The National Digital Education Architecture: An explainer

In our latest explainer, we look at the National Digital Education Architecture, detailing what this policy entails and exploring its legislative and policy origins. We also explore issues of a lack of internet access, low digital literacy, and an inadequate consent framework.

01 December, 2021
7 min read

tl;dr

In our latest explainer, we look at the National Digital Education Architecture that was introduced earlier this year. Here, we detail what this policy entails and explore its legislative and policy origins. We also discuss what people have been saying about the architecture and explore issues of a lack of internet access, low digital literacy, and an inadequate consent framework.

What is NDEAR?

The National Digital Education Architecture (NDEAR) is an architectural blueprint that aims to facilitate achieving the goals laid out in the National Education Policy, 2020 through a unified digital infrastructure in the education ecosystem. Simply put, the document states that under the NDEAR framework, the government will play the role of an enabler by providing a framework in which technology can be built by the government, society or market actors. Any NDEAR compliant technology will be able to interact with each other (for example, an educational app made using the NDEAR will easily interact with a particular school’s own digital ecosystem).

NDEAR follows the National Open Digital Ecosystem (NODE) strategy which can be best explained through an analogy - in the physical infrastructure of a city, it is the responsibility of the government to build roads, parks, public transport etc., which form the public ‘commons’, and it is only above this ‘platform’ that public and private actors can build other things. Similarly, the NODE approach aims to create a ‘Digital Commons’ using open software, open Application Programming Interfaces (APIs), open standards, open licences etc., while enabling interoperability so that these platforms can interact with each other; and public and private actors can build solutions on top of this platform.

NDEAR will provide:

  • Specification and Standards: A set of interoperable standards and specifications which allows interoperability and portability across all systems.
  • Microservices & APIs: A set of unbundled services deployed in a federated manner and available via APIs, which can be used by the ecosystem to build and innovate solutions to address the diversity and scale.
  • Reference Solutions: A set of reference solutions and apps that can be deployed in a federated manner and used freely out of the box by students, teachers, parents, administrators, and community members.

What are its legislative and policy origins?

Document Provisions
National Open Digital Ecosystem (NODE) White Paper released by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY). NODE can be defined as “open and secure delivery platforms, anchored by transparent governance mechanisms, which enable a community of partners to unlock innovative solutions, to transform societal outcomes”. The White Paper notes that “...sectors such as education… hold immense potential to transition to NODEs”.
National Education Policy, 2020 The NEP, 2020 in Para 24.4 observes that “there is a need to invest in creation of open, interoperable, evolvable, public digital infrastructure in the education sector that can be used by multiple platforms and point solutions, to solve for India’s scale, diversity, complexity and device penetration. This will ensure that the technology-based solutions do not become outdated with the rapid advances in technology.” The policy also recommended building a dedicated unit for building digital infrastructure by the Ministry of Education which would consist of experts drawn from the field of administration, education, educational technology, digital pedagogy and assessment, e-governance, etc.
India Enterprise Network (IndEA) by MeitY. The design of the building blocks of NDEAR will adopt and conform to IndEA by default. IndEA provides a generic framework, (based on The Open Group Architecture Framework -TOGAF) consisting of a set of architecture reference models, which can be converted into a Whole-of-Government Architecture for India, Ministries, States, Govt. Agencies etc. The IndEA framework is based on a federated architecture approach and recognizes the need to accommodate both new and existing / legacy eGovernance initiatives.

What are the proposed benefits?

India’s education ecosystem is large and diverse with varying degrees of access and quality.  NDEAR aims to provide a unifying framework or infrastructure for achieving the goals stated in NEP 2020 which will supposedly enable innovation in the ecosystem that can address the needs of all students and teachers including atypical, special or marginalized students and teachers. NDEAR will enable:

  • access and choice of diverse educational content and practice content for all students across languages and geographical areas;
  • access to educational services such as scholarships, fee payment, obtaining certificates etc. online;
  • portability of educational services and data;
  • students and teachers to create content and flexible and personalized learning services with digital credentials and feedback in various languages, formats and pedagogies.

It will also enhance governance and administration by:

  • creating interoperable systems;
  • enhancing capacities of teachers, administrators and students in using technology;
  • create efficient administrative tools for education administrators;
  • promote cooperative federalism by creating a decentralized and open architecture;
  • allow upgradation and consolidation of various applications as when each state board or administrative units wishes.

What is the public saying about this?

The Ministry of Education has claimed that NDEAR will eradicate inequality in education and play an important role in modernizing it by providing a diverse education ecosystem architecture for development of digital infrastructure, which is federated and interoperable to ensure autonomy of all stakeholders, especially states and union territories.

