Education is a good in itself, and every individual must be given the opportunity to access the best possible learning so as to attain his/her full, inherent capability. Also, learning must no longer end when one leaves the portals of an educational institution. Emerging technologies and the changing world demand continuous upgradation of knowledge. Lifelong learning is, therefore, essential. Online courses now provide the means for doing this easily and cheaply, at a time, place and pace that suits each individual. While this is invaluable to working people to continuously update and upgrade their knowledge, it is also a boon to all others—including the growing number of elders, retired from jobs—who want to learn something new purely out of interest.
Now, online education is no longer merely supplementary or a means of knowledge upgradation for working professionals. Telescoping into months what was expected to possibly evolve over years, online education for formal learning is here. The COVID pandemic and the lockdown, as also the continuing need to maintain physical distancing, has made online a necessity; in fact, for over six months, it has been the only form of formal education. Schools and colleges around the country, shut by the lockdown and regulations, have had to quickly transform teaching to this mode, and even tests or examinations have been held online. This has meant serious challenges, not just for the teachers who have had to learn how best to use this new pedagogic method, but also for students. The latter have been faced with serious and varied challenges: availability of devices (computer or smartphone), Internet connectivity, a quiet place in the home to work from and much-reduced ability to interact with teachers and peers. These challenges are obviously greater for the disadvantaged and those in rural areas, leading to the danger of further increasing inequity in the educational system. A survey indicates that only 15 per cent in rural areas have Internet access; even in urban areas, it is only 42 per cent. As far as computers are concerned, access in urban areas is just 23 per cent. Access to computers in rural areas (at 4 per cent) is almost non-existent. So, while online education opens up limitless possibilities, access and the inequity are serious problems, with no immediate or easy solutions.
Education, skills and knowledge are, of course, directly connected with the economic prospects of an individual and of the country. The correlation between the two has grown stronger as the world moves towards a knowledge economy. Little wonder, then, that countries seek to prioritize education and skills. One example of this is China, which has given tremendous importance to upgrading its higher education system. As a result, many of its universities figure in the global rankings and some of them (Tsinghua, Beijing) are amongst the best regarded ones. Another example, at school level, is Vietnam. In 2015, it ranked number 8 in the global rankings in science in the well-regarded Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) list, well above the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average and above countries like the UK, Germany, Australia, the US and many Scandinavian countries. So, it is hardly surprising that its economy is doing well and it has increasingly become a destination of choice, particularly for companies looking for an alternative (or an addition) to their China operations. India seems to have come off only second best in this competition to attract job-creating and value-adding investments.
A major driver for the knowledge economy is research. While its foundation is education (beginning from school level), it requires not only strong research and doctoral programmes in universities, but also large monetary investments to promote and fund such research and to provide the necessary R&D infrastructure. While R&D too—like education—is a well-recognized priority for countries, not all countries have the human-resource base to do it yet. Those who do, and have invested in R&D, reap rich benefits. Apart from the US and many European nations, Japan, Israel, Korea and China are amongst those that exemplify this. These countries have built a strong human resource base by investing in education, and provide substantial support to R&D. Indicative of this is their R&D expenditure as a proportion of their GDP. As against a figure of around 0.65 per cent for India, China invests 2.2 per cent, Korea 4.8 per cent and Israel 5 per cent (all 2018 figures).
Apart from a much higher investment in R&D, many of these countries have focused programmes that concentrate on and build excellence in a few selected fields. Israel, for example, is a leader in cybersecurity; China has chosen to be a top player in AI. Amongst the other fields it has identified as priority are transportation, including electric cars and high-speed trains; electronics and telecommunications. It has already made a mark in all these, thanks to the priority accorded to creating educational institutions that produced a strong base of well-qualified experts, combined with high investment in R&D.
As technology becomes ubiquitous and more pervasive in day-to-day living, and its role in the economy grows, the importance of knowledge will increase manifold. The wealth of a nation may well be measured through indicators like the patents or intellectual property rights (IPRs) that it owns, or the number of doctorates and refereed publications that it produces. India needs to quickly pull up its socks in these areas, if it wants to be competitive and take a place amongst the global leaders.
This decade will see a transformation in the overall ecosystem of education. Even as technology becomes a major tool and means for learning—just as the textbook did, centuries ago—non-STEM subjects will assume greater importance. Since path-breaking innovations most frequently happen at the intersection of different disciplines, multidisciplinary courses or the flexibility to study any combination of courses must be an essential part of the university system. For example, insights from insect behaviour and abilities have helped in designing drones (unmanned aerial vehicles) that can avoid unforeseen obstacles. This requires knowledge of biology and a number of branches of engineering. While a team that brings together experts specializing in their own discipline is the answer, ideally there should also be a few people who understand both major aspects: engineering and biology. Examples of this type abound, and will be more the rule than the exception, pointing to the importance of providing full flexibility in combining varied subjects to earn a degree. This will also enable students to study subjects of their choice, not all of which may be within one broad area (science, for example). Thus, someone with an interest in physics but also in sociology should be able to study both, though one may be taught in a school of sciences and the other in a school of social sciences or humanities.
