Nishant Baghel

A Mouse That Eats Chalks. And then, they all say Cheese!

A social cause can gain so much from the right use of technology – speed, outreach, last-mile impact, and empowerment. But what happens when the unique challenges of Indian’s geographical, as well as social, terrain come in the way of skilling India’s youth. How to handle teledensity issues, digital illiteracy, and Kuznets graphs? Pratima H finds out here with Nishant Baghel, Director Technology Innovations, Pratham who oversees programs that reach more than 5,00,000 children and have been recognised by the World Economic Forum as the only ‘School of Future’ from India. 

DQ: An Economic Intelligence Unit (EIU) analysis indicated that for every 10 percent increase in school connectivity in a country, GDP per capita could increase by 1.1 percent. Does this work – in your observation and experience?

Nishant Baghel: Pratham works closely with the communities through direct community-based interventions, instead of connecting through schools. However, Pratham’s digital initiatives focus on connecting remote rural low-tech communities with access to digital tools and internet connectivity. The digital tools and the content are an effort to supplement what the children are learning in school. PraDigi Open Learning is cognizant of the rapid pace of digital transformation and technological advancements, hence ensuring accessibility to digital tools and infrastructure for communities has been the starting point.

DQ: How do you assess the impact?

Nishant Baghel: Initially, the tablets sparked curiosity among the children since they did not always have access to even a mobile phone. They have voluntarily formed groups and over the years have not only learned how to study through tablets but also use cameras to film and edit videos. In fact, Pratham’s internal evaluation between 2017-18 has shown a nine percent improvement in learning outcomes of school-based subjects such as Math, English, and Science over a control group. Recognising the need to prepare the youth in the communities as well for technology-based employment opportunities, Pratham trained and encouraged them to be the custodians of the Raspberry Pi which they could use to learn skills such as coding and accessing educational websites. The digital initiative of Pratham started only half a decade ago, hence an evaluation to see the impact on the GDP is a long way to go.

DQ: What is the role of technology in expanding the reach, impact, and multiplier effect of your efforts?

Nishant Baghel: Technology has enabled access for the remotest of communities and helped us ensure that efforts reach every last-mile learner. The COVID-19 pandemic only highlighted this need further. However, access to modern technology is still a questionable reality for the majority of the Indian population. The rural teledensity and wireless teledensity figures indicate the economic disparity between rural and urban communities. This disparity is further skewed with a clear gender bias—fewer females have access to phones or the internet than their male counterparts. This prompted us to explore ‘outdated’ technologies, such as SMS, Radio, TV, WhatsApp, in order to reach the remotest of communities. This was coupled with offline efforts, built in tandem with community involvement, to ensure the efforts reach even those that didn’t have access to the low-tech media.

DQ: Can you explain with any specific examples?

Nishant Baghel: With the help of technology, we could work out of our homes across the country to create interventions that helped us reach the communities with the simple tap of a button. For instance, to optimise our education and partnership programs, we relied on Salesforce Tableau. We created custom dashboards for stakeholders in the ecosystem—governments, teachers, and volunteers—that provided a holistic view of the education system, including enrolment rates and program penetration. In addition, we leveraged Slack to stay in sync with team members spread across the country and collaborate on content creation and product management tasks.

DQ: Is there any special contribution of technology for the cause you work for?

Nishant Baghel: PraDigi (Pratham’s digital initiatives) is built on three core pillars (social structure, content, and digital infrastructure) and technology is one of them. Technology plays a critical role in fostering community connections, creating and delivering digital content, and making remote learning accessible for all age groups. However, a key factor in the development of technology for education is content and its contextualisation based on the audience. With a stark digital divide, it is difficult to use a one-size-fits-all approach to reach all learners in a similar manner. However, with technological innovations, contextualisation, and adapting to change, it is possible to reach all learners.

DQ: How crucial are IT skills to the portfolio of skills that you provide to the underprivileged?

Nishant Baghel: We have shifted to create and prove a curriculum solely focusing on digital readiness—making fundamental digital skills easy to learn remotely. PraDigi Open Learning, Pratham’s hybrid learning initiative for over 5 years, uses technology as a basis to teach school, work, and life-related skills to young learners in an interactive manner. Children not only enjoy the engaging mixed-media content but also appreciate the access to technical skills that the intervention brings. Youthnet, PraDigi’s digital vocational training program has a supplementary outcome—youth getting comfortable with virtual learning and digital tools such as WhatsApp, WorkPlace, Zoom, and other Android apps.

DQ: Did you seem to be already prepared with the brass tacks of digitisation even before the pandemic hit? How? Any challenges which you encountered during the crisis?

Nishant Baghel: Pratham’s digital initiative, PraDigi Open Learning, had been running for about 5 years in rural communities of many states in India. When the pandemic hit, we were better prepared, because we had been investing in technology-enabled open offline learning environments. Through our experience and experiments over the years, we knew what kind of content would be effective and engaging for the learners.

We faced a few challenges and hurdles during the crisis. With the lack of access to technology in the community, we had to navigate our interventions to adapt to the environment. This pushed us to utilise multiple mediums, and shift to SMS, TV, and radio, in order to reach learners that did not have access to smartphones.

DQ: How serious is the digital literacy gap in India?

Nishant Baghel: Computers, smartphones, the internet, and social media networks have increasingly become integral parts of our lives in the 21st century. However, in India, there is a glaring digital literacy gap across urban and rural, as well as encompassing gender.

The digital literacy divide in India is a key structural constraint that carries multiple negative impacts on educational attainment, skill development, and workforce participation for those who are from under-resourced communities.

“Digital literacy is not the only barrier to the expansion of technology in remote rural communities.”

DQ: Would the Kuznets curve apply for technology-led economic growth in this country?

Nishant Baghel: Technology has been theoretically acknowledged as a condition that can both improve or worsen economic equality. In general, technological innovations are expected to generate more inequality initially with only a few enjoying the high incomes of the technologically advanced sector. This is something we have noticed in India with the emergence of information and communication technologies, which catered to the job aspirations of the burgeoning middle class. They have access to digital tools and hence it has been easier for them to apply for such jobs. Additionally, the products and services developed by technological advances have been within the reach of the few. As technologies are diffused, however, more people can enjoy higher incomes and benefits thereof, which could lead to lower inequality. This is what Kuznets curve suggests.

DQ: So what is stopping us?

Nishant Baghel: The Indian Government has been making a concerted effort to increase digital literacy skills amongst its citizens. However, digital literacy is not the only barrier to the expansion of technology in remote rural communities. Access to devices such as smartphones, tablets, and computers remains a major roadblock that needs to be overcome in order for everyone to enjoy the benefits of technology-led growth. Technology-led economic growth can be a reality in India once the barriers of digital literacy are removed, and digital tools become more accessible.

DQ: Anything you learn or like from what others in this space are doing—like Agastya, Meghshala, Medha, Doorstep, Technoserve, etc.?

Nishant Baghel: We have been working with 90 partners for content creation and translation and more than 600 partners for dissemination.

Nishant Baghel is Director Technology Innovations, Pratham

By Pratima Harigunani

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