Text of a Seminar given by Professor A.N.MaheshwariInformation Technology and its Impact on School Education in India

Challenge of Making Education in India Relevant to an Information Society

The Challenge

To bring out the reach of the formal education system in India at the various levels of education, I have considered the enrolment figures for classes I to 12. The total enrolment in class I is 27.3 million. This is just about the total population of age group 6. What is alarming is that at the end of the first five years of formal school, that is, in class 6, the total enrolment figure has dropped down to 12.8 million. Half the students who were enrolled in class 1 have dropped out before completing the primary education . For my arguments I have combined the population projections and the available enrolment statistics. The projected population of the age group 5-18, as on 1st July 1996, is 308 million. In ideal conditions, that is in a Utopia, this figure should also have been the total enrolment in schools in classes 1 to 12, if we had been able to achieve universal school education. But the total enrolment in classes 1 to 12 is 154 million. It is 50% of the total population of the age group 5-18. Even these figures are deceptive. I will like to bring this out under some simplifying assumptions. I assume that all children of the age group 17-18 should be enrolled in classes 11 and 12. According to the population projections, the number of persons in the age group 17-18 is 35.5 million. However, as per the Sixth AlES the combined total enrolment in classes 11 and 12 is 7.1 million. A comparison of these figures makes it quite plausible to accept that 28 million of the relevant population is out of the reach of senior secondary education . In other words it indicates that 80% of this age group is out of school. Of the 6.8 million students who wrote the public examination for class 10, only 3.9 million went for senior secondary education. The most plausible explanation is that half the student population failed to qualify their first public examination. This colossal wastage of human effort is a sad reflection of the quality of education that our schools are able to provide to their pupils. From the apex of the pyramid it is seen that only 55 thousand students of the initial 27 million have reached the advanced research level, the highest rung of the educational pyramid. I have already pointed out that, of the total population of 308 million in the age group 5-18, only 154 million are in the formal system of education. It is not clear how the other 154 million persons without the backing of the full formal schooling will survive in the world of work. I do not have even a hazy answer to this inscrutable question. However, we should at least be concerned about the prospect of viability of the 2 million young persons each year who would have with them the certificate of having successfully completed the senior secondary school education. They will all be clamouring to enter the world of work within the next five years, that is, in the initial years of the twenty first century. In what follows I will argue out that the existing education system would have left them like rectangular blocks to fit in round holes, as employment in near future would be substantially determined by the requirements of an emerging information society. I am fully aware that education is the single most important instrument in improving the quality of life in the country. The National Council of Educational Research and Training(NCERT), in its 35 years of existence, has contributed continually to the modernisation of school education in India so as to make it contextual and relevant to the changing needs. I will, therefore, present future scenario of life in an information dominated society in which our young persons will be living before long.


