The challenge of delivering quality education at scale
Saul Nasse’, Group Chief Executive, Cambridge Assessment, and Peter Phillips, Chief Executive, Cambridge University Press, speak to Atul Krishna on digital education, India’s system of rote learning, and their future plans in the country.
Q. What is the purpose of your official visit to India?
Saul: We are here because we are already big in India. In terms of Cambridge, we have got content and assessments that work right across the education system but we think there is a much bigger opportunity for us to have an impact on education in India. So we are meeting schools, partners and governments across the piece to have ideas on what we could do to make more impact here.
Q. More and more Indians are gaining access to the internet recently. Has that factored into any of your plans?
Peter: We have become hugely digital over the last several years. In five to six years we have gone from a 15% turnover in digital to 43% in the last year. So it is a central part of everything we offer and clearly, the teachers and students in India have increasing amounts of access to digital platforms. Obviously, internet access in the cities is larger than it is in rural areas. So one of the things for us in thinking of digital India is recognizing the huge diversity across India, not only in infrastructure but also in the teacher’s readiness to be able to use the tools.
Saul: What we are always interested in Cambridge is on what really works for learners. One thing we do uniquely at Cambridge is focussing both on the content and the assessments. We have a very long history in doing both of those things well and that means that you could look at a particular piece of content or a particular piece of teaching in terms of the impact of the learning. That is the concern in an age where everyone is talking about digital. People get excited about new apps but if it doesn’t work or if it doesn’t help people learn then it’s just a gimmick. We know that good textbooks make a difference. We know that the fantastic quality of teaching makes a real difference. We know that finding a way of measuring people’s progress as they go through their learning enhances their progress. Digital will be a big part of education but you’re never going to replace a good teacher, you’re never going to replace a good book.
Q. How do you plan to cater to the rural areas?
Peter: I think in rural areas often the biggest challenge for education is not about internet access. It’s about the availability of enough well-trained teachers to be able to help their students. I think in many countries around the world we see evidence of teacher shortages. One of the things that we are looking to is helping teachers develop a broader range of skills and help them be effective. Because as Saul said ultimately good teachers are critical to the effective working of the system wherever.
Q. Do you plan to partner with local governments, corporates or any such entities in India?
Saul: One company that we are visiting on this trip is Tata Consultancy Service (TCS), they have an organisation called iON that delivers tests for institutions like IITs across India. We partnered with them for our Business English exam which is now available digitally in all their centres. So suddenly we have an ability to deliver that at scale right across the country. The challenge with India is how to deliver something with scale and that’s why thinking about who our partners might be is important because we have the expertise and the people we partner with can help make things quicker.
Q. The Indian system of education has an inclination towards rote learning and tests while many systems abroad put more onus on class participation and research. Do you think that is a hurdle that India has to overcome?
Saul: I think good systems blend techniques. So there are places that have almost taken knowledge out of the curriculum and made it all about the skills and we know that doesn’t work. If you go completely the other way, then all it is just memorizing and regurgitating information. That isn’t the right way either. What we always try to do with our curriculum and the way we test is bringing forth that breadth. A really good test is one that encourages and embeds good learning. If you have a lousy test then what teachers will do is teach to the test and then the student hasn’t really learned. So we have an approach called the learning oriented assessment that genuinely tests what people have learned but it’s also an assessment that creates a framework that means the students and the teachers would be learning in the best way possible.
Peter: I think in a country as large as India, it is not possible to talk about one educational approach, there are many many different styles of teaching, different styles of schools. I think it’s too easy to oversimplify by saying this is the Indian approach, or the Chinese approach or the British approach when in reality in a country as large as this there are many different approaches.
Q. Moving forward, what changes can we expect in the Cambridge Assessment?
Saul: A big focus is on making the assessments more available digitally. So IELTS is our big test for English, and India is the biggest with a million tests taken every year. We are shifting that test to be available on digital platforms. So at the moment, it is on paper in big hotel halls. We are actually changing that so that we’ll have a network of centres available across the country so that people can turn up and take the tests on any day of the week and get the results much more quickly. It’s the same test. It’s as easy or hard as it has always been but it’s now much more convenient. On the other side, we’re launching a test called Linguaskill which is not the super high stakes test like IELTS, it’s more for use in institutions and that’s completely digital in that all of the markings are done by a computer. So we use Artificial Intelligence to find a way of marking people’s writing and speaking where we have worked with academics from the computer department in the university to develop that and we are getting an accuracy that is better than human so that is a really interesting development.