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Is the future of education leaving India in the dust?

By Rajeev Srinivasan
May 16, 2012 21:15 IST
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The digital revolution in education is coming at a most opportune time for India. Leadership in this is something India could seize, if only it had the vision, feels Rajeev Srinivasan.

  • Part I: Why Indian education sucks!
  • There is no doubt that major research universities have a role in the creation of new ideas, and that this can lead to a growth in economic activity. The role played by Stanford and UC Berkeley in the creation and sustenance of Silicon Valley is too obvious to belabor (the latest example is the $1 billion purchase of Instagram, founded by two young Stanford graduates, by Facebook). Similarly, Boston's Route 128 was sustained by MIT and Harvard. There are other examples as well.

    It is likely that there are three aspects to the appeal of educating oneself at a great research university -- the knowledge, the branding/certification, and the social networks. That is, one goes to a great university to:

    1. learn the stuff that the sages there, one presumes, know,
    2. to get a piece of parchment with the brand of the university that implies quality control and thus gives an indication of your capability, and
    3. to make friends and acquaintances and a network that will be a lifelong asset.

    What if you are able to, in effect, unbundle the university? What if you offer only (a), or (a) + (b)? Can you make up the lack of (c) through other means? This intriguing question is part of what constitutes perhaps the greatest revolution in education since the time the first great physical, brick-and-mortar universities were invented, such as Nalanda in ancient Bihar.

    Part of the attraction of a university has always been the possibility for making connections in serendipitous ways. Indeed, there is a case to be made that it is inter-disciplinary work that leads to the great scientific breakthroughs: If you are a physicist, it does you a world of good to be challenged by a biologist or a metallurgist, for instance, so that you do not fall prey to groupthink in your obscure specialty.

    A recent book on storied Bell Labs (The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation by Jon Gernter, excerpted in the New York Times) which was, in its heyday, the most important research lab in the world -- suggests that its quasi-academic, multi-disciplinary nature was not accidental, but carefully designed.

    The very long corridors of Bell Lab's flagship Murray Hill, NJ facility were deliberately designed to increase the chances that you would run into a colleague while wandering over to the cafeteria for lunch.

    It is this sort of 'water-cooler' interaction that led to legendary Bell Labs breakthroughs such as the transistor, the laser, the charge-couple device and Unix, all of which essentially created vast new industries. In many ways, the other fabled lab of the 20th century -- Xerox's Palo Alto Research Centre -- which invented the mouse, the graphical user interface, the local area network, and laser printing -- was similar.

    So let us assume (c) is important, but what if we were to drop it from the equation? Will there be advantages from the escape from the tyranny of geography, or of proximity? Is it possible to make distance education world-class, and can one reach out to not hundreds or thousands, but millions and billions of students? This is precisely the question that is now being raised by several intriguing institutions.

    Now distance education is not new, and it has never been considered particularly effective: I have observed how, even with high-bandwidth two-way video and competent television-camera operators, it is still an unsatisfactory experience merely to be simulcasting between, say, Bangalore and Chennai.

    The instructor and the students are both left with a feeling of incompleteness in this action at a distance. And most educationists and employers do not consider open university programmes or distance-education programmes to be on par with the, as it were, real thing.

    But what the folks at Udacity, MITx, Khan Academy and Minerva are attempting to do is to use technology to bring university-level education to anybody who has a broadband connection, regardless of where they physically are in the world. I listened to an intriguing extended conversation with representatives of all the above.

    MIT (The Massachusetts Institute of Technology) started going down this path some years ago with its Open CourseWare (OCW) project which did something startling at the time: it put the course syllabi and curricula as well as presentation material on the web for free download. Admittedly, you were not going to get the equivalent of an MIT education merely by sitting at home and studying OCW material, which is rather sparse. An obvious lacuna was the absence of any certification or diploma.

    But it turns out that many educationists believe that the widespread availability of high-bandwidth connections makes the system ripe for a little old-fashioned disruption. The best example of the rise of the distributed campus is the Khan Academy, pioneered by Bangladeshi-American Salman Khan. The trove of videos at focuses mostly on school-level material, but the material is popular with people all over the world. So we have ways of providing (a).

