Technology in Education and Social Equilibrium in Developing Societies

Using technology, teachers may be able to learn innovative practices to teach specific concepts or subjects. The innovation of a few teachers can be disseminated quickly, and others can adopt these easily with the help of technology. Students can access and acquire additional learning materials.

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Online education during the ongoing pandemic has drawn public attention to the use of technology in education. A number of narratives1 highlight the negative impact of the digital divide.2 when information technology (IT) is used widely in education.3 That this divide is working against the efforts to provide school education to all, is well recognised. It is the poorer and marginalised social groups and, in certain cases, girls who are mostly deprived of education due to the digital divide. We got evidence of such a divide and deprivation from different parts of the world during COVID-19.4 Though the use of mobile phones has become widespread (even as some sections of children/​parents do not own mobile phones in countries like India), the functionality of mobile phones varies and only a small section may have smartphones.5 Even when people have phones, connectivity can be a problem. When TV broadcasting is used for educational purposes, its reach can also be limited due to several factors including the supply of electricity.6

Classroom discussions are important, and such discussions may take place only in a limited manner in online education.7 Those children who use online education may need additional academic support to clarify doubts, and such support may be difficult through remote teaching. Some children may need personal persuasion to open up and teachers may not be able to persuade them on an online forum. Additional academic support may not be a serious issue when parents are well educated and one or both of them can spare some substantial time with children. This may be possible for those who are employed in stable jobs. Children from families with less-educated parents may not receive adequate academic support at home. It may be difficult to ensure the attention of younger children in online education without the support of parents, but many parents may not be able to provide such support due to the nature of their employment or livelihood or even attitude. These factors are going to accelerate the inequality in education (and finally incomes) that is already acute in many societies.

There could be other negative impacts due to the lack of interaction among growing children in physical spaces. These may include certain behavioural issues, such as the absence of useful peer relationships, the lack of opportunities to interact with students from other social identities and internalising of useful norms, etc. However, there is another issue that is less discussed regarding the use of technology in education, especially in poorer and developing countries. That is the focus of this essay. The argument in the paper is that despite the problems of the digital divide, there is going to be excessive’ use of technology in education in countries like India, Kenya, etc., even after COVID-19 and that could lead to certain not-so-desirable outcomes. The mushrooming of education technology firms (including start-ups), and the interest of many investors to put their money in such firms are indications of this trend.8 Though some may see this as an indicator of tech-driven economic development, my argument is that it could be the reflection of the underdevelopment and socio-economic fragmentation that exist in these developing/​poorer societies.

Information Technology in education

The use of IT in education is not new, even in schools. Desktop computers became available widely in India and other developing countries in the mid-1980s. By the middle of that decade, a notable share of schools in the United States started using personal computers.9 If I look at the situation during the last 35 years, globally, the use of technology in education, in general (beyond technical education) has increased notably. Currently, teachers and students depend on online resources; there is enhanced use of technology to facilitate and organise teaching-learning processes, and there is a growing awareness of the possibility of tech-enabled education. Educationists argue that the maximum benefits occur when teachers are capable of using technology and understand how to integrate it into the curriculum. The data set available on the use of ICT (Information and Communication Technology) as part of the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) 2018, provides the following insights: Who is using the technology matters – technology in the hands of teachers is associated with higher scores than technology in the hands of students’; and a school system’s current performance level matters – in lower-performing school systems, technology is associated with worse results’.10 This shows the importance of strengthening the conventional education system with the use of technology, rather than the former getting replaced by the latter.

However, there could be a danger of an over-dependence on technology in education in India and other developing countries. This would be similar to the over-dependence on private schools in developing countries. For example, the dependence on private schools in India is much more than that in any developed society. Around 10 percent of students attend private schools in the United States, 6 percent in the United Kingdom, whereas the figure is nearly 40 percent in India and 25 percent in Kenya. This is the trend in many developing and poorer countries. The disenchantment with government schools is an important reason for this trend.

