Unstoppable march of technology in education

The #1 factor that distinguishes the 21st century from the past is the powerful impact that technology is making in almost every sphere of contemporary life. Like an unstoppable tsunami, it totally transforms any landscape it decides to visit. If the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s catalysed a mechanical engineering revolution that radically transformed the lifestyles of people (for instance the way they travelled), the ongoing digital revolution is transforming people mentally and psychologically.

Let’s explore how technology is reshaping the teaching-learning process in unprecedented ways. 

Ubiquitous learning. Learning is increasingly becoming instantaneous and needs-based. A project manager in the thick of a mega construction project may suddenly realise he needs to learn statistical analysis to optimise construction expenditure. Online platforms that deliver Moocs (massive open online courses) fulfill such learning needs through short, on-demand courses. Unsurprisingly, they are becoming popular, especially with corporates for employees’ skill/professional development.

Synchronous and asynchronous learning. Sometimes, there’s a need to adhere to classroom traditions to promote collaborative learning. At other times, individuals prefer to learn in isolation, at their own pace. Moocs broadcast from some of the world’s most admired universities including MIT, Boston, Harvard and U Cal, offer both options. The use of virtual classrooms is growing especially in the Asia-Pacific region as it offers a low-cost, meaningful education alternative for students from low-income households. In the asynchronous learning space, there are several online course providers with differing revenue models like the not-for-profit Khan Academy and others such as Coursera, which offers free-of-charge courses but issues course completion certificates against payment. In addition to such companies that operate in the generic space, there are niche edtech firms offering Moocs in the K-12 school segment, competitive exam coaching etc.

Active knowledge creation. Traditional education relied heavily on students retaining facts within their long term memory. But with the emergence of cloud technology, the obligation to remember individual and corporate knowhow, has become less important than active knowledge creation — the activity of producing unique knowledge through collaborations and information gathering. One of the best examples is the dethronement of the time-honoured Encyclopedia Britannica by Wikipedia, the well-known online encyclopedia which is the fruit of voluntary active knowledge accumulation by thousands of netizens.

Learning support. In addition, a large number of edtech firms cater to the unique needs of learners. One of the most popular edtech sites, Duolingo, styles itself as “the world’s most popular way to learn any language”. Moreover, open universities which started offering free courses on television are now solidly entrenched in education technology spaces and offer a mind-boggling array of study programmes, online tests and certification using software which is common across a variety of digital devices — computers, tablets and mobile phones.
Integrated learning. Niche career options are emerging, requiring widely divergent skills. For example, the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2017 was awarded to Richard H. Thaler for interdisciplinary work that introduced psychology into the science of economic decision-making. Another interesting field is that of genomics, a queer combination of mathematics and biology. Conventional study programmes are no match for this type of interdisciplinary learning. 

The unique flexibility of online study programmes apart, one of the best arguments in favour of rolling out online education is attractive cost-benefit ratios for education institutions and students. That’s why a rising number of Ivy League universities are offering online courses at a fraction of the cost of providing them on-campus. In addition, there are the social benefits of equality of opportunity. New education technologies enable students in any part of the world to access study courses of their choice, streamed from their dream university! 

Summing up, I believe that in 21st century industry and firms, the demand for specialists who know everything about one subject will decline. The need is for managers who are problem-solvers — individuals with working knowledge of everything — engineering, accounts, management, even medical first-aid, capable of quickly evaluating a problem, doing their part and simultaneously locating and connecting over the Internet with people to help out in other areas of expertise. Moreover, the need to learn ‘on the job’ will continue to keep the scales tilted in favour of tech-enabled education, which is here to stay. 

I believe learning which combines computer science and artificial intelligence with machine learning, neuroscience, pedagogy/andragogy (the theory and practice of teaching children and adults) will shape the future of education in India and abroad.

(Saiju Aravind is founder and managing director of Kochi-based EduBrisk Knowledge Solutions)