Sunday, March 8, 2009

An educated India..!!


There’s nothing like a good breakfast to get the mind churning. My usual Sunday breakfast at a popular restaurant off Carter Road in Bandra, Mumbai; usually involves a cup of coffee, eggs sunny side up with toast smothered with a good dose of high cholesterol butter. The restaurant even serves the days news papers alongside to help get the grey cells motivated – my thoughts this Sunday centered aggressively towards the macro view, of the social fabric within India – specifically the socio-economic divide.

What prompted these thoughts? A mix scrambled with a blend of a book recently read, “The White Tiger”, sitting in front of the television absorbing a news channel’s broadcast of the "India Today Conclave" and an assortment of articles by and on women this ‘Women’s Day’.

Where’d my mind wander? Towards some of the core issues that have dramatically hindered progress, cultivated a mostly corrupt political and bureaucratic network, led to a degradation or lack of nurturing in the country’s educational infrastructure and the propagation of a get rich quick mentality – leading to career/ life paths that may only be described as demonic.

Within the holistic view of the problems that may be identified within our society at large; from the endless list of factors, pulls and pushes – there are a few core areas that need to be addressed for any kind of change to occur within the next generation or two – there’s no quick remedy since frameworks have been constructed by numerous vested interests for too long a period since and before India’s independence. And no – history cannot be ignored – there is no clean slate – we as a nation may only work with what we have.

It’s very likely that none of what I’m going to ideate upon, hasn’t been brought up before. It’s also extremely likely that some or even most of the ‘ways forward’ haven’t been thought of and explored before. However, from my perspective; here are the key areas that require dramatic and focused action upon. Education, a common sense of ‘one-ness’, tackling corruption that affect any of the core issues initially; providing access, awareness and means for gainfully constructive employment, changing the legal framework to be swift and ‘just’; and finally having open and brutally honest watchdogs over social change. Change requires identifying actionable solutions and implementing them within timelines – without scope for laxity. So, let me spew forth what my mind’s been taxing itself over. Today I’m going to jot down some of my thoughts on the first thing that’ll go a long way towards tackling all the rest.

Education: The infrastructure of any person’s mind is thoroughly dependant on the foundation of learning that the person’s been exposed to. As far as my experience goes, every individual’s capability directly draws on skills and lessons learnt and retained from the educational process. Most essential is the ability to make informed and logical deductions – resulting in good decision making. The problems – insufficient infrastructure and ill-equipped and under-trained teaching staff, the lack of a national common educational agenda (I’m not talking about guidelines and syllabus that may or may not be implemented by individual schools – I’m talking about a program that’s centrally controlled that does not leave any scope for deviation by individual schools); adequate incentive for parents to educate their children and equipping children with real-world skills.

One big gap in education that causes the great divide in education is the non-uniformity in the level of instruction provided to children in India (this will be something that needs to be seen at the global perspective – but the scope of this note is domestic at present). India’s a nation that’s taken to technology like it’s basic clothing – look at the penetration of mobile telephony. Today we have the technology to provide every child within the country – a standard education at a very superior level to that currently being dished out.

By identifying the schools that create the best, most successful people – these in my eyes are the numerous ‘public schools’ (in India – these would be ‘privately run’), that while following various alternate ‘central board’ educational programs; also provide the instruction that makes most of the subject matter meaningful at the end of the schooling. I’m talking about subject matter instruction that is delivered in an interesting manner, so that children actually absorb more – just because it’s interesting. Also, these schools provide extra and co-curricular activities, art and skill-craft training as part of their schooling agendas. Yes, it may be physically impossible in the ‘here and now’, to provide these facilities, to every student in the country – but, a great amount of superior instruction is possible. It has to happen in a phased manner – starting at the most basic level. And teachers would have ‘educational’ development at the same time.

Here’s how: get together a panel of educators and ‘successful’ people who have been privileged with the benefits of a ‘superior’ educational background. I’m going to create a public educational framework ‘idea’ with the baseline assumption that all the authority positions will be filled with ‘capable’ persons. Let’s call them the ‘Ed Team’ for convenience.

Create a bureaucratic position to oversee the entire process. The appointee must agree to have his/her complete financial status audited and made public every 3 months. The position must come with an attractive enough package since the person who holds this mantle must be incorruptible. Any corruption in this position would have to attract the harshest punishment possible, no less than life imprisonment with hard physical labor – after all the person at this position would be responsible for the future education of every Indian receiving their education at a government run institution. The position should have a 5 year tenure, with an annual performance review focusing on a required minimum 70 percent achievement of targeted accomplishment.

Now, draw from the top 50 schools within the country – private and public. Educators who wish to be a part of the central program would have to apply for the positions. A list of positions (educational areas, subjects etc..) must be generated by the bureaucratic head; comprising a list that includes all the educational, extra and co-curricular material from the school, that has the most spread; and, adding to the list with material from schools that have other initiatives that the fist list is missing out on. This will provide a list of required heads of educational departments and each department head would require approximately two advisors (or more). All these positions would also require agreeing to be audited, with their audits published every three months. All audits would have to be carried out by at least 2 independent private firms. All these positions would also be subject to the harshest punishment for corruption. Each of these positions would be available for a contractual period of 5 years; dependant on a 70 percent achievement of targeted goals, with a 30% annual consideration bonus for achieving 80% of goals; similarly a 40% bonus for 90% goals and a good 50% bonus for over 100% achievement. The down-side is the setting of poor standard goals. However, this can be countered by a ‘time and funds’ available standard.