There has been a world wide expansion of electronic information during the past decade. Our experience of 1984, when we introduced computers in schools in India, is already out of date. Computers today, instead of being used in isolated stand -alone mode, are being increasingly connected with each other through local area networks and global networks. I have come across a newspaper report which mentions that over 30 million computers in the USA alone are connected to the Internet. Within a year it is estimated that 50 million users globally will be accessing information on the Internet. Information on every conceivable topic of human interest is being put on the Internet by individuals and institutions. Information on education, specially school education, covering wide spectrum of fields such as early childhood education, lesson plans for teaching of subject disciplines at different grade levels, assessment items, tests and tools for educational research, to mention a few, are available on the Internet in an organised and easy to access form. I will mention a few examples in support of this claim. To some colleagues from the Department of Education in Science and Mathematics in the NCERT, I gave a demonstration on how search engines can be used for locating web sites containing information of specific interests, say science education. By entering the key words 'Secondary Science Curriculum' on one of the standard search engines, in this case INFOSEEK, a list of sites appeared on the screen which included among others the National Science Standards and the Home Page put up by the National Association of Science Teachers in the US. To our pleasant surprise we found that the web site we had hit upon was a treasure trove containing lessons plans for teachers for providing science education as per the National Science Standards. The material has been arranged there grade wise for the twelve years of school education in the USA. We narrowed down our search to 'Newton's Third Law of Motion' and to our surprise we found that there were several sub-topics related to the Newton's Third Law of Motion for which lesson plans were available. When we further zoomed on free-body diagram, a well written paper came on the screen with pedagogic suggestions on how to teach this topic to students of grade 12. To another colleague I demonstrated the use of the Internet by downloading a research study entitled "Challenges of Mathematics Education". This information turned out to be an annotated bibliography of major researches in mathematics education carried out in the USA during the past five years. The two experiences I have described are exemplar of how the vast body of information relevant to our work in school education can be tapped from the Internet. Accessing and dissemination of educational material is now available globally for near zero cost to all those who want it. However, knowledge of mere existence of information in the World Wide Web will not be enough unless we know how to access it, classify it and process it for solving some problem. Therefore, in the information dominated world, the preferred skills will be those which are required for using the readily accessible information. According to Bill Gates, nature of work in the information society will divide workers into two categories: (i) high-paid knowledge workers, and (ii) low-paid service workers. High-paid knowledge workers will be those who know how to manage information and process it. The society will give high premium to their skills. In India also the class of high-paid knowledge workers is slowly emerging . It is not uncommon to hear that the corporate sector, foreign banks, etc. pay annual salary of Rs.10 lakh or more to some of their junior executives, irrespective of their academic qualifications. Whereas many persons, though have to their credit highest academic degress like Ph.D., are either unemployed or are underemployed at fraction of such wages. What should worry all of us is that even now India contributes to the global economy by its people carrying out tasks meant for low-paid service workers. In the last century people from India went to Africa, Caribbean Islands, Mauritius, Fiji and many other countries as farm workers. The situation has not much changed over the past hundred and fifty years. Only the destinations have changed. Even now the majority of people who have left our frontiers to work in the Gulf countries, Saudi Arabia, etc. do low paid unskilled work. The question, therefore, is what type of education needs to be given in our schools to shift the balance of our workforce from low-paid service to high-paid service? Another feature of the information technology is that it is rapidly changing. Information processing hardware and software have a turn-over of two-to-three years. More advanced computers emerge on the scene before we are able to familiarise ourselves fully with all the features of the systems we had purchased as the state-of-art technology. The type of computers which we selected in 1984 with fanfare for our schools are, at best, museum pieces now. But even today we continue to meet the recurring cost for operating these machines in about three thousand schools. The BBC microcomputers which were given to schools have a Random Access Memory (RAM) of 64 kilobytes. Whereas now common desk tops have RAM of 16 megabytes and hard-disk memory of over 1 gigabyte = 1000 megabytes. New models of computers superior in all respects to their preceding versions keep appearing about every two years with more attractive prices. Even the operating systems of the microprocessor based computers have changed over the years from BASIC to DOS to Windows. The DOS was considered extremely versatile when it appeared on PCs but its commands had to be learnt for using software on PCs. With the emergence of Windows operating system, computers can be used with skills not more complex to learn than are required to use the remote of VCR or television. The systems with Windows are operated through icons using an electronic mouse. No commands are to be recalled from memory for using the Windows' software. Those of us who have used Windows - 95 for exchanging information on e-mail would have experienced the thrill of interactintg with persons in any part of the globe with the same ease as with a person sitting next door. In such a situation mere running fast may leave us standing where we were unless organisations and their personnel reinvent themselves continually for keeping pace with the rapid shift in information technology. CONCERNS AND THEIR IMPLICATIONS ON EDUCATION I will next address some glaring concerns which need to be tackled by the school system in India in the context of its inadequacies and the overwhelming implications placed on it by an information society.These concerns which are causing tension to educators, students, teachers and parents are: Improvement in education cannot be left to market forces or to some kind of self regulation to put things right when they go wrong. Extraordinary expansion of knowledge and human beings' capacity to assimilate it. Competition for raising quality versus the concerns for equality of opportunity. Overcrowded curricula and lack of learning conditions. Anxiety about their future in young people and lack of guidance for finding pathways suited to their abilities. Distress in the school-learners and school-dropouts at the shortage of opportunities for making them viable in the society. Lack of training in learning to learn. If we examine the present school curricula of any of the school subjects whether Mathematics, Science or Social Sciences, we cannot fail to notice inordinate amount of information contained in them. Generally special learning conditions are being arranged by parents to enable their children to cope with the curricular requirements. The additional support of the parent may be in the form of purchase of expensive books and guides brought out by private publishers and hiring paid tutor support, if coaching by parents themselves is not feasible. This type of situation begs the question whether laying down of uniform curricula and common public examinations are taking care of the equality of learning opportunity for all children, specially when the parental economic backgrounds and the quality of schools where they study can be poles apart? Imposition of an unrealistically heavy curricular demand without providing the necessary learning conditions in schools is contributing to a widening gulf between the children who come from homes with parents belong- ing to the category of haves and those who come from homes with parents belonging to the category of havenots. Over and above these disparities even the young persons coming from the have-background undergo extreme stress on account of anxiety about their future. I do not have to emphasise this concern as many of you have children studying in secondary and senior secondary classes. What is the way out and what is it that the NCERT can do to make school education relevant to the emerging needs? First, we should not despair as solutions can be found even of most difficult problems which on their face may seem extremely intractable. We have to look for the leads which can provide directions for exploring the solution.