Many people may consider the privatisation’ of public services as a tool for institutional reforms. There is a similar argument with respect to schooling too.11 However, it may be noted that privatisation can be part of an inferior equilibrium or a default option. When governments fail to provide reasonable quality public services, those who can afford them may move to private provision. There is no surprise there if we look at services such as healthcare in India or other developing countries. Governments in different parts of the developed world play a major role in the provision of healthcare. On the other hand, the use of private healthcare in India is much higher compared to that in European countries.12 Even the poor in India, who are expected to be the beneficiaries of government-provided healthcare, depend on various kinds of private providers. Some of them are not qualified appropriately13 In that sense, privatisation of healthcare is more advanced’ in India. In summary, for goods and services which ideally require various levels of state intervention, people may depend on poor-quality and/​or higher-cost, but unregulated private providers. This can be called an inferior equilibrium’ in the provision of such services. It is a reflection of the underdevelopment of public services.

When public or collective action in education becomes difficult, those who can afford, go for the private provision of education services. The private provision can be either complementary to what is being provided by the government (which is considered inadequate by society) or a substitute for it. Private schools of different kinds, tuitions,14 coaching centres, etc., are part of this private provision. Private tuitions are expected to bridge the quality deficit in public education.

However, coaching centres serve an additional purpose. The demand-supply gap in good quality or sought-after higher education is very high. This is partly due to the inability of many public institutes to provide quality education and hence, only a few have a good/​better reputation. Hence, there is very stiff competition to get into these few reputed institutes. The marks or grades in schools cannot be used as part of the admission criteria due to the variations between school boards or the perception that these are not determined objectively’. There is fear of discrimination if saner ways of admission procedures, such as interviews to assess the comprehensive preparedness of students, are followed. Since most of these reputed colleges and institutes are owned by the government, it needs a transparent criterion to admit students. All these make entrance examinations crucial in the life of students.15 The higher demand for coaching centres is also due to the excessive demand for government jobs.

The coaching industry was worth US$40 billion in 201516 and might have reached a much higher level now. Preparing students to score well in entrance examinations is the main task of these coaching centres. The use of these centres has worsened the inequality in Indian higher education. Only those who can spend a substantial amount of money on coaching have access to reputed institutes and therefore, it makes education even in highly subsidised government institutes (especially the more reputed ones) inaccessible to those from poorer families. It is a major failure of the education system in India.

In summary, when there are not enough public investments and actions to provide quality education in a society, privatisation takes place without much planning. This governmental or public failure could be due to a number of factors and can manifest in different forms which include the lack of collective and governmental action to improve the quality of public schools, social fragmentation, middle-class withdrawing from public services, children from poorer families using government schools due to the lack of other options and so on. The availability of technology may strengthen this inferior private provision. This is discussed in the following section.

Possibility of over-dependence on technology

Technology may help the individualised and private provision of education. In this case, each student may deal with a private provider, and the service that they get is unaffected by the problems of collective action that is required to improve public education. Moreover, technology-based remote or online education can provide a higher level of flexibility, and it may become attractive to individuals with different requirements and endowments. It may encourage society to neglect or overlook some of the teething problems in public education. Technology may enable children to do most of the learning’ with the help of lessons downloaded through apps and they may go to school or college only if it is necessary to get a degree. The difficulty in improving the quality of face-to-face education due to structural factors may encourage a section of society to use technology as a substitute for classroom education.

This may be somewhat similar to another trend that is noted in Africa – mobile-based money transfer. One estimate in 2018, notes that two-thirds of total global mobile money transactions were driven by users in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), with values exceeding US$25 billion’,17 The use of this technology has benefits.18 However, we need to note that such a development has taken place in a particular context marked by a number of constraints. The development of financial organisations in a way to make these accessible to the majority of the population is somewhat slow in the continent. Such a development may require state intervention and economic development. These have not occurred in a number of African countries. However, there is an increasing demand for financial services. This is especially so among the migrants from these countries who need to transfer their remittances to members of their households. It is in this context that mobile-based transfer has become very popular there. It is good that new technology has enabled people to access a service that is in high demand. The cost of financial services also may have come down through the mobile transfer. However, it may work against the development of conventional financial organisations and the regulatory infrastructure which may be necessary to provide a variety of financial products and services.19The digital divide can reduce the coverage of mobile money transfers too.20

A similar development may happen in education too. Improving conventional education would mean addressing some major challenges. For example, despite the increase in access to schooling, the quality of education continues to be an issue in India and elsewhere. This could partly be due to the quality of teaching which may, in turn, depend on the quality of teacher education. There is recognition of the fact that teacher education in countries like India is in a state of disorder and requires major revamping.21 However, this may take a lot of time and resources, and will require changes at the institution level to yield positive results. Given these difficulties, people may focus on short-cut remedies. The use of education technology may be such a short-cut solution since parents/​students can access learning materials which are prepared and delivered in a centralised manner, rather than depending on millions of school teachers whose proficiency is varied due to the problems in teacher education.

