[ To Express, To Reflect, To Give Back ]

India’s Education System – What to make out of it?

Friday, April 15th, 2011

There is a group of journalist who blast India’s education system as horrendous while another group hails it as the next best thing for other educators to learn from!

Here is what a recent WSJ article titled “India Graduates Millions, but Too Few Are Fit to Hire” has this to say:

Business executives say schools are hampered by overbearing bureaucracy and a focus on rote learning rather than critical thinking and comprehension. Government keeps tuition low, which makes schools accessible to more students, but also keeps teacher salaries and budgets low. What’s more, say educators and business leaders, the curriculum in most places is outdated and disconnected from the real world.

Don’t lose heart just yet. A 2008 NYTimes artcile titled “Losing an Edge, Japanese Envy India’s Schools” has this to say:

Despite an improved economy, many Japanese are feeling a sense of insecurity about the nation’s schools, which once turned out students who consistently ranked at the top of international tests. That is no longer true, which is why many people here are looking for lessons from India, the country the Japanese see as the world’s ascendant education superpower.

What the heck is an average reader to make out of this?

Mass-produced graduates..

I am not any expert in India’s education, but for my personal interest in the subject and the credential as a product of India’s education system having spent about one half of my life in the classrooms of an average sub-urban public school and corridors of a private engineering college.

My take is India’s education system produces exactly the kind of graduates it is designed to “mass produce”. Since our schools (factories) and classes (production lines) are dealing with minds (of teachers and students) instead of machines, what results is simply a spectrum of output quality – many good ones, some bad ones and rest fall somewhere in between. Given the factory model with prescribed academic syllabus, I do not think any school or any teacher can mint 100% great pupils year after year – even with 100% great teachers.

By the way, did the WSJ article’s author and the HR executives referenced in it all jump straight from heaven? I mean seriously? They all must have went through the same damned Indian educational system and now that they are at the top of the food chain, they are looking down and blaming it?

Don’t mistake my angst for denial. Heck, even the much-adorned American education system is begging for change! So, indeed the Indian education needs wholesale, transformational changes! But that’s not an excuse to write-off the system altogether. Which is why I think both the articles above are somewhat ill-conceived and poorly positioned without context.

An quote by Paul Tosto summarizes my thought perfectly:

Hand-wringing over education seems to be a national pastime…The other guy always seems to be smarter. The other country always has better ideas. Our kids will end up chumps in the global economy unless we do what those guys do, etc.

The WSJ article reflects a narrow authorship and refers to the NASSCOM Assessment of Competence (NAC) employability tests that have been developed the BPO and the IT industry! While those two industries have been a boon for India, by no means they represent rest of India’s economy. Moreover, it is not as if only IITs and IIMs produce the stellar students. The growth engine of India is primarily fueled by the good load of students produced by the average schools and colleges in the last 20-30 years.

A while ago Fortune magazine chronicled the training facility of Infosys in Mysore, India.

..after the job offer, comes the real test: eight hours a day at Mysore studying lines of Java code, attending team-building workshops, and learning to differentiate the do’s of global workplace etiquette from the don’ts.

The sad truth is India’s colleges are not designed to impart employable skills. They exist to provide theoretical knowledge minting “raw” graduates with unparalleled uniformity. Like it or not, every employer has to mold, train and coach them to some extent to make them employable! A talented kid emerging out of India’s system of education is a by-product of that kid’s own commitment to learning, her parents commitment for positive support, the effect of indulgences from societal & peer pressures, and last, likely the least, the formal educational system she was part of.

Ultimately, the problem with India’s education sector is one of a systemic immaturity and solution has to be multi-pronged:

  1. Enrollment at the primary / secondary levels must improve.
  2. Parents and family members must play an active engage in a kid’s off-school learning.
  3. Learning curricula must aim to produce well-rounded graduates retaining certain level of individual character and innate uniqueness. Education must balance art, creativity, music, sports, thinking skills, behavioral, inter-personal skills besides the science, math and language.
  4. Government must privatize the primary / secondary educational services. Not only will that meet the growing population’s demand but will also stabilize quality.
  5. Most importantly, career development programs must start at the middle schools.
    Career development programs should expose the students to wide-range of post-secondary educational opportunties.
  6. Society at large, including corporations and formal/informal industries must actively partner with schools and universities to set right expectations on what’s needed from students after graduation.

