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…and should education be not-for-profit?

The recent Right to Education Act being implemented from April 1,2010, is catching flak on a wide range of aspects. Advocates of the common school system, like Prof. Anil Sadgopal, want a school system that is defined as follows:

Common School System means the National System of Education that is founded on the principles of equality and social justice as enshrined in the Constitution and provides education of a comparable quality to all children in an equitable manner irrespective of their caste, creed, language, gender, economic or ethnic background, location or disability (physical or mental), and wherein all categories of schools – i.e. government, local body or private, both aided and unaided, or otherwise – will be obliged to (a) fulfill certain minimum infrastructural (including those relating to teachers and other staff), financial, curricular, pedagogic, linguistic and socio-cultural norms and (b) ensure free education to the children in a specified neighbourhood from an age group and/or up to a stage, as may be prescribed, while having adequate flexibility and academic freedom to explore, innovate and be creative and appropriately reflecting the geo-cultural and linguistic diversity of the country, within the broad policy guidelines and the National Curriculum Framework for School Education as approved by the Central Advisory Board of Education.

According to this article, the main objections to the RTE Act are:

  1. It will demolish the entire government school system except schools in certain elite categories (for example, kendriya vidyalayas, navodaya vidyalayas, the Eleventh Plan’s 6,000 model schools, and similar elite schools of states/UT governments).
  2. The Act will provide neither free education nor education of equitable quality. Rather, it will legitimise and maintain the multi-layered school system built through the World Bank’s District Primary Education Programme (DPEP) during the 1990s, and the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) in the current decade.
  3. The central agenda of the Act is clearly to privatise and commercialise the school system through neo-liberal schemes such as public private partnerships (PPPs), school vouchers, adoption of schools by corporate houses, religious bodies and NGOs.

There is a strong undercurrent from these arguments that emphasize the responsibility of the State as the fundamental provider of education and the role of private unaided schools (for-profit) is being refashioned. There is also a movement against privatization of higher education (by allowing foreign universities to set up shop in India), claiming that it would not only perpetuate iniquity but also result in a brain-drain with the best teachers moving to more lucrative positions in these new foreign universities, thus undermining the ability of state run institutions to be or become centres of excellence.

I am forced to ask: what solution or approach can we take to cover the educational needs of 200 mn school going students, 12.27 mn Higher education students, the 500 mn economically active population across 35 distinct states and union territories, 22 official languages (out of over 1500 mother tongues), 64.8% literacy, 70% rural population, 3.28 mn square kilometres (about 1/3rd the size of the USA) in size, 1.25 mn schools, 471 universities, nearly 22,000 colleges, 6.5 mn teachers, 1.2 mn new teacher vacancies, 0.7 mn untrained teachers and 0.5 mn para teachers in an economy worth USD 1.4 trillion? And yes, we are talking of conservatively 500 MILLION economically active (by ILO stats, nearly 600 mn) people today, poised to expand by another 100 mn people by 2020. The problems of governance and challenges of equity are obviously complicated by politics, law and order, the social system, skewed development indices etc.

Not only that, there is a huge drop out rate (68% students cite the need to work to supplement family income as the reason to drop out), leaving about 44 mn children out of school in the 11-14 age group. Out of the 134.38 mn students at the primary level, the retention rate is close to 75%, reducing the pool for those who would enrol in upper primary education to about a 100 mn. Statistics correlate by showing that only 53.35 mn were enrolled at the Upper Primary level. What is even more interesting is that 2008-09 enrolment in Higher Education was 12.37 mn which means that only about 23% of students enrolled in upper primary levels actually make it to college.

The economy of 1.17 bn people, sectorally, has 60% agricultural share, 17% industry and 23% services shares. Taking 500 mn as the economically active group, 300 mn people would be employed in agriculture, 85 mn in industry and 115 mn in services. The fastest growing sectors are mining and quarrying, manufacturing, electricity/gas & water, and, trade/hotels, transport/storage/communication/BFSI/Real Estate. India’s IT and ITeS sector contributes to 6% or USD 71 bn to the GDP.

The problem is systemic from what I can see. I have not been able to find a single consolidated report of a plan of action or any vision document to leverage the immense manpower that India has and will continue to have in the foreseeable future, to spur India’s growth (social and economic). The statistics are incomplete or non-existent – I could not even locate in which sectors the 500 mn people are distributed as a work force and how India plans to educate (and on what) and how it plans to empower them for equitable national growth. This is an appalling state of affairs.

In my opinion, the debate on whether education needs to be free or for-profit, is the probably the least of our problems. We have to go figure why about 25% of the 35 states and union territories in our country have less than 10% schools that HAVE electricity or overall why only 35% of our schools HAVE an electricity connection. We have to figure why the entire North Eastern region ranks the lowest in the educational development index published by NUEPA. We have to figure where we are going in terms of agricultural, industrial and services sector strategic growth plans, the backdrop of international developments in trade and technology, our mushrooming social sector, working conditions and so many other important and impactful considerations. We have to figure what each state or region brings into national growth from the skills dimension and how those skills can be brought into play by removing barriers in a focused manner.

No doubt it is a really challenging task and there are some really good minds out there with grassroots experience (that I do not currently have) facing real problems and solving them. I hope that at some point of time, we have enough power of self-organization to come together as a team and make a real impact!

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I have been thinking and researching about how to enhance traditional virtual classroom platforms. The obvious improvements over the years have been in standardized tools such as whiteboarding and application sharing, or in terms of modalities such as quizzes, surveys and breakout rooms, or in being able to accommodate audio, video and chat streams.

Not so obvious are the improvements in terms of providing tools to the instructor to teach a particular subject effectively. From what I have seen so far, at the content level instructors and/or students could benefit immensely from adding generic or subject specific online interaction – sort of bringing  multi-user games/simulations/interactions into the virtual classroom. Of course, traditional web/desktop applications on which teams could collaborate through application sharing and control, are still very useful in many situations.

However, what I am referring to is to bring structured and creative solutions into the virtual classroom platform itself.

An example of this could be in Sales. When it comes to selling a product, you would need to not only understand what the product is (etc) but you would also need to profile your customer needs in order to suggest the best product for her requirements. When we focus on developing this skill in a virtual classroom session using a simulation or game that multiple participants can use to profile the customer and implement sales techniques effectively, facilitated by an instructor/expert, virtual classrooms can come alive.

These augmentations could be built into the platform, but I would rather that the platform allows plug and play integration and service providers continuously build and innovate to come up with new ways of collaboration.

Obviously, this need not only be restricted to a simulation or game built using Flash or Silverlight, but could be one or more Web Services that could be integrated. These applications could leverage the virtual classroom context – users, presenters, groups, participation data etc. For example, imagine adding emoticons (I think elluminate has those) or blogs or tagging services to a virtual classroom session.

As a corollary, since many organizations like to record and store these sessions for future consumption by its learners, the same web services could be used by individual learners or formal/informal groups  to make the recording come alive, perhaps reliving the live session sans the instructor.

I believe that this kind of an augmentation is really important to consider as more and more organizations move towards the virtual delivery platforms. I would love to hear examples of other platforms that have adopted similar approaches and augmented their platforms. Please do let me know if you have come across any.

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