On the future of education and technology

In what is to follow, I will focus on what is a core concern of this blog: education and related matters. One thing is certain in a world of uncertainty: the system will change. So I would like to ponder the direction and magnitude of the change. It is also certain that the change will be technology based and in a sense will be technology driven. I will take some lessons from books and the web. One book that I have spent some time with recently is “The Race between Education and Technology” by Goldin and Katz. I would also like to touch upon the the future of universities. My point of departure is that technology will have a disruptive influence on them.

But first, here is an anecdote which I believe is indicative of the present malaise of the Indian education system. The system has never been very good but even compared to its own non-illustrious past, it fails disastrously in the present. I stress that this is an anecdote only but I do believe that it has wider implications.

Last evening, I was talking to a sibling’s son. Here’s how the conversation went.
Me: So which grade do you go to?

Sibling’s son: I will be going to class 12 after this summer vacation.

M: Which school?

SS: I go to college.

M: What’s it called?


M: What does that stand for?

SS: Don’t know.

(One of the parental units added that the “K” probably stands for Kirloskar or something.)

M: So you don’t even know what the expansion of “RYK” is? Did it ever cross you mind to find out?

SS: No.

M: So what are the fees?

SS: Six thousand rupees.

M: Is that per day, per week, per month, per year, or what?

SS: Per year. And two thousand for IT.

M: So you pay about eight thousand a year as tuition?

SS: No, I go for tuition as well. I don’t go to college at all. Nobody goes to classes. We all go to tuition and only during exam time do we go and appear for the exams at the college.

(Parental unit: They don’t even take attendance at the college. We just pay the fees and that is that.)

M: How much do your “tuitions” cost?

SS: About 12 thousand for maths, for physics and chemistry about 30 thousand.

M: Is that per month or per year or what?

SS: Per year.

M: So what is it that you learn at “tuitions” that you cannot get in the college you pay tuition fees to?

SS: I don’t know.

M: I suppose you have heard of these things called “books.” Did you know that you can actually learn stuff by reading the books?


M: I hope you realize that no amount of paying money for “tuitions” is going to magically make you understand the subject. What you need to do is to put in effort. If money were the essential ingredient in the process of learning something — and not effort — clearly the rich would all be learned without having to lift a finger.

Thus ended the short conversation. I told the parental units that the problem is that they are basically making their son stupid by giving him the false impression that learning has something to do with paying a lot of money to “tuition.” What is being missed in the whole exercise is the main lesson: that you have to read stuff to understand stuff. No one else can read it on your behalf.

They complained about their son to me. This is most bizarre that they are complaining about their son to me. He’s not my responsibility. They are responsible for creating the problem in the first place. They said that he refuses to sit with his books until his demands are met. His demands? Yes, he demands this particular cell phone and that particular sneakers. Cell phone? He demands cell phones? Yes, because all his friends have the latest models and their parents buy them stuff and so he must have them as well. Otherwise he refuses to study. And so the Rs 15K phone and the Rs 3.5K sneakers. And then does he study? No. He listens to music on this cell phone — which he is forced to do because the parents refused to get him an iPod. And he plays the guitar.

And what if you don’t give in to his demands, I asked. Then the boy threatens to leave home. Which he has done a few times already.

So basically, I told the parents, you have rewarded his unreasonable behavior with goodies and thus reinforced the behavior. The kid now knows that all he has to do is threaten to leave home and he will get his way.

This case is not the only case I know of lately. The details are somewhat different but the script is essentially the same. Another of my siblings had a similar story. And a friend in Mumbai told me the same story about their son. They send the kid to Dhirubhai Ambani school at an eye-popping cost of Rs 6,00,000 a year. Then they have to engage tutors for the kid’s “tuition.” And then the parents have to beg, plead and cajole the boy to study for a bit instead of being on his cell phone or on the web surfing for god alone knows what.

It may appear as if the kids are screwing up. I don’t think the kids are the problem. It’s the adults who are primarily to blame. And the retarded system of “education.” It needs change. Too bad that the change will happen too late to help the present kids.

It’s all karma, neh?

[Continue on to part 2 of “The future of Education and Technology.“]

7 thoughts on “On the future of education and technology

  1. I think its the guilt in the minds of parent that prompts them to get carried away by the thought that whatever they dint get in their childhood they will bestow it on their kids.

    I personally was educated in government schools of worst possible quality, sitting on floor, leaking roof sort of schools. I too had passion for gadgets which my parents could not afford.

    I never believed in traditional education system. As a student I skipped lunch to save money and spend it later in cybercafes.
    I helped innumerable students doing their final year projects and for thesis for masters students.

    Difficult to say where exactly knowledge resides, whether just inside 4 walls of school, whether it is outside school, inside books or outside books. I am still searching an answer to this question.

