for the Government of Andhra Pradesh. Our work with Microsoft on predictive analytics is to see if we can better predict student dropouts before they actually dropout and use the data to do customised interventions to stop the dropouts. We now have a 360-degree view of students, mapped to close to 100 variables. Through this solution, the AP Government is confident of acquiring a ‘more nuanced understanding’ of the situation. Machine Learning will contribute towards better governance.”

Mr. R P Sisodia, Principal Secretary, School Education Department, Government of Andhra Pradesh, is convinced of the ability of Machine Learning and analytics. He firmly believes it is important to get cutting-edge technologies into Governments.

The development of a MOOC platform at a state level has a great ramification for learning opportunities for students and teachers not only in India but anywhere in the world. The Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India has undertaken a great step in setting up Swayam, which allows transfer of credits between Universities. There have been steps undertaken around creating new courses and a quality process has been institutionalised to set this up. This is a great initiative, which has potential to impact 30 million students across India. The system of credit for courses taken up is a great strength and also helps build multi-disciplinary exposure for the student.

The possibilities of transforming the digital landscape are massive. The ability to have entire student data, teacher data and tracking journeys of students and teachers as well as taking steps to empower them at every step by building unique identities can be leveraged in so many ways.

Summing up

There is an urgent need to build exposure to technology in the domain of education. UNESCO’s framework of education focuses on building student competencies. To achieve this, it is important to build the capacity of teachers and also look at the technology and ICT infrastructure. There is a need to look beyond text books and collaboration needs to be fostered with the external world. Exposure to newer areas such as coding, entrepreneurship, cloud, app development, sustainable development needs to be encouraged. Technology can play such a phenomenal role in driving individual and organisational excellence. Cloud and machine intelligence can help better governance at the state and district level. At the school level, innovative solutions can create a more connected ecosystem of teachers, parents and students. More personalisation is possible through innovative use of technology. The barriers of geography, language, socio-economic background can all be overcome with great learning and teaching experiences if right investments in technology infrastructure can be coupled with capacity building of educators. The new policies must take into account the various learning opportunities through technology solutions.

Pratik Mehta is the Head of Education & Skills in Microsoft. He works extensively with Policy decision makers, Government institutions, schools and colleges in the field of Digital Transformation in Education. He also mentors Ed-Tech and Start-Up Companies and provides them the right platform to scale up their business. He has recently been conferred with an award from the Hon’ble Ex-President of India- Shri Pranab Mukherjee for his contribution for driving digital initiatives in education. He is also a member of Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) National Committee on Skill Development.