It is recognised that developing/​poorer countries need to enhance the public resources allocated to education. For example, it is argued that India needs to spend 6 percent of its GDP on education.22 However, the allocation of this amount of public resources is not feasible currently given the needs in other domains such as healthcare and also the lower tax-GDP ratio. Hence, public education may remain underfunded in the near future. This may encourage privately funded education of various types. The use of education technology could be part of these privately funded solutions. Even if education technology is used in a complementary manner (and not as a substitute for school education), it can discourage society from making adequate investments to strengthen the public education system.

There are indications of an intensifying dependence on technology in education in currently. When private providers or companies see a business opportunity in education (as in this case due to the failure of public education), there could be a higher level of capital investments. Business papers note the following kind of developments about Edu-Tech in India: In India, EdTech is no longer a sunrise sector, but an industry whose moment has arrived with more than US$5 billion in private equity investments over the last five years. Two unicorns have already been created in this space with Byju’s being the most valuable unicorn out of India at a US$16.5 billion valuation and Unacademy’ also entering the elite billion-dollar club recently. There are more than 4,500 start-ups operating in the Edu-tech space in India currently, an industry that is projected to grow to $30 billion in the next ten years from the current market size of around $800 million.23 In fact, though COVID has decelerated economic activities in general, Edu-tech is seen as a winner.24

A major part of the capital investments in Edu-Tech is used for advertisements and for increasing the number of customers since these kinds of investments are not needed for the development of learning materials. These advertisements can induce additional demand. All these can strengthen the inferior’ equilibrium that is marked by a higher level of demand and supply of private education and it may even work against the evolution of a more desirable equilibrium – that is a strengthened public education system to meet the education requirements of the society as a whole. It may be noted that the private provision of supplementary education is not that pronounced in most of the developed economies, which indicates the possibility of a dominant public education system as a desirable model.

Impact of enhanced use of technology in education

There are a few benefits due to the increased use of technology in education. It may enhance access to innovative learning materials (which may communicate different ideas to learners in an effective manner). It may enhance the pressure on all teachers to improve their performance, especially to be innovative and effective in terms of pedagogy. However, there are disadvantages too. It could lead to the persistence or widening of the social divide in education. Though the digital divide is an issue, it is not the only or major barrier. Sections of students may do well with a technology-mediated education with their limited objective. This is again not only due to their access to digital technology. Their parents may be in a better position to provide complementary inputs to technology-mediated education. Well-educated parents can help children in many ways to assimilate the learning materials which are broadcast or transmitted by Edu-Tech companies.

Children from poor or lower-middle-class families may not have digital access or the resources to subscribe to the programmes of the Edu-Tech companies. However, it may be possible that they may use Edu-Tech if the cost of access comes down (and that may be possible due to the higher scale of operations). Like the way poorer parents use low-fee paying private schools (rather than fully subsidised government schools), there can be an inclination towards the use of Edu-Tech by poorer families. However, they may still be deprived of this for other reasons. It is obvious that a child from a poorer or lower-middle-class family may not have well-educated parents. Even if they have some level of education, they may not be able to spend enough time due to the nature of their employment. Hence, students from such families fail to get academic support for all subjects at home. They may have to depend fully on technology-mediated learning materials. All these factors may affect their academic achievements. Therefore, their disadvantages in terms of family background may persist in the long run. The school is an instrument to address the inequality in society, and the focus on Edu-Tech may work against this function of schools.