Others have argued that the biggest roadblock in the way of NDEAR is India’s gaping digital divide, which will not be easily bridged. Digital governance methods, combined with low quality infrastructure can also lead to exclusion of vast swathes of the population given the low levels of digital literacy that persist across the country. Further, NDEAR is based on the NODE approach, which was criticised by Dvara Research on the grounds of lack of transparency and accountability, as private entities which are not publicly accountable can now build delivery platforms for various services. This can lead to negative outcomes as private actors work on a profit motive which may go against the social welfare motives of the government, and that can lead to either low quality infrastructure or prohibitively expensive services.

What are the issues with NDEAR?

As stated above, the digital divide that exists across the country is a big barrier to the adoption of digital technology as the main method for imparting education. At the first level, there is a structural lack of both infrastructure and capacity, as can be seen from the latest data from the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India: as of 30th September, 2021, overall teledensity is 86.69%, while rural teledensity is even lower 59.33%. Meanwhile, while the number of rural internet subscribers may have increased to 33.69 crore as of June 2021, the internet penetration rate (number of subscribers per 100 persons) in rural areas is 37.74%, which is approximately one-third that of urban areas (105.06%).

This is compounded by the low levels of digital literacy: a 2017-18 NSO survey found that only 18.4% of persons aged 15 and above were able to operate a computer, while only 22.9% were able to use the internet. Unfortunately, existing schemes for digital literacy have witnessed slow progress. For example, under the Pradhan Mantri Gramin Digital Saksharta Abhiyan (PMGDISHA), as of March 2021, only around 4.54 crore candidates were enrolled for digital literacy training and 2.71 crore candidates were certified.

The inadequacy of digital education to reach the children of India has been laid bare by the country’s experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, the fundamental issue of India’s ‘digital divide’ is multifaceted and eminently relevant for education, as has been shown by the substantially low levels of access to online education that has been witnessed over the last couple of months. As per the Annual Status of Education Report 2021 from Pratham, only in five states did more than half the enrolled children take part in online learning. Indeed, the all-India average for participation in online learning activities was a sobering 24.2%.

In such a situation, pushing through digitalisation without gearing the new technologies being implemented towards the genuine needs of the end users of said technologies - students, teachers, and parents - is unlikely to improve educational outcomes. Public and private schools in India suffer from poor physical infrastructure, and so it is unlikely that the same schools will suddenly be able to switch towards digital education.

Furthermore, “[d]igital education is not about videos of lectures on blackboards by teachers on the internet.” Our conversations with stakeholders have also revealed further issues: questions have been raised about whether teachers and students will genuinely be able to contribute to this. Stakeholders have pointed out that current ‘edtech’ consists mostly of technologies that weren’t initially designed for the education sector being repurposed for use in the classroom, rather than tools that have been crafted with the genuine needs of students and teachers in mind. Thus, without extensive consultations with students, teachers, and parents, new education specific technologies that are legitimately beneficial for students may not be deployed.

Lastly, while NDEAR does aim to use a consent oriented framework, this does not necessarily imply that citizens will be able to provide true informed consent. As we have pointed out in our comments on the Data Empowerment and Protection Architecture (DEPA), which is the foundation on which the NDEAR is built, without firm regulatory oversight and a citizen oriented policy, consent mechanism may at best fail to fulfill goals and at worst lead to significant amounts of data leakage. Unfortunately, the NDEAR policy document seems to rely on a  “Light but Tight Regulatory Framework”, which is likely to cause regulatory failure.

Our suggestions

In light of the above issues, we have the following recommendations:

  1. Need for consultation and discussion: The NDEAR framework will likely usher in massive changes to the Indian education system. To ensure that the digital technologies deployed are best suited to the needs of India’s children, the National Educational Technology Forum proposed by the NDEAR document must conduct large-scale consultation with students, teachers, educational institutions, and civil society organisations. Discussions must also be held on the optimal method for implementation of the NDEAR framework that takes into account the realities of the digital divide that exists in India, on the basis of which the National Educational Technology Forum must draw up a pan-India district-level plan for enhancing digital education.
  2. Implement guidelines for education data: While the NDEAR blueprint does specify the need to protect students’ data and uphold user privacy, the light touch regulation proposed by the framework may not be able to implement the same. Earlier, we have highlighted instances in which student data has been openly traded and sold. Thus, there is a firm need to implement robust security standards and protocols to ensure the safety of educational data.
  3. Increase spending on education: The New Education Policy, 2020 states that the “ Centre and the States will work together to increase the public investment in Education sector to reach 6% of GDP at the earliest.” However, current spending on education is only around 3%. Thus, the government must boost spending on education to meet the goals of the New Education Policy, 2020 and devote a large portion of this fresh expenditure towards the development of digital education infrastructure.

Important documents:

  1. National Digital Education Architecture reports and annexures (link)
  2. Previous blogpost titled "Securing Examination Data: No Child’s Play" dated 26.07.21 (link)
  3. Previosu blogpost titled "PrivacyOfThePeople - Why Student Data should be Students’ Data" dated 22.07.21 (link)

This blogpost has been authored by IFF intern Simrandeep Singh and reviewed by IFF staff.

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