02/04/2013 03:58 pm ET | Updated Apr 06, 2013

There Are No Uniform Solutions to Education Reform


Technology is important to transforming global education -- but no substitute for human contact.

Abraham Maslow, the American psychologist, is quoted saying, "If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail." As quotes and proverbs go, this one can be used within many contexts. But, allow me to use it within the context of IT with some care. While IT has been much discussed and will doubtless be a major player in transforming education over the next several decades, I feel that we need to decide if we are looking at a nail or something else entirely.

As co-founder and CEO of Pratham, the largest non-governmental organization working to provide quality education to the underprivileged children of India, I have to use a lens that often differs from that of my friends in the developing world. To my previous point about the hammer and nail, my experience has only confirmed my belief that problems that appear complex often require simple -- but certainly not uniform -- solutions.

That said, when considering IT in education, it is generally accepted that IT-based solutions cannot be standalone. They can (at best) be used as assistants. Further, we cannot propose IT as a primary solution and teachers as assistants in the process -- at least, not in primary schools located in the educationally and economically backward regions where some see the possibility of overcoming the shortage of human capital with the help of IT. Learning to use IT skills in schools, however, is another matter.

I will go a step further and say that, at the primary school level, we should invest heavily in ensuring that we have good teachers and good learning processes so that children have a chance to learn the basics while be guided by adults. At the secondary and higher-education levels, IT learning laboratories and trainings are essential to providing important context, teaching students how to leverage IT and other resources to leap-frog into the modern world.

I'll get into my reasons for the above solutions further. But first, let's look at the challenges in education today. As I see it, today's problems in education can be analyzed in several ways. One way is to group countries according to their educational achievements:

  • The first group is countries in which universal primary schooling has been achieved for decades but where the quality of education varies from region to region or among social groups.

  • The second group comprises nations such as India where governments have provided primary schools everywhere, but the quality of education remains a major question mark.

  • The third group covers countries whose provision of schools and teachers is still a problem, and where the quality of education in the existing schools is substandard.

Alternatively, we could consider regions by their differences in the degree of provision and/or quality of learning without considering national borders. These variations are often a reflection of uneven political, social, and economic development in most countries. The question remains, can IT act as a neutral leveler in education regardless of other developmental indicators? In principle, yes. But what about in practice?

The recent World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) in Doha underscored the burning issue of providing basic primary education to nearly 61 million children with the launch of the Educate a Child campaign by WISE Chairperson, Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser. Can IT help reach the unreached children who are in extremely underdeveloped countries, conflict zones, and areas of utter poverty? Globally speaking, these unreached children represent a "last mile problem" -- a persistent and timely issue that is not easy to resolve.

I doubt that anyone would suggest providing IT solutions without adult facilitators or teachers for such children. If adult facilitators or teachers can be provided in these areas, surely they can be enabled to deliver basic education without IT. In fact, I firmly believe that basic primary education is a very human activity in which children must interact with each other and their surroundings -- including adults. Most of the children marginalized without school today need simple love and care, which computers cannot provide, almost as much as educational activities in schools.

Higher education is quite a different matter. At this level, self-learning becomes much more important and to this end, young adults are capable of organizing their own group interactions as necessary. This is where IT, open courses, and online mechanisms can be extremely helpful. In fact, it seems entirely possible to me that universities in the developing world should take advantage of the online open courseware in science and technology so that their students can learn directly from top teachers around the world. Of course, there is the general question of language and the specific problem of contextualization in other subjects. The need for laboratories and teachers who help there cannot be ignored either.

The secondary education sector, as is to be expected, falls in between the primary and the higher education sector. In a majority of the world, the average length of schooling is still well under 8 years. Further, there is ample evidence that these 8 years of schooling are equivalent to less than perhaps 3 years of schooling in the most educationally advanced nations. So, the secondary sector faces a dual challenge of overcoming the weaknesses of a poor foundation in the primary education years and acquiring knowledge and skills that would prepare the adolescents for vocational or academic training.

Countries like my own (India) can be characterized as one made up of dropouts -- with average schooling lasting barely 5 years, although the average is increasing slowly but steadily. In order for these adolescents to catch up and meet the expectations of growing knowledge-based and technology-centered economies, they have a long way to go. I think the challenge here is to reform secondary education. To do so, two significant changes are needed. First, it has to be made more open and not restricted to learning academic subjects in classrooms. Second, students of open schools should not be denied opportunities to access institutions and processes of higher education. The Indian Government has recently drafted for such reforms that could go far in impacting education if implemented well. I see the need for a mix of focused human interaction to build foundational skills and access to knowledge through IT at the secondary stage of education.

At this November's WISE 2012, several speakers stressed the importance of building education in specific contexts while keeping it globally relevant. The problem with our current IT solutions is that most of the content is either in English or in languages of the developed world -- and even in those languages it is not contextualized for specific countries. Perhaps modern software will help us translate most of the written knowledge into national or regional languages. However, no software can contextualize knowledge. It requires a dedicated, skilled, and knowledgeable human effort.

In my speech accepting the 2012 WISE Prize for Education, I mentioned the importance of reinventing the wheel of education in our own lands because we are made differently, our histories are different, and paths to progress everywhere are different in each country. As I wrote earlier, IT could become a leveler of inequalities. However, it would be a shame if we were not also aware of the danger of it leveling the beautiful diversity of our cultures. Let us use Maslow's hammer with care.