Reaping the Benefits of Demographic Dividend

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VS Ramamurthy, Director, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore

V S RamamurthyBy VS Ramamurthy, Director, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore. He believes that India does not have too much time at her disposal to refurbish its educational system in all aspects considering that the youngsters who will join the workforce in 2020 are already in schools

We are on the threshold of a new era in the history of human civilization, the knowledge era. The acquisition and use of knowledge for  personal and societal benefits is central to this era. Knowledge is also human-centric. The generation of new knowledge, acquisition of existing knowledge, and its use for development, is dependent on trained human resources.

India sees a window of opportunity in its development not only because it is one of the few countries in the world with a working age (15-59 years) population that exceeds its number of retirees, but also because its share of population in this age group is set to rise much faster than its overall population over the next few decades. Can India take advantage of this opportunity and garner its benefits considering that the window is fairly narrow? One cannot be too optimistic about this. After all, it is not enough to have a lot of young people, what is important is that these people need to be properly educated/trained to fully contribute to the knowledge economy.

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There are serious problems with the Indian educational system, both at the primary and at the higher education levels. More than six decades after the country came out of the colonial rule and becameindependent, we are far from achieving 100 percent literacy. A  substantial fraction of our young children in the school-going age residing in the rural areas do not even have access to schools. The shortage of teachers is known to be chronic in the existing schools. Teaching material in regional languages is scarce. There are additional problems related to health and nutrition that impact the effectiveness of education and the capacity for learning at young age.

The secondary education sector also suffers from very similar lacunae as the primary education sector: shortage of teachers and teaching materials, and poor infrastructure such as libraries or laboratories. Another major problem in our secondary education system reaching up to the undergraduate level is the absence of skill development. It is not surprising that many of the potential employers feel that a good fraction of the students coming out of our schools and colleges are, indeed, unemployable.

The situation in higher education is even more appalling. India now educates only about 10 percent of the youngsters in the higher education age group. Among these 10 percent too, the dropout rates are very high. The opportunities for research are scarce. We have been treating research positions as yet another “job” and applying all economy measures applicable to other routine jobs. The number of researchers per million population in India is much lower than that for many other developed countries. While there are a few institutions of higher learning and research that are globally competitive, the majority of them are also below global standards. Overall, India invests less on research and development as compared to other countries having ambitions of technological leadership.

We do not have too much time at our disposal to refurbish our educational system in all its aspects considering that the youngsters who will join the workforce in 2020 are already in our schools. Change from within will come not only too slowly, but will also be sub-critical for India. A disruptive, radical solution is clearly needed.

A clue to where to look at comes from the experience of many countries, includingIndia, showing that Information and Communication Technology (ICT) can very effectively be used in education. First and foremost, India today is a “connected” country. Our communication infrastructure is, indeed, globally competitive. It is being increasingly demonstrated that it is not necessary to  deploy fully-loaded, expensive computers to impart basic education. Specialised devices that can do the job as effectively can be designed at very affordable prices. Today, India hosts a fairly large talent pool of designers and application programmers who can deliver such devices.

The development of teaching materials including those in regional languages has shown significant progress in the recent years. One does not have to wait for massive institutional reforms. Of course ICT is not a substitute for teachers. It is an affordable additional tool in the hands of the teachers and the students that can very easily be targeted and individualised, and has a quick and clear feedback loop. Once a start is made, more sophisticated tools can be developed for older children and higher learning, and even for the teachers. With the right training and skills, our workforce can find productive employment not only in India, but also abroad. The role of ICT in research needs no special introduction.

“With the right training and skills, our workforce can find productive employment not only in India, but also abroad”

India was the first developing country that experimented with Satellite Communication Technology for rural education in as early as the seventies. The Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE) was an Indo-US programme to study the effectiveness of satellite communication on rural education well before India entered the satellite communication age.

The Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) offers courses in the distance education mode to more than a few hundred thousand students not only across India, but also outside.

The Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, jointly with the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, offers a programme on technology-enhanced learning in engineering, science and humanities streams for students outside their own campuses. The National Knowledge Network (NKN) provides a state-of-the-art multi-gigabit pan-India network for delivering a unified high-speed network backbone for all knowledge-related institutions in the country. The purpose of such a network goes to the very core of the country’s quest for building quality institutions with requisite research facilities and creating a pool of highly trained professionals. The NKN will enable scientists, researchers and students from different backgrounds and diverse geographies to work closely for advancing human development in critical and emerging areas. The network is also a platform to deliver effective distance education and help teachers and students interact in real time. This is especially significant in a country like India where access to education is limited by factors such as geography, and lack of infrastructure facilities etc. The network enables co-sharing of information such as classroom lectures, presentations and handouts among different institutions. An early experiment, “The Hole-inthe- wall”, by Sugata Mitra, Professor of Educational Technology at the School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences at the Newcastle University, UK, clearly demonstrated that the acquisition of basic computing skills by any set of children can be achieved through incidental learning, provided the learners are given access to a suitable computing facility, with entertaining and motivating content and some minimal (human) guidance.

One could go on with several other initiatives demonstrating the effectiveness of ICT in education at all levels. The question is not whether ICT can deliver in education, but whether India can afford not to have ICT in education if we want to reap the benefits of the demographic dividend.

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