A new beginning

Anand Krishnaswamy

Imagine what it would be like if we could wind back time to when the Neanderthals walked and reimagine the course of mankind – Would we wage wars? Would we still discriminate based on race, colour, sex? Would capitalism take such a shape? Would forests still be thus depleted? Would we allow for plastic to fill the oceans? Would we allow for so many species to go extinct? Would we still look at learning, thus?

It is easier to imagine replacing the classroom with a Zoom session or a teacher with an AI system or chapters and lessons with projects, etc. Given such an opportunity as to reimagine learning and education from scratch, it would be a disservice if I restricted my imagination to cosmetic changes. The possibility of carving out a new world is indeed intoxicating for the fertile mind. It conjoins nurturing the depth and beauty of learning as well as garnering the prescience to design an adaptive and resilient approach to structured education.

I would start by recognizing two pieces/assumptions of the education structure that form its very bedrock:
a. The student is incapable of designing her/his education. In other words, a student is incapable of knowing what, how and when to learn.
b. All that can be learnt is not easily or readily available. You need the whole troupe – schools, teachers, books, labs, exams, student loans etc. – to assemble in order to access any worthwhile knowledge.

These assumptions probably needed to be questioned whether COVID-19 had struck or not. What we have seen so far is only a reaction to the lockdown and not a transformation in education in a world learning to live with COVID-19 (because it isn’t going away anywhere). Online classes are a reaction and not necessarily the face of things to come. No stakeholder – teachers, students, parents, school management, educational departments or boards – was trained or equipped to switch to a strategic distanced-education. Not one of them was able to pause long enough to rethink methodologies or pedagogies. What happened, and continues to happen, is what can be termed as reactionary education or bunker-education – where all those who had access to a bunker got assembled into one, being educated in whatever way possible by the teachers around. Hence, it will be wisest not to put our shoulders to making the past few months better or bringing the old wine into a new bottle.

I will start by questioning the aforementioned assumptions and ask – What if they were not true?
What if every child, every student is thoroughly capable of ascertaining what they wish to learn, how they wish to learn it and when they wish to learn it?
What if every child could extract learning from anything and everything they touch, see or feel?
What if a child could send a question into space and receive an answer?
What if a child could learn at various levels and all of that was acceptable?

What I imagine, and hope, will become of our education is composed of four facets:

1. Hyper-localized and in-situ experiences:
What I mean by this is that learning will not require one to go on a pilgrimage – to a sacred school or employ prescribed textbooks, etc. – but can be found right where one is. To take a butterfly in one’s garden and find the depths and beauty of mathematics, science, languages, poetry, logic, history, geography, economics and much more in it, is more vital and accessible than having a tome for each. The student could walk into his local grocery store and obtain the skills and theory of business, accounting and economics. Walking under a dome, she can access the laws of physics, mathematics, history and material sciences. By allowing the near and immediate to provide as much (if not more) learning as a sterile and distant classroom, we are bringing credence to the world in which the child (and her family) is most familiar. This allows the family to participate with confidence unlike the recent reaction to the lockdown. This allows learning to happen anywhere and everywhere rather than only in a school or classroom. Added to this, the child learns in the context of their culture and traditions. If a student walks by a gharat (water-mill) in Uttarakhand and the gharat can “speak” to her about the history, traditions, physics, mathematics, folklore, music associated with it, then what could be better especially when none of that will ever find an entry in the textbooks of NCERT? Imagine the same student visiting the Jain temples of Ranakpur and being regaled equally in all that those temples have to offer. This student would be educated in a way she never would be in any school with an objective and disconnected curriculum. By using the immediate surroundings of the child, the education of the future is hyper-localized and by taking the learning and the student into the context of the learning, it is in-situ.

All of this will be more realistic and less fantastic when assisted by technology, especially the power of Virtual and Augmented Reality (VR & AR) running on the powerful backbone of the Internet (or maybe an EduNet). VR can take me places and situate me in the midst of the Panipat war or in the midst of the recent Black Lives Matter protests. I can query and understand what this white powdery substance is that I just found on my trek and find rich information and lore about it. Technology already allows me to recognize constellations, plant, bird, insect species based on images, sound, etc. Some of what I witness might not be discussed or available which is where I will reach out to communities of experts to seek their guidance and perhaps, document for other learners. I, as a grade 5 student, might be the one to document it.

If the state focused on providing the infrastructure and equipment for anyone to use (I actually imagine kiosks of hardware that any student can scan and use and return to any other kiosk) then they would not have to worry about the state of intelligence of our citizens. Crores of tax money can be saved in building this infrastructure versus the scores of unmanned schools. These would be mostly one-time investments with periodic updates and maintenance. A student would actually be able to repair some of these themselves (imagine a broken viewing device “telling you” how to repair it). This might well be a self-sustaining learning ecosystem which takes me into the facet of ownership.

