7 keys to making the Indian education system more user-centered
Soumya Khedkar /
One of the biggest transformations that took place last year, because of the event-that-shall-not-be-named, was the education system. Over a billion students worldwide were, and still are unable to go to school or university, due to the imposed precautionary measures. Online learning has become the norm, and in most countries, schools are yet to open for the in-person classroom experience. While digital infrastructure has been a challenge in itself, the challenge of how schools need to rebuild post the pandemic brings up more questions than answers, especially in a country like India, where a user’s needs span class, caste and gender. While most approaches tend to look at digital-first learning and a holistic syllabus, a truly user centered-approach to education requires us to put the users and their needs front and center and ask questions about how we can make changes to the system without overwhelming it.
Define the Outcome
While the interests of the education system aren’t defined in the exact same way that interests in a corporate setting are, there are definitely several macro and micro business goals that exist. To identify them, we need to address the ‘why’ of education itself, and ‘why’ the changes are needed. From a macro-perspective, here are three areas (of many) of focus that need to be taken into consideration:
- Creating a holistic curriculum that enables students to do their best learning
- Ensuring that the system that allows students to seamlessly transition into a career path
- Allowing students to build emotional intelligence for both self-reliance and building communities.
Recommended Action: Digging deeper into each macro goal and identify the mini goal of education as a first step
Know thy User
- Students: At the center of the education system, of course, are students. Students of various age groups, socio-economic backgrounds, varied interests and a variety of motivations. When changes are made in education policy, these users and their interests are definitely prioritized. However, when we think of education as a larger system, we need to think of the actors that interact closely with students – especially teachers and parents.
- Teachers: Teachers are the vehicle through which the children learn, and in some ways they play the role of a UX designer themselves in their daily routines. Their role spans from user research – understanding the needs of every individual student – to user testing – testing out the changes in the curriculum design and using the insights to tailor their classroom methods. However, teachers are also largely users, since they are bound by a curriculum and a general approach to follow assigned by the schools or the board. Taking their needs, limitations and motivations into account makes a smooth-sailing ship.
- Parents: There needs to be a focus on parents too, because they are the decision-makers for the schooling system of most students. A majority of parents are willing to invest financially as well as personally to ensure their child’s success academically. An HSBC study in 2018 showed that almost a third of parents either have given up hobbies or leisure time to themselves in order to focus on their children’s education. The education system needs to be built in a way to alleviate parent anxiety – ensuring that they are involved with decision-making and not deeply involved in actual schooling.
UX Intervention: A detailed study of all three types of users, segmenting them by several variables like age, gender, socio-economic class and location, would be the first step in creating a user-centered approach.
Train the Trainers
Curriculums across the globe, whether in K-12 or higher education, tend to focus largely on an either/or approach. Either you focus on academic training or vocational training, with some extracurriculars sprinkled in. The National Education Policy (NEP) drafted in 2020 has called for a monumental shift in curriculum by combining the extracurricular, the academic and the vocational streams for students in primary and secondary education.
While the NEP’s approach is novel, something that was missing is how teachers will be trained to deliver the curriculum. Their understanding of the subject matter needs to be deeper than the students, since they are presenting it to them, and if there is an overhaul of the system, there needs to be a mindset shift for teachers themselves.
When building a training framework for teachers, some of the questions that need to be answered include:
- Can teachers understand and implement this curriculum?
- Do they have any existing concerns about this new approach to learning?
- Do they find it easy to use or learn to use technology?
- How can the system ensure that teachers are able to understand the subject matter in such depth that they can answer student queries easily?
- Do the teachers feel like the learning curve for them to understand the material is extremely steep?
- How does the system ensure that teachers and parents, especially who come from a traditional school of thought, understand the merits and demerits of an interdisciplinary education?
Decolonize the Curriculum
Building a balance between local and global approaches, through decolonizing the curriculum and ensuring students hear voices from around the world is something that aids students in becoming global citizens, while honoring local traditions. The NEP has encouraged an emphasis on regional languages in classrooms to Class 5 and pushed to understand our history by setting up an institute for translating and interpreting native languages like Pali, Prakrit and Persian. However, setting up a decolonized curriculum comes with its own set of complexities.
