Education for all: challenge of the 21st century

Baptist college silver jubilee lecture by Prof K Kannan. Vice Chancellor, Nagaland University 

Let me congratulate the founder visionaries of Baptist College management on attaining 25 years, serving the youth of Nagaland. I am sure it speaks volume of the dedication and commitment of the teachers who nurtured this college and could attract the youth to pursue higher education. I am very honored to be part of the silver jubilee celebrations. I must thank the principal Mr N Delhu Khate and the management for giving me this honor to be with all the students , teachers and administrative staff .

Imagine a model of education which enables the faculty teaching to conduct classes in real-time for students at the remote classrooms, with full interaction, discussions, questions-and-answers, classroom quizzes, software usage , etc, all under the control of the faculty. All students can see and hear the faculty and every other student, can do additional study at their own pace using the learning management system (LMS) and e-learning, and can take part in examinations using the online examination system. Model called Synchronous Real-time Learning.(SRL).

The education system today basically provides us with information. Ideally it should provide us with knowledge and wisdom but it falls short because the conditions required for their transfer are not sufficiently met. A great human being or a true teacher can pass down only a fraction of his wisdom in a typical class room situation. There are a number of factors that would increase the chances of an efficient transfer. A great desire to obtain the knowledge and wisdom of the true teacher must be there in the student. He must also have the capacity to receive it. In other word,he must be a receiver. It must be remembered that though the true teacher has a treasure box, the student holds the key to it. It also must be realized that the opening of the box, if it takes place, does so at random instants of time.  The student must be ever vigilant to pick up the bits that come out from the teacher’s mouth whenever they do. The student must also completely suppress his ego if he wants to open the box. A true teacher has to be an Effective Teacher.

Does this mean that he slowly becomes a clone of the true teacher? No. Once he/she has learnt all that true teacher can teach him, in a few years( what the true teacher has taken a lifetime to achieve ) he can launch off on his own to develop further in his own way. A true teacher will tell his student when it is time to move on. This nature of learning process is relevant to all subjects, provided one wants to go deep into them.

This raises the fundamental issue of what education is supposed to deliver in the 21st century? This is redefined by Prof Drew Gilpin Faust ( Harvard University’s first female President)on assuming her office in October 2007:

‘The essence of a university is that it is uniquely accountable to the past and to the future- not simply or even primarily to the present. “A university is not about results in the next quarter. It is not even about who a student has become by graduation. It is about learning that moulds a lifetime, learning that transmits the heritage of millennia; learning that shapes future. Hence we need to seize the initiative in defining what we are accountable for. Education is not to make men carpenters, so much as to make carpenters men .Traditional role of   universities as “Stewards of living traditions “, as places for “Philosophers as well as scientists,” where learning and knowledge are pursued in part” because they define what has over centuries made us human, not because they can enhance our global competitiveness. Those who long for a lost golden age of higher education should think about the very limited population that alleged utopia actually served. Colleges used to be restricted to tiny elite; now it serves the many, not just the few.’

Education kept modifying , changing and transforming, depending on how civilization changed their life styles. The lifestyles started adopting latest technology products and creativity became very important. The creativity was protected through patenting. Thomas Alva Edison became icon in the world of patenting. This gave the inventor a protection for 20 years(earlier it was 17 years).

Broadly speaking, there have been four major revolutions in society. Why it is called revolution? Revolution brings about a major transformation in the way we live .Broadly we can classify them as mentioned below.

Agricultural Revolution              (8000 BC to 1740 AD)
Industrial Revolution                 (1740 AD to 1940 AD)
ICT Revolution                         (1940 AD to 1990 AD)
Knowledge based Revolution    (1990 AD on wards)

Each revolution had done its impact to more than 40% people of that country. For example in agricultural age, most of the population was focused on agriculture as the means of sustenance, survival and freedom from hunger. But everything depended on the vagaries of nature. Education was provided to teach agricultural practices and depending on the region, there were some unique practices.  Mostly in places like Nagaland was oral tradition and was handed over from one generation to another .The concept of Morung, the educational system of Nagaland, is certainly a praise worthy effort. It helped in  transfer of skill based learning process.  The contribution of Ura academy in developing the Tenyidae language is really praise worthy and one hopes that we can record all these observations and protect the intellectual property of the community. Nagaland university in collaboration with National Innovation foundation has recently started recording Naga innovations and if found to be patentable, the university will protect the community innovation through patent. This will lead to new products and processes and benefit the community. The university hopes to create incubator facilities in their campuses and enable the youth to convert their idea into reality. Recently the university’s newly established Centre  for Women Studies in collaboration with Entrepreneur Associates and Jaipur Rugs have put up two looms at Teynusumi village and 20 people are becoming trainers to weave Naga carpets.  What essentially university  is rediscovering the skill of the local community and creating a new market for carpets, where we hope that each worker will earn at least Rupees  3500 per month if they put in 8 hours of work a day.  Nagaland University will give certificates to the people who have successfully completely the training. We hope that they in turn will train others and create a new opportunity for livelihood. This is a new initiative to provide Vocational training to people who could not go for higher education. With the establishment of Engineering and Management we hope to start several short and long term program to benefit the youth of Nagaland.    

