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GenerationNext Must Get Online

July 14th, 2005 · No Comments

My latest column in Business Standard:

375 million. That is the number of Indians in the 6-19 age group. As they grow up and enter the workforce, they are bound together by one need education. And by all accounts, they arent getting enough of it. In an article, Business Week (Jan 31, 2005) called India a nation of dropouts. The facts bear out the stark reality. While 96% of India’s children enroll in primary school, by the age of 10 about 40% have dropped out, says the education department. Just over a third of high school students graduate.

Educating Indias young is a problem that needs immediate attention. Every year, we are closing the window to a better life for tens of millions of Indians. At the same time, it is not an easy problem to solve. India has a million schools. Most of them are in rural areas and government-run. Teachers and teaching leave much to be desired across most of them. Unless we come up with innovative, radical solutions quickly, we will be squandering Indias greatest asset.

If India has to continue and build upon its recent growth success, an educated workforce is critical. Business Week put it: Without a much deeper reservoir of educated youth, India may see its gains in software and manufacturing evaporate.

Across the space, India will need an educated and trained youth. We are not talking a few million here. 25 million new Indians are ready to join the schooling system every year. The magnitude of Indias education challenge is huge. We are past the point where conventional solutions can work. What we need is out-of-the-box thinking which can educate Indias millions with speed, quality and at affordable price points. This is where technology can play a role.

The challenge of education can be split into two components: teaching (and learning), and testing. Teaching itself has two elements: content creation (typically the preparatory work done by a teacher, aided by textbooks), and then its communication to students in a classroom environment. So, the education value chain can be thought of as comprising three elements: content creation (and/or aggregation), distribution (or communication), and testing. Let us consider each of these elements independently, starting with the content.

Writing on his blog at Deeshaa.org, my colleague, Atanu Dey, advocates a shift from the teacher-centric model to a learning-centric model. The learning-centric model recognizes these two basic truths: that the universe is connected, and that every student is unique. The model makes available to the student a very rich, deep, and connected set of content which the student navigates through a process which can only be called discovery. Although the basic material is accessible to students is common, the path that a specific student takes is unique to the student. Conceptually, the content is a fully-connected network which can be traversed in a potentially infinite set of ways. One can start from any one of a very large set of nodes, and then move from one node to another till entire structure has been visited.

For all of us, our memories of school and college have a special place for that extraordinary teacher who made a complex subject simple and a joy to learn. If we think deeply about it, what that special teacher taught was not merely the subject but more importantly how to learn. In a dynamic world of rapid change, the most important thing is to learn how to learn. This is what we have to do with the content that needs to created and aggregated.

The Web has a vast array of incredibly good content which can make learning a delight. But this content needs to be identified from among the average and even poor quality stuff that is out there. In addition, there are amazing teachers who can simplify even the most difficult of concepts. We should be able to make videos of their teaching so their power and reach is multiplied many times over.

So, the underlying principle for content creation and aggregation is of identifying the best and re-using it across the spectrum of schools. This will not be a cheap process, but considering the fact that the cost can be amortised over tens of millions of students each year for the foreseeable future, it will be a very small cost per student.

The next challenge is content distribution. This is where we can look at multiple approaches. The interactive content can be made available on computers at the school for local access, without the need to rely on real-time connectivity. Teaching videos can be broadcast (or narrowcast) over television via cable, satellite or the Internet. In fact, broadband can make possible IP-TV, which can then enable the distribution of content on-demand from central servers to schools. The quality content created can also be distributed over other media printed and electronic.

Testing is the third leg of the education system. Through the education process, it provides feedback to students, teachers, parents and administrators about the areas that need improvement. As part of a certification process, it provides a quality of assurance to prospective employers at the end of the value chain. As such, instruction needs to be separated from testing to prevent conflict of interest.

Education is the best investment we can make in building our tomorrow. As Atanu puts it: Education is the lynchpin which holds the entire economic machinery together. It is so fundamental and basic that without an educated population, there is no conceivable way for an economy to prosper. Show me any economy that has ever done well, and I will show you that at its foundation is an educated population. I grant you that for short periods of time due to special circumstances, an economy may flourish without an educated workforce, such as an economy buoyed by a natural resource such as oil. But it is a hollow sort of an economy and cannot survive in the long run.

It is not just money that is needed. A mix of disruptive thinking and new technologies are needed to deliver quality education to an increasingly aspirational India. This must be our promise and commitment to Generation Next.

PS: This is likely to be my last column for ICE World, since the section is undergoing a redesign.

Tags: Bus. Std. (ICE World) Column

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