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Leveraging technology for meeting SDGs– Smart education and skill development

The objective of this series of articles is to highlight how emerging technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT), quantum computing, extended reality, block chain, big data analytics, e-networks, drones, digital twins, and 5G networks can be leveraged to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)-2030, while impacting various domains. Another objective of this series of articles is to highlight how leveraging all these technologies can help create business opportunities in various domains. Also, enablement of ESG (environmental, social, and governance) adoption by these technologies. This time we are going to talk about smart education and skill development.

SDG-4 of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs-2030) states – Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all, and in the process envisages:

  • Universal primary and secondary education,
  • Early childhood development and pre-primary education.
  • Equal access to technical, vocational, and higher education.
  • Relevant skills for decent work,
  • Gender equality and inclusion,
  • Universal youth literacy, and
  • Education for sustainable development and global citizenship.

On the face of it everything looks achievable. But, when we see it from the perspective of the developing nations, and the challenges that they are faced with, achieving these targets looks like a Herculean task.

Indian experience. Let us take the case of India, a developing nation with a population of 1.4 billion, with 70 percent of them (about a billion) living in 650,000 villages. So, for quality education, we need a minimum of 650,000 well-equipped quality primary school infrastructure, including teachers. Considering the fact that some villages are several square kilometers in size, even one school is not enough. This is just the beginning of the challenge. The quality of teachers is something, which is vital, because otherwise it would be garbage in, garbage out. India is not alone. A large number of African nations have similar challenges. This is where technology can come to our rescue.

In 2008, the Government of India established a pan-African e-Network platform, linking 53 nations of Africa to India, for education and health services. Over the next decade, more than 22,000 students from Africa got their degrees and PGs from Indian universities, including Madras University, BITS Pilani, Amity, and others, without having to leave their countries even for a day. This was a dream project of Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, our former President, and the missile man of India. This was a game changer, and demonstrated how technology can be leveraged for providing quality education to masses, even remotely. This also started the debate on how we could improve the education and skill development mechanism in the hinterland of India.

There are some common challenges in the current education system in the developing world, and in some cases even other nations. These need to be overcome, to meet the following basic objectives:

  • Quality teachers,
  • Standard classrooms,
  • Access to quality libraries and laboratories,
  • Personalized learning,
  • Application-based learning/skill development,
  • Evolving curriculum,
  • Academic integrity,
  • Accessibility and inclusive environment, and
  • Entrepreneurship.

Many developments in the domain of technology have happened in the last decade or so. We have seen how during the Covid-19 pandemic, communication platforms like Zoom proved to be a boon for continuing with schooling in the form of online education. Emerging technologies like extended reality, blockchain, 3D printing, e-networking platforms, quantum computing, digital twins, etc., can prove to be enablers, in various facets of education, at different levels, and can transform education and skill development in a big way.

How these emerging technologies can help in meeting the objectives of education and skill development listed above, is being elaborated.

Quality teachers
Quality teachers, who can mentor and inspire students is a major challenge in the developing world, particularly in the rural environment. With the type of e-networking platforms, mentioned in context of the pan-African e-network, it is possible to have delivery of quality content from a common resource. Besides, this can help in capacity building of the teachers in those remote schools, till they are able to come up to the standards envisaged.

Big data analytics can also be used to evaluate teacher and school performance, helping educators identify areas for improvement and implement targeted interventions to improve outcomes.

Standard classrooms
Technologies like IoT can help create smart classrooms, equipped with connected devices, such as smart boards, interactive displays, and sensors that can capture data and provide real-time feedback, helping create a more engaging and interactive learning environment, adapted to students’ individual needs.

Access to quality libraries and laboratories
IoT can be used to create virtual labs that provide a safe and cost-effective way for students to conduct experiments and simulations. This can help students develop hands-on skills in subjects, such as science, engineering, and healthcare.

Digital libraries besides widening the scope can prove to be a boon for the students and other scholars as they can also access content from the comfort of their home. AI can play a significant role in creating this digital content.

Technologies like digital twins can help create virtual simulations and experiments that provide a safe and cost-effective way for students to learn and experiment. It can be used to simulate chemical reactions, electrical circuits, or mechanical systems, allowing students to explore these concepts in a virtual environment.

Digital twins can also help in development of virtual prototypes of products, buildings, or systems, allowing students to experiment with different design options and configurations. This can help students develop skills in design, engineering, and problem-solving.
Digital twins can be used to collect and analyze data from physical objects and systems, allowing students to develop skills in data analysis, machine learning, and predictive analytics.

Quantum computing would help simulate quantum systems and phenomena, motivating students to study and explore the principles of quantum mechanics and its applications in fields, such as physics, chemistry, and material sciences.

3D printing can be leveraged to teach students science, technology, engineering, and mathematics concepts by allowing them to create physical models of complex ideas, including machines and devices. It can also help create prototypes of products or designs, allowing students to experiment with different designs and refine their ideas. This can be particularly useful in design courses or in engineering programs.

