Researching education innovation in India – and the rewards of the search

For our assignment, we were asked to research one of the innovations in educational technology described by Seeley Brown and Adler (2008), who described various initiatives which they saw as the beginning of a transformation of education – “…the emergence of new kinds of open participatory learning ecosystems…”.

Digital Study Hall

I selected Digital Study Hall (“DSH”), which was described as a project in India whereby classes from “model teachers” were recorded and then the recordings distributed via DVD to schools in poorer areas that cannot afford well-trained and experienced teachers. The recordings are then used as the basis of classes. This intrigued me for a number of reasons. It seemed like an amazingly simple idea that could have a big impact and it has relevance to a question I frequently ponder – why we are so wedded to live classes and lectures as the dominant form of instruction when there are so many alternatives available? (This will probably surface in a future blog post.)

To research this, my first stop was, of course Google. This turned up the DSH’s own website, which provided some interesting background, and a documentary on YouTube (Digital StudyHall Short Documentary, 2007) which, as so often, brought the topic to life by interviews with those involved. However, I could not help feeling it must be simplifying a little in describing the recordings being made in smart, urban private schools that are then used to train teachers in poorer areas. There will be some complex social, cultural and pedagogical issues underlying the situation. But perhaps this video is not the place to explore them.

I felt I should supplement this with something more academic, and fortunately the DSH site had a link to an academic paper evaluating the programme (Sahni et al, 2008). This was a thorough and interesting paper, pointing out that most research on education is conducted is conducted by academics in the developed world and therefore reflects their context. DSH, while it has many Western funders, is a project within India, using Indian teaching expertise. Particular local features include dependence on DVDs rather than live streaming, as internet connections in many parts of India are poor. The emphasis on video is also not an accident in a country where adult literacy rates are only 60%.

The authors had the luxury, rare in educational research, of analysing a specific intervention and comparing it to a control group. They analysed changes in test scores in English and Maths at three schools participating in the programme, compared with a school not participating (but planned for future inclusion). The results showed an improvement of 174% in average test scores over six months following the introduction of the programme, with scores compared to the comparison site being 380% higher in English and 297% higher in maths. Clearly, test scores are not everything and this is a smallish sample, but something is obviously working here. Qualitative data also showed that the videos brought about a change in teaching patterns, with increased student participation over time.

There are clear benefits shown, and perhaps one of the key lessons to take away is that, where standards of education are poorest, the application of even quite simple technologies can bring huge benefits. We have very significant marginal gains here, as the economists would say.

Models of educational innovation

You should never rely on just one source, so I searched the online library for any other references to DSH. There wasn’t much, but I found a short article referring to the project (Martinez, 2011) in the context of a recent report published by Cisco. This was an interesting lead so I used Google to locate the report itself – “Learning From the Extremes” by Leadbetter and Wong (2010). Mr Leadbetter is a well-known writer and consultant, rather than an academic and the paper is interesting, though not especially academically rigorous, relying very much on anecdotes to make its points. The focus of the report is a matrix of the type so popular with academics and consultants, identifying four types of innovation needed within education:


Fig 1: Innovation Grid (source Leadbetter and Wong, 2010)

The authors discuss examples of all four types of innovation but, like many others before them, note the difficulties in reforming current models of education:

“It is extremely difficult to shift schools – and even more difficult to shift entire school systems – toward radical and disruptive innovation to create new kinds of school. Parents are easily worried about standards dropping and the impact on children.”

They see final category – transformational innovation – as the most interesting. Slightly bizarrely, they put DSH into this category. It seems to me that DSH operates very much within the current schooling system and really falls in to the “improve” box. However, they see it as a precursor to what might be achieved as video communication becomes cheaper and easier. The authors conclude by calling for more application of social entrepreneurship to education.

TED talk – innovation in the slums

Finally and in the interests of mixing up my sources, I watched Charles Leadbetter’s TED talk – “Educational innovation in the slums”, which had also come up in my Google search. Here, I feel, I struck gold. The talk is fascinating and I highly recommend it. Mr Leadbetter is an engaging presenter and, while he covered some of the same ground as the paper, his argument became, to me at any rate, much clearer. The argument I found most interesting went something like this – we face many challenges in Western education. How do we motivate people (especially children) to learn? How do we make learning engaging? How do we equip children for a world that is changing so fast? How do we scale up an education model without it becoming prohibitively expensive? Our current educational model, inherited from the 19th century social reformers, has many strengths but does not deal with these issues particularly well.

However, in the developing world, these issues are not just matters for concern, they are urgent and critical issues. Children in Brazilian slums who aren’t interested in school have an alternative in drug dealing. Many will not be interested in education that will give them a qualification in ten years – they need something that will help them earn a living now. A school system that depends on a well-trained teacher per thirty or fewer students is completely unfeasible in India or China. Faced with these challenges, enterprising people in the developing have come up with fascinating and creative alternatives to our traditional school systems. They are using games, dancing, music and crafts to teach, not as an optional extra you can do once your “serious study” is done. They are focusing on skills that are immediately productive and experimenting with different models that can scale up education at low cost.

We need to learn from such entrepreneurs, and perhaps have the humility to apply some of their lessons back home.


Digital StudyHall Short Documentary (2007), YouTube video, added by P. Javid [online]. Available at (accessed 6 February 2013).

Educational innovation in the slums (2010), YouTube video, added by TEDtalksDirector [online]. Available at (accessed 8 February 2013).

Leadbetter, C. & Wong, A (2010) ‘Learning from the Extremes’, Cisco Systems, Inc. Available at (accessed 7 February 2013).

Martinez, M. (2011) ‘Underdeveloped World Taps Technology for Learning’, Phi Delta Kappan, vol. 92, issue 7, pp. 70-71.

Sahni, U., Gupta, R., Hull, G., Javid, P. Setia, T., Toyama, K., Wang, R.. (2008) Using Digital Video in Rural Indian Schools: A Study of Teacher Development and Student Achievement. Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association. New York City, March 2008.

Seely Brown, J. and Adler, R. (2008) ‘Minds on fire: open education, the long tail and learning 2.0’, EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 43, no. 1, pp. 16–32; also available online at (accessed 6 February 2013).



Filed under H817 Openness and innovation in elearning

5 responses to “Researching education innovation in India – and the rewards of the search

  1. I enjoyed reading about this initiative and some great links as well to follow up.

  2. Kay

    Hi Daniel,
    I have to say I was a bit tempted by this project as well:) I think that bringing real education to poor and underprivileged is really something we may be able to call transformative if it works! I think that rather than the classroom video, or free MOOC offerings via Coursera, it is the mobile technology which may make the real difference for education in such areas, as it is already doing for e.g. farming in Africa

    • Thanks Kay – there are undoubtedly huge potential rewards here. I think it is also fair to say, though, that delivering anything other than very basic education via mobile phones is still a work in progress…

  3. Pingback: Evidence-based decisions in management and e-learning | learningshrew

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