Wednesday, March 08, 2006

 

Computers in Schools: Clothing the future emperors of the IT Superpower?

The recent announcement by NIIT, Intel and Microsoft, in conjunction with the State Bank of India sends shivers down my spine. A short summary of the announcement is that the above four entities plan to extract Rs 1000 crores from the parents of children in about 1000 private schools in India over the next two years. Depending on how successful they are in this phase, they plan to target a further 8000 such schools. In return, they intend to implement "IT and IT-assisted education" in these schools.

The gullibility of parents and the mass marketing muscle of the first three organisations are directly to be blamed for such criminal waste of scarce resources.
These three entities, have successfully implanted in the minds of most educated
and aspiring parents in India that there is a three step path to riches and glory: "do computer" in schools, then do a NIIT diploma and then work as a programmer in an MNC. I do not know where to start in countering the weight of this huge propaganda that is ably assisted by the government, agencies like NASSCOM, and the media.

Over the past several years countless crores of rupees have been spent in setting up computer labs in schools across the country. A very popular elective of Computer Science has been introduced for the eleventh and twelfth standard, which most 'bright' students opt for as a replacement to biology. The computer science syllabus of the otherwise very enlightened CBSE makes it very clear that computer science is equated to the process of learning to manipulate a computer and the use of various software packages (the most sophisticated of which being MS Power Point) as a minimum, and graduating to being able to program either in Visual C or Visual C++ as the ultimate pinnacle of accomplishment. And if a student acquires on the side the title of MCP (no, not what you think, but Microsoft Certified Programmer), then his parents become ecstatic and give interviews to newspapers.

I can not attempt to better the description of Professor Jeannette Wing of CMU,
in an article Computational Thinking published in the Communications of the ACM, a leading publication of the computer science community, on what computer science is.
It is just three pages long, and it is worth reading once if you are a non-tech type, and worth reading twice if you are a tech type. And for once, I will heartily recommend a chain mail with this article as its content. Please forward this to friends, especially if they are working for either Intel, Microsoft or NIIT:-) Most likely, the decision makers are clearly aware of the distinction and that is why there is a specific use of the phrase "IT and IT-assisted" instead of computer science.

Sadly, even most engineering colleges in India that offer computer science degrees
have no real grasp of what computer science is and we now have a public-sector bank funded initiative to thrust computers down students' throats in schools.

There is a double tragedy here: parents who can afford to, buy computers (never low-cost machines, but only the most recent, highest speed processor, fastest graphics, etc., that the market has to offer). Parents who cannot easily afford computers, stretch, sacrifice and buy PCs at home in the hope that they have provided the best for their children. In addition, such parents also pay huge amounts of money to put their children through private schools that provide enlightened education, which are simply those schools that claim to offer "IT and IT-enabled education".

Parents of children that can neither afford to buy computers nor send their children to enlightened schools are the target of government policies and that attempt to
bring technology into education. With the result, governments spend thousands of crores providing the very same "IT and IT-enabled education" to government schools
as well. The only constant in all of these expenditures is that the recipients
are Intel, Microsoft and NIIT!

The second tragedy is that by introducing computer labs in schools, most intelligent
and creative students are turned off from computer science, just as most students who have gone through the horrors of a physics lab or a chemistry lab in school, never want to go anywhere near the basic sciences. Students that can thrive in rote learning excel in school computer labs and these are the very same students who become very successful as part of the celebrated 'workforce' in IT and IT-enabled services!

The only novelty in the recent announcement is the fact that SBI has jumped in to this bandwagon, which is a clear statement of the low-risk nature of this project. No one is going to complain, and there will be recurring revenues for all parties concerned since every three years the current set of machines and software will be declared as "un-enlightened", by three of the above four parties. The parents of successful children will be happy that their early efforts and sacrifices have paved the way for success for their children. The parents of the not-so-successful parents will bemoan the fact that in spite of the best education that they have given to their children, they have not succeeded as expected and point out a range of reasons for this, not one of them will be that they placed their bet wrongly on "IT and IT-assisted education".

Comments:
Dear Sir,

I think that the problem lies, as you have duly pointed out, in the mind set of the parents which has been handed down to them from their ancestors.

