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The Printing Press Moment of our Century:

Online Education

Rahul Singh

Associate, Research

Centre for Civil Society

Just a few centuries ago, books, a common entity today, were an extreme rarity. Only the rich elite could afford to own them. In fact some accounts mention their prices being comparable to the prices of houses today. Let’s just ask ourselves, what made them so expensive in those times while today we all enjoy them for the prices of fruits and vegetables.

Since at that time the books were only written by hand, one page at a time, it was an excruciatingly slow and painful process to develop even one book. But then something happened, that suddenly made these books affordable to all, things that could be owned by everyone–the invention of printing press. It delinked the direct proportionality between manual input of labor and production. The books no longer required days of work; they could be produced in bulk, several at a time and their costs came down drastically. In those times it would have been unbelievable for the people to imagine that these books or written texts could become a thing for all, yet it happened, technology made it happen.

We are witnessing a similar parallel today in education, which is increasingly becoming a thing for elite due to its ever increasing costs, especially the higher education. Even at other levels, the good quality education is usually only accessible to those few who can afford to pay for its high costs. There have always been efforts to make education available to as many as possible, just as well-intentioned people in pre-printing press eras must have done for books in those times. No doubt these efforts have helped increase access to education for a number of children, but we are very far from making good education affordable to all.

Going back to the printing press case, we see that the problem was the fact that supply of books was tied linearly with the input of manual labor. The invention of printing press disrupted this dependency and added another dimension to the production of books or the written material. It is important to notice that the disruption was of linearity, not proportionality; so the production may still have been dependent on manual inputs, but not linearly anymore, which is what additional dimension to any field does.

Today with the advent of the Internet, a similar dimension has been added to various fields, education being one of them. Education too is currently linearly linked with the resource inputs–both physical and human resources–and internet technology has added that new dimension to its supply which is independent of this linkage.

People say that online education cannot replace the experience that a child undergoes while listening to the teacher face to face in a classroom. However, one cannot help imagining what must have happened in the early days of printing press–paper prints must have been much cruder and texts not aligned very well – the final product a lot shoddier than the highly eloquent hand-written text, words woven by the scribe with grace, elegance and feel, with the all so important human touch.  The stark contrast between the two would have been evident and it must have felt almost foolish to even consider that someday this technology would entirely replace the old practice that everyone took for granted. Humans are naturally wired to resist change, subconsciously falling way too often for the basic fallacy that ‘that is how it’s always been, thus that is how it should be’.

Just like the printing press’ initial days, online education is in its infancy, and people have every right to doubt its potential. But just as Michael Faraday, on being questioned by someone in the audience about the use of electric current during its first public demonstration, responded saying “What is the use of a new born baby?”. Likewise I feel that we need to see the potential of this technology at our hand, to solve one of the biggest problems of our society–of limited access to quality education–which we have not been able to address for centuries. We all know what became of the Faraday’s baby in the years that followed his discovery and we must be thankful to those who nurtured it then. Now, it is our time. Now is the time when we can all envision a future for the world where irrespective of a child’s socio-economic status or geographical location, s/he could be able to receive the best education that world has to offer.

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