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Computers to curriculum, India needs to redesign its education system

analysis Updated: Sep 07, 2016 02:18 IST
Students of a school in south Delhi watch the TV telecast of President Pranab Mukherjee’s speech on Teachers’ Day on September 5, 2016.
Students of a school in south Delhi watch the TV telecast of President Pranab Mukherjee’s speech on Teachers’ Day on September 5, 2016.(Ravi Choudhary/HT PHOTO)

The new global “revolution”--Artificial Intelligence, robots, knowledge centric economies, Uber-isation--threatens to make “industrial” policy models obsolete. Like earlier industrial “revolutions”, this will have winners and losers amongst people, communities and countries.

The government’s strategy of multi-pronged initiatives--skills, start-up, digitalisation and Make in India--is the right one to make India one of the winners. The strategy’s success relies on having a “right designed” education system--dynamic, future-anticipating, performance-driven and available to all citizens. No surprise that education is one of 9 pillars listed by FM Arun Jaitley in his budget speech.

HRD Minister Prakash Javadekar’s challenge is providing this--by reshaping curriculum and institutions to reflect the needs of the new world. Three “themes” need attention--technology readiness, access and performance.

Technology ready: Recent technological advances have broken the “ratchet” productivity improvements and disrupted established processes across world economy. The target for our education is now to make each student capable of “using” technology to identify and create utility. Different from “programming”, it needs deeper understanding of technology’s potential and a “comfort” in using it in ways that ignore established continuums and processes. By making access to knowledge virtually independent of classrooms, the internet provides a “free” platform to provide this. Hence, each child must have and be able to use the internet.

The first requirement is getting computers in each child’s hands. We need a national drive – developing cheaper laptops, “recycling” old ones, a laptop and PC donation movement and “use” Cloud and improved connectivity to build inexpensive machines that work off of “remote” common platforms.

We also need to change our curricula. Every stream must include technology as an integral part. This will incorporate the “use” of technology within each area of work and make students less at risk of becoming redundant through technological advances. Simultaneously, we have to “broaden” our youth’s knowledge spectrum. The last half century saw more rigid streaming – to encourage specialisation. Today, IT has made basic information easily available and increased interconnectivity between various subjects, work streams. Courses, especially undergrad need to build in both availability of information – so less rote focussed performance measurement, and interdisciplinary dependence through multi-subject courses and well designed project work.

TCS effect on under-privileged students: 70 years after independence, “access” to education for the underprivileged – women, poor and SC/STs has improved. Now access needs to be supplemented by a “pull” factor that provides a road map to success – choosing the right education, upgrading performance and creating leaders. TCS’s success inspired the success of other IT companies. Let’s create similar beacons of achievement from the weaker sections of society. Identify top 1000 students from underprivileged sections of society and give them the opportunity to attend the world’s best universities with the proviso of having to then work in India for 5 years. Such aspirational rewards with continuous performance monitoring will incentivise better performance. More important is the motivation successes provide. Imagine the impact when a rural dalit woman goes to Harvard and makes it to the top of a global business. Thousands of other girls will try to follow. Access gets reinforced by performance motivation and direction.

Making performance and excellence a priority: 2016 budget allocated 72394 crores to education, with a substantial portion for higher education. Given our limited resources, we cannot afford to let institutions churn out graduates with too little emphasis on excellence. This needs change in teachers, students and the “culture”. To start, we have to treat teachers with more respect. Simultaneously, especially in institutions of higher learning, we must hold teachers to robust performance standards – publishing record, “new” research, number and quality of lectures, student performance on standardised testing are some metrics.

While we have to stress access in school, student performance especially at the postgraduate stage needs tighter monitoring. Too often, MPhil and PHD students are there for a hostel, preparing for civil services or pursuing politics. To “push” performance we can limit years of hostel use, establish ongoing annual appraisals for study grants and an automatic “exit” with need to re-apply if particular stages of a degree are not completed within a prescribed period

Lastly “culture”. Given taxpayer money spent on universities, one shudders hearing “culture of politics” trotted out as an excuse for disrupting education through competitive dharnas. What we need is a “culture of learning” – research, growing knowledge, path-breaking academic work. Ofcourse, political awareness and activity are necessary ingredients of education but they cannot dominate the education process. Political apprenticeships cannot be subsidised by the taxpayer, even as hundreds of willing “real” students can’t get admission.

“Right” education access, curriculum and performance are critical to India benefitting from the demographic dividend, developing and remaining competitive. Our scarce resources must be prioritised for the underprivileged, must aim to make our youth future-ready and cannot be wasted through lack of focus on performance.

(The writer is a banker based in Singapore. The views expressed are personal.)