By Nivedita Krishna
Technology in education has pervaded both private and public education initiatives. A recent ed-tech initiative in the public domain is Delhi’s virtual school, launched via an online platform for students of grades 9-12. The COVID-19 pandemic catalysed the trend of using technology to make education accessible. The National Education Technology Forum (NETF), formed under the guidance of the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020, provided a framework for adopting technology in education. But learning in the online mode comes with several risks that are not envisaged under the current frameworks of law and policy. India immediately needs an ed-tech policy to protect the privacy and safety of children at the centre of ed-tech services and to ensure the adoption of minimum standards of teaching and learning via ed-tech tools.
Risks that Accompany Ed-tech
Currently, there are no guidelines for the minimum teaching standards and content quality used in ed-tech services. Ed-tech companies design courses with a business-centric rather than a pedagogy-centric approach. Very little research has been done in India about whether ed-tech programs result in effective student learning outcomes and the conditions under which ed-tech succeeds as a teaching-learning tool. But the demand from parents to enrol their children in courses offered in the ed-tech mode is burgeoning. Celebrity endorsements and false and misleading advertisements further influence parents’ decision to enrol their children in ed-tech courses. Philanthropies such as Central Square Foundation and Teach for India are also increasingly adopting technology-based interventions such as mobile phones and remote learning to strengthen their education programs. This means that access to ed-tech avenues is increasing. Though the penetration of ed tech is only about 10% currently, this number is set to increase.
Ed-tech companies also use aggressive sales and marketing tactics to recruit participants and gain enrolments. Since ed-tech solutions are priced highly, financing options are introduced as a “solution” that traps gullible consumers into long-term loans. The Consumer Protection Rules under the Consumer Protection Act envisage that e-commerce providers (1) notify a nodal officer, (2) provide for a grievance redressal mechanism, and (3) share accurate product/service information. This grievance redressal mechanism has been set up in several instances and boasts high-resolution rates. But, the decisions of the internal grievance redressal mechanism set up by the ed-tech companies to resolve consumer complaints are often biased and not impartial. Jurisdictional Consumer Protection Forums are the only impartial redressal forum currently available for customers to resolve their complaints pertaining to ed-tech services. In a recent order, the Karnataka Consumer Forum imposed a heavy fine on Byju’s for service deficiency.
Lastly, the question of how safe children are online is a concern that is not sufficiently allayed by current laws and policies. Extensive personal and sensitive information of children who are the end-users of the ed-tech services is collected by the ed-tech companies to allow for customisable services. The personal data collected are often outsourced to third parties for data analytics. Today, data also carries a high commercial value. This increases the risk of exploiting the data that belongs to minors. In the absence of a data privacy law in India, unlike the Global Data Protection Regulation of the European Union or the Children’s Online Privacy Protect Act of the United States, the risk of our children becoming susceptible to data profiling, cyber-bullying and other such cyber-crimes remains unmitigated.
India’s Steps to Mitigate Risks From Ed-Tech
During the pandemic, when school education when online, the government issued an advisory to citizens as a word of caution against ed-tech companies. The advisory provides a set of do’s and don’ts for parents, students and all stakeholders in the school education to follow. The advisory cautions them to take certain precautions while opting for online content and coaching provided by ed-tech companies. This approach burdens the consumers to remain vigilant and cautious (caveat emptor approach) rather than setting norms and safety standards.
Way Forward for India’s Ed-tech Policy
Since India does not have a robust data privacy law yet, we need an ed-tech policy that sets standards for teachers, curriculum and safety of children using ed-tech interventions. The policy should also provide adequate safeguards to protect the right to privacy of children and their data. The policy should also provide consumers with a fair and accessible grievance redressal mechanism. It is imperative that the ed-tech policy takes an inclusive and equitable approach towards the rights of children with disability. The policy must also prioritise promoting research initiatives on the impact of ed-tech interventions in diverse settings. Such a policy will allow the technology-based interventions to improve learning levels safely and systematically while also adding ed-tech unicorns to the league.