An Indian girl studies in a rural school. Photo: iStock

After the Indian Ministry of Education launched a new National Education Policy on July 29, a range of important considerations, including some missed opportunities, surfaced based on the policy outlines (read here in Hindi).

Broadly speaking, the NEP has put strong emphasis on multilingual education, especially at the elementary level, while attempting to bring in a multidisciplinary approach in higher education that is traditionally divided in a rigid structure of arts-sciences-commerce. The policy focuses on vocational training, and removal of a clear division of formal and extracurricular activities along with an emphasis on professional development of educators.

While increased focus on issues related to Indian languages (including indigenous and endangered languages), accessibility (for people with physical and mental disabilities) and social exclusions (transsexual students) are paramount, the policy falls short on the use of technology in the diversity spectrum. 

Open standards

The NEP highlights in multiple places online teaching platforms such as Diksha, Swayam and Swayam Prabha. While Diksha and Swayam are platforms with educational content, Swayam Prabha is a satellite television (often known in India as direct-to-home, or DTH) service for content delivery.

Diksha is fairly new, with content available under a Creative Commons (CC-BY 4.0) license, which is fairly open for use and is intended for open educational resources. However, the platform is not optimized for digital accessibility by providing downloadable text transcriptions and subtitles in Indian languages.

The other two platforms — Swayam and Swayam Prabha – are outdated and the content is not optimized for accessibility needs.

There is much less clarity on the overall compliance to international accessibility standards (such the Web Accessibility Standards by W3C), content license standards (such as the openly licensed content on Diksha), and software license guidelines (there are both widely accepted high-level definitions and guidelines for reference).

Ideally, educational content that is built by public money should follow the Open Educational Resources (OER) guidelines by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as they broadly focus on the utmost benefit of the end users – the students.

Indian Sign Language

Considering India’s cultural diversity, it is almost impossible to have one spoken language for the whole country, and that is also true for sign language.

Many indigenous communities already have their own sign languages that are not yet documented, or else the government has not clarified whether it has a clear roadmap for such documentation.

Without studying existing sign languages, use of a single Indian Sign Language – which is not standardized well by considering the nuances of Indian societies that already use local sign languages – can be compared to the way Hindi is allegedly imposed by the government in states where Hindi is not a state official language.

Disabilities

The section in the NEP on disability does not include several kinds – the usual suspects being illiteracy, linguistic barriers, physical and mental disabilities and the related digital disabilities.

India is home to more than 780 languages. Schools in many Indian villages with a significantly high number of Scheduled Tribes, or Adivasis, often have non-Adivasi teachers. Such teachers often cannot grasp the deeper cultural nuances in short-term teacher training.

Teachers also often have a range of non-academic public duties (including emergency relief support and support during elections) that leave them with very little space for further professional learning.

Furthermore, educational content needs to be different for different Adivasi communities. Most Adivasi languages are predominantly oral, even those that do have a writing system (script). So audiovisual course content has to be a priority over written textbooks. There is no clear sense how such content will be created and what agencies have the ability – both technical and in terms of participation from Adivasi communities – to do so.

The NEP also does not mention how international standards for digital accessibility can be used to advance technology and educational resources. This would help gradually improve the state of accessibility in India.

Potential links with Aadhaar

In the press briefing on July 29, India’s Ministry of Education secretary (now in the Ministry of Human Resource Development), Amit Khare, boasted of DigiLocker, a cloud-based service provided by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology that allows people to use their Aadhaar (India’s centralized and national digital identity) for authentication and securely storing and accessing documents, claiming that it can help lock the scores of students who would like to take a sabbatical during their studies.

The DigiLocker will allegedly keep previous examination scores intact, allowing students to return to their studies and use the already acquired scores. It is important to note that DigiLocker uses Aadhaar, and this may also mean that Aadhaar will have to be used when this policy is implemented.

As the NEP recognizes multilingualism as a primary area, it could have gone further, in essence, to address the real challenges and pitfalls that the diversity of India has to offer. Building technology with international standards, specifically open standards, would have made the policy a much more well-rounded one, as it has used the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a basis.

It also fails to identify the presence of an active open-source community in India as a strength that can contribute for collaborative creation, maintenance and audit of necessary software. Apart from missing out on the socioeconomic and geopolitical complexities, the NEP also misses out on many foundational aspects of community collaborations that are vital for the development of educational resources, including digital tools.

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Subhashish Panigrahi

As a former community manager at NGOs such as Wikimedia, Mozilla, the Centre for Internet and Society and the Internet Society, Subhashish Panigrahi has worked for expansion if the use of Indian languages on the Internet. He is a National Geographic Explorer and filmmaker, having produced documentaries on many endangered languages in South Asia.