Educationists and all those who have a genuine understanding of education will agree that education has to be through face-to-face interactions, in a group or as a social activity. This is necessary for achieving the multiple goals of education. There are many intangible outcomes of education which can be achieved only through such a mode. Students learn not only from the teacher and books/​articles but also from their peers.25 If we want to inculcate empathy, democratic behaviour, openness and an equitable attitude towards people belonging to other castes, religions, races, and genders and so on through education,26 these cannot be achieved through a transaction in which the teacher and the student are linked only through technology.27

Children from all families (rich and poor) want to interact with others. They want to play, collaborate, compete, give and receive comfort, and learn from each other.28 Certain skills can be learnt only through such peer interaction. Students from affluent families may have information on different opportunities whereas those from poorer families may get it from their peers. All these interactions are immensely useful in their adult lives. There are fewer opportunities for such interaction when there is excessive focus on individualised technology for education.

There are other functions of schools where face-to-face interaction of children and teachers take place. When children study in their homes, some of them are pampered by their parents, which may encourage them to seek more attention and they may become disturbed if there is no such pampering. In other families, children may not get enough attention or may face emotional deprivation. They may feel disenchanted. Neither of these behavioural traits or impacts is desirable in their adult life. There is a need for moderation of their behavioural ups and downs. There could be such desirable behavioural traits which may have to be acquired in school29 and this may not happen when the focus is on technology.

Children get exposure to a particular social identity, like one religion or caste within their homes. They learn cultural features which are connected to this social identity. It is difficult for parents to give exposure to other cultures’ when they are also embedded in one culture. This may sustain the ignorance of children about other cultures and reduce their ability to interact with other people. It can sustain or even widen the divides in society. The school is probably the only space where a child is likely to encounter people who belong to other religions, castes or ethnicities relatively closely. The undermining of schools deprives them of this opportunity. Schools are needed for intercultural understanding, and this may be hampered because of an excessive focus on technology. Where do the children from families belonging to different socio-economic backgrounds meet and interact as citizens of a country? Schools are important spaces for this purpose. Schools are needed for building and nurturing democratic relationships. This function can be underperformed with an overemphasis on technology.

The expansion of Edu-Tech may aggravate the fragmentation in education. A section of children may use it effectively and do well in terms of narrower education goals (but may fail in terms of socialisation). Others may use the conventional mode, and this may be seen as an outcome due to the lack of a better option. The differential socio-economic background of these two sets of students is clear. This may have negative implications not only for the psychology of these children but also for the social cohesion in the country. The already prevailing socio-economic fragmentations may exacerbate through this process. This is not only going to accentuate the inequality in education but will also create and sustain an inferior equilibrium in education. Once such an equilibrium comes into existence, it would be difficult to break it and create a better one. Path dependence and acquired habits may work against this transition. Technology would get its appropriate place in education only when the latter regains its importance as a social activity.


This paper does not argue that Edu-Tech is without use or harmful. It is important for teachers to be aware of and use the beneficial aspects of technology. They should not go ahead with the assumption that they can continue with the conventional mode with the minimal use of technology because it can destabilise their profession or threaten the sustenance of their jobs. A sensible approach would be to use technology as a tool that facilitates/​strengthens the conventional mode of education. Technology can be a useful tool in the hands of teachers and can help them access newer and more diverse teaching materials economically.

Using technology, teachers may be able to learn innovative practices to teach specific concepts or subjects. The innovation of a few teachers can be disseminated quickly, and others can adopt these easily with the help of technology. Students can access and acquire additional learning materials. The ability to use and work with newer technologies has to be part of education in general (and not only in specific domains of technical education). When technology is used in schools and classrooms, there can be effective public investments for this purpose, and it can narrow the digital divide. Then, the teachers would be in a position to provide the additional attention that is required for those sections of students who may not get much academic support at home. Children can learn to use technology from peers too.

However, it is somewhat obvious that the sole- or over-emphasis on technology can be harmful. Education needs to continue as a face-to-face social exercise. This paper argues that the socio-economic circumstances in many developing countries are such that there would be a quicker acceptance of technology in education which may reduce the societal need to make adequate investments in conventional school education. That would be harmful.


