The Unfinished Classroom

EdTech And The Quest To Create A Future Compatible Education

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Nestled in the heart of India in a state called Uttar Pradesh (UP for short) is the village of Dhorra Maffi. This village shatters every stereotype associated with the word village. It’s greatest distinction is being the ‘most educated village in Asia’. As per The Logical Indian, it has a population of a mere 20,000 people but it boasts complete electrification, 24/7 water supply and a head of the village (Pradhan) who is a doctor by profession. It is also situated near the famous city of Aligarh which is a major hub in UP.

However, Dhora Maffi represents a light in an otherwise dark universe. As per The Washington Post, nearly 1.3 billion lack access to electricity. Nearly 600 million in Sub Saharan Africa and 300 million in India alone. Nearly 1 out of 7 people in Sub-Saharan Africa and 2 out of 10 in Asia do not have access to basic electricity.

In the western world, the debate is around changing the structure, content and delivery of education to deal with unemployment created by job displacement. In addition, the advent of Artificial Intelligence (AI) signals a fundamental shift in the labor market.

It would not be unfair to say ‘not all education is created equal’. There are people on this planet who need to be acquainted with electricity let alone computers while the rest of the world is busy imagining quantum computing and machine learning to deal with other issues such as an aging population and slowing growth and productivity.

Education Technology, clearly cannot solve all problems associated with education. Rather, it is part of a solution that includes enablers such as basic infrastructure and scalable solutions to rural and female literacy.

Globally, education is also deeply linked to poverty and unemployment. Solving for one problem without considering the complete cycle would lead to imperfect solutions.

This article is part of a mini-series that takes a comprehensive look at all possible solutions, including but not limited to EdTech. I am not saying the needs of one segment of the global population outweigh the other. I have no right to say so. However, it is also true that the needs of the two segments are different. In a world that is talking about educating machines, it is also worthwhile to take the debate home to humans.

The Education of My Childhood

As I watch young children play with their iPads and robots, I cannot help but think about my childhood which seems a lifetime ago. I spent the first eight years of my life in the bustling city of Rajkot in the state of Gujarat, India. Rajkot has a semi-arid climate where temperatures in the dry, hot summer can reach north of 100 degrees Fahrenheit. I used to take the bus to school and distinctly remember the school uniform consisting of a half sleeve shirt worn on shorts. I also remember using a chalk and a black slate to write.

I consider myself lucky to have received a formal education with the support of a loving family in a city that really did not suffer from many of the basic limitations that restrict many children from receiving a formal education.

Coming To Terms With Real Life

Growing up as a teenager, I had a rather simple college education without any regrets. On graduating, I joined a Big 4 consultancy major. While my formal school and college education was all about academics, my first job introduced me to practical life. I realized that everything from your clothes to the way you carry yourself is creating an impression in other people’s minds and that perception can truly become the truth if you allow it to. As an auditor in the consultancy firm, I was assigned to a multinational, consumer packaged goods (CPG)conglomerate. While at the CPG conglomerate, I inspected every link in the extensive supply chain from the raw materials to the finished product. My journeys took me to the most hostile and desolate corners of India. A few villages gave me the impression that time had just stood still and there had been no development whatsoever.

As a young adult, I was literally travelling in a bullock cart to a warehouse near a prison in Sasaram, Bihar. I would see laborers lift heavy sacks of fertilizer on their hunched backs in the scorching sun with nothing but their will power to carry them through the day. In the same villages, I saw children not being able to study because of having to work to support their families in an unending cycle of abject poverty. My adulthood brought me face to face with a world that lived in literal darkness (without electricity) and children with no access to education for no fault of theirs.

A Hard Landing

Fast forward a decade, I remember sitting on the 55th floor of a penthouse in Manhattan on a wet summer afternoon. As I watched the rain drops melt on the french windows, I could feel tear drops melting on my cheeks. The realization that a journey called my life had shown me the most deprived human condition but had also taken me to a place filled with affluence just moved me to tears. I remember thinking how different and unequal the two worlds were. I questioned the power that deprived children of food, clothing and shelter in one part of the world while providing the luxury of laptops to others.

Connecting The Dots

The reason I introduce readers to my life is to set the context for this article. As an insider, I firmly believe that there cannot be a one size fits all solution in the form of Education Technology (EdTech) that can solve the education conundrum. There is nothing better than practical experience to educate you on the need for disparate solutions for different corners of the world. I received that education in a brutally honest fashion.

The Ancient Art of ‘Jugaad’

Some of the answers to increasing literacy could lie in the ancient Indian art of ‘Jugaad’ — (a word taken from Hindi which captures the meaning of finding a low-cost solution to any problem in an intelligent way) is a new way to think constructively and differently about innovation and strategy.

For instance, Google’s parent company Alphabet announced on October 20, 2017 that their solar powered balloons are delivering internet and mobile to parts of Puerto Rico affected by hurricane Maria. Now, imagine if the very same balloons (part of Google’s Loon project) could be used to provide electricity to the villages I described above in addition to internet and mobile connectivity.

Sometimes, scarcity creates the most amazing conditions to invent solutions that cut through the restraints and deliver the desired results.

The Next Chapter

The next part of this mini-series will focus on analyzing the global education landscape. Subsequently, it will look at key questions such as:

What innovative solutions is the world already working on?

How to link education to the needs of the industry?

Should the education of the future involve more computerization and less human intervention?

What does the current education technology landscape look like? (companies such as Khan Academy, Coursera, Udacity, Udemy etc.)?

What skills will be relevant in the future?

This article is motivated by introspection and a desire to remind readers to enlarge the debate. What is out of sight can be easily out of mind. However, what is out of debate could very well be out of solutions. If life itself is an education then let that education be about serving humanity.

Writer @ The Intersection of Finance, Tech & Humanity. Stories of a Global Language: “Money”. Contributor @ Startup Grind, HackerNoon, HBR. Twitter@akothari_mba

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