Sunday, October 18, 2009

Education as a basic right - how can we make grassroot innovation scale up and out?

I am fortunate to live in a country where basic education is compulsory and higher education is a basic right. This means, as a parent, I am punished if I prevent my children for going to school (grades 1-10) and the government are obliged to provide my children with higher education opportunities (within certain parameters).

I have earlier blogged a bit on topics around education and my visit to Mumbai this July coincided with Hilary Clinton's talk at St. Xavier, my alma mater. So, after reading Sagarika Ghose's recent post on education in India and BBC's coverage of Babar Ali I felt I had capture this in a blogpost. I hope the coverage brings support for Babar Ali to improve his efforts and more importantly energizes more people to get involved in grassroot activities to make a difference. India has earlier witnessed grassroots innovations like Abhyanand's work in coaching poor students enter IIT.

We need such inspiration and excitement to drive the hard work that goes with making things happen. We have films like Taare Zameen Par that have sensitized the public and driven a sense of civic action. And then there is the OLPC project (Uruguay was recently reported as the first country to go all out with OLPC) and innovative technology efforts like WiHood. These solutions have an ability to scale very rapidly and can replicate the innovations from Babar Ali or Abhayanand.

However, scaling this up is hard for many reasons. Based on my work with alumni from my childhood school I have reduced them to two hurdles (1) the obvious hurdle is government lethargy and corrupt practices (2) the inaction from established educational institutions. I consider (2) to be the bigger hurdle. A hurdle that, if addressed collaboratively, can transform society rapidly -- particularly rural communities that need small efforts to bring about huge change. I believe that most of the established institutions do not know how to exploit the mass-collaboration that Internet technology is making possible. This is not a technology challenge, it is about educating and education policy -- it is about practices to teach, to create learning content -- and to train teachers to be mentors in a networked world where sharing is "a givers gain". This inability and subsequent inaction -- deliberate or accidental --- is something a country like India cannot afford. The inaction almost tends to justify government lethargy, instead of egging governments to go aggresively forward in providing local infrastructure.

I have earlier blogged on the Knowledge Commission and am hopeful that the current government will provide policy change and gradually drive infrastructural development. But I am more concerned about the other hurdle. I am an impatient soul and sense from other bloggers that we cannot wait too long for development and equal opportunity to come to the masses who need it so badly. This is not missionary work -- it is about not letting the world explode because we forgot to bring along the less fortunate on this journey to the future.

PS! I have not forgotten the role of the family in the education process nor the business potential -- I've just not reflected long enough on my experiences in the parent-teacher association. Some time soon...

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