Atanu Dey On India's Development

Hi-tech Puzzle

I am a big fan of using technology in education. Information and communications technology (ICT) is tailor-made for application in education. What I don’t understand is why some people are going on about the use of “wireless, low-orbiting satellite, fiber-optic” communications in the context of education. Those hi-tech channels are clearly required when the information is dynamic and real-time, such as in the case of market information and sports events. But what does one gain by beaming down static information — say, history or physics content — as opposed to delivering it as a book (if the information is purely text and pictures), as a DVD if it is audio-video-text, or as content on a hard drive (if the content is rich as well as interactive)?

In other words, “reference information” could of course be delivered real-time but I still don’t understand why it should be. I see a point in beaming down “incremental information” in real time, though. But educational content is not “incremental” — it is reference. Especially so in the case of lower levels of education — say up to and including most undergraduate areas.

I keep in mind my own educational experience. I went to a school (same one from grade 1 to 11) and by all standards, had very limited information. I recall that we had fewer than a dozen textbooks for every grade. They were not massive tomes. They were fairly slim. My estimate is that the information that was contained in all those books would easily fit on a single DVD with room to spare.

My point is that it is not the humongous amount of information that is necessary for a quality education. It is sufficient to sit very quietly with a little bit of information and internalize it appropriately. A bit of uninterrupted time, a bit of good information, a bit of sweat and a bit of inquisitiveness helped most of us get educated. It may have been great if we had Macs and Digital Whiteboards and low-orbiting satellites and digital editing suits and quadruphonic surround sound and IPods and iPhones and Facebook and MySpace and YouTube and broadband internet connections. Or maybe not. I know that I would have ended up futzing around on the web and flunking basic arithmetic.

I could be mistaken. Perhaps some genetic mutation has occurred in the intervening years since I went to school and suddenly kids cannot learn unless they are immersed up to their necks in high-tech gizmos. Perhaps they have lost the ability to learn from internalizing a bit of information. Perhaps they have to be simultaneously SMSing their pals, surfing the web, downloading gazillion giga-bytes of information, creating their digital profiles on FaceBook, capturing hi-def video and editing them to actually learn the basics.

I just don’t know.

  • Lalit

    Hi Atanu,
    Have you seen http://wikipedia.org ?
    It’s the best answer to your question.

    “”reference information” could of course be delivered real-time but I still don’t understand why it should be.”

    I think information of any kind if democratic by nature, just check the different versions of history different governments try to teach. If it is democratic, it needs to be fluid as well. What was more important to us in mathematics isn’t same for today’s 12year olds so it would needs to be fluid, user influenced or even user generated. Not all the reference books can explain you things as well as a great teacher can or a great student via his nice readable notes !!!
    Just too many issues here to just write off advance technology in Education.
    Cheers,

  • http://randomriff.blogspot.com Anand

    Atanu,

    Agree with you on the ‘quantity’ argument. But we should remember that back in school, we didn’t learn just from our slim textbooks – we learnt from our teachers interpreting that material for us as well. And obviously, there were good teachers who did a great job of making things so easy to understand, and there were the others who couldn’t, or wouldn’t.

    I think we must use technology to not only deliver just the content, but that quality learning experience. It’s not only enough to sit quietly and internalize, it would be great if someone (or something, technology-wise) can sit alongside and help in that process. And obviously, having a technology that is a great store of info but largely passive just won’t cut it.

    So if today’s kids are immersed in gizmos, I think it’s also because there is not much quality stuff out there that arrests their attention strongly enough to make them want to learn.

    And on the ‘beaming’ thing – perhaps it’s to do with some notion of protecting IP for the content provider. It’s probably much easier to rip an educational DVD rather than capture streaming stuff (but I could be wrong). Plus, ‘beaming’ can be used to replicate a live learning dynamic experience (as against static content stuff) as much as possible, in a real-time format.

    My two cents.

  • http://occamsrazr.com Ike

    Lalit – I disagree. Wikipedia is the WORST answer to that question.

    A quality pre-collegiate education occurs when one learns to collect data, critically interpret, and solve for a problem. Along the way, there are certain baseline facts that are useful to impart.

    Wikipedia is built on a paradigm of openness, which is usually good but not for the purpose of elementary education. “Facts” can change quickly, but if we’re focusing on daily trivia then we’re putting facts above thinking and losing the emphasis.

