PanIIT Chronicles - Target the teachersIt is generally agreed that to grow India into a knowledge economy, it is important to spread high-quality education beyond the grasp of the few. During PanIIT, Nandan Nilekani wanted the Government to get out of the business of controlling the education. That is a good point - as has been shown by the Telecom Revolution.
The other prong of the approach is to have distance-education programmes, and this is where things are going wrong. There has been wide coverage (check the links here and here) of the drawbacks of the current education system.The classic DEP mechanism is to have a primary nodal center serving satellite centres via some new technological innovation - WiMAX, TV Broadband and OLPC are frequently mentioned in the same breath. However, these initiatives are going to be non-starters when you start thinking beyond pilot projects and move over to mass implementation. The reason being they don't take care of local conditions, social motivations ,etc.
My solution to this, and this is possibly where IITs can play a major role: this is to target the teachers instead of the students. By teaching 1000 teachers, I can potentially teach 50000 students each year (assuming each teacher teaches 50 students in a year). The trickle-down effect can work wonders in such cases - it is the fastest way of reaching masses and masses of people in this big country. Teaching teachers is also a long-term option, something that can't be said for students. Anyone knowing the knowledge of the teachers in an engineering college can attest to the fact that these teachers really *do* require further coaching in their own subjects.
I can give a personal example - at PESIT, where I did my engineering, I was part of a programme called PPR, now it has been re-christened as GSDP (Gifted Student Development Programme), where a corporate trainer called Vijayan teaches C/C++ basics like nobody ever imagined. It was a part-bootcamp style teaching that made us focus on one thing and one thing only - survive the next quiz ! In my batch of PPR 2001, some 700 people throughout Bangalore wrote the entrance exam, 86 were selected, and finally, only 13 survived to pass the course. Commando-coders of highest order. The programme was sponsored by the who's who of the IT industry - Wipro, Infy, Honeywell, Thoughtworks, Yahoo, Netscaler, etc - we could get back-door placements in these companies. The tragedy of the concept was that had it been for the teachers, these 13 teachers could have done wonders to some 100 students they teach each year. We 13 who passed out are lost to the system entirely - we are not giving back what we got, we are just black-holes of knowledge.
Interestingly, I don't think Vijayan ever said "No" to any teachers attending the programme, but none of them ever did. Why ? Looking at the psychology of teachers, some people get into teaching because they love to teach; some, because they don't want to serve corporate "masters" (huh, won't they be disappointed !); some, because they want a stress-free life; some, because they couldn't get any other job. Teaching the last category of teachers can be a little tricky because once their competency is enhanced, they usually jump the job. The second and third would be indifferent. Only the first categoy would be receptive to such an exercise. We must concentrate on these.
I've spoken out against OLPC before, and I still maintain my opposition. However, instead of giving laptops to the children, perhaps, it would be more useful to give them to teachers ... It might be beneficial to the consumers, but somewhere, someone would oppose it because of lack of economies of scale.
At a different level, it is imperative that the corporate people train the teachers, and teachers train the other teachers. Of course, there will be ego issues - in my experience, politics in academica are more vicious that in corporate life.
On the whole, I think any mass-education efforts must focus on the local teachers than on the students. That is the only way it can be feasible.