    While I attended an engineering college and got my degree there I am still hungry for getting education from a top college. I answered GATE so many times and despite coming in top 3% all the time I could not get admission into IITs.

    But I doubt even those institutions to be something ideal.


  2. Atanu, I’m actually reading a book called “Behaviour Modification” by Garry Martin and Joseph Pear, and what you narrated above is a classic case of reinforcement of behaviour through incentives and stimulus control.

    And I don’t think the system of education is to blame for this (at least not squarely). The peer pressure is what is leading the boy to make these demands initially, and then what is born out of love (with all good intentions) is soon transformed into something beyond the parents’ control. So one place to find the root of the problem is not just the boys parents but the collective whole of parents of his friends or his peer group who buy them expensive gifts indiscriminately, and thus unleash a vicious circle.

    Unfortunately, for those fortunate enough to have their parents’ businesses to fall back on, they’ll tide over and live like the nobles of yore — blissfully unaware of where or how the money comes from. For some, however, this realization dawns later on when they have to settle for a lot less simply because they don’t have enough capital behind themselves to keep the show running. So what should one do?

    But I completely agree with you on the point that the kids aren’t the problem.


  3. agree with sudipta on some parts… yet, i don’t think gifts being ‘expensive’ has to do anything with this… whatever the gift is, the problem arises when we make that gift as a reward of something which the kid is anyways supposed to do… studies is just one of them… we see around us instances where a kid is rewarded for finishing meal as well… ‘beta if you finish your meal, i’ll do so and so for you’ or ‘if you stop beating other kids around you, i’ll bring you this…’

    so the kid learns very early that by ‘not eating’ or by ‘not studying’ or by ‘not behaving properly’, they can manipulate the parents behaviour. i have always believed that kids are very manipulative. and when they get a success at an early age, this manipulative behaviour becomes a part of their character for the rest of their lives.


  4. possibly our ‘education system’ doesn’t have any logical ‘rewarding structure’. this is the reason why the parents have to introduce one.

    i know one of my cousin and a few friends who moved out of india while they were still in schools. in all the instances, they performed brilliantly after they continued study in US. in fact it should have been difficult for them being called average students here but ironically (i was really surprised when i knew this) with the ‘credits’ they achieved there, they won exemption and could literally skip a few months (or year(s)). they were directly promoted to higher standards.

    i don’t know from where it starts but till we know the root cause, we won’t be able to solve this… but at the same time, i am sure its not only the education system.

    ”even when we all know the problem we don’t change it. we don’t act. it sounds cynical, but, its the truth that i cannot do anything about it. they say vote them out or vote them in… but i don’t see any political will to bring change in any of the parties. i am looking for some opportunity to get into politics but a fear of being alone haunts me. how far will i be able to go? so i won’t act. ”

    right or wrong, this is the thought in every indian’s mind.


  5. I agree with your concern about the shallowness induced by modern technology. Leave aside the kids, I myself jump from blog-to-blog, and I refuse to call this blog-thirst as knowledge-thirst in anyway. I refuse to rate the blog-thirst over mp3-thirst of the kid you mentioned. Shallowness is the bane here. I consider myself fortunate that internet did not show up when I was growing up.

    On a different note, in the following bit of conversation you seem extremely avuncular. The real bengali term I would have liked to use is ‘jyatha-marka-kotha-barta’. The kid must have been thorougly scared or thoroughly irritated.
    M: I suppose you have heard of these things called “books.” Did you know that you can actually learn stuff by reading the books?


    Anyways, let me wish…. oh wait. Let me wish in your shubho-noboborsho post rather.


  6. I hope you realize that no amount of paying money for “tuitions” is going to magically make you understand the subject. What you need to do is to put in effort. If money were the essential ingredient in the process of learning something — and not effort — clearly the rich would all be learned without having to lift a finger.

    Do you mean to say that given a good set of textbooks, an intelligent boy who can’t afford ‘coaching’ can get into IIT ? Having appeared twice for the JEE, I can vouch for the fact that its not just the appreciation and understanding of the subjects that matters in JEE. You need to have a lot of experience solving a million models of problems, so that you can answer a question lightning quick and move on to the next. No matter how intelligent you are, if you haven’t attended any tutorials, you’ll be thrashed by a boy who has gained a vast experience solving the similar type of questions a zillion times in a million ‘practice tests’. In fact if you care to take a statistic of the proportion of students who get through the JEE without any ‘tutorial or coaching’ programs, I’m sure it will be very very very close to Zero. Even rural middle class students are ready to invest huge amounts of money for these tutorials as JEE is the only chance in their lives to make it big. I personally know many rural people who went as far as to sell their land to send their wards to coaching classes.


  7. Although books are necessary so is a tutor.

    There is a cyclic effect of tutions wherein students don’t get lectures at junior colleges and so need at least someone.

    It was fairly common in my time to see the same lecturer not teach at the junior college but teach at one of these tution classes.


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