Atanu Dey On India's Development

Re-inventing Education — Part 2 (The Imperatives of Technology)

To think of technology as know-how is immensely useful. At its core, technology is knowledge. The artifacts of technology are essentially embodied-knowledge. Some of this technology is very sophisticated and we call it “hi-tech”. Examples of technological artifacts with embodied knowledge abound such as nuclear bombs, computers, DVD players, cell phones, shoes that make irritating squeaky noises and light up, digital cameras, jet planes, drugs that help people have fun, spam and spyware, laser guided cruise missiles, satellites, search engines, triple heart-pass surgeries, and nanotechnology.

Then there is lo-tech. How to cultivate a field and grow something is low technology. Or how to make a good meal using basic ingredients. Or how to make a glazed pot. All of which requires knowledge and often is the result of knowledge passed on and accumulated over centuries. So when we think of technology, it is good to remember that it means more than just digital technology.

Even within hi-tech, I like to categorize them into

  1. Advanced and immature
  2. Advanced and mature
  3. Intermediate
  4. Primary

Silicon based very high density chip technology is advanced and mature while nanotechnology is advanced but immature. Rocket science is intermediate technology, while car manufacturing is primary technology.

What distinguishes hi-tech from lo-tech is that hi-tech requires what I call deep back-ends for manufacture and use. Without the back end infrastructure, you cannot even use hi-technology, leave alone manufacture it. This fact we neglect to our own peril and examples of unsuccessful transplanting of high technology into areas without the back-end support are legion.

As time goes by, human knowledge increases and consequently the amount of stuff with embodied knowledge also increases. All this new-fangled stuff expands what we economists call the production possibilities frontier or PPF. That is, using the same amount of labor and capital (land and machines), we can produce more stuff. In other words, we get to the same place more efficiently by a different method. Let me repeat that: we use technology not for the heck of it but to accomplish some goal. Better technology allows us to accomplish the same goal more efficiently. That immediately implies that we have to do things differently using newer technology than what we used to do
before
.

For instance, the goal is to live in a comfortably cool house in a hot climate. Given available technology, one builds a house with very very thick walls and very very high ceilings so that the insides remain cool. Then one day, electricity comes into the area and using electric fans is an option. So it is an easy choice: keep the house and stick some electric fans to make it more comfortable. Then one day, air-conditioners become available. That is a more disruptive technology. If you just stick in air-conditioners into the existing structure, you are going to be inefficient. Now the house does not need those huge thick walls and high ceilings. Low ceilings and thinner walls will do quite well and so you can even build more rooms on the same amount of land. You have therefore expanded your production possibilities frontier by using technology. But you have to change the structure entirely to get the benefits of the new technology.

The punch line is this: disruptive technology increase the production possibilities frontier, and to obtain the gains from that technology, you may have to replace the older structure with one that is more consonant with the new technology.

We have to keep in mind that the structure (the house) was there for a specific purpose (a comfortable living space) and the structure was dictated by the available technology. When the technology changed, the purpose was invariant but the stucture must be changed if one wishes to make full use of the new technology. Basically, keep the baby and dump the bathwater, as they say. Better still, if new “dry-clean baby” technology becomes available, you can get rid of the wash-basin as well.

Last time I started talking about re-inventing education in a world where IT has advanced beyond recognition compared to what it used to be when the present structure for delivering education was created. Time is now upon us to think about using that ICT in the service of education. My contention is that the old structure is in dire need of replacing if we want to — indeed we have to — expand the production possibilites frontier for producing education. I argue in this series that we have to move away from teacher-centric education to a learning-centric education. I will defend the position that we have to tear down the existing structure and build from the ground up. Merely tacking on ICT tools to the present structure will not do because while our purpose remains the same, the rules have changed.

{To be continued.}