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Cure for most ills

Boring books, poor teaching will soon become non-issues. Technology — games, interactive apps — will change the way education is imparted and received, Ajit Narayanan writes.

business Updated: Jan 01, 2013 00:20 IST

In my opinion, the invention of the tablet computer will, in 2013, prove to be as revolutionary in education as the invention of the blackboard. Over the last 20 years, the world has started seeing a shift in the way people are taught. The education of our parents and grandparents was aimed at ‘social learning’ — the use of a classroom to implicitly teach the nuances of hierarchy and control.

Throughout the ’90s, there was a simmering argument in favour of a less regimented, more open approach to education, and many of the ideas that were born in that period were put into action in the ’00s. In 2008, the tablet computer came into public view, and from that time onwards, there has been a happy marriage of revolutionary ideas in education and technology. I think 2013 will be the year when this movement will reach tipping point.

How will tablets affect education? I see a number of different signposts that point the way to the future. One example is the iPad/Android puzzle game DragonBox, which was released in the middle of 2012. The game is targeted at very young children — four to eight years — and it is deceptively simple: children have to manipulate a bunch of cards on the screen and achieve certain objectives.

It’s a lot of fun. But as the game progresses, if you were to look over the shoulder of a child playing it, you will realise that the game is not just abstract manipulation: it is actually teaching the child algebra! In some sense, DragonBox is ‘hacking’ a child’s brain and putting algebra in there. This is a fascinating concept, and some of my own research is aimed along similar lines — teaching a child language, subliminally almost, by their playing a game. And in 2013 we will see a slew of such educational games.

Another trend is the tendency in many schools in India to actively promote the use of technology in classrooms. This encouragement is being translated into real innovation on the ground: for example, a number of companies are working on ‘digital textbooks’, so a child will not have to carry anything more than a tablet and a notebook to school.

A third trend in technology and education is the emergence of technical aids, which are of immense help to children with disabilities. With the right tools a child with a disability like autism may be able to join a mainstream class and have a substantially normal classroom experience.

2013 will also see the beginning of the ‘education marketplace’ in India. There is no need for a child with a tablet and an Internet connection to be stifled by a bad teacher or poor textbooks today, when they are able to access the best educational content from all over the world. There have been attempts to monetise this content by bringing it in sync with classroom syllabus, and we will see this begin to take wing in 2013.

Finally, I predict that 2013 is when the government will score a hit with the new Aakash tablets. I know these tablets have been quite the laughing-stock. However, the technology and the technical awareness of the project’s government backers have matured significantly since then, and there is a chance that large-scale distribution of these devices will begin next year. If every student has a tablet computer by the end of 2013, the future of education will be so incredible that we can legitimately claim to have entered the world of science fiction. And that’s something I’m looking forward to.

(The author was named one of the best under-35 innovators in the world in 2011 by the MIT Tech Review for his invention Avaz, which helps people with speech disorders)