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ICT revolution to solve India’s education crisis


It is only a matter of time before technologies come in to replace teachers entirely
The song Brick in the Wall by Pink Floyd is perhaps best remembered for the lines that exhort the teacher to “leave us kids alone”. That captures the state of education, in terms of content and delivery, for millions of us who have been through ‘the system’.

In a country like India, which is perennially short of funds for education, often critically so, it is well nigh impossible to train teachers adequately and in numbers to service a large number of children who need to be educated. Add to that badly maintained facilities in schools, high absenteeism among teachers, and the stage is set for a new set of solutions, a revolution by some accounts, to solve this age-old problem.

Universities such as Stanford, MIT, Harvard and IITs have been quick to jump on to the bandwagon. Often criticised as elitist and facing calls to make education more inclusive, these universities have put taped lectures of some of their most popular courses online. A computer engineering student in India, for instance, can now listen to a lecture delivered by a leading computer scientist, who is also a member of the faculty at Stanford. A philosophy student or enthusiast can similarly view philosophy courses at Harvard University’s Youtube channel from the comfort of his/her home.

Competition in the smartphone and tablet industries has also benefited end consumers greatly. Decreasing prices have ensured that the cheapest Android phone is now available for about Rs 5,000 and the cheapest Android-based tablet can now be bought for about Rs 7,500. The government, eager for education to leap into the modern times, has adopted technology as a centrepiece for increasing the quality of education delivered in institutions of higher learning.

The NME-ICT (National Mission on Education through Integrated Communication Technologies), seeks to bring low-cost yet fully functional technologies to students at institutions of higher learning with a view to helping them take advantage of the material that is now increasingly available online.

Launched by Vigyan Prasar and IGNOU on the Science Day, Science@Mobile, an SMS service, will give its subscribers information on a wide variety of science topics free of cost. Subscribers can access this service depending on their level of familiarity with science. The service is now available only in English, though efforts are on to localise this service.

LHSee, an application developed by CERN, is an educational application available on Android that acts as a guide on LHC for the general public. Through videos and complex graphics, each and every part of the massive LHC complex has been laid bare for the layman, and explained in a way that makes this information accessible.

The existing model of delivering education is remarkably democratic and based on assumptions that do not hold in the real world. One such underlying assumption is that all children are equal. Children of the same age are grouped together in a class without taking into account that even at the same age, not all children are at the same level of mental development. Some children may be inherently good at some skills, be it hand-eye coordination or spatial skill, and extremely poor in others, such as reading and writing skills.

Given the rapidly evolving nature of technologies to deliver content in innovative ways and the wide dissemination of low-cost devices to deliver such content, it is perhaps only a matter of time before technologies come in to replace teachers entirely. While it does seem to make sense, this notion that teachers can somehow be replaced with content developed in a studio is false. Educational content, no matter how attractive, might never be able to replace a teacher entirely. The way a good teacher can interact, inspire and lead you to question your beliefs is not something that a computer can, at least not for the foreseeable future, do.

Though man has made a lot of progress in a number of fields, education, in terms of the content taught and in the way it is delivered, still follows models and methodologies that have seen little change from the time of the ancient gurukul.

Imbalances between the rich and poor have denied the right to good education to many students who found themselves on the wrong side of the divide. The churn brought about by the ‘democratisation’ of technology is good as it erases this divide and delivers education to a greater number of people at a time and place of their convenience. In the absence of concrete data, the effect of technology on learning outcomes remains to be seen. But the destruction of barriers to learning is a very welcome step.

Financial Chronicle, 09 March 2012


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