2. Individualized and owned:
With access to information and literature available widely and easily, a student is free to learn whatever s/he chooses to whatever depth and/or breadth. The student might also choose to explore his world while waiting for his friends to arrive for play. She might choose to study bits of it and then not return to it for a year or two and then dive into it with a fresh enthusiasm. Current education systems and curricula do not allow for that. I pray that the education of the future liberally allows for it. This should open the door for homeschooling/community-schooling and other methods being sanctioned as avenues of education because whatever works for the student is legitimate. With the schedule being owned entirely by the student, vocational and academic study can be pursued simultaneously in the right mix. Such an education is alive to what happens around the world – e.g., a student might want to research June teenth (This day is observed annually on june 19th and commemorates the end of slavery in the US) and gain a credential for an understanding of the same. On completing this, they might choose to return to whatever they were studying earlier or pick up a different topic. Teachers might guide her through this; schools might help curate options and opportunities. There might be a separate clique for each topic/subject/skill that the student explores along with a different venue and a different medium. The fear that a child will simply waste his/her time is baseless and repeatedly proven to be misguided.

3. Richly composable:
Today the curriculum is fixed by those who aren’t going to use it. What if we could allow each student the power and support to compose their own curriculum? If “knowing” and “learning” can be broken up into atomically consistent entities, the shape of what can be composed is richer. In order to make this possible, we need to recognize learning at a higher granularity than board exams and monoculture degrees.

What if, instead of a score in mathematics, I could receive a score for each chapter? What if, languages could be broken up into appreciation and utilization of the same? What if the sciences could be broken into myriad competencies that one could individually and separately master?

This frees each student from a trivialized percentage score to rich evidences of capabilities – i.e., you could be proficient in Maharashtrian cuisine, expert in the grammar and structure of Odiya, average in past scientific knowledge but an expert in scientific exploration, an expert in guiding tourists around historic monuments of south India, proficient in English poetry, skilled in preparing balance sheets for NGOs, an expert in statistics but poor in complex numbers, etc. – which s/he can achieve throughout her/his life. This would allow one to mix and match requirements for various jobs, but more importantly, allow each person to pursue domains they enjoy. This also allows for studying to varying depths – for pleasure, for academic interest or for career prospects. How one assembles evidences of capabilities is entirely left to the student (or the industry’s specifications). Any expert on a subject could be authorized to provide a certificate of competence on the basis of fair assessment. Certificates need not come only from the CBSE/CAIE/IB/etc. If such micro-credentials gain industrial and academic sanction, then it will be easier to stay relevant as it is easier to replace a micro-credential with another. All of this can be easily managed and validated with a block chain-based credential management system. Artificial Intelligence could be employed to help the student compose or even identify strengths based on individual competencies demonstrated.

4. Leaner and purpose-driven:
This country is familiar with the tale of Arjuna and Eklavya. It is often employed to drive home the point of “guru bhakti” or devotion to one’s teacher. It is also used to highlight how even the greatest guru was not devoid of agenda and manipulation. What most people don’t recognize it for is the declaration of the irrelevance of a teacher even for something which is as hands-on as archery. Eklavya was able to attain greater mastery by replacing the guru with a mere idol. I would not bat for no guidance – everyone needs a little – but I would certainly raise the case for critically re-assessing the role of teachers. In the future, I hope their role is more well-defined and purpose-driven. Teachers could be subject-matter experts and help clarify on-demand or they could be a guiding voice through any confusion or circumstances requiring kind and wise support or they could be career counsellors who have known the student for long and are themselves exposed to the industry or they could be certifiers of capability (i.e., provide the stamp of “Proficiency in Maharashtrian cooking”).

Schools will, then, also become clearer in their offering and there would be less of the real-estate and pomp of learning. Schools instead might be curators and publishers of content and literature. They might be curators of experiences or orchestrators of learning excursions. They might hold access to the finest guides and experts. They can still be the real-estate for congregational activities like sport or theatre but the assemblage will be well-defined and pointed. Governments can ensure that everyone has fair and high quality access to knowledge and experiences. The industry will own the responsibility of creating assessments to accept and training to skill individuals. Parents will also be supported to assist children in their education. Every player in this space will have a clear purpose.

It is with these four aspects that I see education and learning become richer and more responsive. Learning will, then, truly be something that is lifelong and not something that must be completed by an age of 21-24 years or be held to ransom by lockdowns or wars.

The author is a computer scientist reborn as an educator who is passionate about returning education to its roots of curiosity and wonder. He served as the Dean of Academics and Emerson Chair Dean of STEM at Purkal Youth Development Society. Currently, he volunteers with educational institutions. He can be reached at [email protected].

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