Foundational Literacy and Numeracy (FLN) in India is still in crisis despite significant improvements in student enrollment and retention in elementary schools. Only about 20% of rural students in class 3 can read texts intended for grade 2, according to the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2022. Similarly, less than one-third of class 3 children demonstrate knowledge of subtraction or division and are yet to master math skills taught in lower grades.
Large-scale assessments (LSAs) such as ASER help to diagnose the learning deficiencies of students. Regular, timely, and effective LSAs can significantly contribute to resolving the ongoing learning crisis by guiding policy through data-driven decision-making. LSAs are crucial policy instruments that deepen pedagogy practice and improve governance. However, the sheer size of the Indian primary education system, with 75 million students enrolled in elementary grades 1 through 3, prevents high-frequency, high-quality, large-scale assessments from taking place due to time and cost considerations.
A big challenge in conducting large-scale assessments is digitising the massive volume of data. Many assessments are still done on paper, and student records and answers need to be digitised for analysis. For many LSAs, data entry workers manually input the assessment results into a spreadsheet format. The reliance on a labour-intensive, error-prone manual data capture process, or rekeying, poses a risk to the conduct of regular and high-quality assessments, as valuable time is lost in this massive exercise.
The Sunbird Saral reference application, developed per the openness and interoperability principles of the National Digital Education Architecture (NDEAR), addresses the concern of inefficient data collection. Data in physical formats can be instantly converted to digital form using Saral, a digital public good (DPG). It is capable of recognising handwritten numbers using advanced optical character recognition (OCR) technology. In 2022, nearly 6 lakh instructors in Uttar Pradesh adopted the Saral mobile app, which was created using Sunbird Saral, to instantly digitise the handwritten formative assessment data for more than 1.4 crore students. Similar digital solutions built on top of Saral, were deployed in Gujarat, Assam, Odisha and Jharkhand. Using Saral’s streamlined procedure, data collection in these states was finished within one day instead of 3 to 4 months with manual data capture.
Through exploring the use cases of Sunbird Saral and examining how it can be used in conjunction with complementary DPGs, we hypothesise how it can improve foundational learning outcomes in students. In addition to speed and accuracy, Saral’s automated data collection can provide further advantages. Interoperability between Saral and other NDEAR building blocks unlocks additional functionalities such as analytics, dissemination of insights, and targeted remedial instruction. This can empower teachers, parents, school administrators and educational policymakers to access and use assessment data to improve foundational learning.
Saral, being a DPG, is at a relatively early stage of development and adoption. Philanthropy can significantly contribute in removing operational hurdles and lowering the cost of implementing DPGs like Saral. We identify three key areas where philanthropic organisations can focus their efforts to support the wider and faster deployment of these digital commons. We elaborate on how donor capital can foster dialogue around innovation in DPGs, forge strategic partnerships to integrate DPGs like Saral within educational interventions and provide support for capacity building to accelerate the reach of Saral and other NDEAR-compliant ed-tech tools.
Authors: Parul Gupta, Abhishek Modi, Shruti Mehta