Thursday, March 23, 2006

Azim Premji on the state of primary education in India

Azim Premji, Chairman of Wipro, a leading IT firm in India, has an op-ed in the Times of India, arguing vigorously for improving our system of primary education. It's widely recognized that while our government may not have its ears glued to the ground, it is certainly clued in on what the industrialists want. So, Premji's op-ed is certainly a welcome event.

Premji starts, rightly, with some grim statistics:

It is disconcerting to know that there are still around 12 million children in the age group of 6-14 who are out of school; or that only one out of three children ends up completing 10 years of education.

Next, he identifies key problems:

The elementary education system suffers from two problems: One, availability of quality school infrastructure i.e. classrooms, toilets, teachers, teaching-learning material and a learning environment that is conducive to learn; and two, most children are not learning at a deeper level and schools are not able to help every child to discover and realize her potential.

The latter is true not just for rural government-run schools but also for urban schools, which are better resourced. The huge dropout rate is symptomatic of these problems.

He then goes on to address what needs to be done. However, I found this part of his essay quite disappointing. Now, The Azim Premji Foundation, a philanthropic organization founded by Azim Premji, has been doing some work in the area of primary education; so, I expected some hard-nosed solutions with some specific examples, probably informed by the Foundation's experience. Instead, what I find is a laundry-list of broad, general and bland suggestions. That's too bad.

A second nagging thing in Premji's op-ed is his faith in the benefits of IT in primary education. Just look at what he says here:

Lastly, information technology can be very motivating for parents to send their children to school and for children to engage in the learning process.

IT can help in taking quality teaching-learning material to large numbers without any dilution; it can reach out to physically and mentally challenged and it can help do things that are not possible through pen, paper and blackboard.

Innovative deployment of IT can also significantly contribute to mass scale capacity building efforts.

Huh? Let me rewind the tape here. Look at what he has said earlier about what ails our primary education system: "availability of quality school infrastructure i.e. classrooms, toilets, teachers, teaching-learning material and a learning environment that is conducive to learn". When faced with such serious problems, is he right to bring in IT as a potential solution to our schools' problems? Is he doing the right thing by talking about IT as a part of the solution without saying anything about the resources -- resources that are already in short supply -- and training that would be needed to make it work? Where is the evidence that deploying IT (foregoing other investments) gets you more educational bang for the buck -- particularly in the present state of our education system?