City City Bang Bang, Columns

Education in the post-internet world

The Internet has been the greatest single disruption in the way we create, organise, access, process and re-circulate knowledge. The idea that knowledge, could be accumulated, assimilated, stored permanently, and made accessible free of cost for the most part, at the click of button anywhere in the world is a truly radical one. When such a discontinuous new mode of knowledge gathering and sharing becomes so widely available, one would expect, even without being an expert in the field, for it to have far-reaching impact on a whole range of human endeavours, particularly those that have something to do knowledge gathering. It is curious then as to how the way children are educated in this country has not changed significantly, even after the advent of the internet. To be sure, there are many schools that use computers, and several which encourage students to take up projects which call for the use of the internet, but few fundamental changes have been made, and the classroom of today does not seem to have changed all that much from an earlier generation.

Take for instance some of the questions that were asked in the Xth class Social Sciences paper for CBSE students in Delhi last year. “When did the United Nations adopt the guidelines for consumer protection? Was it 1983, 1984, 1985 or 1986?” “Mention any two inland waterways of India. Write any three characteristics of each”.” Explain any three facts about the new economic situation created in India by the First World War”. “Explain any four points about Gandhiji’s ideas of satyagraha.” The implicit mental model at work here seems to be of education being a collection of discrete factoids, that can be counted and objectively reproduced. The idea that knowledge about satyagraha, for instance, can be summed up by ‘any four points’ about it tells us that in this worldview, knowledge need not rest within any larger context, nor must it help in building any perspective or point of view.

The current education system has been founded on some assumptions about the nature of knowledge and its availability and the need to create it anew for every successive generation. Apart from its more functional use, that of making individuals suitable to pursue professions in later life, the role of education, in particular school education, is to give the newer generation a map of the world- not merely one that is physical and temporal, but one that gives a sense of its shape and its mechanisms, an understanding of things work and how they fit together and how one is part of a larger reality. The reason why all subjects are studied up to a point before specialisation begins to occur, is that a fundamental grasp of the world in its entirety is thought essential. School education is an elaborate form of baton passing from all the preceding generations to the latest one.

The only way so far to download previously gathered understanding about the world into the ‘blank slate’ that is the mind of the younger generation was by breaking up knowledge into subjects, creating a sequential hierarchy of information, drumming in facts by repetition, and testing for knowledge retention by ways of exams. New technologies that made some aspects of this learning redundant, like the calculator, for instance have been used sparingly, for the desire is to ensure that essential skills for grasping the world are not lost.

The coming of the internet has changed some assumptions dramatically. The anxiety about losing knowledge in the cracks that exist between generations can no longer be as pressing. The internet is a living granary of knowledge that is permanent. It is a product of inter-linked minds, that allows for any individual to pursue curiosity in a free flowing non-linear way. It mimics the process through which we really learn- not through books alone, but by combining experience, curiosity, failure and factual knowledge iteratively. There are some who see the internet as a substitute for mainstream education, the popularity of on-line learning is evidence of that possibility, but the stronger role of the internet is in transforming secondary education, by allowing it to focus its energies on higher order purposes. By itself, the internet may not be sufficient in fostering learning; the need for a teacher as well as a structure that builds some discipline continues to be vital. Learning does not take place through to access to knowledge alone, and for all its power, the internet is not a complete and self-contained instrument of teaching.

The need to implant facts can give way to a greater emphasis on the ability to learn and build original perspectives. By designing education around an acknowledgement of the internet, it is possible to create a mode of learning that harnesses our intrinsic desire to learn, by asking questions that occur to us as they occur to us. The need to build subject silos diminishes, and the highly programmed sequence in which learning is sought to be brought about can be re-imagined. The internet presents knowledge as an alive, additive, inter-connected system that feeds on the curiosity of the learner. It invites the user to create knowledge as well consume it, to experience it in a variety of ways and see it through many eyes.

As broadband connectivity becomes a second form of oxygen, knowledge becomes akin to an additional sense; it will be possible, in some senses to pluck knowledge from ether. To see the internet as yet another technological innovation is to do it injustice, particularly when it comes to education. The opportunity is much more radical; it is possible to completely re-think the meaning of education and to enrich it substantially. It will take experts in the area to work out what education in the post-internet era will look like, but chances are it will not involve asking students to name any four points about Gandhi.