Raising the Quality of Education

To ask a dreamer to share his or her dreams is to invite a long winding description of many alternate desirable scenarios in most walks of an average Indian’s life. If the dreamer is a teacher, and a story-teller to boot, even a large book will cover but the summary. Since the readers deserve respect for their valuable time, I shall restrict myself to my favourite theme, namely Indian education and the role ICT can play in our educational processes.

To ask a dreamer to share his or her dreams is to invite a long winding description of many alternate desirable scenarios in most walks of an average Indian’s life. If the dreamer is a teacher, and a story-teller to boot, even a large book will cover but the summary. Since the readers deserve respect for their valuable time, I shall restrict myself to my favourite theme, namely Indian education and the role ICT can play in our educational processes.

This topic has been well analysed. A number of e-learning methodologies have been proposed. Many products are available today. Tutorials, tests and examinations are available on-line. The web is full of esoteric contents in every field and on every subject one can name. Has all this made a significant difference to the quality of education? Is all this helping us to achieve the quantitative scale in Indian education? 

The answer is a sad ’not yet’, the ‘yet’ being added more as a polite acknowledgement of the massive efforts already underway. I am not convinced, however, that this direction, of creation of conventional e-contents and of interactive e-learning portals and products, alone can make a significant difference to the Indian education.

Education

I begin with some of my thoughts on education. We provide education to our students through a complex system where our children grow through 10 years of schooling. Some carry on with 2+3 years of college graduation. A few follow it up with a Master’s and then a Ph.D degree.

Ordinarily, one would begin by analysing the educational process ground up from school to college. I will instead first discuss the study and research for a Ph.D degree. I hold that Ph.D is not just a degree, but that it represents a mindset. A mindset which embodies the ultimate spirit of inquiry and academic scholarship, which demonstrates understanding of all the broad contours of a given problem, which carries out an in-depth focused search and critical analysis of the available knowledge relevant to the problem. It demonstrates an ability to postulate alternate solution hypothesis and works out useful solutions using innovative approaches.

This mindset can succinctly articulate the underlying thought process and elaborately describe the findings and solutions. It represents rigor, ability to work very hard, and above all, a commitment not to give up in the face of repeated failures, but to patiently carry on till success smiles. It is the achievement of such mindset that represents a true Ph.D. It is such minds which push the envelop of human knowledge, which crack hard problems, build useful systems and gadgets employing creative innovations, and contribute tremendously to making human life comfortable, livable and lovable. Indeed, we see many successful people in various walks of life, who demonstrate such a mindset but do not possess a Ph.D degree. Sadly, we also see some holders of a formal doctorate, but have not acquired the accompanying mindset!

Why do I elaborate the Ph.D  process so much, which is presumably the highest pinnacle of the formal education? Well, just ask yourself this simple question; Is not the achievement of such innovative problem solving mind, the main objective of education at every stage? Do we not want our 5th standard school students to master the basics of effective verbal and written communication? Do we not wish to see our 10th standard student understand and adopt scientific thinking? Do we not wish our college students to understand the deep lessons which human history teaches us, rather than merely knowing the dates on which certain events happened?

The development and sharpening of the human mind, creating useful knowledge inside it, must be the hallmark of education at every stage, Ph.D merely being the ultimate formal educational mechanism available to a person.

Unfortunately, by branding ‘research’ essentially as something to be undertaken only after a Master’s degree, and more particularly, by ignoring it completely at the level of even the first degree in college, much less at school education level, we have permanently separated the notion of research from the notion of education. Many renowned educationists maintain that research and education are inseparable in the Institutes of higher learning.

 I submit that for human advancement, these are inseparable at even the pre-school level. I say this primarily to focus on the fostering of the mindset I mentioned above Additionally, education is also aimed at making our children into good human beings and great citizens. It is supposed to imbibe important values such as sensitivity, concern, and courtesy and respect for others resulting minimally in following social discipline such as respecting the traffic rules and signals. It should teach us an ethical life style. It is supposed enhance positive thinking and hope, it should encourage us to dream big, while teaching us the importance of not letting our ambition morph into greed. It should educate us to be happy and proud of achievements of others, rather than being jealous. 

The development and sharpening of the human mind and creating useful knowledge inside it, must be the hallmark of education at every stage.

Above all, it should bring joy in our lives. After all, what value is education if it does not enable us to understand the subtle meaning of good poetry and enjoy it?

All of these are learned mostly through social interaction. The importance of schools, colleges and classroom participation is not in the lecturing that occurs to group of students, but in the hugely important interaction which happens between the teachers and students and between students themselves, both inside and outside the class room. Notice that even a chance question asked by just one student in a class, and its answer given by the teacher benefits all attending the class. Students passing out of residential Institutions turn out generally to be relatively more confident in using their knowledge in the real world. They have understood the humanity better, because they had a better chance to interact with people. 

ICT in education

The important point I wish to make is that students and teachers in groups constitute the most formidable learning environment today, and use of ICT must not introduce paradigms which dilute or even take away this vital component. Already, in the hostels and at homes, children from the affluent class are getting addicted to sit in front of their computers for hours. Granted that the Internet is a very rich resource of a wide variety of knowledge, but if mere access to information was education, then in the bygone era, people having most books, or living close to large libraries would be the most educated. Such has not been the case Many were, but that was because they could decipher what and which information is to be used in which context. That is knowledge. In most cases their learning this vital difference was facilitated by a mentor who could be a parent, or a teacher, or even a friend.