Santhakumar V, Professor, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru

Featured image by Rodion Kutsaev on Unsplash

  1. One such article here.↩︎

  2. For a discussion of the impact of the digital divide on education, refer Block, J. (2010) Distance Education and the Digital Divide: An Academic Perspective, Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, Volume XIII, Number I↩︎

  3. Digital divide was an issue even before the arrival of COVID-19; Refer van de Werfhorst, H. G., Kessenich, E., & Geven, S. (2020, August 18). The Digital Divide in Online Education. Inequality in Digital Preparedness of Students and Schools before the Start of the COVID-19 Pandemic. However, it has worsened during the pandemic.↩︎

  4. For example, Quito, Benjamin. (2020). The Digital Divide: Online Learning for Students in the time of Pandemic (COVID-19). 10.13140/RG.2.2.17745.15204.↩︎

  5. The share of smartphones to population in India is about 60 percent. Even if we account for the child population, a sizeable section of the poorer families do not have access to a smartphone.↩︎

  6. The situation of the quality of electricity supply in sub-Saharan African can be seen in Jacome, V. Et al (2019) Power quality and modern energy for all, PNAS August 13, 116 (33) 16308-16313↩︎

  7. Some of these issues are discussed in the literature. For example, Refer Ferri et al (2020) Online Learning and Emergency Remote Teaching: Opportunities and Challenges in Emergency Situations; Societies 202010, 86; doi:10.3390/soc10040086↩︎

  8. One such start-up company in India received a capital investment of US$1 billion from a global investment firm. It seems that such firms expect a sizeable return from investments in such Edu-Tech companies.↩︎

  9. For a brief history of the use of computers in education, refer Kuralnd, M. (1987) Computer Applications in Education: A Historical Overview, Annual Review of Computer Sciences, 2, 317-358↩︎

  10. New global data reveal education technology’s impact on learning.↩︎

  11. For example, see a popular article following this approach.↩︎

  12. Around 55 percent of inpatient cases are in private hospitals in India. This is based on data collected by the National Survey Organization based on the 75th round of the National Sample Survey; On the other hand, `the vast majority of hospitals in the United Kingdom are publicly owned and managed by the National Health Service (NHS)’, Read here. ↩︎

  13. Indian Medical Association notes that there are about 1 million quacks practicing in India.↩︎

  14. For a discussion of the use of private tuition, refer Sujatha, K. (2014) Private tuition in India: trends and issues.↩︎

  15. One survey notes that `even high-caliber student’s sign up for private tuition to score the 96-99 percent cut-off averages demanded by best colleges’.↩︎

  16. Read here.↩︎

  17. Read here↩︎

  18. Jack, William, and Tavneet Suri. 2014. “Risk Sharing and Transactions Costs: Evidence from Kenya’s Mobile Money Revolution.” American Economic Review, 104 (1): 183-223.↩︎

  19. The longer-term issues are noted by different researchers: For example, this.↩︎

  20. World Bank Press Release.↩︎

  21. This is discussed in the New Education Policy (2020)↩︎

  22. This is also highlighted in the New Education Policy (2020)↩︎

  23. How investing in edu-tech start-ups can combine profit with purpose↩︎

  24. Indian edtech startups see investment of $2.22 bn in 2020, shows data↩︎

  25. Socialisation is important for engagement in schools too. Refer, Anderson, A. R., Christenson, S. L., Sinclair, M. F., Lehr, C. A. (2004). Check & connect: The importance of relationships for promoting engagement with school. Journal of School Psychology, 42, 95-113.↩︎

  26. For example, the following are also part of the mission of public education in the USA: To unify a diverse population; To prepare people for citizenship in a democratic society. Kober, N. (2007) Why We Still Need Public Schools, Washington, D. C. Centre for Education Policy.↩︎

  27. This is found to be the case of higher education too. In a study of computer students in Hong Kong, it was seen the majority was against the sole use of online mode. The main reason was that they regarded face-to-face communication more conducive to the learning process, affording better opportunities of sharing knowledge and asking for help, “easier” and more interactive, and more compatible with the needs of students’. Read here.↩︎

  28. `Peer interaction serves as the foundation for many important aspects of emotional development such as the development of self-concept, self-esteem and identity. Children learn about themselves during interactions with each other and use this information to form a sense of their own selves – who they are.’ Read here.↩︎

  29. The possible role of schools in the behavioural change of students is discussed in a number of writings. For example, Martella, R. C., Nelson, J. R., & Marchand- Martella, N. E. (2003). Managing disruptive behaviors in the schools. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.↩︎