The years ahead are likely to see trends that are contradictory. On the one hand, there will be far deeper specialization, as disciplines get more complex. Be it medicine, engineering or humanities, there will be super-specialization, with experts who have ever greater knowledge of ever narrower areas. On the other hand, there will be those who prefer breadth and are familiar with a broad range of disciplines, but have lesser knowledge of each. There will be demand for such people too: those who can lead multidisciplinary teams, with enough knowledge to speak the language of each, without necessarily having deep expertise in any one.
The other contradictory trend is with regard to the preferred discipline. The excitement of rapid progress in technology and in biological sciences is likely to see continuing—even growing—demand for STEM courses. At the same time, there will be many who opt for arts and humanities. Here, too, the job market is likely to see demand for both. In the case of STEM, especially technology and engineering, it will represent a continuation of the present trend. At the same time, the need for professionals in arts and humanities—presently very muted—will see a considerable uptick as growing prosperity expands the market for experience and entertainment. This will include music and drama performances, art exhibitions, theatre, books and all kinds of content delivered via social media, streaming, television and film. In addition, technology and product companies will need experts who can design hardware, study and enhance consumer experience, understand human behaviour at individual or group levels, and carry out a range of other functions that require expertise in one or the other discipline of humanities or the arts.
The third trend where there is apparent divergence is the aspect of academic or intellectual knowledge as different from skills. The former would seem to be more important as the economy becomes more knowledge-based. In India, the preference for such courses is very marked, as noted earlier. This may well have to do with the country’s ‘brahmanical’ tradition, in which thinkers are seen as ‘superior’ to doers. This may, therefore, reinforce the sense that both the job market and the compensation level for such graduates will be greater. Yet, there has always been high demand for skills, though the compensation has been lower. Now, with sophisticated technology, the skill requirement has increased considerably (and so have salaries).
It is true that obsolescence with regard to skills is high and, with robotics and automation, certain skills are no longer required (stenography, for example) and many more will face extinction (computer programming code-writers and testers, for example). Yet new needs are fast emerging and very high skills are required for maintaining, operating and repairing—even replacing—sophisticated new equipment. The demand for such high skills is bound to grow. This demand, though, will keep changing as technology advances and ever newer equipment and devices enter the market. Continuous updating and upgrading of skills will, therefore, be a necessity. Meanwhile, the requirement for skilled human resources in ‘conventional’ areas—carpenters, electricians, plumbers, masons, etc.—is unlikely to decrease. Even here, though, continuous updating will be required.
A fourth trend will be simultaneous automation and its opposite—greater humanization. Technology, cost, efficiency and reliability will drive automation, resulting in devices and software that replace humans in a variety of functions. Quite apart from industrial automation, we see human-replacing devices being used far more extensively even in the home (a trend that has been accelerated after the COVID-induced lockdown). One example is the cleaning robot, replacing the floor-sweeping function in households. These robots are likely to become ubiquitous in middle-class households, being less bulky, more efficient and cheaper than a vacuum cleaner, which was a rarity in countries like India. Similarly, new versions of washing machines and dishwashers will increasingly replace human labour (and househelp). At the same time, there is growing automation in the workplace too. Unskilled workers, employed in lifting and shifting materials, have been replaced by fork-lift trucks; robots have replaced humans in many assembly operations and skilled technicians have given way to digitally driven machines for tasks like metal-cutting. This growing level of automation in both workplace and home is likely to generate a backlash, with people longing for human interaction. An early indication of this is the number of people who recognize the ease and efficiency of an interactive voice response system (IVRS), but yet hanker for a human being at the other end. While Alexa may answer all your queries efficiently and correctly, it is not an adequate replacement for a person-to-person conversation.
Contemporary lifestyles (in India as much as in the West) leave little time for friends and socializing. Growing automation and high quality communication infrastructure reduce direct human contact even at work. Thus, a lot of teamwork now involves colleagues who are not geographically co-located, and interaction is through the intermediation of communication technology. The lack of direct human contact often leads to loneliness and a strong desire for human interaction. Thus, it is more than likely that the rise of automation will be tempered or balanced with the simultaneous growth in human-provided services. Future systems may, for example, provide an option between man and machine (‘Dial 1 for a human; dial 2 for an automated response’). Many are trying to marry the two contrary needs by devising AI-based chatbots: automated robots that can chat with you in a manner that is almost indistinguishable from human. This may well be a solution—one that combines the advantages of a machine with the flexibility and warmth of a human. Yet, for other functions (for example, healthcare), and especially for the home-bound, the human touch (literally and metaphorically) may be preferred. Even in the case of education, a human teacher may be seen by many as the first choice—especially for young children—as against an automated teacher, even though the latter may be more efficient. Here too, a combination may work best, with automation at the back-end providing the appropriate content and data analytics, and a human teacher at the front-end ensuring the empathy, warmth and understanding necessary for students.
These and other trends are indicative of what direction education should take to meet the emerging needs of the future. Diversity and flexibility are clearly key elements that the education system must respond to in shaping its governance, structure, courses and syllabus.
(This excerpt from Kiran Karnik’s new book Decisive Decade is reproduced with permission from Rupa Publications India.)