Our panel discussion on stage was sparkling, and we were all agreed that education is about lighting a flame and building character. As we stepped down from the stage and gathered around our table, friends now, we started sharing. We were now not just educators, but mothers. And we agreed, very quickly, that for our children, between high school and entrance examinations, marks and performance were paramount. We were trapped in the same dichotomy as everyone else, where we realise that life may have to be put on pause for examinations.
In a nation obsessed with tests and certification, it is easy to find oneself in a bind where the progressive conversation amongst parents and educators alike asks to rise above the din. Marks don’t matter, and examinations need to be redesigned for meaning and mastery, we all agree. At the same time, we realise that in a large nation, growing larger, the only way to differentiate ourselves is to out do others in competitions and tests. Testing is the most fair way to select those of us who can survive the path ahead, from those of us who would struggle. Much of testing and rote learning gets push back from educators because it seems to come at the cost of true learning. In the hands of poor design, immense competitive pressure, or mediocre teaching there is a real danger of test-centric education doing some real damage.
Testing for learning, however, is a constructive use of the tool, as is testing for diagnostic assessment of student potential or teacher quality. While most testing is originally designed to test the teacher and the school, and enable them to identify where to teach better, the pressure of the test eventually falls on the students. Even in the huge and large competitive test preparation market, the intent is to help the student identify their potential and select their career path, but in reality it ends up being a series of crammers and tests to enter coaching, which in turn trains for the test to enter the learning institution, which again is test driven. This is about four to six years of test preparation for major competitive examinations. For the students, this may be learning for mastery, or this may be learning for memory, but it is indeed learning by stress.
For the test prep market, this is clearly an opportunity. This is an estimated INR 40 bn market that is estimated to grow in line with the Indian demographic dividend. Both the industry and the pressure will inevitably grow if the focus remains test centric, as it currently is, rather than move to becoming more student centric. It is surprisingly rare to find a student centric product in the edu-tech space, most of them focus on clever tech rather than student solutions, especially in the test prep space.
Diagnostic tools are rare at school, though EI does offer similar at school levels, across subjects. Tutors often develop these skills that help their students focus their remedial efforts, but these are not always easy to access for every student, especially in these days of mass coaching. Mass customisation is possible only with online test prep tools and we have seen a plethora of them in the market in recent years. So when Pearson invited me to collaborate on the launch of their new direct to consumer test prep tool, skepticism and conditionalities preceded the demonstration, though old associations made me curious too. I used to do some Instructional Design work with them in London way back in 2008. I wanted to see how learning online had progressed in that company in a decade. I remember the attention to detail, the precision and the shift to accessibility. The move within India to directly reach students made a lot of sense to me, as did the approach via troubleshooting for high stress exam preparation. Address the pain point with quality content.
It is a step forward in the right direction as the student gets evidence to pin point the areas that need remedial work. The trend towards this in the test prep market is to be lauded, though one wonders about what differentiates one from the other. Quality can only be seen in the choice and design of the question, and the nature of the remedial feedback – better design leads to better student efficacy. The aim of the platform, aptly named My Insights, it is about giving the students specific revision requirements rather than looping all the way around to re-doing the entire topic. A supplementary testing tool, it does not over-reach and interfere with the student’s learning rhythm – they can carry on with their regular training schedule and do better, they can test to see if it is keeping them on track. Anything that reduces the stress and load of a student studying for these behemoth examinations gets my support, as does the targeted approach here.