A Hack-and-Crack System Won't Educate India's Billion

Arjun Mohan's book captures well the feverish headiness of start-up life as they unfold in waves in the edtech sector from the nineties onward. What one might want to keep in mind though is the hope that the industry is not simply parasitic and exploitative of the worst of the beleaguered school system.

There is certainly much that ails the Indian education sector – not least the plethora of technology solutions claiming to be silver bullets. While there is much that private capital and start-ups can do to enrich education – provide richer images, simulations, animations – there is also need to introspect on how these may best be provided, used, scaled so that real learning takes place and that education does not end up in the same bubbles that our polarising politics, or social media, so often ends up in. It is in this context that one may want to review Arjun Mohan’s Educating a Billion: How Edtech Startups, Apps, Youtube and AI Disrupted Education.

Mohan had begun the book with a rich account of children from low-income households in heartland Uttar Pradesh besotted by a phone-screen teaching them elementary mathematics. There is no doubt that this image is true – and yet, learning has many dimensions beyond this image. Learning is equally about peers and authority figures. This is especially true of disciplines like the social sciences and the humanities; and even higher-level mathematics or the sciences or professional streams need peer discussion at several crucial levels of the value chain. One only risks entrenching poor student teacher ratios (in school and university) through the excuse of technology developed by a handful of firms – this can be a vicious cycle allowing education to slip into a spiral of children on screens with “education” being beamed down from ever-more centralised entities or apps. This is already the case with the handful of centralised Boards running Indian education with narrow “objective” ideas of evaluation.

Arjun Mohan
Educating a Billion: How Edtech Startups, Apps, Youtube and AI Disrupted Education
Penguin, 2023

Thus Mohan is simplistic when he repeats that the “real problem is of quality of delivery”. Centralisation risks making cogs of both student and teacher – instead of empowering student(s) and teacher in small, vibrant, discussion-packed classrooms where the light bulb repeated goes off in a student’s head as they discover the magic of both learning of, as well as participating in, the tangible, nurturing world of the classroom. Despite millions of parents spending lakhs in several private schools, it is unclear how much a student can learn and retain when what is tested at the end of the day are chiefly in the form of multiple choice. Much of the excitement of the classroom is simply forgotten, and indeed the evaluation systems/exams are complicit in the destruction of this joy.

Mohan is unquestioning in his regard for the current test preparation industry, which is all about hacks and shortcuts, “cracking” exams and boot camps and demo sessions. He vividly describes this underworld of India’s education system, and the undoubtedly hard work he and his team put in travelling the breadth of many states, recruiting teachers, recording and editing videos through the night, and building distribution in remote corners of the country. The book captures well the feverish headiness of start-up life as they unfold in waves in the edtech sector from the nineties onward – these are indeed the best sections.

But the price one pays for “cracking” exams with only exam-oriented knowledge is steep because much of college will now be spent unlearning this and actually learning to learn. Many students are simply unable to make this transition – all of this is certainly a factor in the endemically poor mental health of students in Indian universities. Students grown up in a purely test preparation mode are unable to think beyond multiple choice and write lengthier qualitative answers which emphasise innovation of response rather than a generic “correct answer”. It must be remembered that even in the sciences, the true scientist or engineer is she who pushes knowledge to new boundaries – what is more important is to learn to ask the right questions, not so much to get a pre-decided and common right answer. The idea of the hack or jugaad is a fetish India must outgrow.

It is unfortunate that the media and coaching institutes fete these toppers, because this gives a sense that this is intellectual achievement, rather than just an exam-taking achievement. Mohan takes this world of education as a given, sharing his own struggles with his CAT grades. While his story may be personally inspiring (small-town boy receiving multiple IIM offers), the book gives little sense of the cost that the larger educational ecology pays. This is why at the university level India struggles so hard to do well in international-quality research – students fed on a diet of hacks must spend most of their college years having to re-learn how to think in a more open-ended manner.

Unfortunately, start-ups/technologies/apps often feeding on the insecurities of students from smaller towns, or lower-income families, where there is already a sense of the pervasive failure of private and public education, and the feeling that education as social mobility is a lost myth. Thus, the syllabus of competitive exams are taken as a given, instead of just as a convention agreed by some opaque process – again, for this lack of accountability in syllabus-design India pays the price with its poorly employable youth. A small shift of syllabus – in terms of content, or time or answer mode – and all these paltry hacks will crumble in the dust. And it is such shifts that occur in the real world while the world of entrance exams give a false illusion of learning and control.

Arjun Mohan. Photo: X/@_arjunmohan_

Indeed, in a good system geared toward the real world, the syllabus and evaluation (be it NEET or CBSE) should anyway evolve every year to accommodate constant new knowledge and increasing uncertainty. This itself will force the coaching institutes to teach with depth and range, and not with just a view to sales. The hacks can be left to marketing – Mohan has several interesting nuggets on consumer behaviour such as youngsters in small towns being forced to access parent’s cell phone in front of them and only when the latter were preoccupied watching television! But such insights into the behavioural use of smartphones should be used to design policy and pedagogy, not to calculate the ideal time when the sales rep should invade the parent’s house.

The book gives us a good sense of the educational landscape and the possibilities of digitisation and online learning – there is no doubt there is enormous potential, and that India has to get this right. What one might want to keep in mind though is the hope that the industry is not simply parasitic and exploitative of the worst of the beleaguered school system. Instead, the vigilant hope should be that technologies supplement the schools and universities by furthering motivation, by helping disadvantaged students, by charting pathways and networks for gifted students, by multiplying meaningful forms of evaluations and admission beyond poorly designed exams, by improving writing and communication skills,  by engendering new formats of output that are in line with true research and alternative career paths. If the industry manages even a fraction of all this over the coming decade – with patience and reflection instead of frenzy – India does have a chance to actually “educate” the billion that the book’s title refers to.

Nikhil Govind is Professor and Head of the Manipal Centre for Humanities.