Re-inventing Education in a Brave New IT World

He that will not apply new remedies must expect new evils for time is the greatest innovator.

Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626)

Last week I presented a paper on ICT and education at a conference in Bhopal organized by the All India Society for Electronics and Computer Technology. In the paper I explored the opportunity the current state of the art of information technologies (IT) provides for re-inventing education.

I have been looking for a compact definition of education. I don’t want just a dictionary definition. I want to understand what education is at its most generalized and fundamental level. I have spent the major part of my life in educational institutions in India and abroad and it appears that the rest of my existence is going to be even more inextricably bound with education. Of course, I will continue my education till the day that I shuffle off this mortal coil. But I have a sneaking suspicion that I will also be professionally involved with the education of others.

Thus both for personal and professional reasons, I have to understand what education is. One way to approach it would to have an instrumental definition which explores what education allows a person to be and to do. Education enables a person to increase his capacity to draw from the store of accumulated human knowledge, which in turn allows him a more comprehensive understanding of his own self and of the world around him.

The activity of education is the sole preserve of intelligent self-aware entities. Lower animals are generally incapable of learning from the experiences of others. Some higher primates and intelligent animals such as dolphins, elephants, domesticated animals and some birds display some capacity to learn. But they don’t have a store of accumulated knowledge that they can tap into.

The invariant core purpose of education then appears to be that it allows us to use, and subsequently, build upon the accumulated knowledge. We have to learn at least some part of the existing knowledge, use some part of that to function more efficiently in the world, and then add to that store of knowledge.

Since the dawn of civilization, the store of knowledge has steadily increased. The rate of increase has now accelerated and the stock of knowledge is growing exponentially. This has some major implications for education because unless one has a good handle on the existing stock of knowledge, one cannot meaningfully use it nor add to it.

Education today faces a challenge. Part of that challenge arises due to its past successes. I call it the “supply-side” part: the stock is too huge already and the flow seems to be exponentially increasing. There is a complementary “demand-side” challenge: there are immense numbers of people who need to be educated. The combined effect of two increases the cost of education. In this short series I will explore the use of ICT in meeting the challenge.

There was a time when the supply-side problem was non-existent. About 2,000 years ago, an individual lifetime was more than sufficient for a person to learn all that was essentially known about the world. One could potentially know all that was known in the sciences, the arts, politics, medicine, and philosophy. On the demand side, the number of people that needed to be educated was also manageably small. Now no one can even imagine knowing more than a vanishingly small fraction of one narrow field of human knowledge. The best one can do today is learn the basics of a small set of general subjects such as a few sciences, some social sciences, some basic mathematics, and a little bit of biological sciences. Then one has to specialize into being an accountant or an engineer or a plumber or a programmer.

The present education system was developed during a time when both the supply- and demand-side problems were non-existent. Therefore it is not surprising that it is unable to confront the new realities. Futhermore, the present model matured when the powerful tools of information and communications technologies (ICT) did not exist. I argue that because there are new problems, the education system has to be reworked so that it can successfully confront the new realities. I further argue that the advent of ICT tools force us to radically rethink how the structure of our educational institutions.

It will become very clear that the old structure that was built to satisfy the core objective of education is no longer up to the challenges it faces. There is a core invariant aim of education. The invariance is relative to the structure we have built around it. It is time to tear down that structure and build a new structure. My contention is that the new structure has to incorporate within it the use of ICT tools. It is my aim to show that merely plugging in the new technology into the existing structure will not work. Finally, I will propose a mechanism which will make education more efficient and effective even in the presense of the twin challenges. That mechanism will be designed to use the powerful tools of ICT.

You never change something by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.

Buckminster Fuller