Jaipur, Rajasthan —On a summer afternoon, the students of Mahatma Gandhi government school in Jaipur are darkening the answers on a sheet of paper. When I ask 12-year-old Falguni if she knows who is going to check her paper, she looks towards the teacher and says, “Ma’am” and then immediately corrects herself and says “computer”.
An app called RKSMB that was launched in September of 2022 had already checked 90 lakh papers, just three days since the examination began across the state. The answer sheets of three subjects: Maths, English, Hindi of students in Class 3 to Class 8 are being checked by the Artificial Intelligence (AI) tool. And that’s a herculean task.
The app, the full form of which is Rajasthan Ke Siksha Main Badhate Kadam, is assessing the third round of examinations across all government schools using the AI tool.
In November last year, the Rajasthan School Education Department made it to the World Book of Records (London) for using AI of OCR (Optical Character Recognition) for checking 1.35 crore papers of 45 lakh students in the state. The second assessment was of 1.4 crore papers. In the third assessment that started on 17 April, over 90 lakh papers of 30 lakh students have already been checked.
“Now our education tools are completely digital. From teachers and students’ attendance to marking their grades, to identifying weak students, we use apps for everything,” said Devendra Joshi, Programme Officer of RKSMB.
All government school teachers in Rajasthan have to use three apps; it’s mandatory. The education ministry’s Diksha- Digital Infrastructure for Knowledge Sharing app- a public education app became popular during the pandemic to access study materials from home, often in video formats. Wired had earlier reported a major data breach, exposing 1 million teachers’ data to hackers.
Besides this app that is compulsory for all India’s teachers, Rajasthan’s teachers have two more apps on their phones — Shaladarpan is to mark their attendance, application for promotion, transfer or leave. And the newest RKSMB app to grade students and take instructions from it on how to teach them.
It’s a first in the country. “Other states have tried and failed,” Joshi added, proudly.
Three Rajasthan districts - Jaipur, Sikar and Jhunjhunu -had emerged as best performers in the Ministry of Education’s first-ever report on districts released in 2022, based on learning outcome levels, infrastructure and other parameters.
Why Is AI Checking Papers?
The AI for RKSMBP app has been in the works for a while.
Nirmal Patel, co-founder and CEO of Smart Paper, which built the technology for the education app, says that his aim was to connect paper, an integral part of schools in India, to the world of digital learning. “We started thinking and working on this technology in early 2020 before the Coronavirus pandemic hit,” he said. And then suddenly all classes were held online.
Though multiple tools were built to ease digital education, he says that it wasn’t sustainable. “We wanted to give students and teachers the freedom to work on both paper and digital,” Patel said.
There were mainly two missions. One, to take the load off teachers and quicken the process of examining papers, and second, to digitally gather the learning curves of students. “Students think differently. We have learned that from various assessments. To improve their learning abilities, we need to understand how they think. The AI tool helps with that,” the CEO of Smart Paper said.
Using this AI technology, the Rajasthan School Education Department built the app with the help of National Informatics Technology (NIC).
The app does much more than grading.
Once the examinations are over, the app picks out the ‘weak’ students and determines what subjects they need help with. The app gives out task to the teachers every day. The teachers are told which chapters of a workbook developed by the Rajasthan State Council of Education Research and Training have to be taught to which student. “It helps us in finding out which particular topic a student is weak in. In a class of 60, that’s difficult for teachers to do otherwise,” said Mahinder Gurjal, a Maths teacher at the school.
The teachers are given ‘stars’ for the tasks they complete.
However, just because an AI is grading students, it does not make the teachers’ job any easy.
“It takes me three hours to upload all the answer sheets and that is if the internet works properly,” said a Hindi teacher at a government school in Rajasthan. Besides, the teachers also have to check the subjective type questions.
The teachers are impressed with the ‘powers’ of the app but they don’t particularly enjoy the task they have to do for AI tool to correctly asses the paper. After every examination, the teachers have to scan the answer sheets and upload them onto the app, mapping them to each student in the class. The names of the students are visible on the app.
The scanning and uploading the mark sheets need many things to be in order: The QR codes on the four corners of the A4-sized sheet have to fit the screen. The internet connectivity has to be good. And, they have to upload all the sheets within a day of the examination being conducted.
When the app was first introduced last year, some of the teachers who detested using another new technology protested. “But what can one do? If it’s an order from the government we have to follow it,” said the Principal of the school, Sarwat Bano.
The Big Question: Is There Internet?
Bharti, a Maths teacher at a government school in Jaipur, remembers when the Shaladarpan app was launched in 2015 for teachers to mark their attendance. “We would go to the terrace and stretch our hands out for internet connectivity. It’s no longer that difficult to find internet anywhere in Rajasthan anymore,” she says.
The principal of the school says that the district she worked at before did not even have phone connectivity until a few years ago.
The Internet connectivity is strong in the ‘pink city’ but it’s not the same across the state. A teacher from a school situated some 50 kilometers away from the city said that they struggle on some days before we lose the phone connection as well.
Joshi, the program coordinator in Jaipur, says he often gets calls for an extension of uploading the papers because of lack of connectivity. “We will open the web portal after the examinations are over, teachers can upload the papers easily there,” he says.
The Coronavirus pandemic made a big dent in students’ learning. One of the teachers at the Mahatma Gandhi government school says that her class 3 students can now say the numbers but can’t recognise them. “They got promoted to class 3 straight from class 1, it’s a real struggle,” she says.
While the app aims to exactly solve this problem by understanding how students think which in turn helps them in deciding what they need help with, it often fails to do. The reason is simple, the technology isn’t super friendly for the teachers. Their mistake in uploading the answer sheet can lead to a completely wrong assessment.
In the last term paper, Paritosh got 4 out of 30 in his Mathematic paper. His teacher, Mahinder, was surprised; he knew the 7th grader is a bright student. He went back to check his paper and found out 28 of his answers were indeed correct. “I sent a complaint, they opened the portal and I manually fixed the score,” the teacher said. But not everyone is as alert as Paritosh’s maths teacher.
“The app can glitch, it’s after all not human. But we can’t detect that glitch each time and some students may suffer,” the principal said.
“You can’t miss the QR codes, that glitch happened because the sheet was not uploaded properly,” Joshi explained.
It took a couple of attempts for a teacher when she tried demonstrating the process of uploading the answer sheets.
“It’s a new technology, we are still working to perfect it,” said Patel.
An AI teaching in government schools sounds as utopian as an AI, ChatGPT, cracking exams. But in a country of 1.4 billion people, sometimes technology isn’t the answer but access to it is.
One of the apps that the Rajasthan school teachers use is to maintain students’ records; that’s how the government funds for their books, uniforms and other amenities reach. For the last few months one of the teachers have been trying to upload her studen’t Jan Aadhaar card, a state initiative, to the portal. But it won’t work. The solution is for the parents to come to the school and write a letter, submitting their documents. Because, they don’t have a smartphone. So, they have asked for a transfer of their child to another school. “Give her TC, but we can’t come to the school,” they said. The student has still not got the Rs 200 she was to get for her uniform.
“They are daily wagers who make Rs 400 per day, they can’t come to school and lose that money,” Joshi explained
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