I recently found myself sitting excitedly at Microsoft headquarters, eagerly waiting to see, and listen to, someone who I had been inspired and highly taken up with for a long time - Salman Khan- the Bengali American Educator and Entrepreneur (not the film idol).
Let me shift the focus first. We all know our education system needs some reforms at multiple levels. I myself am a product of the local education system, from school to university to masters, and I take great pride in this. Having said that, to not acknowledge the urgent need for change in our local education system would be a catastrophe. Far too few students get into tertiary education, curriculums are slow to be refreshed, and there is a mismatch between the national needs and the education output. We also need more interaction with society and business, as part of the education process… and although this is all common knowledge, I would not hold my breath for a rapid change in this area. Sadly, the combination of diverse interests and views from lecturers, teachers, administrators, trade unions, the violent vociferous groups of students, politically motivated groups, political interests and even budget constraints, will ensure that our education system changes only incrementally over time.
Yet today we have a glimmer of hope and a small window of opportunity, which can provide us with an avenue to sabotage this “movement of incremental change”, but in a positive way. Technology is paving the way to facilitate this. Let me provide some examples briefly. The Salman Khan (Sal) I was excited about is a MIT and Harvard Computer Science super kid, who has given it all up to do something very interesting. While being in Investment Banking, his niece wanted him to help out with some lessons, which he did, captured them on camera, and posted them on Youtube. He has a wonderful ability to simplify a very complex idea, and this is coupled with a gifted Communication skill. Soon more of his niece’s classmates started watching the lessons, and the demand grew for him to do more lessons.
To cut a long story short, this was the point where he gave up his job to begin doing this form of teaching fulltime. He formed the Khan Academy for this purpose (please do a Bing search on this). Bill Gates was also one of the people who quickly grasped the power of this concept, and supported the academy through the Gates Foundation. Sal’s concept is simple- he wants to provide a World Class education to all Children Worldwide…for Free!! C.W.W. Kannangara would be proud of this young man. The Khan Academy taught over Forty million adults and children worldwide last year, and one cannot but be moved by his passion and vision when listening to his simple yet powerful ideas. Children learn at different speeds, and this form of learning provides the opportunity for each to learn at their own pace and place. What is fascinating is that some overseas schools have already started incorporating some of this into their regular curriculum. My daughter found some lessons, which complemented her local syllabus school lessons quite well and was raving about the quality and impact it had. The notion of needing a teacher for each lesson is gradually giving way to more broad based learning, and peer learning, while still retaining the core function of the teacher.
Massive Open Online Courses
Another interesting development is the notion of MOOC’s or Massive Open Online Courses. The thinking here is to have the course content etc available online for students across the world to access. Leading universities like Stanford, MIT Harvard etc have all been driving forces of this trend.
During the sessions I attended I was fascinated when one university Dean was quoted as saying that they had over 150,000 students register for their course, of which around 7000 had passed; but what was important was that they produced more Graduates in that one year though MOOC’s than the entire previous forty years of the Faculty!!! Currently the focus is still more on learning, rather than certification, but I feel these too will soon evolve.
So with this kind of knowledge at our fingertips, the real question is who would transform or broad base our education? Which local university would take the lead in providing more of their degrees, or some modules or certifications, through the MOOC’s model? Or could places like the Open University, SLIIT, Aquinas or others take the lead? It would take one or two years for a University to put all of this together. They may also think about localizing some of the content and the local language aspect. What is important is that a selected few start now. In two years this trend will have gathered a lot more momentum and structure. By the time we produce our own graduates through this formula, it will be five to six years from now. But we could also work on diplomas etc for faster tertiary output, which is a crying need in Sri Lanka.
Bypass local entities
The other interesting angle would be that Sri Lankan Students might bypass local entities and start enrolling themselves to take lessons at over 30 overseas Universities, which offer these courses today. While Broadband penetration is increasing rapidly, albeit still at a very low base, entities with computer infrastructure already in place such as the Nenasala and VIdartha networks, Sarvodaya, the VTA etc could very well programmatically invite rural youth to enroll and use their locations as the point of access, for a fee. There is also a good network of School IT labs, but there is little understanding of the High quality lessons out there through places like the Khan Academy. Progressive schools and teachers could expose kids to some of these lessons to complement their own Teacher’s work even today. I do know some thinking along these lines, are already emerging with the MOE as well.
Funding is another limitation. But corporate Sri Lanka has gone with the CSR flow fairly strongly. It just needs a major player or two, to channel their energy into this arena in partnership with secondary or tertiary institutions, rather than funding more of the traditional Sports, Computer labs, School buildings, and other infrastructure aspects (although these too are needed areas).
Technology possibly provides the only liberating force, which is beyond the control of the forces of incremental change, which operate within Sri Lanka. Enlightened governments across the world use it to complement, reshape or even positively disrupt the Education practices, which have existed for decades within their own countries. But groups outside government too have the ability to introduce these trends into Sri Lanka almost seamlessly and immediately. Soon we may see more kids with overseas educational qualifications or knowledge, gathered through these on line means. If we cannot provide more of our kids with access to higher education locally at Universities, the least we could do as a nation is to support their growth and further education at least through these means. After all, we would all agree that we want to provide High quality Education for as many of our future generations as possible?
(The author is the Country Manager for Microsoft, and is also actively engaged with several Chambers, Charities, Academic and other groups who further Sri Lanka’s development agenda).