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Tech and education's state of grace

by Amrita Tripathi
Friday , November 16, 2012 at 11 : 55

I got a chance to listen to well-known economist Professor Jeff Sachs speak at The Asia Society in New York on education, the change that technology is bringing in its wake, and the need for that change. Sachs also said the US war on poverty ended 30 years ago, transforming somehow into a "war on the poor". In reply to a question, he said the crisis in the country won't be solved by the "ridiculous rebellion of the rich against paying taxes".

Also on the panel, an 18-year-old student at The University of Maryland, Zak Malamed, who commandeered everyone's admiration just for being so articulate, young, and passionate about the need for change in the education system.

I wouldn't agree with everything I heard (who does, these days?!) but I did come away thinking it is true that America's higher education system is its "crown jewel" as May Lee (NYU's Vice Chancellor-Strategic Planning and Dy Chancellor for the University's Shanghai campus, according to her bio) put it. Of course it is. I know few people who would turn down an opportunity to study at some of the top schools in the US. And let me be perfectly honest, disastrous though I am at actually applying for grad school in the States, I still won't rule it out. So that's my disclaimer - I have bought into the higher education dream at some level.

But things they are a-changing, and the debate now is whether the cost is worth it? And the debt? Whether the tens of thousands dollars needed to fund university education is any longer an investment that's paying returns. An audience member asked this question of the panel, having seen part of the debate play out in the media.

Professor Sachs sounds like he feels technology will change things, slash costs, or at least make cheaper education an alternative, globally. He spoke of how hundreds of campuses worldwide are already linked up via online conferencing and what a difference that's already making (from schools in Uganda to India). He also had an interesting anecdote about how some 18 years ago, when P Chidambaram was Finance Minister (for the first time), at Harvard University they'd organised a ground-breaking live video conference (at the cost of 30 thousand dollars! And with much last-second wire-laying by VSNL and other attendant stresses) and how that was unprecedented at the time, but happily, commonplace now.

So in the near future, will the technological advances have an impact on the state of education in the US? Undoubtedly. At least, higher education. And not just the US, mind, but what Professor Sachs did really well, as did young Zak Malamed, was talk about the other side of the picture the "inequity" in education, as Malamed put it, with the socially disadvantaged kept out of the race. They also discussed what they consider to be education policy failures.

The larger debate on higher education is whether it's actually worth the costs, the debt, and student loans, and whether it's paying off in terms of employment, and if so how long that model will hold.

It's a different scenario of course, for India.

One of the panelists, Parag Saxena (Founding General Partner and CEO, New Silk Route Partners, acc his bio, and an IIT alumnus and someone involved with at least 2 schools, according to what he had to say), talked about some of the challenges IITs need to ramp up admissions, he said for example, they need to cater to groups of 8000 incoming students as opposed to 800, and so on but when asked about some of the failures in the Indian system vis-a-vis the Chinese system (where schools are consistently ranked higher, globally), didn't address the glaring issues in the primary school education system. He didn't bring up the fact that there's no incentive ...not at the primary school level, not for teachers, not for students at govt schools, not for anyone.

This right after he and Lee were agreeing that one of the key differences between Asia and the US is that education is given pride of place, and families sacrifice what they can to ensure the kids get a good education. It's true, too, but what of the rest of the picture? Lee tells us the Chinese respect teachers and to be a high school principal is to achieve the pinnacle of success, and have one of the most revered positions.

Not the case so much in India, anymore, if ever it were. We respect our teachers, of course we do, but we don't pay them well and don't incentivise Leave it to Malamad to ask how schools are rated in the first place? His point being that it shouldn't be competitive or based on grades (with teachers penalised for kids doing poorly) ...that that's missing the point.

What do you think? Of the state of education, IIM, IITs apart? And how technology is shaping that in the country?

Comment right here or tweet me @amritat @ibnlive


More about Amrita Tripathi

Amrita Tripathi is a news anchor with CNN-IBN, and also doubles up as Health and Books Editor. An MA in Philosophy from St Stephen's College, Delhi University, she has also taught a few undergraduate classes at her alma mater, informally! When she is not tracking health issues, Amrita is busy chasing the literary dream. Her debut novel Broken News was published in 2010. Before joining CNN-IBN, Amrita worked with The Indian Express.

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