Transforming education - The New Indian Express

Transforming education

Published: 20th December 2012 12:00 AM

Last Updated: 19th December 2012 11:42 PM

President Pranab Mukherjee’s recent comment that India is the poorest in terms of education, literacy and knowledge did not surprise the nation, neither did it evoke prime time TV debates. While India once boasted of excellent educational centres like Nalanda and Takshashila, it is embarrassing that even the premiere educational institutions in the country today are not among the world’s best. Although the education system at lower levels has seen improvement over the past decades, India still has the largest illiterate population and Human Development Index ranking is low compared with the BRIC nations.

 The latest UNESCO adult and youth literacy report shows that India’s youth literacy (age group 15 to 24 years) and adult literacy (15 years and older) is the lowest when compared with the other BRIC countries.

A knowledge based society is much needed for a fast growing economy like India and it is proven that the positive externalities associated with education leads to economic and social growth. Perhaps some of the global trends in the education could help in transforming education in India. India’s tremendous progress in terms of technology and communication must be applauded.  However, can the education system in the country be strengthened through ICT?  The HRD ministry’s highly publicised ultra low cost tablet Akash tablet device aimed at students has not picked up for various reasons. A recent news report states that less than 600 Akash tablets have been distributed to students. For a moment let us assume that the government is able to fix the issues around quality and distribution and manages to reach the technology gadgets to lakhs of students across the country. Just providing Akash tablets by itself cannot create any miracle in the education system.

Although tablets are undoubtedly essential, there are two important aspects to be addressed. Good quality access to internet is vital —  On this front, the government’s NTP-2012 (National Telecom Policy) envisions Right to Broadband as a key focus area.  With 3G showing some signs of picking up and the right push from the government to improve broadband access even in rural India through NFON, connectivity issue is expected to be addressed. 

The other aspect in terms of relevant educational content is absolutely critical and should be accorded paramount importance.  Without the relevant educational content, tablet devices will become a mere gadget for entertainment and will defeat the sole purpose of subsidised tablets. There is certainly hope for generating the right educational content.

The latest trend in education is the MOOC or massive open online course; it is a tuition-free course taught over the internet to a large number of students. There are plenty of examples of highly popular education courses like the Khan Academy with the motto of a free world class education for anyone anywhere.  The Khan Academy has delivered over 200 million lessons  while another online portal Courseera has already registered close to 2 million students across the world. Courseera offers over 203 free courses from 33 colleges including Stanford and Princeton. In fact, many of the courses provide the same curriculum as on-campus courses. The MOOC model allows teacher and students to interact face-to-face and provide a forum for students to interact among themselves.

Students from all parts of the world participate in the courses and this provides an opportunity for cross cultural interaction. Similar to the traditional system, students receive grades based on their performance. edX and Udacity are among the other widely popular MOOC providers. The teachers are from some of the best universities in the world and the entire course comes free of cost to the student. In fact, Moshe Y Vardi in a recent report says that the enormous buzz about MOOC is not due to the technology’s intrinsic educational value, but due to the seductive possibilities of lower cost.

Reports suggest that many of the educated class in India, not limited to techies and even students are joining many of these interactive courses, taking tests and are gaining knowledge from the best professors around the world, which was hitherto unimaginable.

MOOC will excite students in higher education and the educated working class to enhance their knowledge. MOOC has the potential to disrupt both the traditional classroom based education system and the distance learning programmes.

It is obvious that the current MOOC courses are on generic topics and English knowledge is a pre-requisite. But what if the students are only proficient in a native Indian language and need to learn topics that are relevant to India? The MHRD should aggressively push for customised local content that is relevant for India by involving NEUPA, universities and eminent educationists across the country.

There is a huge potential for MOOC to address the large semi-literate population, comprising school/college drop-outs who have basic ability in reading and writing. In fact, a recent report states that the high school dropout rate is over 56 per cent in the country.  Here again, courses based on local language and needs will play a significant role in addressing the semi-literate population in the country.

How about a course on customer orientation in a south Indian language?  Here, the government should aim at creating indigenous content by working closely with the NSDC (National skill Development corporation) for creating and delivering effective courses. NSDC is a high visibility initiative aimed at fulfilling the growing need for skilled manpower across 20 high growth sectors. Innovative business models can be developed through a PPP model.

Awareness should be created and the courses can be offered at affordable fees much like the NSDC model. Also, a fee based model is needed to eliminate the no-so-serious learners. In addressing the educational needs across each segment of the society, it is imperative that the MHRD draws a clear road-map and course content development and delivery is meticulously planned and tracked with clear timelines.

MOOC certainly has the potential to strengthen the educational needs in the country. While availability of low cost computing devices like tablets and affordable broadband connectivity is important, availability of locally relevant and local language based courses will hold the key for an Indianised MOOC to be successful.

Views are personal.

G Krishna Kumar is  Vice President at  Symphony Teleca.

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