Industrial revolution brought in a sea change in the way people lived. Due to the uncertainties of agriculture, industrial products assured a stable income and people started shifting to industries from agriculture, from barter system to money as currency. Many agricultural practices were automated and agricultural production became a large scale affair rather than practiced by a small group or community. Food processing industry and preservation of agricultural produce in new formulations became possible in the industrial revolution. Thus it could be marketed all over the world. Whole new market and tastes developed and with it changed lifestyles. The biggest impact was in the field of education.  Technology and engineering became the driver of development. Just after independence, IIT’s were set up to catch up with the new education called engineering. Thanks to British, Roorkee had the first civil engineering Thomson college which was later called Roorkee university and now renamed as IIT. To catch up with new areas of engineering like Mechanical, Electrical, Chemical,Civil to name a few , IIT’s had collaboration with industrialized nations such as USA, UK, Germany and USSR. With the discovery of petroleum, a whole new branch of engineering developed called Chemical Engineering. It will not be wrong to say that today we use nearly 95 % of petroleum derived products in our daily life. This resulted in substitution of vegetable and animal based products with products derived from petroleum. This led to pollution and climate change and now there is an all out drive to reduce the dependence on petroleum based products including petrol. At one point petroleum derived products were cheaper than other natural derived products. With the current prices of crude oil, already there is a major shift for renewable energy resources as well as non conventional energy resources. Biotechnological innovations are currently being pursued to meet the demands of ever growing population. Hence the world is now looking at knowledge based economy. The first professional residential school of Engineering and Technology of Nagaland University was inaugurated on 29th October. The school has IT, CSE, ETC, BT and will have agricultural technology by 2008. Probably the first in North East having so many contemporary courses This calls for new knowledge acquisition through education. In the knowledge economy, education has become the driver of progress. The university is in the process of creating Education Grids so that one day education can be delivered to every village in Nagaland.

Hence education itself has become multi dimensional .It is expected that mass education will sensitize the youth towards not  only reading, writing  and speaking skills,  communicative skills, but also sensitize to various dimensions of technology, art , culture, humanities, economics, commerce etc. This needs a paradigm shift in school and college education   where focus should shift from examination oriented  teaching to skill acquisition. For example we need to be aware of global connectivity and opportunities and work towards minimizing usage of paper. Even offices are shifting from conventional governance to e-governance. Today thanks to ICT revolution, we get the best services from any part of the world as the whole world has become a global village. Parts of any machine may have components sourced from different countries and assembled in two or three places depending on how many continents have to be serviced. For example, India has tremendously benefited from IT enabled services and suddenly quite a few Indian entrepreneurs have become billionaire’s by taking advantage of the new market. Once upon a time we heard of only Tata, Birla but today the same list also has Wipro, Infosys, TCS etc. Though IT segment has only benefited 4% of the population of India but it has given us the strength that we can compete in the knowledge economy provided we are able to restructure our education at various levels .Hence mass education should sensitize the youth and parents with newer opportunities rather than following the standard and unquestioned wisdom that my child should become a doctor or engineer! In this knowledge driven economy, no job is permanent and half life of any career is only 3 years and today’s learner has to be a continuous learner for life time  rather than 3 years of yester years. In the state of Kerala, when I was a young boy in the early 60’s, type writing and short hand was the in thing. So after basic school education, parents encouraged their children to become typists or stenographers as it gave them their daily bread through getting immediate job in a government service. Till recently the dream of every parent was that their child should get a job in government or their daughter should be married to a government employee. This still continues to be the trend in the North East whereas rest of the country, the trend is that government job has become last priority. The future belongs to the bold entrepreneur.

 Nagaland, has remained mostly in the agricultural age and the impact of industrial, ICT revolution has only trickled in. Further as the population was less, the practices of agricultural age could help the community to be happy and survive.

In the pre independence and the few decades of post independence era in south India, getting into civil services was considered the ultimate and hence, the brightest students attempted to get into civil services like ICS, IAS, IPS etc. Now seeing the power of new technology and better earning capacity, the trend of getting into newer technology sectors has become fashionable rather than civil service.

