4 years ago

Back to the education bug  

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Typical disjunctures between the faster development of technological contraption and the far slower adjustment of classroom curricula may not only be worsening, but also moving beyond repair. Among the net effects have been polarising the society and privileging education, too far faster than before. For developing countries like Bangladesh, these go against the very purpose of education, strongly suggesting that the longer it takes to adjust to unfolding changes, the more obsolete the training will be, making education wasteful. Both the format and (playing)-field demand urgent change.

Digital literacy feed this apparently irremediable plague. On the one hand, digital innovations have been surfacing far too rapidly to be easily absorbed. It presumes literacy in other arenas, such as English for us in Bangladesh, to extract maximum mileage (or even adequate mileage), imposing an unnecessary 'clash' of cultures at a time of the simultaneous growth of nationalism. In its worst form, nationalism degenerates into translating the foreign knowledge into local vernacular, a task that is needed, but within perimeters. For example, if software translating and institutionalising the software takes too much time in schools/colleges/universities, then the rapidity that characterises software technological changes will not be fully captured nor efficiently utilised. Translation in such cases becomes meaningless and chains that education institution from progressing.

On the other hand, when too many private universities competing for student enrollment often require official, time-consuming approval of their curricula, as per Ministry of Education rules, requirements get loosened just so enough students get enrolled. What results is a national movement retrospectively undertaken to make up for lost time, much like the Sheikh Russell Digital Labs (SRDL) being opened might turn out to be if not properly manicured. Without respecting the fluidity involved from innovation to implementation, education enters a long-term vicious cycle.

On the other hand, where the new knowledge takes the student also remains murky, that is, the appropriate jobs being unavailable when needed, then confusion can become catastrophic. Parents typically do not spend from their hard-earned income on job-tracks for their children without clear, visible, and accessible job-outlets. When the geese that lay the golden eggs inside academia (that is, those with upwardly-mobile training getting their degree), are not on the same page as corporate or government job needs, education is severely crippled.

Ramesh Srinivasan proposes a 2-step rescue formula for such a predicament: (a) tie technological education to social dynamics (cultural, economic, humanist, and political thinking); and (b) explain design and digital literacy, and how this must be done. As the SRDL response shows, Bangladesh does have its feet in the right two places, but both a little too lately (the 'cat' already being out of the 'bag' at a time when speed is of essence to keep place with technological innovations), and unavoidably. Besides, technological innovation and developments in developed countries enjoy a platform and infrastructures in other arenas, such as English, in this case, or more transparent corporate recruitment needs, that less developed countries, like Bangladesh, do not: just claiming Bangladesh will become a developed country by the 2040s does not at all mean these platforms and infrastructures will fall from the sky, or that how we are building them today, as we are, in the spitting image of developed countries (DCs), will produce the identical outcomes since cultures and time-lapse contexts intervene, often irrevocably (Ramesh Srinivasan, Beyond the Valley: A Digital World That Includes us All, MIT Press, under publication). We need to build them, then announce targeted DC entry-dates: design literacy gets exposure, society comprehends, and everyone gets on a similar page.

Both points go deep, exposing how education can still play a vital role. Linking technological innovations/developments to social dynamics essentially boils down to preventing the tech-driven complacency that is already a social scourge: technology is driving us more than social relations, and since it is changing so rapidly, we are becoming rudderless and anomic. This conformity can also be upturned by designing programmes differently, promoting, as Srinivasan asserts, individual imagination. Design literacy, by extension, is not so much presence or absence of the knowledge, but the reflection it encourages, analyses bred, and creation registered.

This is what the SRDL initiative is poised to do if left in far-sighted hands. It might create a tech-savvy future generation with more of an information backbone than any previous generations, yet still miss the social component of the equation: sometimes that is made the Holy Grail of education across Bangladesh, at all levels, evident in how rote memorisation has become the chief student tool. Yet, teachers from primary schools who insist upon the social approach that permits reflection, analysis, and creativity may bequeath better-rounded and longer education/training future mileage than otherwise under this Fourth Industrial Revolution, driven, as it is, by artificial intelligence. Therein lies the looming threat: if human intelligence cannot keep par with its artificially constructed counterpart, as we already observe not only existing but also expanding, fewer and fewer will deliver on their daddy's dreams while a growing majority will not

Dispensing with competitive examinations is a step in the right direction. In some cases, this might not be possible without UGC (Universities Grants Commission) cooperation and appraisal. Yet, what is more suited to this juncture of the 21st century is not strict curricula, uniformity in the education imparted, and competitive examinations. If the examination model has not already been damaged by widespread leaks, then its obsolescence calls for immediate replacement. Otherwise social realities will only be left incorrigibly at bay, this time damaging the national brand. As we all see before us, crises today are no longer the same as the old ones, come too frequently to be adequately resolved, and typically leave us more off-guard than on. Problem-solving has defied us and escaped the bulk of our educational attention and resources. Turning to that approach may reap more future benefits than competitive examination drills: oftentimes we will not even have the time to get training at problem-solving, reiterating the need for Srinivasan's originality behind reflection, analyses, and creativity.

His 'social' component enters the stage again and again. While educating students, whether at the primary or secondary level, we have already had to interact with its features under the old system. This must continue, if only because of the family-knitted fabric of our society and their parental/financial obligations. Yet, we will be training their children to be far different than before making them more self-dependent, since problem-solving necessitates that component, and picking up the decision-making role more often than in the past. Whether these pave the way for future individualism or not, we cannot know from the start, unless, of course, the training imparted at the primary level carries the right 'social consciousness' mix.

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Dean (Acting), School of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences (SLASS) and Head, Global Studies & Governance Program Independent University, Bangladesh

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