Personalized learning
One of the biggest challenges in the domain of education is that all students have their own pace of learning. The teacher, with limited time and resources at her/his disposal, cannot do justice to all the students. So, s/he tries to cater to the majority constituency. Big data analytics can help analyze student performance data and create personalized learning experiences, based on individual strengths, weaknesses, and learning styles.

IoT can be used to track students’ progress and learning patterns, allowing teachers to create personalized learning plans that are tailored to each student’s needs.

AI-based chatbots can help personalized tutorials by adapting to each student’s learning style, convenient time, and pace. It can also provide real-time feedback and suggestions to help students improve their skills and achieve better results.

With the proliferation of smartphones and tablets, mobile learning has gained strength. Mobile apps can provide learners with access to educational resources and tools anytime and anywhere, making learning more flexible and convenient.

Application-based learning/skill development
Bookish knowledge does not always lead to clear concepts. Virtual reality (VR) can help students with immersive learning experiences that simulate real-world scenarios that would be difficult or impossible to replicate through discussions in the classroom.

A safe and controlled environment is imperative for students in gaining confidence in specialized skills. VR can be used to create training simulations for a wide range of domains for students to practice their skills and learn from their mistakes, particularly in areas like medical surgeries, repair of sophisticated machines, etc.

VR can also provide students with a visual and spatial learning experience, allowing them to see and interact with three-dimensional objects and environments. This can be particularly useful in subjects, such as biology or geography, where students need to understand complex structures or concepts. Augmented reality (AR) can provide students with interactive learning experiences that combine real-world objects and digital content. For example, students can scan a book with an AR app to bring the illustrations to life or use AR to explore a historical site.

Digital twins can also facilitate collaboration and communication among students, teachers, and domain experts, helping create virtual spaces for team projects, online discussions, and remote learning.

Gamification involves using game-like elements, such as points, badges, and leaderboards, to motivate and engage learners. It can make learning more fun and engaging, and can also help learners track their progress and compete with their peers. 5G mobile technology can help make the whole process online and real-time.

Evolving curriculum
The curriculum that our educators design tends to remain static over decades, if not generations. This leads to students being out of sync with the fast-paced changes that happen in our environment. Big data analytics can help analyze student data and identify areas where the curriculum may be required to be modified or improved, thus helping educators create more effective and engaging learning experiences for students.

Academic integrity
A serious challenge in the developing countries is authenticity of the examination process, which tends to get compromised at times. Examination question papers and answer sheets can be linked to blockchain technology, thus ensuring security and complete transparency.

Another challenge is that of fake degrees and certificates. Blockchain technology in education can help verify the authenticity of credentials, such as degrees and certificates. With digital record of academic achievements on a blockchain, students can have a secure and tamper-proof way of proving their qualifications to potential employers.

Blockchain technology can also help protect intellectual property rights for educational content, such as textbooks and course materials. This would allow educators to share their work without fear of plagiarism or copyright infringement.

Accessibility and inclusive environment
AR and VR can provide accessibility for students with disabilities, such as visual or hearing impairments, by providing a virtual environment that can be customized to their needs. This can create a more inclusive learning environment.

3D printing can be used to create customized learning aids, such as tactile models for visually impaired students or models of organs for medical students, thus helping in better understanding of complex concepts and improvement in their learning experience.

Skill-enabling courses, and learn-as-you-earn initiatives, meant for those individuals who have not been privileged enough to complete their studies, yet get pushed into jobs too early, can actually empower and bring them to the fore in the society.

The present education system is tailored in a way that students from day-one think that the only purpose of getting educated is to finally get a job, and serve the organization they are employed in. So, instead of letting students flower, we tend to strait jacket them into the job market.

Entrepreneurship was the hallmark of Indian economy before the era of colonization. In fact, this concept of studying for securing a job was introduced in this country by the colonial masters, with the objective of creating local servants to serve their imperialistic interests. The story is no different in other developing world like Africa.

3D printing can be leveraged to teach students about entrepreneurship by allowing them to create and market their own products. This can help students develop business skills and learn about marketing, sales, and product development. This can unleash the spirit of entrepreneurship in the country, leading to an economic revolution.

While emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, Internet of Things, quantum computing, extended reality, block chain, big data analytics, etc., can be leveraged to meet the SDGs in general, they can lead to a revolutionary transformation in the domain of education and skill development. With e-networking platforms and smart classrooms, it is possible to reach the remotest parts of the country with a common content and common teachers, leading to universal primary and secondary education. Even capacity building in the long run for the teachers in remote locations is also possible. With accessibility, it is also possible to cater to those who are specially challenged as well, thus ensuring inclusion. Gamification and other similar tools can address early childhood development and pre-primary education as well. With the task of skill development becoming relatively easier with these emerging technologies, it would be possible for the citizens to continuously upgrade their skills to remain in decent jobs. Since children are the future of the planet, they can be oriented toward sustainable development and global citizenship. Thus, emerging technologies can play a major role in meeting SDG-4, namely, Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.

All the facets of enhancement and value-add to education that have been explored would generate business opportunities, which would have substantial impact on ESGs too, resulting in transformation of society on the whole.

This article is authored by Vimal Wakhlu, Former Chairman & Managing Director, TCIL. Views expressed are personal.

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