Delors Commission Report and its Implications

I have felt inspired by the Delors Commission report on the education for the twenty-first century. Jacques Delors, Chairman of the Commission, has suggested that the gates to the path which may lead to the solution of the challenge of improving the quality of life in the 21st century can be opened by the magic words "Learning is the treasure". He discovered them in his adaptation of one of La Fontaine's fables, The Ploughman and his Children: " But the old man was wise To show them before he died That learning is the treasure Jacques Delors"." It is not surprising that the Delors commission has named its report, Learning : The Treasure Within. Each individual has the following hidden talents : memory reasoning power imagination physical ability aesthetic sense aptitude to communicate Therefore, what needs to be done is to restructure the educational process to draw out these talents in every person. The national curricular framework also emphasises that the school curriculum be developed through subject disciplines to develop these human attributes. What is new in the Delors Commission Report is that they have identified four icons to be kept in sight for re-engineering education for the 21st Century. These icons are expressed in terms of four catchy titles: Learning to know Learning to do Learning to live together Learning to be These are beautifully called the four pillars on which the modern education needs to be rebuilt. These four pillars of education are not mutually exclusive as they have bearing on one another. I have already mentioned that computers today can be fully operated using icons.Therefore, it is helpful to keep these pillars in mind for thinking out our own strategies in our own realities. I shall try to describe each of these pillars of education in my interpretation of the intent of the Delors Commission for these phrases.

Learning to know

This may be the most familiar to us as all our school education is for of learning to know. However, our approach of learning to know may have to undergo substantial change specially when access to information is easy. In an information society use of memory for recall of information may no longer be regarded as an enviable asset. Our textbooks which are loaded with facts and details may have to be reviewed for deletion of all such information which is not used for developing higher levels of cognition. This will also provide relief to children from the burden of the curriculum load. To make my point I will use an example from school science. All the books of the secondary science say that 'an atom consists of a nucleus with negatively charged electrons revolving in Bohr orbits around the nucleus - nucleus consists of positively charged particles called protons and electrically neutral particles called neutrons - the protons and neutrons are held together by short range nuclear forces and so on.' Children will memorise this information because of the requirement of the examination . We would be deluding ourselves if we think that a 14-15 year old boy or girl will be able to form in mind the correct picture of the nucleus involving lengths of size 0.00000000000001 cm and particles possessing mass of 1.67 x 10-27 kg. These are examples of what I call information. Even if a student manages to memorise such facts to what application can these be put to? Why do we have to force children to memorise information which is unrelated to any experience or can be used in understanding of some other phenomenon? There is a need to shift emphasis from 'details' to 'ability' to 'apply'. For example, instead of explaining the structure of molecules with diagrams giving bond lengths and bond angles, the shift of learning can be made to use the molecular hypothesis for understanding of everyday phenomena like evaporation, solution of salts in liquids, pressure-volume and temperature relationship, etc.. It may be appreciated that the learning in school will continue to be around subject disciplines as they form the treasure bequeathed by the best minds to the mankind as heritage. What I am suggesting is that there is no need to feel threatened or insecure on account of the vast volume of information or its exponential growth. We may instead concentrate on a small number of concepts to suit children's their interest and go in depth. The learning has, therefore, to be shifted to in-depth exploration of concepts to enable learning to know to result in learning to learn. Once learning to learn is acquired, benefit that opportunity to education can give will become life long. If through school education learning to know is to be made an effective instrument for developing learning to learn a cooperative effort will be required from all of us in the NCERT, as we are directly involved in curriculum preparation, development of textbooks and teaching aids, and teacher training, I next come to learning to do.