    Let me rephrase things in an economic sense: You tell me how much it would cost to wire a developing nation to consume the modern internet at full bandwidth – and I’ll tell you how you could better spend the money. What Atanu isn’t expressing overtly is the need to raise expectations. Small investments to foster economic freedom and possibility give parents hope their children can be substantially better-off. Parental involvement in making education a priority has a far larger payoff than giving every child access to Facebook and Wikipedia.

    Every question of economics isn’t “yes or no” in a vacuum. It’s a question of opportunity costs – and Atanu has hit this one squarely on the head. Why not pursue a model of information sharing that delivers in a cheaper and more robust fashion? If your science books reflect that man has yet to land on the moon, then we have a problem to address. Having instant online access to Buzz Aldrin’s Wikipedia entry to catch the latest link to an article about him is NOT worth the infrastructure costs.

  • Lalit

    Hi Ike,
    Good to hear a completely conflicting perspective. Also interesting to see the results of a technocrat(me) talking to you who I am assuming is not a technocrat.
    Yes, cost of wiring a nation could be huge. So is the solution to spend that amount on exponential number of books and teachers according to you? Or should we think about getting the information to every one in better/cheaper ways? That’s what technology intends to do. Take example of wireless internet, a cheaper way to get internet to everyone, another is OLPC and I can go on. By no means these efforts are complete, but I do not understand the point of writing high technology off from any vertical leave alone education, where technology possibly could be the only chance to educate everyone in the world. Pardon me if my economic views are naive. It’s not really my background but yes I learned plenty of basics (not just reference information, basics) from wiki free of cost and my belief is that technology always provides a cheaper and scalable solution eventually. And yes, it needs some patience. Having said that there have been people in world who had wrote off computing and telephony, which make for good anecdotes. So may be Atanu will find a place in my anecdotes when I grow old ..:-)
    Cheers,

  • http://www.icon.org.in George

    This might be a little off tangent. Education – the process in learning by interaction to produce tangible results using internet. I am involved with a e mail discussion group,where it broke off from initial discusions on faith to providing help by charity etc. and it somehow for last seven years die out . Some of the work is shown on the webpage.
    Apart from this , how can we use the technology to teach ,to offer education, to assist India , not the India of cities, but the rural villages – Any pointers or direction for me to look up

  • http://helloyash.blogspot.com Yashpal

    Ya, I totally agree with your views, and even I wonder about it. I think, there’s no need to get such geeky @ such a tender age.

  • http://onlyvoid.blogspot.com Shivani

    ICT can be used to generate interest and enhance the exploration – Given the boundaries and needs.

    Specific to the subject & adding an element of enjoyment to the process of learning.

  • Abhijat

    Oh, the so often confused distinction between media and content! ICT is but one medium; what rides the waves is what matters. “Content free” describes our education system, in which case it is irrelevant to distinguish between it’s being a “reference” or “incremental” ;) , or how cheap/efficient/scalable etc. the media is.

    The media choices are many, and are the result of good technology. But I find a disturbing paucity of discussions and debate about content creation, and scaling it up to mass levels. Well, to be honest, there are a number of attempts at content creation, and very creative ones at that. However, it’s scalability is not well attended to :( .

  • Observer

    To comment on your last statement “I dont know” – two thoughts come to my mind:

    a) It is a case of businesses overselling the case of ICT in Education
    or
    b) You are using incorrect frames of reference

    let me expand a little on both of these:

    a) I too am a big fan of using ICT for education, and typical discussions on this topic usually involves Public-Private-Partnerships usually say Unesco+IT Companies+Target country where some ICT project is being used to further Education. In my experience in such projects, there is usually an underlying unspoken commercial interest.

    Most of the times this commercial interest has a good sense of when to sell, how much to sell and when not to shut up… but at times they do make statements which end up on blogs like yours questioning what the purpose of those statements are!

    b) On the frames of reference… well having “wireless, low-orbiting satellite, fiber-optic” is a necessity for the next generation always online and connected kids in the OECD countries…. Beeb says that Bill Gates by the age of 17, had sold his first program – a timetabling system for the school, earning him $4,200 and this was like 1975 ! So using your own experiences in school may not be the best reference frame to think about ICT in education!

    cheers