Before I go into how to accomplish a complete national educational overhaul, let me briefly elaborate on how a ‘goal standard’ may be constructed. I am not an authority on public funding, so the following is ‘theory’ and is directly scalable through time, depending on funding available. So theoretically, lets assume that 100% of all government schools (both central and state, and including new schools that may be added) may be covered within 15 years, or three consecutive ‘5 year plans’. The 15 year period would have a geometric ‘goal completion’ (number of schools covered per year) starting from a minimal pilot phase. All expenditure would be publicly viewable, online, in real-time as a means of full disclosure. All infrastructure work would be carried out at the state level by private organizations (so that public money is spent in a manner that boosts monetary flow throughout the national economy). Also, private organizations may be held accountable through heavy fines for underperformance. The tender process would also be handled privately (region wise by competent organizations), with complete video recorded disclosure of procedures. It would be ideal to have a minimum of at least 3 firms undertaking work in each state. Equipment procurement should also be centrally handled, through a public online tender process with real-time disclosure (including contracts for equipment maintenance).

All right, we’ve got the basic administrative framework in place now the ‘how’.

First off – a campus which would include school facilities, residences for a handful of children and the entire ‘Ed Team’. Administrative facilities would include hotel facilities for the expected ‘high’ number of visitors to the administrative facilities (members of private organizations that would be successful in the tender process). All office areas would be observable by CCTV that would be linked to the web, so that all negotiations and administrative functions would be viewable by the general public. Valid press would also be allowed into the administrative section of the campus. They would be the nation’s Sword of Damocles.

The creation of a ‘model’ school – based on which all domestic (national) education would revolve, would be pivotal to the entire plan. The school would have to be residential, self sufficient to the highest degree (electricity, generators, hospital, class and teaching aids including sports, extra and co-curricular facilities). 40 students would be allowed into each class, drawn through a lottery of applicants (with parental consent) from across the nation’s government schools. Each of these students would be fully sponsored including two way fares home and back over holidays. A new class would be added each year that the school is in existence and would commence at the kindergarten level. Each lesson would be taught once in English and once in Hindi (my belief is that the nations with the highest degree of nationality and unity are those that speak a single language; local languages may be taught during local language class periods). The school would develop into a college at the later stages, again drawing students through an automated computerized lottery system. No discrimination through gender, race, creed etc.; and, students may be dropped for misbehavior that warrants expulsion.

Now, at each class the teacher (who is a member of the Ed Team) would be video-graphed – (so he/she’d require to be an orator and highly presentable). The videos would then be edited and a teaching module developed based on lectures (thus a common national instruction – a national class room). Each lecture would also be available through an online database that would be available to anybody accessing the central educational website. Teachers from the Ed Team would rotate through classes so that there’s not a single face to each subject – each taking a separate class or topic, this would work towards avoiding monotony. Of course, the instruction would have to be animated enough to be realistic (since the teachers would be teaching real children, this shouldn’t be a problem if they’re competent). This would be stored and be relayed from the central campus.

At each school at the regional level, what’d be required would be a digital display screen (this I the business I’m currently in and is why I considered it). The objective would be to display a particular subject module, at a particular time, on particular days. Nationally, all government schools would have to have the same schedule of studies and activities. However having all screens play the same thing for each class at the same time would fail – so the solution would be to allow subject modules to be brought up via a touch screen interface by the teacher of the class at the local level. A two way feedback system would register the modules displayed (with time and attendance levels – that would require each student entering class to biometrically register). The teacher would be responsible for answering questions, correcting homework; maintaining class order etc (everything except the direct instruction of each module). The modules would also include instruction in sports and extra co-curricular activities. Also, a webcam in each class that sends a feed to each school’s local sub-site would be extremely advantageous towards randomly and remotely tracking any class. This would keep both teachers and students on their toes.

Okay, a delivery system can be implemented at the regional level. How about facility upgradation? This is where a bit of private investment may be very valuable. Except for the basic school infrastructure which most likely already exists, things like sports facilities etc may be constructed utilizing corporate funding. Why would corporate do this? Give them advertising space, just like how large events are sold. Which advertiser would ‘not’ want to get into the action if they’re offered something like advertisement placement within the premises and/or stall space for something like a duration of 15 years. This would of course have to include an annual maintenance cost coverage. Funds would be transferred online to a central account and would be disbursed to the contracting company that successfully goes through the tender process.

I strongly believe that such a system would provide a very high degree of standardized education. Conceivably, this may also be taken right through to college level education. I remember that the University Grants Commission (UGC) used to create and broadcast educational programs (back when I’d avidly absorb Doordarshan programming). Creating the content would not be difficult; though it should be done in an ‘ideal’ real world condition – students, classroom and all.

You’ve probably seen the ‘Idea’ advertisement where the mobile phone’s used to reach out to rural children sitting under a tree and the other one by ‘Cisco’ where children from class rooms a world apart interact with each other. Well, the technology to do what I’ve described above exists today, is relatively cheap to implement and would really benefit the country.

Also, the biometric ID system in the schools may be adapted during election time to actually capture and record the physical presence of a voter. The webcams in the class-rooms may be used to monitor the voting process remotely too.

There are however numerous hurdles towards implementing such a system in India. Political will is the first hurdle. Something at this scale would have to be initiated by legislation. The politics of the country has long thrived on the gullibility of the uneducated masses – there’d be severe resistance towards educating and creating a nation of ‘knowledgeable’ people. Again, de-linking public funds expenditure from political decision making will be tough – especially the notion of having funds monitored publicly, online and in realtime. Finally, making corruption in the public educational system a crime equivalent to treason (I say treason since, in my eyes, corruption I this area is the equivalent to stealing from the nation’s children, and their future).

This is all very theoretical, and may be highly debatable. I’d really like feedback that’d help me ideate towards plugging holes in this essay.

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