Digital daylight & socio-economic consequences

Imtiaz A. Hussain | Published: August 29, 2019 21:53:37

No appraisal of the 'digital revolution' can be complete without ironing out the socio-economic wrinkles released. One useful approach might be to formally analyse the flow from classroom training to workplace absorption, that is, absorption with upward mobility as part and parcel of finding, taking, and keeping a job. We will notice much of what constituted the lock-stock-and-barrel of traditional education of little or no value: quite honestly, they do carry value for those who have declared themselves citizens of the ivory-tower; but their boldness and die-hard commitment to promoting all things intellectual notwithstanding, the discussion here sticks, rigidly at that, to that classroom-workplace circuit, where the masses of today's students lie.

For a start, we must explicitly acknowledge the 'givens' of such a digital society. Surely the first is the recognition that almost all the knowledge we need is available online, thus reducing the value of such locations as libraries, and with it, the art of writing. Since robots can be programmed to compose more correctly and eloquently than humans, why waste time on writing?

Secondly, everything from the past can now be referenced far easier than examine in great detail, thus dispensing of a wide variety of yet other academic disciplines, along with writing, in the language of the digital world, English. English can now be more efficiently learned online, sparing the classrooms for only teaching literature. This saves money, the most crucial possession any individual or university can have in a digitalised society. Other subjects, like geography, history, politics, and the like, can also be placed in the 'reference' catalogue than be formally taught as before, while yet others like anthropology, culture, sociology, and a string of science courses, like biology, botany,  chemistry, physics, and so forth, can fluctuate between the 'reference' domain (whatever one wants to know, one can search online), or if the discipline/course is emotionally charged, as those in the social sciences, left partially for classroom dissemination, and partly 'referenced'.

A third 'given' is the globalising nature of overall life, accenting in its own turn a more sensitive and crucial comparative context since, ultimately, every country offering all the same courses becomes inefficient within a globalised computerised setting. Whether these highlight communications and international relations courses/programmes or not, such knowledge is vital in the emerging business world and for social harmonisation (when global migration, inter-country, inter-religious, and inter-racial marriages and associations have been spiralling). They represent the 'growth' area of classroom training, particularly when coupled with such 'certificate'-level knowledge of foreign languages (the more one knows, the better the market credentials).

A final 'given' is transparency imposed by the shift from 'hardware' to 'software' technological start-ups. No knowledge can now be learned as the 'be-all' or 'end-all' of education, as 'majors' in finance, marketing, and other such disciplines were projected to be in the past. There is so plasticity in the substance in each of these arenas to warrant against full-fledged classes when workshops and certificates suffice to feed the employer's needs. Similar plasticity in job-market needs also compel job-seekers to carry an open-ended approach in both training and skills and their application in the job-market. Take for example, a study of the growing field of governance. Instead of training students for corporate governance to appeal to the business employer, training in multidimensional governance gives the job-aspirant not just a broader menu of applications (corporate governance, cyber governance, security governance, or environmental governance), but also a fallback option, that is, when one job fizzles out (as is another 'given' in a digital society), another governance-related window could be opened.

Just from a handful of 'givens', we can safely restructure high-cost classroom education if the purpose is to supply the training necessary for securing jobs in a fast-moving world. This is a crucial stepping-stone for any country's transition into a digital society: it must not only downsize the role of 'public' education, paring it down to the essentials, that is, the elementary and primary school levels, but it must make the administration of 'public' education far more flexible than it has been. Many Bangladeshi universities find themselves in the back-seat of education perpetually because moving to the front-seat or behind the steering-wheel requires permissions or approvals from one public agency or another tied to the Ministry of Education. The enormous long-term damage this does to both education and employment in a rapidly-enhancing era can no longer be taken as a 'given': it hurts the country's advancement by rigidifying the classroom training needed for these digital circumstances, in turn breeding either disillusionment about education among students or another motivation to go abroad for education.

Once liberated from bureaucratic overhangs, education conducted by the private sector carries the crucial advantage of the essence of competitiveness: the survival-of-the-fittest universities can only mean universities that have made the necessary changes to fit a digital society and supply the progressively evolving market needs rather than the stolid packages we are so locked up with supplying today, steadily converting education into a bridge leading to nowhere. Our homegrown universities must fit the survival-of-the-fittest bill so they can not only compete in the global market, but also supply graduates fit for the transient but upwardly-mobile technological demands of a middle-income society.

To get there comfortably, the universities will need fewer and fewer doctoral-trained teachers, since rapid technological advances undercut the time that must be spent and the substance that must be learned in-depth for any doctoral student. Not only is doctoral education expensive and time-consuming in the most fleeting moment in human history, but applying doctoral-level knowledge to a digitalise society is utterly inefficient given the transiency of the technological leaps being made. Far-sighted universities will need technical experts capable of sliding up and down the technological innovation pole as they are needed by businesses, and trained with knowledge of their sociological ramifications as and when needed in each community.

It follows, to prepare such 'outcomes', the 'input' institutions and intelligence must also change: introducing online education from primary schools is a start, as too the flexibility in what is imparted to children, with the crucial message of introducing the global, linguistic, and technical contexts as early as possible to prepare the pre-teens for the rumbles and tumbles of teenage life.

With parents adjusting to private tutorials for their children, they will also be fitting into how their society is also changing: more online usages to pay bills and taxes and receive incomes and pensions; the slow evaporation of state supports, such as pensions and the abilities to shop online rather than battle through hours of traffic to purchase desired items. Street-traffic might be reduced, but with online-traffic booming, we will know we have arrived in digital society, a nirvana for some, never-never-land for others, or the nether-land for yet others. Take your pick.

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.





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