Digital-only is not the solution for either textbooks or examinations

Educational reforms require considered choices and professional execution

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News flashes on the front page of the Times of India that as the new school year entered its fourth week, the National Council of Educational Research and Training’s (NCERT) books were in extremely short supply. Of the total print order of more than 69.39 million (6.94 crore) books, apparently only 16.6 million (1.66 crore) books have been received by NCERT till the filing of the news report by Manash Gohain on 20 April 2019.

A large number of the required textbooks are neither printed nor available. Based on documents seen by the newspaper, of the 238 textbook titles to be produced, only 135 have been printed and these too in short quantities. While NCERT is keen to change and rationalize the syllabus with changes and QR code links to the internet for related course material, it has been compelled to distribute older books from inventory. The crisis is most dire in the class VI to XII textbooks with many titles not having been printed at all.

The TOI story quotes a former head of NCERT’s publication division who says, “Apart from delay in procurement of paper, I have read that books are being revised, which could also have delayed the printing. Earlier, we used to prioritize printing books for board exam students.”

Educational outcomes as described in the recently released Aser report are declining even as the employability of both school and college graduates decline. Political battles are being waged daily in the financial press on the lack of jobs being created in the economy as if the only reality is to denigrate one political regime or the other.

For the large mass of ordinary graduates, the definition of a job still means employment by government and the public sector. For these jobs (as well as entrance exams to professional educational institutions) there are a huge number of exams that need to be given securely and evaluated. The exam-based employment process is also running three years behind in some cases.

The government is keen to centralize and transparently conduct all national entrance and public employment exams. In November 2017, it established the National Testing Agency with its headquarters in Noida, to do just this. However, the immense backlog of examinations and incomplete evaluations combined with severe budget constraints and political considerations has led to a paucity of actual jobs being given. .

This is a complex problem and while one approach is to completely outsource this process to companies that will conduct online examinations and also complete the evaluation process, the infrastructure for this online effort is still not strong enough across the country. It is not advisable to simply turn every Internet cafe into an examination centre if one is to strengthen the integrity of the system. In addition to online examinations, the educational, testing and employment professionals and bureaucrats need to continue conventional analog examination systems as well as digitally printed secure and randomized exam systems that are available.

The education sector is not ready to move completely into the cloud just as the economy is not ready to move into a cashless society. Let’s not do away completely with paper and print but instead make documents and exams more intelligent with technology. Multiple choice and multiple channels – analog, digital and mixed, are the way forward.

The education professionals need to make up their mind about what outcomes they can realistically deliver. Change requires courage and thorough fool-proof execution with integrity. Needless to say, printers are large stakeholders in the educational system and they need to get their act together and speak out to education ministries in the centre and in the states.

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Naresh Khanna
Editor of Indian Printer and Publisher since 1979 and Packaging South Asia since 2007. Trained as an offset printer and IBM 360 computer programmer. Active in the movement to implement Indian scripts for computer-aided typesetting. Worked as a consultant and trainer to the Indian print and newspaper industry. Visiting faculty of IDC at IIT Powai in the 1990s. Also founder of IPP Services, Training and Research and has worked as its principal industry researcher since 1999. Author of book: Miracle of Indian Democracy.

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