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Published on: March 30, 2022, 2:20 p.m.
Building pathways
  • Through Project DAISY, the Cognizant Foundation supports and empowers visually challenged students

By Rajashree Natarajan. The author is CEO, Cognizant Foundation

Quality and holistic education is essentially a journey towards inclusion, encompassing the learning paradigms of self-reliance, inter-dependence, and universal inclusion. As a first step, education should focus on imparting skills required to perform tasks essential for independent living, including language skills necessary for life-long learning. Moving from learning to being self-reliant to appreciating the interdependence of people in the community and environment around us is the next big step in learning. 

The processes of education should focus on building the necessary skills to observe, listen, interact, reflect, communicate, support, and collaborate with people around us to create a sustainable, better world for ourselves. It is essential to nurture the fundamental human values and skills for critical thinking in every individual, helping them choose the right path, discriminating the right and wrong, and blossoming as a lifelong learner. Quality education not just helps an individual lead a well-balanced and happy life but strives to bring equity to all, enabling us to build an inclusive and sustainable society. 

Education should empower every individual to journey through the paradigms of

• Becoming self-reliant individuals

• Bolstering diversity and inter-dependence within communities 

• Blending into a universally inclusive society

Although many educational institutes worldwide start with a lofty vision and broad objectives to impart holistic and inclusive education, over time, owing to several constraints, the focus narrows to a few tactical outcomes such as increasing student enrolment year-over-year and achieving academic results. 

Against the backdrop of the pandemic, the National Education Policy of India 2020 was released with a strong focus to bring a paradigm shift in the Indian Education system. The focus is on holistic and multidisciplinary education that provides equitable and inclusive learning for all, with active community participation and technology integration.

Education in India is catered by government and private institutes, each with distinct objectives and priorities. The private education sector remains highly fragmented and is primarily run by private trusts, societies, and local management committees. The sector also attracts philanthropic grants and private investment for building digital infrastructure, complementing the Government efforts on ICT in education such as DIKSHA and SWAYAM. 

It is essential to recognise the critical role played by teachers across government and private schools embracing the change to online education, equipping themselves with necessary technical skills to ensure learning continuity during school closures. Numerous CSR projects in India strongly focus on the education sector. They have played their part in supporting teachers, educating parents, and complementing government efforts to make learning possible through multiple channels. 

It is heartening to note that education remained a priority area for many corporates as part of their CSR programmes, despite additional spending in Covid relief and impact on their business. Corporate volunteers complemented the well-meaning efforts by NGOs and teachers to train teachers to use technology effectively and help them in content creation. 

While these technology-led innovations offer numerous and diverse learning possibilities, the pandemic has exposed the startling disparities in access to education through digital mediums across different strata of society. Online education was a distant dream for more than three-fourths of this population due to lack of access to digital devices and internet connectivity when the pandemic impacted about 247 million children from primary and secondary schools. Children with disabilities are even more severely affected due to their lack of access to learning resources and stimulating early childhood activities during the pandemic, as highlighted in the UNICEF report – ‘Children with Disabilities – Ensuring inclusion in Covid-19 response’. 

A White Paper on India’s National Education Policy and Disability Inclusive Education, published by the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People, points out the challenges in disability-inclusive education and highlights opportunities for transformative action. This report underlines the low enrolment of students with disabilities in schools and, in particular girls with disabilities and a very sharp decline in enrolment of students with disabilities in higher education.

The State of the Education Report for India 2021, ‘No Teacher, No Class’ published by UNESCO highlights the shortages of teachers in early childhood education, special education, physical education, music, arts, and vocational education. The report also highlights how vulnerable they are in terms of job security and working conditions that are critical for achieving the goals for inclusive education. 

  • Ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education cannot be achieved without the active participation of private enterprises, NGOs, and civil society

At Cognizant Foundation, our initial projects in education focused on mainly strengthening the technology infrastructure and technology integration in the classroom with a special focus on making education content accessible for children with disabilities, specifically the visually impaired and hearing-impaired. Creating pathways for such inclusive development has been one of our key priorities at Cognizant Foundation, a theme cutting across our focus areas of education, healthcare, and livelihood. We learned from these pilots the following key factors to achieve the desired outcome and sustain it over a long period. 

• Contextualise education content to meet the learning requirements of children based on the nature of their disabilities. 

• Design systemic interventions that address specific gaps in the system, such as accessibility of STEM content for children with vision impairment.

• Support teachers using technology for their professional development and experiment with new pedagogies integrating ICT in the classroom to reform teaching-learning processes.

• Nurture the culture of peer learning and mentoring within a ‘community of learning’.

Over the years, we sharpened our focus on capacity building for inclusive education as part of our Foundation’s efforts. Our project to support students pursuing BEd Special Education with scholarship meets a critical requirement in the education sector for increasing the pool of special education teachers. With a focus on strengthening teacher education for inclusive education, we have partnered with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences to develop Open Educational Resources for inclusive education, contributing to certificate courses and developing a masters’ level specialisation in inclusive education. 

One of the other critical components of our flagship programme is for supporting trajectories of inclusion in higher education through scholarships for undergraduate degrees and employability training for visually impaired students. We have partnered with Enable India to develop a cloud-based open learning platform to enable visually impaired users to learn computers independently, with very little or no help. We have also partnered with Madras Dyslexia Association to set up resource rooms in schools and train teachers to support children with dyslexia. 

Persons with disabilities often remain socially excluded and are often limited by educational and economic opportunities. Ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education cannot be achieved without the active participation of private enterprises, NGOs, and civil society. The various experiments conducted by corporates as part of their CSR projects have brought out many innovations in education, which is a healthy trend that could accelerate the cause of inclusive, multidisciplinary learning. 

Many technological innovations have sprouted to deliver quality content through various channels such as mobile phones, community radio, television broadcasts blending them with door delivery of physical learning aids and worksheets during the pandemic. These innovations need to be systemically evaluated, adapted, and scaled up, focusing on inclusion and early childhood interventions, ensuring no child is left behind. 

The education financing from corporates needs to be coordinated with adequate community participation aligning with extensive government efforts to create a significant and sustainable impact. We need a framework for good governance, empowering teachers, and efficient use of resources across educational institutes run by Central, state, local government bodies and private institutions as envisaged in the new education policy. 

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