Having been through the phases you have mentioned, I have only one question, does the solution to the problem lie with the MNCs changing their mindset not to target ppl/students as objects of monetary gain or with the people themselves? To para-phrase the problem, Do we/Can we change the mindsets of the people(enmass)? To do so,I feel, would mean, people should start living and not merely ticking items of their sheets...

Keenly following your blogs,
Mayur
 
Government is facilitating the flow of wealth to specific three private corporation is not a crime so long their purpose is not to steal the country's wealth. It is not suggested in the article that NIIT, Microsoft and Intel are jointly planning a conspiracy which is supported by SBI to loot the public property. They are going to take 1000 crores for the services that they are going to render.

If there is a need in the society it is a welcome move that these corporate giants are offering to fulfill the need. Obviously we can not expect them to provide the service for free of any charges since they are commercial organizations working for generating profit.

Now the question may be on the ‘need’. Is there really need of computers in the schools? That is the question to be addressed.

There is a group of people belonging to ancient vedantic culture still surviving in Himalayas. Till date they are ‘illiterate’ in the sense that they do not know how to read and write. But they can recite all the 100000 and odd slokas of Mahabaratha. They rightly believe if they learn to read and write their capacity to memorize will be lost.

Reading and Writing skills are good or bad?

In the good old days when we were children we used to by-heart the math table and till date we are far superior and faster than the younger generation in solving simple math problems without using the calculator. It is a undisputable fact that introduction of calculators in the schools will remove the imbalance among the children. Those who can not solve 2 X 2 will be made equal to those who can solve 16 X 16.

Calculators are the boon or bane to the human society?

Let us stop with just these two examples of the impact of growth of science and technology on the advancement of human civilization. The point that is driven is computers are essential from the elementary school level onwards. It is just a question of affordability.

What is the reason for saying computers are essential from elementary school. Can we imagine a world without computers now? So obviously every child in the school need to get exposed to it as early as possible. Even before the child goes to school it is essential (if affordable) to encourage the child to play games on the computers.

‘Computer games’ is the modified version of ‘reading a story book’. In good old days parents keep the weekly magazines and story books away from the children fearing that it will divert them from the academic books. The fear continues even today but one need to appreciate the truth that the younger generation is far superior to the elder generation inspite of all sorts of diversion.

Let us look at the areas of concerns raised in the article.

1. Computer Science as an alternative to Biology.

This is apparently true. But in reality it is not. From the inception of the current educational system students choose between the two streams ‘engineering’ or ‘medical’. Those who want to be doctors avoid math and those who want to be engineers avoid biology. (Infact those who can not tolerate math convince themselves that they are destined to become doctors and those who can not draw a diagram of a plant decide to become engineers.)

Only those who can do both equally well (or equally bad) remain undecided and take both math and biology.

Computer Science as an optional subject has no influence on the above decision. Once the decision is made to opt out of biology or math people choose Computer Science not due to the love of the subject but it is one of the scoring subjects.

No one is planning to be a computer professional when opting for Computer Science. So it is not fair to blame the computer science subject for diverting people from taking biology.

2. Creativity Vs Rote Learning

This observation is quite valid but little to do with the current topic. The educational system has to be changed in general. The current system encourages rote learning and systematically attempts to kill the creativity and intelligence of the gifted students.

But then the gifted students do survive the system. The education system plays a very minor role in shaping the future of the child. The percentage of the knowledge provided by the system is very marginal compared to the knowledge that is inborn in the child. Therefore the only harm that is currently perpetuated by the education system is to shift the focus from spirituality to material growth. But then it provides quicker opportunity for people to realize the futility of the prosperity rather cursing their fate to poverty.

From that view point inclusion of Computer Science in schools facilitating ‘mass production’ of computer professionals is a very good news.

Coming back to the ‘conspiracy’ of the NIIT-MicroSoft-Intel, yes it is clearly the marketing gimmick to declare the computer systems as obsolete every three years. This need to be fought back by providing alternative solutions rather than saying ‘IT enabled education’ in the schools are not required.

The population of India justifies huge long term investment in developing alternatives to Intel-Microsoft. The government can definitely support the development of indigenous hardware/ software solutions rather then supporting the MNCs.
 
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