Educating India

India's recent power blackouts have exposed the state of rot in India's power sector. It seems that the Indian government cannot deliver anything to its citizens, neither in quantity nor in quality.

When economists and demographers look at India's demographics and the bulge in its population under the age of 25, they visualize horror scenarios of an uneducated and unemployed population causing a demographic nightmare for the country. Their fears stem from the inability of Indian governments both at the federal and state level to deliver even basic primary education, both in quantity and in quality, to its population. Their linear extrapolations result in dismal outcomes. All hope seems lost.

However, one achievement of India that stands out and that has been over-talked about is the country's revolution in telecom. In 2003 India had 5 telephone connections per 100 people. Read this article from the year 2003 (http://tinyurl.com/ccnxadb ). India's ambitious telecom policy released in 1999 had set a target of achieving 15 telephone connections per 100 people by the year 2010.

India achieved a teledensity of 50 telephone connections per 100 people by the year 2010 and its teledensity currently stands at 80 telephone connections per 100 people. What happened in the country? Mobile phones and wireless technology existed in 1999. How did the linear extrapolators in the Indian government and the private sector fail to predict what actually happened? How did India beat planned targets by 300% in 7 short years?

Two things happened. Free and open competition and availability of large amounts of capital a) resulted in a fall in prices of telecommunication to levels unimaginable anywhere in the world and b) resulted in the ability of telecom providers to invest in network infrastructure with almost complete coverage of India's landmass. At the right price point, the value proposition of telecom connectivity became irresistible for India's mostly poor population.

If we take a look at the state of basic primary education in India, the situation is dismal. State and Federal governments are running huge subsidies on food, fuel and power and have almost no funds to invest in either education or in healthcare infrastructure. Availability of teachers in quantity and in quality appears like an insurmountable problem. Corruption and truancy are high. It is very common for government school teachers in rural India to draw salaries from the government and to not attend school. They either hold second jobs in private schools/institutes or run full time personal businesses.

If one were to think linearly about the problem, the solutions would be

- to invest in and expand teacher training institutes
- to build hospitable and accessible school infrastructure
- to expand schemes like the mid-day meal scheme that encourage parents to send kids to school
- to introduce the concept of school vouchers and to quasi-privatize the delivery of education

All of the above have been tried and are being worked on even as I write this. However, even if all efforts are successful, progress is going to be so gradual and so slow that desired outcomes are unachievable.

John Maynard Keynes said that, "the difficulty lies not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones, which ramify, for those brought up as most of us have been, into every corner of our minds."

In the buddhist parable of the turtle and the fish, the turtle struggles to explain the concept of dry land to fish that have lived in water all their lives?

The problem lies in the current K-12 system of school education that the entire world follows. The current K-12 system of education is like the landline telephone. It is very expensive, difficult to scale, difficult to access and has very inconsistent quality and standards. Wireless broadband, tablet computers, youtube and the internet change everything.

India is at the cusp of breaking the price barrier for wireless broadband. Reliance is rumored to have planned the launch of TD-LTE based 4G broadband at $2 per month. Basic tablet computers that can browse the internet and show youtube videos are already testing the price threshold where they become universally affordable. Content providers like Khan Academy (http://www.khanacademy.org) and Coursera (http://www.coursera.org) have already demonstrated that a combination of video/interactive instruction and online evaluation provides a powerful medium of instruction.

As the content distribution infrastructure (tablets and connections) builds up, we are likely to see an explosion in online education content creation. The next decade might see the emergence of celebrity teachers who attain mass popular appeal for their method and style of online instruction.

We might see the emergence of rural for profit or not-for profit classrooms where students of all ages go a certain number of times a week to learn a particular subject through online video instruction.

Tablet computers based on touch do not discriminate between the literate and the illiterate and are language independent. One only needs to see toddlers interacting with iPads to understand the power of the medium.

As the dissemination of instruction changes and becomes multi-format, the method of testing and evaluation will also change. The role of standardization and individual accreditation will rise. Testing of intellectual and behaviorial characteristics will rise in importance for employers as they lose the ability to put potential job candidates into buckets based on the pedigree of their educational institutions.

We truly are at the cusp of a revolution in the education of India.
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