    MITx, according to its director Anant Agarwal, a professor of computer science and electrical engineering at the school, is adding (b) to the mix. MITx offers people the ability to take classes remotely, and be administered tests and to gain MIT certification as well. Thus, one could, theoretically at least, gain a quasi-full-fledged MIT degree, as it were, in the mail.

    Udacity goes one step further. It is a startup created by Sebastian Thrun, formerly a tenured professor of computer science at Stanford, and also a vice-president at Google. Thrun taught a class in artificial intelligence at Stanford to 200 students; as an experiment he opened it out on the web. Roughly 150,000 students signed up from some 40 countries, of which over 20,000 successfully completed the course and got Stanford certificates.

    This experiment convinced Thrun was this sort of massive online programme was feasible, hence Udacity. At the moment, they are offering a bunch of computer science courses, as they are perhaps easiest to do online. They intend to offer certifications from Stanford.

    The Minerva Project is the newest addition. It is an online-only, 'elite' university concept floated by a former Silicon Valley CEO, Ben Nelson; it has raised some $25 million in venture capital and intends to compete with the top universities in the US by offering high-end programmes.

    In an interview with the San Jose Mercury News Nelson explained his vision: to provide first-rate education comparable to that which is available from the best universities in the world.

    Nelson is not competing with the free online content available; he plans to start in 2014 with courses in the humanities, computer science, social science, and business -- obviously subjects in which physical manipulation of objects (as in, say engineering or the physical sciences) is not necessary.

    Will these attempts dislodge the traditional university? Perhaps not; but surely they can act as complementary sources of education. (C), that is, the ability to form serendipitous associations, is surely important, although much can be done online through alumni social groups.

    The fact is that the process of admissions has become corrupted over time. As the Minerva Project implies on its Web site, many American universities now give undue credit in their application process to 'lineage, athletic ability, state or country of origin, or capacity to donate'. Minerva implies that it can start with a clean slate, with the only criterion being academic ability.

    What is tragic is that nobody in India seems to be aware of these disruptive innovations in the education market. There is clearly a huge hunger for education (although a cynic might say the hunger is only for the degree) -- so much so that youngsters brave racism and physical violence to go to places like the US and Australia (where there was an epidemic of assaults on Indian students in the last year or two).

    This is a huge economic loss as well. It is believed that foreign students bring in more than $10 billion into the Australian economy every year: Nothing to be sneezed at.

    India was from time immemorial the center of education in Asia. Students flocked to its Nalandas and Takshasilas from all over. Even today, despite the paucity of research universities, the faculty in India are talented enough to appeal to foreign students. So why isn't India jumping on the move to digital universities? After all, the biggest problem with Indian universities today is the lack of facilities -- if that can be removed at one stroke, why wouldn't that appeal to foreign students?

    But more importantly, what about Indian students? Should the nation be spending large amounts of money on new campuses that will soon be obsolete eyesores in ten years? (We all know that maintenance and upkeep of buildings is not one of the strengths of the Indian public sector.) In fact, this building boom in universities is merely a belated, half-hearted response to China's $100 billion spending to create 100 top universities. The Chinese, as usual, are going about it methodically, but the Indian government is simply throwing money at hare-brained ideas.

    It is widely believed that Indians are good at software; in that case, if there is investment in broadband access (possibly on mobile devices) following the Khan, Udacity and Minerva model might mean that Indian students in remote places can get the best of education. In fact, there had been some half-hearted efforts to create course material at major universities and put them online; I have no idea what happened.

    On second thoughts, perhaps it is just as well that the Indian efforts at online education have flopped. Maybe that way we will be spared yet another embarrassment along the lines of: a. the $10 computer (which turned out to be a thumb-drive), b. the $35 tablet (which turned out to be unusable).

    On the other hand, if enlightened private sector philanthropists were to create online universities, maybe we finally will get, among other things, a world-class Institute of the Humanities -- a crying need in India, as the country does not produce geographers, historians, and other specialists the country needs to understand the complexities of a globalised world.

    In an era where manufacturing may return to the West because of a third industrial revolution based on technologies like 3-D printing (see the Economist magazine of April 21st), it would be criminal if India were to fumble.

    This time, the basis of competitive advantage will be software and intellectual property, not brick and mortar factories and assembly lines, and so the digital revolution in education is coming at a most opportune time for India.

    Leadership in this is something India could seize, if only it had the vision.

    You can read Rajeev Srinivasan's earlier columns here.

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