- What is the curriculum addressing and ignoring? Which perspectives are more dominant than others?
- How can the curriculum sensitively address matters like caste and religion, without offending communities or minimizing the importance of certain communities?
- What are the biases that teachers, students and parents would bring into the classroom and into a school?
- Does emphasizing on regional languages prevent students from interacting with people from different parts of the country?
- Would it also create a further gap between socio-economic classes, with people from more privileged backgrounds having the resources to learn global languages like English or French or Spanish and others not being able to do the same?
UX Intervention: Doing detailed user research and ‘competitor analyses could address some of these complexities. However, for a truly decolonized curriculum to work, the mindset while transforming it needs to be one of flexibility and openness to constant change.
Build emotional intelligence
Students don’t just go to school or college to gain an academic education. The social and emotional learning that accompanies it is a huge part of the academic environment, otherwise more students would opt for home-schooling. Emotional intelligence, as defined by Daniel Goleman, covers five key components – self-awareness, self-regulation, internal motivation, empathy and social skills. To build this into a system, knowing your users becomes more integral than ever, especially post-COVID, where motivation and social skills will be impacted intensely. For students, we need to understand –
- Are students sensitive to other people’s backgrounds and socio-economic experiences? How can we ensure that we build that for them?
- Is mental health an open conversation in the classroom, and are teachers sensitive to the emotional needs of the student?
- How does emotional intelligence learning differ across genders?
- Since physical education is proven to be a support for physical and emotional health, is that being sufficiently addressed without adding to the student’s academic pressure?
- Can we build in mindfulness training – either through meditation or through mindful activities into the system?
- Are teachers able to practice the mindfulness principles that students are taught?
Don’t make it all about “digital”
While in the covid-era, being digitally adaptable has been integral to the education system, the long-term focus on education should not be just about building digital infrastructure and keeping the learning experience completely digital. Digital learning can give flexibility, but takes away from real time social interaction (in the case of recorded lectures), increases screen time and in turn, cognitive load, and prevents students from building mindful habits in their daily lives. Moreover, digital learning at home tends to reinforce the digital divide and gender gap in low-income households in India, with girls being encouraged to help with household duties and being given less access to technology compared to male children in the house.
Ensure a smooth transition into the work force
The transition from an academic setting to the business world is not always easy for students. One of the big struggles that students face when starting out their careers is upskilling to be successful in a workplace, where stakes are higher and classroom grading is not important. In the way the current system functions, a large number of people end up working careers that are completely unrelated to their degrees. Moreover, there is also a strong disconnect between the career and the education even when the degree is theoretically connected.
- How do we create an optimal learning curve from higher education to the workforce, to ensure students are consistently challenged and motivated?
- How can the practical assignments in a classroom setting allow students to learn while not being too easy or too challenging?
- How do we emotionally prepare students to deal with the stresses of the workplace?
- Does the education system create space for innovation and future leaders?
- How can we use behavioral models and approaches used in businesses to build the soft skills that employers need in a workplace?
The last question can actually create a realm of possibilities for the education system, since organizational behavior is a field in which research has been consistently applied in practical contexts. One great example used often is Daniel Pink’s model for human motivation. He identifies that human motivation is largely intrinsic and that people are driven to jobs that allow them autonomy, the ability to work by themselves, mastery, the ability to dive deep into a subject and purpose, a broader goal to work towards. For a truly holistic, user-centered approach to the education system, the outcome comes back into focus – ensuring that students receive the social, emotional and intellectual learning capabilities in school so they can seamlessly integrate into the workplace.
While the NEP put a stake in the ground with a holistic approach to education, a more user-centered approach can definitely be used to make the system adapt to the changing times that we’re living in. If 2020 has taught us nothing else, dealing with unexpected changes require us to think on our feet, and with climate change and other issues on the rise, students need to be equipped with a global mindset and an interdisciplinary and curious approach to life.
Creative Schools, Sir Ken Robinson
The Element, Sir Ken Robinson
Lifelong Kindergarten, Mitchel Resnick
Drive, Daniel Pink
- National Education Policy, 2020