It is all easier to list than getting it done. We have decades to go before we can convincingly enroll, educate, graduate and employ India’s younger generation. Until then, start thinking about how we must shift the paradigm and redefine education as we always knew it.

Khan way of Transforming Learning

Friday, April 1st, 2011

Listen, you want a glimpse of the future of education? How about Bill Gates vouching for it?

Even If you already know of Khan Academy, still take a few minutes to watch this latest TED Presentation. If you are patient enough, Bill Gates will join Sal Khan on stage around the 18th minute.

I stumbled upon Khan Academy last year, and since that time, he has gone from “somebody” to “the man”. His vision is rather unbelievable – educate the world for free on every topic! His story and rise to limelight is a worth a short film.

This story has been inspiring to me in many fronts. For one, he is making things happen for real. When million others are simply dreaming or talking about just ideas, he is out changing the face of learning, still one day or one video at a time. The realization of his vision in just the last few months is really commendable. They have create an innovative software to facilitate a non-invasive, individualized learning – augmented by the thousands of tutoring videos. Not only that, behind the screen, the software captures tremendous data for the teachers & tutors to evaluate a student’s performance and to have a constructive, thoughtful discussion for further learning and improvement. The best of today’s teachers are manually collating these type of data which takes away the time from focusing on their only goal of positively influencing the development of the students.

When most innovators are behind the startup wagon with a hope of making it big in an IPO, Sal is running this as a non-profit, a social enterprise as I like to think of it. I am certain money is never going to be an issue – even if Gates and Google don’t care for them, scores of philanthropists will line up to write a check for some who is truly impacting the lives of so many people across the world.

Let’s not forget, next to the gift of life, the second best gift to give anyone is education. If he can do that in a simple, easy way that anyone across the globe can use – I salute he is indeed “the man”.

Khan Academy already has a pilot program with Los Altos school district that is showing great promise. Now that he has assembled a fantastic team (I wish I could be part of this team and their mission!!), they are all set to fundamentally transform the way learning will happen in classrooms. No other company, including Microsoft, has been able to introduce this type of transformation. Which is likely why Bill Gates is backing Sal’s vision, besides using it himself to teach math to her daughter.

We need all the other dreamers to take Khan Academy truly global across languages and villages on a mission to educate the masses. Any takers from India?

Visual Communication & Teaching Techniques

Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010

Within the last couple of days, I have come across different sets of people and websites that are turning the dial on the visual communication techniques. One of them is using it to teach the world – from basic mathematics to biology to evolution theory. Another is using it to visually communicate powerful ideas from the concept of time to capitalism.

Met Sal Khan from Khan Academy. He has created thousands of video lessons, each around 10 minutes. You really have to visit his website to get a sense for breadth of the content he has created, pretty much all by himself, with just a computer and of course, lots of passion and dedication. His story was recently profiled in CNN Money and it appears he is slowly gaining the global media attention he needs to take this to mainstream. I found his interview in WorldChanging.com even more insightful than the CNN article. I always admire folks with such tenacity, and each one of them virtually knock my head reminding me one more time everyone can make a difference in the world if they we our mind to action. Although he has made tremendous progress with content and format innovation, distribution remains a challenge. It would be great for e.g. for an NGOs such as Pratham to partner with Khan in taking these lessons to schools across India (where there is at least a computer). Another idea is to forge a distribution partnership with forward-thinking publishers such as New Horizon Media. Of course, this needs to be done across many countries to get the best outcome for this laudable effort.

And then I stumbled upon a few videos made by some of creative folks at Cognitive Media based in UK. Based on notes taken during speeches, these guys created some great graphics and videos that’s more effective to synthesize, understand and absorb, cognitively, than if you hear the speeches (or read) without any visual component. You have to checkout a couple to see if these are as effective as I think they are. Perhaps, I am one of those people who is easily inspired, but nevertheless, their work of art, creativity and innovation has touched me.

I particular liked the two videos. The first one is an insightful one related to how money is really not a motivator when it comes to jobs that required cognitive skills (mostly knowledge work).

This other video talks about the geography of time and how younger generation are digitally wired, losing the social skills needed to interact as humans in the real world. At one point in the video, he says most kids don’t wear a watch these days – is it?

I saw a lot of similarities in the way Khan teaches and the Cognitive Media guys communicate. Both augment their audio with visuals – though Khan’s visuals are more down to earth and more-like-mine than UK boys who are professional artists.