Monday, May 14, 2012

Revamp the Education Machine

by Harsh Agarwal

Last year I attended a lecture, delivered by Prof. Ashutosh Varshney of Brown University on India’s emergence as a key player in the global economy. In his lecture, Prof. Varshney drew an interesting comparison between the gilded age (1865-1900) of the United States and the present economic boom in India. He spoke of myriad issues including corruption, economic divide, growing resentment among poor, people’s distrust towards government and political class along with rapid economic development and sharp rise in per capita income witnessed in the past few years in India and how this cocktail of events is similar to what happened in the US during the second half of the 19th century when America saw the greatest period of economic growth in its history and went on to become the economic superpower thereafter. Prof. Varshney’s layer by layer analysis made me ecstatic and highly optimistic of India’s forthcoming economic success. However I know there is a caveat, sustained economic growth in any part of the world depends on constant supply of two critical factors – capital investment and quality human resource- and deficiency of any of these factors could prove this comparison wrong. And, two experiences since that lecture made me realise that India’s ‘gilded age’ is strewn with several obstacles and it is a tough road ahead for us before we actually see ourselves as an economically developed nation.

First- I work on the issue of ragging prevalent especially in professional colleges, which also attract the brightest students of our country. Last year I went on a nationwide tour and visited MBA, Engineering and Medical colleges in over 20 cities across India and interacted with students to find out the reason why they indulge in ragging. On my interaction with students I failed to find any logic in what they said in support of ragging as I firmly believe that torture or humiliation of even slightest form can never be justified. When I asked them if they have heard of ragging in other countries, several students spoke of racists attacks on Indians in Australia as incidents of ragging abroad. It appeared from these interactions that students lacked their own opinion and reasoning and were speaking the age-old myths of ragging ingrained in them by their seniors. In these interactions I was not disappointed so much by the display of students support to ragging as I was to the display of lack of mental independence and individual thinking by these bright young minds.

Second- I recently attended a conference at Mahamaya Technical University on the issue of growing divide between the industry and academia and thus poor placement trends in professional colleges. Prof. Kak, Vice-Chancellor, MTU in his keynote address said that every year approximately ten lakh students passing out from professional colleges in India fail to find a suitable job. He added that if each student spends an average of Rs. Four lakh to obtain that degree then we can imagine the huge sum of national income (roughly Rs. 40,000 crore) that fails to achieve the objective for which it was spent and goes waste every year. During the discussion people from academia blamed poor English speaking ability and weak personality of these students as the main reason for poor employment. It was amusing to hear this as I could not comprehend how good English and good personality would make an engineer useful to the industry but the core engineering skills for which he paid the tuition fees has no significance whatsoever with industry’s requirement. It was strange to see that except one gentleman, who subtly talked about the poor quality of education in our country, everybody else found fault only with the soft skills of the students. In that meeting I felt we are perhaps living with denial and not acknowledging that with time the need of the industry has changed manifolds but our education has failed to keep pace with the changing need. It is time we must accept that only the core skill and not soft skill can fill this academia-industry gap.

It is ironical but true that man faces toughest competition from the machines he himself creates. This phenomenon is inevitable and an integral part of the evolutionary process that we all have to go through. To overcome this problem man has no choice but to keep evolving with time and make education his greatest tool to help him stay ahead in this man versus machine race. Early industrial development saw the advent of machines that replaced human beings in areas where human intervention for physical activities was required and was once seen indispensable. In future, with industrial development moving to next level, human beings who are considered skilled for merely possessing knowledge would start losing their significance once machines with artificial intelligence and knowledge database start encroaching this territory too- which is already happening and is only going to escalate with time. Classic example of this is a computer playing game of chess. Today we can programme and feed all possible chess moves in a computer and it can easily defeat even the best chess player of the world. Recently IBM proposed to launch computer that will be capable of 20,000 trillion calculations per second - a feat which even the entire human population on this planet if put together can never achieve. With time machine will be able to defeat us in many more spheres however it will never be able to go past us in our distinctive ability to think and ideate.

Modern education therefore has the task to produce students who are ‘sophisticated thinking gadgets’ with advance ability to co-relate and process information and produce newer information and ideas. Conventional education system that churns out students who are merely ‘memory devices’ and capable of only performing menial knowledge based assignments involving basic level of thinking has no future but will soon be redundant. Today with emergence of various sources of information and communication channels and their access becoming simpler and widespread, professors in US universities have already started talking about the redundancy of orthodox lecture system and contemplating of newer ways to keep the meaningfulness of student- teacher interaction alive. Sadly in this paradigm shift taking place in education, India seems to be lagging far behind in not even able to produce enough quality workforce to suffice the demand of the industry ushered by the current economic growth let alone gearing up for the future need.

In India whenever we discuss reform in education unfortunately our focus gets fixed on augmenting number of schools and colleges, increasing enrollment rate, providing more money for better infrastructure, more facilities for research and higher funding by the government. But we never talk of the fundamental changes needed in the way we impart education, methods used by teachers in teaching students, examination system, and admission to colleges by way of entrance exams and designing of curriculum. When we critically evaluate our education we become too defensive on the issue of quality of our education. According to the Global Competitive Index of World Economic Forum (2005), India ranks at the top in terms of the availability of science and technology personnel and yet we don’t figure anywhere in rankings for research and innovation. This highlights an important fact that problem is not with the quantity but with the quality of our education.

The most important prerequisite for research or innovation is not money but an environment to encourage inquisitive mind and original thinking right from the school level. Unfortunately we have a culture in our schools where teachers intimidate and ridicule students who ask questions. As a result students develop tendency to start accepting things without questioning or analysing them. Moreover we have the culture whereby students are rewarded if they are able to replicate matter from the text books into the answer sheet. This not only leads to rote learning habit among students but also leaves them with poor articulation ability. Our examination system is another area that needs massive redesigning. Competitive exams, especially the ones based on multiple choice questions, are doing more harm than good. Most of these entrance exams in India simply test the memorizing ability and how much effort student has invested in practicing questions from competition guides. We also have the problem of students being made to go through number of exams in a year that only keeps them engaged in the preparation and eventually makes them develop aversion to studies. Prof. C N Rao, scientific advisor to the Prime Minister’s Council recently said that in India we have examination system rather than education system. Lastly, we need to give serious thought to the syllabus we design for different courses. We not only need to keep outdated and irrelevant content out but also make sure that syllabus does not become bulky. It is important that students have enough space to assimilate what they learn and co-relate this learning with the real life experiences.

Today when I analyse Prof. Varshney’s comparison of gilded age in light of the two experiences I have had, I see two possibilities emerging from here on, either our orthodox education system will fail us and stall the development process or with time and accumulation of bad experiences, economic development itself will push us bring much needed qualitative reforms in education. HRD Ministry in recent times initiated some right reforms but still a lot needs to be done.

So, how will India’s ‘gilded age’ unfold in near future? Only time will tell.