When a census revealed earlier this year that more people in India had access to a mobile phone than to a toilet, commentators lined up to argue that the rapid advance of technology was failing to improve basic living conditions for the poorest. Now mobile technology, cloud computing, tablets and other handheld devices are being offered as the means to raise standards in the classroom.
A panel at the World Economic Forum in Delhi this month chaired by Gordon Brown, formerly prime minister of the UK and now UN Special Envoy for Global Education, explored technological innovations "redefining education" in India. "There's huge interest on the part of the government in how innovative solutions can be applied everywhere," Mr Brown said. "There's a new willingness to hear."
Naresh Gupta, managing director of Adobe India, said his company was planning to tackle the lack of well-trained teachers in India using e-learning. "With the development of technology we can have a few star teachers training a large number of people all over the country," Mr Gupta said.
The ratio of teachers to pupils in the country is by law supposed to be no more than 1:40 but in some cases is almost three times that. Teachers are often taken out of the classroom to carry out other jobs such as data collection for the census, and teacher absenteeism is rife.
Magnora, a Swedish conglomerate that runs schools geared towards personalised, wi-fi-enabled learning, is set to open a school next year in Gurgaon on the outskirts of Delhi. Students at the new school will have access to a web portal containing all the courses, projects, texts, links and tests they require for the term. "In the future everyone, more or less, will have access to information from a handheld device, so it changes the role of the teacher," said Peje Emilsson, Magnora's chairman.
Pearson, owner of the Edexcel exam board, has just launched the MX Touch, a tablet-based computer designed for use in India's schools. Nearly 8 million Indian classrooms are already digitised, according to Max Gabriel, senior vice-president and chief technical officer for Pearson in India and Africa.
In Uttarakhand, meanwhile, the government has introduced a scheme to give poor pupils free computer training. The school drop-out rate in the northern state has dropped from 15 per cent in 2000 to 0.31 per cent in 2010.
But while internet use may be spreading, in 2011 more than half of schools lacked a usable separate toilet for girls, contributing to their high drop-out rate. Until basic infrastructure is in place, it will be difficult for technology to reach those it is intended to benefit.