Home >Opinion >Are we ready to tap into the virtual classroom?

Management thinker Peter Drucker often pointed out that while most social institutions have undergone profound changes in the past few centuries, the school has been more or less unchanged since the eighth century. A Benedictine monk from the Middle Ages would be comfortable in a school today, he once said.

Drucker was talking about schooling in the West, but his observation is valid in the Indian case as well. New technology could change that. Will online education finally change how people learn? It is too early to claim that what have come to be called massive open online courses will totally replace the traditional classroom, but it is quite possible that at least part of the learning process could shift to the digital world.

Economist Alex Tabarrok, who is one of the founders of the online Marginal Revolution University, has used a musical metaphor to counter critics who argue that classroom teaching is a hallowed process. “It’s…true that there is something special, magical and almost sacred about the live musical experience. The time I saw Otis Clay in a small Toronto bar, my first Springsteen concert, the Teenage Head riot at Ontario Place, these are some of my favourite and most memorable cultural experiences and yet by orders of magnitude most of the music that I listen to is recorded music."

Tabarrok was responding on his blog to a New York Times article by Mark Edmundson, where the professor of English at the University of Virginia argued: “Every memorable class is a bit like a jazz composition. There is the basic melody that you work with. It is defined by the syllabus. But there is also a considerable measure of improvisation against that disciplining background."

That is true, but if special experiences are what matter, then the old tutors or Upanishadic teachers should never have been replaced by mass education through schools.

The relative merits of classroom teaching versus online instruction are something for experts in pedagogy to argue about. But the ability to watch a Yale class in game theory or a Harvard class in ethics while sitting in front of a computer thousands of miles away is an opportunity that wasn’t available to most people till recently. At a more prosaic level, some science tutors in Mumbai complement their class lectures with short revision modules that they load on to the mobile phones of their students, who can then play them at any place, say, a city bus.

There are early signs that Indian students are quickly adapting to online education, perhaps since it offers them an escape from the current mediocrity in the university system. Two recent stories in the Financial Times and Nature said India is the second biggest source of students for two large online initiatives—edX and Coursera. In fact, the Financial Times report mentioned the case of Amol Bhave, a 17-year-old from Jabalpur, who got admission into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), US, thanks to his excellent performance in an online course on edX, which is backed by MIT and Harvard.

Can digital technologies be used more intensively in a country such as India, where students, especially in poor communities, struggle to learn despite abysmal schools, truant teachers and dreary textbooks? Can India manage a jump to more online education without reforming its brick-and-mortar schools, just as it did in telecom, where most citizens missed the fixed-line stage and directly became owners of mobile phones?

In this context, it is worth noting that the Right to Education Act (RTE) passed by Parliament in 2009 seems to be focused solely on physical infrastructure, with almost no thought given to digital possibilities. It reminds me of what happened at a magazine I worked for several years ago. The publishers had hired a reputed consulting firm to draw up a strategic plan for our future growth. There was no mention of the Internet in that document, and that too just a couple of years before the dot-com boom.

The law guaranteeing education to every Indian child between 6 and 14 has several flaws. Economist Abhijit Banerjee, one of the best development thinkers in the world, said in a speech in Kolkata on 19 March that the law only provides a steady source of livelihood to teachers: “The programme is of the teacher, by the teacher and for the teacher." Education activist group Pratham has also pointed out that the RTE, which has done away with examinations, has made it almost impossible to monitor how much children are learning, and there are signs that standards are slipping further.

Besides these important criticisms, it is also that there is a huge amount of focus on physical infrastructure and staffing—the old planning mentality that held India back for so many decades—while there is precious little on the new digital opportunities.

Schools, colleges and universities matter, no doubt about it. But isn’t it time there was more national awareness about how online education can bring quality education into homes across the country?

Niranjan Rajadhyaksha is executive editor, Mint.

Also Read | Niranjan’s previous Lounge columns

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