In my opinion, therefore, ICT should also be used to increase such engagement, apart from, of course, continuing to pursue the present activities vigorously. AT the level of Engineering education, I have thus advocated synchronous delivery of lectures to participants attending at various remote centres. Our distance education program launched in 2000 used 2-way VSAT bandwidth to ensure interaction. Thankfully, ISRO has rightly provided the same environment in their ambitious EDUSAT program. The great attempt of NPTEL, nationally coordinated by Prof Ananth and Prof Mangalasunder of IIT Madras, to create course contents for various engineering subjects has made remarkable progress, but the adoption of that material in actual teaching that takes place across the country has been limited. In my opinion, the later depends on suitability of the created contents for the teaching style at these places, and on our ability to convince large teachers and administrators in over 3000 colleges. Both these require tremendous engagement. My colleague Prof Kannan, who heads our Centre for Distance Engineering Program (CDEEP), is currently trying to bring these two paradigms together.

There have been several important initiatives in ICT usage for school and college education. The Sakshat site of MHRD is a very good initiative. The project by Dilip Ranjhekar and his team at Azim Premji Ffoundation, wherein education in a very large number of village schools in Karnataka has been ICT enabled, is a successful attempt in scaling up. The IGNOU initiative in transmitting lectures in a large number of useful college courses has also achieved scale. But one-way communication limits its effectiveness due to non-engagement of participants. ICT for Indian school education also faces the problem of non-availability of educational contents in local languages. Additionally, the copyright nature of contents often makes the process of access so cumbersome, as to deny it affordably to most students. My colleague, Prof Shishir Jha, helped us set up the Creative Commons India centre and have prepared open source license terms for such contents in India. I sincerely hope that more and more content creators release their works in open source. NCERT, for example, has put most of its books online. At least the government-funded projects must do so. This routinely happens in developed economies. Similarly,we need to build and nurture very large collaborative communities of active content creators who will add useful educational contents in Indian languages for release in open source. We have started such efforts under our Ekalavya project at IIT, but that is primarily for engineering education. The OSCAR effort by Prof Sridhar Iyer, which attempts to create educationally useful animation is an important contribution to this project. Animation is something that can never be made available in printed educational books. This is a clear case where ICT alone can be effective. Our efforts were initially supported by TIFAC and currently by MHRD.

My Dream

I met this tribal boy in an event few years ago. ’Marathi Vigyan Parishad’ is an organisation committed to spread interest and knowledge in science to Marathi speaking students. Like in most states of India, a majority of rural students study in their native language and not in English. The Thane division of the Parishad had held an annual event for school students at a town called Wada.  I was invited to speak to them on IT in Marathi. About 500 children, mostly from the tribal belt and studying in standard 9th to 11th had assembled there. The talk went well, with students asking a lot of intelligent questions. At the end, I was flocked by about 25 students wanting to take my ‘autograph’. For the first time in my life, I felt like being a celebrity movie star.

Students and teachers in groups constitute the most formidable learning environment today, and use of ICT must not introduce paradigms which dilute or even take away this vital component…they should be able to decipher what information is to be used in which context.

This boy was quietly standing nearby. When I looked at him, he just said he wants to ask a question and did not seek any autograph. I was suddenly called by the organisers for joining other invited guests for a cup of tea. As I started to leave, this boy caught my hand and reminded me to answer his question. When I hesitated, he said ‘sir, I have walked 10 km to listen to you’. I stopped in my tracks and asked him why? He nonchalantly stated that he walks daily to his school which is 6 km away. I inquired whether transport like bus or tempo was available. He simply said yes, but his family could not afford the cost! He then proudly added that he stands first in his class. His question floored me completely. He asked what should he learn and how should he study to become an IT expert, because he wanted to set up a company like Infosys! Is he not the very personification of the legendary ‘Ekalavya’? Very talented, very ambitious, and very determined to acquire the necessary and useful knowledge, in spite of all odds. And are we not inadvertently acting as the proverbial ‘Dronacharya’, denying him the teaching and learning that he deserves, just because he is poor and lives in a village with no good educational infrastructure. True, we do not any more demand his thumb at the end of whatever education he receives in spite of us. But to me, denying him the opportunity to occupy his rightful position in the modern knowledge economy, and thereby to help himself and his family to acquire a well deserved life of prosperity, is no less cruel.

We talk of digital and financial inclusion. To me, financial inclusion means that this boy, and every such child, can afford to go to school in a decent transport, preferably a school bus. To me, digital inclusion means that such students have the advantage of being mentored by empowered teachers who can provide guided access to the vast pool of useful digital knowledge contents, created and indexed specially for such students.

We have missed the bus in the last two decades. We have struggled with umpteen pilots, various good schemes, and large number of individual and group initiatives. Several of these have shown fantastic results. None have been scaled up to address approximately 350 million Indian students currently occupying the moving window comprising 3 to 19 year olds. Nandan Nilekani has pointed out in his very well articulated  book ‘Imagining India’, that this demographic advantage will not stay too long with us. Next 20 to 30 years are thus most crucial for us to carry out a rapid build up towards effective ICT enablement of our teachers and students. If not this tribal boy, at least his children get what he should have got.

No ‘Ekalavya’ in my India after 20 years should ever face the fate of that student I met in Wada. This is my dream India!

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