The new age of virtual schools

With easy access to Internet, there is a possibility that technology can potentially disrupt the very fabric of the traditional school. From this disruption will arise new challenges of preserving education as a public good

The new age of virtual schools

Three significant developments are taking place in the world around us that have not caught the attention of educators and policymakers in Pakistan, at least for the time being. First is the fast drop in the prices and corresponding enormous increase in the supply of electronic tablets, especially the androids. Second is a sharp rise in the provision of education on the Internet. If you have access to Internet, there are hundreds of thousands of free opportunities to enrol in massive open online courses (MOOCs). Third is the access to affordable or free high-speed Internet.

Let us look at the implications of the availability of cheap or free Internet. Some activists are now viewing Internet as a fundamental right. A discourse of right to Internet or right to broadband is being developed and increasingly becoming popular. In a poll conducted by the BBC in as early as 2010, almost four people out of five believed that access to Internet was a fundamental right. Suggestions are made to the effect that the governments should regard information highways as part of the necessary infrastructure.

A United Nation’s report published in 2011 states that disconnecting people from the Internet is a human rights violation and against the international law. These developments are taking place in the midst of technological advancements aimed at making free Internet available throughout the planet. Some companies are working on using miniature satellites to broadcast free Internet to billions of people on their mobile phones, tablets, and computers. So if you had a low-cost tablet in your hand, you wouldn’t have to look for a Wi-Fi connection to access Internet. Internet will reach you wherever you are.

Think of yourself as an aspiring learner with access to high-speed Internet. Rudimentary knowledge and skills to access Internet are all that you’d ever need to find the appropriate learning opportunities tuned to your interests and developmental level. Given the universal availability of translators you will not be hampered in your quest much if you did not have excellent English language skills. You can find the meaning of any word by asking one of the many online dictionaries. Imagine a child who has gained adequate communication proficiency and is also a fast learner. What is it, then, that can hold her from bypassing the narrow path defined by the grade school. She would be educationally prepared for the world of work much sooner than others who must tread a narrowly defined curriculum in which they must spend a year at each stop before moving on.

We should learn more about keeping Internet useful and safe for our children since we cannot stop it from reaching them sooner or later.

Is it any surprise that we are beginning to discover child prodigies in our society now and then? Nearly all such children are those that are encouraged to log onto the Internet early on in their lives. Examples of such children who become Microsoft professionals very early in their lives are on the rise. We have examples of Arfa Karim, Shafay Thabani, Babar Iqbal, and Ayan Qureshi, to name a few. Of these, Ayan Qureshi achieved certification at the age of five.

There is at least one thing common in all of these children, which is also worth noting. Everything else being equal, all of them could not have made their mark in the world of Information Technology if they did not have access to Internet early in their lives. These achievements take place outside of the graded school system and were not imaginable without the Internet-based educational opportunities.

Humans have enormous learning potential which remains unacknowledged by the grade school system. In fact, the school suppresses it. It is not for nothing that geniuses such as Einstein were compelled to express their disapproval of the school education. As Einstein famously said, "the only thing that interferes with my learning is my education."

The knowledge of human nature, of the learning theories, and of the developmental appropriateness of the curriculum is a product of certain constraints, which were imposed upon children by the modern school. The staged nature of our lives that we take for granted is not a natural but a human artifact, which has been naturalised by over a century of academic, administrative and legal practices. Some scholars of education talk about development of grade school system as part of a strategy of definition and social administration of childhood.

More recently some political resistance to grade school is also emerging within the academia. This resistance is represented well in this quote from a noted American scholar, J Lemke: "principle of freedom of conscience is not compatible with the imposition on younger citizens of a total curriculum lasting twelve years or more without their consent…We need to accept that a uniform national curriculum or indeed separate state or local standardised curricula, codified in law represent an establishment of religion and an abrogation of freedom of the conscience contrary to our Constitution." The technological developments are only likely to provide further impetus to this resistance to grade school.

In our society, where the traditional grade school did not start very well, the impact of technology is going to be much more pronounced. Those reformers who are engaged in the decades-long efforts to improve the grade schools may find that this school system is melting right before their eyes and the years of their effort going to waste. Are they willing to see the disruptive potential of technological developments?

Let us realise that whole conception of childhood will be questioned by these developments. We will no longer be surprised by wizardry of a few children when the technology proliferates to the children. At this time, they don’t have it in their hands. It will become difficult for the schools and teachers to deal with the bursts of creativity and sharp learning that occurs when children’s learning potentials are unleashed. I have been a wholehearted supporter of public schools and the provision of education as a public good. I still believe in this ideal. But we must debate the possibility that technology can potentially disrupt the very fabric of the traditional school. From this disruption will arise new challenges of preserving education as a public good.

We know that our traditional school system has not been functioning very well. This lack of functionality cuts across the public and private schools. The private schools are doing relatively better than public schools, but both are below par if we shift the assessment from the norm to criterion-referenced. Given the existing level of political commitment and the data smokescreens created by the reform initiatives whose handlers keep trying to beat each other in their declaration of victory, the schools are not going to change anytime soon. Given its history and the current trajectory, the traditional school education, Pakistan’s education system will remain sharply inequitable. While we have given up on improving the public schools, it is increasingly evident that our Newfoundland of reforms, namely the low-cost private schools, is also unlikely to make education work as a social equalizer.

We should read the signs better and recognise that some children can bypass the constraints of the curriculum. They are breaking the barrier and making their mark. They are few and far between now. But their numbers will inevitably increase as the technology becomes cheaper and diffuses rapidly among the poor. This development will take place outside of the traditional school system, both public and private. Those institutions will do well that seek to equip the children and adults with knowledge and skills needed to access Internet and help them find their way in the vast learning opportunities in the virtual world. Once the learners have enough knowledge and skills to find their way to the available learning opportunities, intelligent search engines will help them find the courses and chose from them. Their success will depend on the ability to focus and learn in the Internet environment. The traditional matriculation or O-levels certificates will not be prerequisites to benefit from such open learning environments.

But we should also beware that Internet is full of harmful content at the same time as it offers a multitude of learning materials for independent learning. Likewise, where social media has its merits, it is also seen as associated with undesirable social behaviours. How to balance freedom to use Internet with ways of protecting children from harm is a problem that people are already attempting to solve. We should learn more about keeping Internet useful and safe for our children since we cannot stop it from reaching them sooner or later.

We have missed the boat as far as providing traditional grade school education to our children is concerned. In an earlier column, I had expressed concerns about a plan by the Punjab government to provide tablets to all children. It was never implemented. But perhaps it isn’t a bad idea after all, as long as we can find a way of keeping harmful content out of children’s reach and after Internet is freely available. Free and universal Internet will most likely come to Pakistan before free and universal school education. The latter may not even arrive. I am not suggesting that the grade school should be dismantled or that it will be dismantled any time soon. All I am putting on the table for debate is the possibility of a world emerging in which a good deal of education is going to happen outside of the traditional school and in the virtual schools.

The new age of virtual schools