Millennium Post

Education in the 4th industrial age

As times change and technology revolutionises lives, transforming education to match market demands towards building a skilled population is paramount

"The only thing worse than being blind is having sight and no vision" – Helen Keller

Well, for India, this is hardly a problem. 2022 is the year when India completes 75 years of Independence. There is already a wish list of what we would have achieved by then. The Hon'ble Prime Minister of India, in his 2018 Independence Day speech, confidently declared that by 2022 or even before, an Indian will go in space holding the tricolour in Gaganyaan. This is just the beginning. In 2022, India will be hosting the G20 summit for the first time. By the same year, it aims to become a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council.

What about the vision for the people of India? First, let us look at our population projections. As per the World Population Prospects (2017 Revision), which provides official UN population estimates and projections, India's current population is approximately a whopping 1.34 billion. In 2024, both India and China are expected to have a population of roughly 1.44 billion and India is expected to even surpass China. These are mind-boggling numbers. But more than the quantity, it is the quality of human resource that will determine if these huge numbers will be an asset or a liability for the country. India also has the advantage of demographic dividend, to the envy of a lot of other nations. But this window of opportunity is a limited one and we need to make the most of it. This calls for a strategic focus on human capital. Among others, we need to concentrate on education and health. Obviously, efforts have to be made on both of them simultaneously.

In this article, we look at education. In the Indian context, education includes school education, higher education and also vocational skills training. Talking about school education, the total school enrollment is at a record 97.2 per cent as per the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), 2018. Here, one needs to remember that ASER looks at rural India. With high enrollment, the debate is already shifting from quantity to quality and learning outcomes. In addition to equipping students with a strong foundation, there is a growing demand to make students ready for the fast changing world.

The World Economic Forum has already announced the arrival of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and recognised the impact of emerging technologies like Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence (AI), robotics, autonomous vehicles, 3D printing among others. In June this year, Japan will host the G20 Osaka summit, where one of the themes of discussion would be 'Society 5.0'. It has been defined as, "A human-centred society that balances economic advancement with the resolution of social problems by a system that highly integrates cyberspace and physical space". It is considered as the fifth level after Society 1.0 – hunter gatherer society, Society 2.0 –agricultural society, Society 3.0 – industrial society and Society 4.0 –information society. Society 5.0 relies on the use of innovations of the Fourth Industrial Revolution like IoT, big data, AI and robots.

In tune with this, Japan is in the process of reforming its education system to suit the needs of this high-tech age. At the same time, they want to ensure that human skills like communication, curiosity, comprehension and reading skills are developed during school. Therefore, they are preparing a pilot project to make grade progression flexible. For example, if a student has passed his sixth grade but did not do well in a basic subject like Math, the student can take that sixth grade subject again till it is fully understood. The other idea is to remove the division between social-human sciences and natural sciences in higher education. They argue that if one is studying Physics, one should also be allowed to study Philosophy so that when ethical issues arise in the use of technologies, one can gather a well-rounded understanding. In recent times, one ethical dilemma that is often talked about in the context of self-driving cars is the 'Trolley Problem' which centres around choosing between killing one person and killing several of them. Thus, these two ideas are revolutionary. While the first idea ensures that one concentrates on their human skills in this machine age and strengthens them, the other helps one pursue interdisciplinary studies in higher education.

In India, the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) has decided to introduce subjects like AI at the school level itself. It will be an optional sixth subject for Class 9 from the 2019-20 academic session. Interestingly, the course outline includes a portion on AI ethics. Similarly, it would be a good idea to make students aware of issues like privacy and data protection as a part of their school education. At the same time, given the poor learning outcomes in respect to basic skills, it is important to focus on the same. One may consider experimenting with Japan's idea once we see how the same is being implemented.

In this fast changing world where technologies are becoming an important part of life, one is reminded of the catchy slogan of Kaun Banega Crorepati: Seekhna band toh jeetna band (You stop winning when you stop learning). Education can no more be limited to school and college levels. Even mid-level professionals feel the need to update themselves and stay relevant. It is important to consider education as a life-long process and provide learning opportunities to people irrespective of age. While some flexible online courses are available on certain themes, it is important to give a serious push to this effort across the country.

Thus, for the people of India, one envisions a future where everyone, irrespective of age, has access to quality education which strengthens foundational skills and, simultaneously, prepares them to live in this society powered by the Fourth Industrial Revolution. To achieve this in the long-term, it is time to act now.

(Dr Bibek Debroy is Chairman, Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister. Aparajita Gupta is Assistant Consultant, Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister)

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