With good communication skills and IT skills, the youth is earning salaries beyond the expectation of their parents. The present youth has realized in the knowledge based economy, one has to excel to contribute significantly to the present economy. The world has shifted from 2C to C2 ( command and control to connect and collaborate). The success of company’s like Wipro and Infosys can be attributed to this philosophy. Currently about 132 million students across the globe have registered for higher education compared to 13 million five decades ago. Due to lack of higher educational avenues with in Nagaland , we loose several hundred crores of rupees towards educating only a few students. Similarly it is estimated that India pays $317 million in 2004-2005 to foreign countries to provide higher education. As can be seen, education services are growing up logarithmically with economic growth. Interestingly Nagaland is loosing several 100 crores of rupees by going to other states or countries  or importing from other states and countries. Can we save the same and put the same for development within!

In the 21st century, Education services have become central to compete in the future. Gone are the days of conventional education. To day, higher education has taken a central position for economic growth. As per WTO (World Trade Organization), education services  are traded through following four modes.

  1. Cross border where the service itself crosses the border but consumer and provider do not move- for example, an Indian university opening a virtual university abroad.
  2. Consumption abroad where the consumer travels to the country where the service is supplied-such as an Indian student going to USA to study.
  3. Commerce presence, where the service provider establishes a commercial presence abroad- like an Indian university opening a branch abroad.
  4. Movement of Natural persons, where the provider of the service moves temporarily to the territory of another country to supply a service as when an Indian professor goes to China for few months to take classes at a Chinese university.

All these four categories are under negotiation between countries as barriers to education services are not like tariffs. They are regulatory barriers, rather than explicit taxes. As with trade in goods, restriction on trade in services reduces welfare because they create a wedge between domestic and foreign prices, leading to a consumer surplus. Till the advent of ICT, only mode was Mode 2 (consumption abroad ) and Mode 4 (Movement of natural persons ).In fact  IIT’s, AIIMS were established by a combination of both modes. For some reason, this model could not be replicated through out the country by using products emerging out of these institutes. In fact cream of the best trained left for greener pastures and worked for developing countries. In spite of growth of large number of technical institutes, we have not been able to maintain the quality of employable students. But one cannot deny the fact that those who are employable are significant in terms of number. No single industry has played a greater role in shaping the global business landscape as the outsourcing (Business Process Outsourcing (BPO)) and offshore brigade. This has been possible because   companies recruit all kinds of people like economists, MBAs, PhDs, besides simple graduates with English and Maths skills. The company  provide them training for skills on voice, accounting or even US GAAP (US Generally Accepted Accounting Principles) because there is no other way you can get trained resources. Some have as much as 300 trainers and virtually run a small university. This successful model has earned    India the title “World’s back office”, BPO majors are moving centre stage in the Indian economy too, earning billions of dollars and creating millions of jobs in the world’s second most populous country.

A young person today is much more aware than someone a few decades ago. This could be due to Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and the technological revolution. However, time is required for information to become knowledge. A greater time lag is needed for it to transform into wisdom.

Once a direction becomes clear through knowledge, lot of hard work is required to acquire wisdom. The process also needs patience, a certain degree of faith and an open mind, all of which are at a premium today. Consequently, a bright and hard –working young person is likely to fall into the trap of ‘I know it all’ . This forecloses possibility of progress.

The way to progress is not by rediscovering the wheel, but by improving upon the best wheel available with your ingenuity. To get that, one must have humility, patience and a desire to learn. No one says that questions should not be raised, but it is important to know how, when and where to raise them.

A teacher carries a treasure that cannot be parted with so easily. Only he who has the qualities mentioned above can access it. Once the depth of what he possesses is fathomed, the teacher will tell a deserving pupil to move on and search for deeper truths but till that time one must try not to jump the gun.

What does North East states need to do to survive the 21st century . Most of them have nearly bypassed the 19th and 20th century and left with no choice but to Leap Frog into 21st century .Japan has done it, China has done it and so have so many other countries and states.  Why not North East?

 No one can doubt that ultimate aim of education is to make all of us a good human being. The unanimous adoption by United Nations General assembly on 15th June 2007 to celebrate Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday on second October as “International Day of Non-violence” in 2007 is very significant. It has re redefined that education should lead to Peace, Non-violence and Empowerment.

 Prof Muhammad Yunus(Nobel Laureate) said recently that for peace we need to create a Poverty free world. He said: Within a framework that encompasses Gandhiji’s philosophy of tolerance and non violence, compassion for all humanity and peaceful coexistence, we can work together to create a world that our grandchildren and our great grandchildren can be proud of. We can create a world where we can achieve peace, not through war but through dialogue and cooperation. We can create a world where we prefer to use resources on improving the lives of the poor rather than spend on weapons. We can create a world which is prosperous where we all live together in peace. We can create a world where each individual has the opportunity to unleash the unlimited potential that he or she is born with to achieve what he or she dreams of. We can create a world where poverty exists only in museums. Let us dream of such a world and work to make it happen.