Learning to do

It basically means vocationalisation of education. But according to the Delors' report its implications go beyond vocational and professional education. For the new jobs the preferred occupational skills will include life skills such as ability to work with one another, interpersonal relationship for appreciation of differing points of view and ability to resolve conflicts. These will be indicated by the score of the emotional quotient than of the intelligence quotient. Also, the nature of work is expected to change continually . Skills for carrying out a specific nature of work once acquired may not remain useful for a long time on account of changes in technology and other related developments. One time education will, therefore, fall short of making a person employable for the full period of adult life. Each person will have to keep pace with new knowledge, new competencies for meeting the challenge of changing occupations, some of which might not exist today or even can be anticipated. Most of us have faith in the strength of the academic and professional preparations with which we had left the portals of the higher education institutions where we had studied for seeing us through our jobs all the way till we attain our superannuation. We feel complacent and seldom keep up with new developments. This feeling of security will no longer be available henceforth. For quite sometime I was totally convinced that with my M.Sc. and Ph.D. degrees in physics I could only teach and do research in physics for my living. This is a self-imposed narrow view point.There are many examples of persons who achieved outstanding success in life only after they had changed midway their interest to areas totally unrelated to their initial education. Even for remaining effective in our initial areas of specialisation, continual updating will be crucial for keeping pace with the developments in our disciplines. I have already mentioned that the nature of work is changing fast. With the skills for carrying out only one type of work the danger is of finding oneself redundant as technologies or processes for the task will change. Therefore, all of us will have to acquire new skills and new competencies as we advance in age. In the information society, individual ability may not be adequate for tackling problems which can be best solved by working in groups as they will require input of different skills and perspectives. Therefore, the society will give premium to abilities like working in groups, skills for solving problems and resolving conflicts in comparison to skills for production of goods and providing service. According to me the ability to work together is the weakest in most of us. Schools promote individual abilities through competitions which are reinforced by rewarding individual merit instead of team effort. Therefore, the pedagogical shift to group learning will be crucial for developing learning to do.This can be best initiated from the school stage itself. The next linked pillar to learning to do is learning to live together.

Learning to live together

In spite of the two world wars man has not learnt the art of living together. More than 20 million persons all over the world have died in various wars and conflicts since the second world war. Painful events in Afghanistan, ethnic conflicts in the erstwhile Yugoslavia, Gulf War, demolition of the Babri Masjid and Bombay riots in India would not have happened had we learnt to live together. Therefore, what is required is to develop in each person understanding of other people , their cultures, their mutual interdependence for carrying out joint projects and for peace. Ability to live in harmony with all creations of nature will be possible only through aesthetic appreciation of the flora and fauna , which has evolved on the earth along with the human form of life. There are alarming warning signals that the life on this planet will get destabilised when the ecological balance is disturbed. We will have to enforce collectively universal mandates such as that no form of life be exploited for pleasure or for commercial gain. We move next to the last pillar, the learning to be.

Learning to be

Learning to be as an important universal recommendation was first put forward by the Unesco in 1972. It has been reiterated by the Delors Commission and recognised as a crucial pillar of education for the twenty-first century. In simple terms it means that for human beings their inner freedom is as important as their external freedom. Purpose of life has to go beyond playing the role of a wage earner and a family provider. Each one of us has to have some personal mission in life to fulfill beyond achieving happiness through material gains. It is natural to ask sometimes questions like : Who am I? What is the purpose of my life? Am I living only to earn for myself and for my family? In India we have a long tradition of training in learning to be. We are inheritors of the highest search by our thinkers and philosophers for finding answers to such questions . What needs to be done is to integrate the eternal values with contextual values relevant to the present society. Learning to be can be best developed by consciously introducing value education in school curriculum. If we know the learning to be, the chances are that we might be able to organise ourselves from being dehumanised or being exploited as human slaves and may also have the strength of conviction to stand up against ideologies of individuals or groups which are destructive to mankind or are against minorities. An Appeal What I have shared here in this paper are the four icons or the four pillars of education for the education for the 21st century. We would have to apply our mind to decide whether they are relevant to the context of education in India. Ours is one of the two most populous countries of the world with the additional stigma of having the majority of illiterates of the world population. India continues to remain at the rock bottom of the world-development-index. Odds are heavily against persons belonging to this country in their ability to share equitably the world wealth. Therefore, we have the task ahead of finding the relevant curriculum to meet the needs of students who are lucky enough to have access to formal schooling and also for the teeming millions who will be without its support. The NCERT is fortunate to have a competent and dedicated faculty capable of meeting the challenge I have reflected in this exposition. Pofessor Philip Hughes had closed the Bangkok Seminar with the following quotation of John Gardner , which I find most appropriate for this occasion as well. "I know that there is in each of you, a flame that will not go out. I know that sometimes it burns low, that at times it is almost smothered by weariness and defeat - but I know it springs back to life. I know that each of you has within you more power to do good than you have ever used, more faithfulness than has ever been asked of you, more strength than has ever been tested, more to give than you have ever given."

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