The Financial Express

Online education and human capital development

| Updated: May 09, 2021 21:01:22

Online education and human capital development

During this pandemic, the internet, smartphone, tablet, and laptop computers have become essential tools to substitute chalk, duster, and blackboard-forming the technology core of online education. But is this technology change helping us to address our human capital development agenda better? The writing slate was in use in Indian schools in the 11th century.  Although the first classroom usage of large blackboards is difficult to date, according to some historians, the first attested use of chalk on a blackboard in the United States dates to September 21, 1801. Since then, over the last more than 200 years, chalk, duster, and blackboard have been dominating as essential tools in classrooms. But this pandemic has made a wide-scale demonstration of the alternative-online lecture delivery. On the other hand, the purpose of education has evolved too-from producing knowledgeable disciples to a productive workforce. In the given context, it might be wise to investigate how far online education is suitable for addressing the human capital development agenda?

In contemporary development thinking, the primary purpose of education has been increasing the human capital stock to derive economic, social, and cultural values-among others. It's believed that the growth of human capital stock will drive economic growth and prosperity. Hence, starting from individuals to families and the government, there has been increasing investment for formal education. Among many other benefits that we intend to derive from education, creating economic value from the human capital we develop is the predominant purpose. Producing quality jobs through driving economic growth is the primary agenda for education. Hence, how far modern technologies substitute or complement conventional classroom-based education should be looked upon from the perspective of their roles in building human capital to derive values-economic, social, and cultural.  

Yes, the internet and access devices have offered us an option for remotely connecting teachers and students. It has become a lifeline during this pandemic situation. As opposed to taking the risk of being infected by the COVID virus, students and teachers have got a channel to connect them over the internet from their respective safer places. Apparently, this is an acceptable substitute to classroom-based education service delivery-at least for those courses which do not require laboratory experimentation.

Well, there has also been progress in offering laboratory equipment in virtual space. As opposed to dealing with physical devices, students are given a graphical replica of them. Those devices not only look like physical ones, but they also imitate similar physical, functional, and even chemical as well as biological behaviors. Sometimes, the productivity of learning in experimenting with virtual objects appears to far exceed the physical laboratory experimentations. Hence, there is a temptation to believe that online learning or education in virtual space appears to be a better substitute to age-old conventional means. Furthermore, to counter the role of academic institutions, there are arguments that there has been a reluctance to accept online education as a strong substitute due to rent-seeking. To shed further light on this contentious issue, let's look further into the role of education-particularly to derive economic value. 

In performing a task, we apply our three basic eligibilities-i. codified knowledge and skill, ii. tacit capability, and iii. innate abilities. For improving our eligibility for a job (comprising of a series of tasks), our education system has been focusing on increasing the codified knowledge and skill stock among our students. Although formal education does not pay much attention to building tacit capability and sharpening innate abilities, students through association and interactions in physical campuses also progress in these areas. Even though the importance of codified knowledge and skill has been growing in productive activities, who should deliver it has been changing. It has been found that codified knowledge and skill are highly amenable to automation. Consequently, machines have been attaining a greater comparative advantage over our graduates to produce economic value out of this very difficult-to-earn vital capability. For example, the role of solving mathematical equations for optimising the design of building or computer chips is predominantly played by softwares.

There has been an increasing trend in dividing the work into smaller pieces, developing tools in automating codified knowledge and skill, and leaving only those roles for the human workforce that demand mostly innate abilities. Due to this reason, boys and girls of rural Bangladesh have been qualifying for ready-made garments making jobs without having relevant education and skills. As opposed to formal education that they might have, they mostly rely on some of the 52 innate abilities of four major categories in handling fabrics and feeding pieces of them to machines. Continued technology progression is even automating tacit capability.  Despite the scope of improving productivity by sharpening these innate abilities, our education system has been focusing on codified knowledge and skill, which is highly amenable to automation. Interestingly, we are now in the process of having an opinion to replace campus-based education with online modality-perhaps to make the situation worse.

Does it mean that there is no or decreasing role of codified knowledge and skill in developing human capital for driving our prosperity? Perhaps, the answer is NO. On the one hand, we should sharpen our innate sensory, cognitive, physical, and psychomotor abilities. On the other hand, we have to empower students to acquire and feed codified knowledge and skill to those abilities for increasing productivity. For example, generating ideas is a vital innate ability. But, the productivity of the generation of meaningful ideas depends on practitioners' stock of codified knowledge and skill. Similarly, codified knowledge and skill also increase the productivity of tacit capability for gathering knowledge out of the experience and feeding them into the creative process for generating ideas in getting jobs done better. There has been mutual dependence between them. Hence, we need to focus on the education system that maximises contribution in improving all these three means to enhance the value of human capital.

Besides a limited role in developing human capital, online education also suffers from several major limitations, such as students' eroding attention span, smartphone addition, lack of alertness, frequent interruptions due to smartphone-based applications, and social isolation. In retrospect, the major weakness of the education system has been creating motivation and increasing the attention span of students. Yes, we also have limitations in the form of quality teachers, the physical infrastructure of schools, and the student-teacher ratio. Moreover, the conventional approach of lecture delivery faces serious limitations in explaining abstract concepts, like the internal structure of molecules or how our acts affect the environment and our health. For sure, modeling, simulation, and interactivity of physical phenomena in virtual or augmented reality space will significantly complement our ability to transfer codified knowledge and skill and sharpen some innate abilities like selective attention or flow of ideas. Furthermore, we can leverage online education for generating data about the learning behaviour and derive insights from them through analytics for changing the course and offering adaptive learning opportunities to each student.

As opposed to having a debate about how far we should go with online education, we should focus on the purpose of human capital development and how we can leverage technology for building quality human stock in an effective and efficient manner. It may be wise to review the wide-scale experimentation of online education during this pandemic period and figure out the optimum blending of technology innovations with our conventional means. To remain focused on purpose, we should look into the role of human capital in creating economic, social, and cultural values and to figure out how we can take the best advantage from technology for building human stock. We must not also forget that technology itself has been changing the role of human capital in creating economic value-also social and cultural values, and driving our prosperity.

Rokonuzzaman, PhD is an academic and researcher on technology, innovation and policy. [email protected]

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