Saturday, April 26, 2008

Technology and Education - Prof. Yashpal's Perspective

[Although a bit dated (6 years old), these views of renowned Indian Scientist and Educationist, Prof Yashpal, may well be a reflection of the dominant perspective of several contemporary thinkers at the helm of the Indian Education System. As I prepare to leave for Delhi to be part of a consultation to draft a National Policy on ICT in School Education, I feel that the biggest challenge in drafting such a policy will be to strike that balance between doing what will continue to propel India into the Global New Economy of the 21st century, while not undermining India's rich cultural and regional diversity and languages (my previous post being a case in point); and keeping in mind the vast economic spectrum that India represents, as well as social issues such as gender discrimination, caste and communal bias.]

Technology and Education

Prof. Yash Pal
Schoolnet Lecture Series, India Habitat Centre. June 2000

I am a bit at a loss as to how I should constrain the scope of my remarks. You can say so much on science as also on education. Should one speak of ‘science in education’ or ‘education in science’ or about science and education quite independently? Since the constraints have not been explicitly stated I will go by the antecedents of the people who have organized this affair. As I understand they seem to believe that education, including that in science and technology could be tremendously improved if the infrastructure for delivery could be more technological. Besides improving the pedagogy of transaction, information from the world would become accessible to our students and teachers. And then we will be on our way to becoming a world superpower. Let me try to lend some perspective. I hope this is not seen as too censorious in respect of our present enthusiasm about information technology.

I am an enthusiast about information technology – have been for more than a quarter century. My enthusiasm has not been only passive. I have worked centrally on all the three aspects – technology, systems and the pedagogy of education and communication. In the last two of these engagements I have vested a great deal of effort and passion. There have been many successes but there have also been heart breaking failures, because the social forces and forces of vested interests have been much too strong. I do not want to oppose the use of modern technology but I do maintain that if we proceed on the basis of importing, not just technology but also the environment in which the curriculum is formulated and anchored, we will do great damage to our society. I wonder how much of this due to the fact that, like the flashy adds on our television, it is glossy and sexy looking. Also it is all in English, the rootless tongue of our rootless middle class (sorry about this bit of exaggeration). It is also not surprising that many affluent private schools (it is strange that we still call them public schools in our country) resonate with this enterprise because the parents also see excellence in terms of affinity with the external, the Western, the global.

Fertility of information increases if it can be seen to operate on intimate perceptions and observations, in dealings of people, in the state of the land, the price of vegetables, the manner in which the fruit vendor or kabariwala bargains, the arguments in the street, the problem of playing cricket on the road, the non-availability of drinking water, the smell of the earth after the first rain, the sudden buoyancy of spirit after the first rain of the monsoon , the scents of the mango season, the quality of chikoo, the grape, watermelon, banana, apricot, lichi, pomegrenate and so many things that make the summer not only bearable but also awaited with expectation. Instead of this we keep talking of April as spring when the temperature is 42 degrees, we talk of the fall when in many places most of the trees do not shed any leaves while in others this happens in the beginning of May followed by a flush of colourful flowers on the trees. It may seem that all this is only peripheral to the process of education. It definitely is not.

Severing the mind of children from life as it is can have two consequences. One that there is no need to observe, interpret and understand the world around and two that our life is somehow inferior and no worth while problems of great science or technology can possibly emerge from there. Both these are disastrous. De-coupled education and de-coupled science both tend to be sterile. The major problem of our formal system is that such de-coupling has been built in as a virtue. This hope can be belied in two ways, both of which seem attractive to many who are currently active in media education:

First is that great temptation to use packages considered excellent merely because they come from distant industrialized countries. We have some fantastic efforts in our own country. Why should we not learn from what grassroot organizations like Eklavya have done?

The second danger is partly in what I have mentioned above but needs re-emphasis. The dotcom education enterprises also have to make money ultimately. The venture funding implies that they will be nudged in this direction. This might be done through a version of e-commerce in which toys, equipment, software and other material will be pedaled or by concentrating on quiz mania and coaching activity demanded by our examination system. My friend Raju has heard me say, half in fun, that any good that IITs might have done to the country has been more than taken away by their impact on school education. Good schools concentrate on training athletes of information storage not on understanding or education. Some of them start this training right from the primary school.

I have been struck by another trend which might prove disastrous. Information technology is just a technology – not even like technologies of yesteryears. By itself it does not create new science, learning, insights or wisdom. It can enhance those who learn other things. It is becoming a replacement for learning every thing else. That way we might end up training only technical babus. The fact that such babus are in demand, in our country and abroad, does not mean that we should push our best brains in that direction only.

I would finally draw attention to a major factor that many of us in education tend to over look. Education is not an independent variable. I had stated this while forwarding our report Learning Without Burden (baste ka bojh). Most educationists still agree with the analysis in that report. But not much happens. Many State Governments have been more progressive than the Public Schools in which children below 4 years are admitted and made to struggle with reading and writing in a language which no one in their home speaks and in which they find impossible to express the concepts discovered over the most productive years of their learning life. This as anti education as you can be. This is also anti science, anti math and anti development. Learn all the English you want, but start it four years later. The Danes start it after the age of 10 or 11, without undue damage to the science and technology they do. The dominance of English will further stratify our society.

3 comments:

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Shuchi said...

Hello, I came across your blog by chance because we are namesakes :). I really enjoyed reading the article by Prof. Yashpal that you quoted. However, I am disappointed to hear that he thinks that there is no science in information science. Computer science is a fundamental science, in fact one of the most fundamental ones, similar to mathematics. I refer you to this article by Bernard Chazelle, a leading computer science theorist. It is unfortunate that people tend to equate CS with programming. That is like equating astronomy with the art of operating a telescope! I wish one day high school curricula would include topics from CS (perhaps as a part of mathematics), and I don't mean programming, I mean the REAL CS -- algorithms, computability, communication, cryptography, etc.

Shuchi Grover said...

Thanks, Shuchi. Yes, I totally agree since I have a background in CS as well. In fact, in my presentation at the consultation (mentioned in the preface of this post) I did mention that there is a need for mandatory CS curricula in the secondary school stage, if nothing else else, to inculcate an "algorithmic way of thinking", and to use programming as a means to inculcate problem-solving abilities...