Early last year, helicopters descended in two desperately remote Ethiopian villages. Dozens of tablet devices loaded with games and educational software were dropped off without explanation and instruction, as illiterate young children gathered around. Within five days, those children—who had no previous exposure to printed materials from packaging to road signs, let alone exposure to electronics—were using 47 apps per child, per day. Five months later, in addition to using the tablets to play video games and do spelling exercises, they even managed to hack Android.

Last autumn, the fascinating results of this experiment, led by the chairman emeritus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT’s) Media Lab, Nicholas Negroponte, were released, providing further evidence (as if any were needed) of the resourcefulness and intelligence of young people in some of the world’s most difficult places. Just as striking, though, was how the experiment itself epitomized a phenomenon in education reform across the world. Tech-savvy activists and philanthropists from Bill Gates to Salman Khan of the Khan Academy have become obsessed with finding impersonal means of reaching students—means that minimize that unpredictable and costly human factor otherwise known as The Teacher.

Who needs to pay and manage an army of instructors any more? The virtual possibilities have taken hold especially in the realm of higher education, where the idea of college as grassy courtyards and hushed libraries is being “disrupted", to use the word beloved by techies. Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, are gaining popularity—and, so it seems, legitimacy—fast. When edX, an online platform created by Harvard and MIT, started courses last fall, 370,000 students signed on.

At huge scale and relatively low cost, such online university courses promise to directly connect the bright poor kid to the world’s finest professors—developing their potential in ways a laptop-drop will never do. After a day’s work on the farm or in the factory, ambitious young villagers might spend a night in the virtual stacks—becoming 21st century Abe Lincolns or Bhimrao Ambedkars.

While the appeal of online higher education is broad, the prospect seems especially suited to India. That’s not just because Internet access is gradually reaching villages, but because quality teaching is not. School teaching jobs are still too often allotted by under-the-table money, and those students who make it to college enter institutions where it’s normal to find a third of faculty positions unfilled. Teacher training at all instructional levels is weak. On the face of it, technology is a way to bypass some of the great weaknesses of India’s educational system.

Naturally, this prospective solution to the higher education needs of developing nations looks like a big threat to established brick-and-mortar universities in the East and West. The classical ideal of the university as a physical place where knowledge is brought together, connected, created, preserved, imparted: Will that shortly be rendered obsolete, going the way of printed newspapers and the hardcover book? More likely, the traditional university will not dematerialize. It’ll have to work harder to establish its relative value in the face of lower-cost competition—competition that’s also more flexible and accessible for the working, non-elite student.

We in India are still struggling to create a viable system of higher education, guided by the the 12th Plan’s mantra on the subject: “expansion, equity, excellence". Expansion is certainly needed. Enrolment in higher education, at less than 18% of the 120 million potential students, is well below the world average of 26%. More troubling statistics are that just 8% of girls in the countryside make it to university—and about the same proportion of those from the scheduled castes.

Many among the educational elite have warned that greatly expanding access to higher education will diminish the quality of our top-flight institutions—that the expansion and excellence goals are in pitched conflict. But while our universities are certainly exclusionary, it’s an open question whether they’re the better for it. Not a single Indian institution figures in the Top 100 as defined by the Times Higher Education rankings.

More money than ever before—both state and private money—is being invested in the field of higher education. That’s a good thing, because the financial costs involved in being genuine research leaders are huge—and becoming harder for states to sustain, or for private capital to amass. The entry costs, whether for a nation or a private investor, are staggeringly high. But while some of our private-education investors are exploring technological possibilities, the state still remains sentimentally attached to notions of what a university is. Investment in expensive physical infrastructure seems paramount to the government, and even the so-called “innovation universities" are being designed to look pretty much like universities as they’ve existed in the past.

To create a more appropriate architecture of higher education, we’ll need to be clear-eyed both about what exactly new teaching and learning technologies can deliver, and about those aspects of the classical, physical university that are indispensable. Given the scale of learning required in India, technology is our most expedient way to reach those currently excluded from the walled cities of our best universities. But we should never accept such impersonal instruction as a substitute for the experience of real teaching, any more than we should mistake the much touted jugaad style of makeshift make-do as a substitute for investment in real scientific innovation and advance.

Online learning, in the end, may be a crucial first step to creating a demand among the brightest Indian minds for the essential experience of the classical university: an experience in which groups of smart individuals are taught by professors engaged in their own research, where dialogue, discussion and conversation animate the life of the mind—and where, as in an old-fashioned library or bookshop shelf, you may accidentally discover the unexpected thing that changes how you think about the world.

The top-down efforts of the state have not been effective in giving enough Indians this kind of university experience. But the great short-term hope of online courses is to spread a bottom-up demand for better faculty, better facilities, and better teaching—and thereby nudge Indian universities into becoming a little more like the classical ideal that is currently, perhaps over-enthusiastically, being dismissed by some in the West as obsolete. It’s an ideal that still, for most young Indians, remains a dream of a future that looks even more enriching than that promised by today’s latest technology.

Sunil Khilnani is Avantha professor and director of the King’s India Institute at King’s College London.

Also Read | Sunil’s previous Lounge columns

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