Arun Mehta

The best reason for poor people to get onto the Net must become -- employment. For those lacking the skills that the international market demands, an even better reason could be, to get the education that gets you the job. India has already achieved international recognition for IT manpower and services. In 2000-01, India exported software worth $6.2 billion. However, competition from countries such as China and the Philippines is already building.

In a single word, the key to staying ahead in this race is education. Tragically, in this area, we face enormous problems. Firstly, we produce fewer qualified IT experts than we need (in which category I do not count the products of all those multifarious neighborhood IT training shops). Then, we suffer in quality as well.

The most important jobs in the IT sector, and also the best paid, are those of the programmers in companies that write the software that the billions of computers in the world run. Programmers are needed every time we want the computer to do something new, as well as in maintaining software written by their predecessors. Every once in a while, some major international “event”, like the conversion to metric measurement, the Y2K problem, or the introduction of the Euro, leads to a spurt in demand for programmers. In our part of the world, we produce a fair number of very average programmers, but few quality ones. For those wondering how one might make a distinction between the two, John Gilmore gave me a very cogent test: a quality programmer is one who has written a piece of software, that at least 1000 people on the Internet have downloaded – someone who has not only technical skills in coding, but also design skills, and the ability to find good solutions to problems. Going by this test, India has almost no quality programmers.

The difficulty in training good programmers, is that you need good programmers to train them. With better emoluments and facilities in the private sector, though, few good programmers are available to the cause of education. The Internet offers us the opportunity to leverage the skills of the few in teaching the many -- working professionals can teach part time, while students can benefit from working on live, industrial projects, while gaining the confidence of learning skills that society values, and making some money too. Instead of a one-way paradigm in which education flows mechanically from teacher to student, we now can have interactive environments in which the seniors bring to the table their access to industrial and societal problems, along with experience in having solved similar ones. Their juniors contribute skills in the latest tools and the energy to work long hours. The distinction between student and teacher gradually blurs. This concept is not new.

In the late nineteenth century, Wilhelm von Humboldt set up an excellent model in Germany. He organized the education of professionals of every kind needed by society. If you wanted to become a hair-dresser, or a machinist, you became, after basic schooling, an apprentice, with someone who was recognized as a Master. Once a week, you went back to regular school, to learn the theory of your trade, and the other subjects your personality needed. The rest of the time, you worked at the direction of the master. You started with menial tasks, but had the opportunity to demonstrate your value. It was in the interest of the Master that you learnt quickly and well, for he earned out of your efforts. When you were proficient, you appeared for an exam designed by the Guild of Masters. If you passed, you were allowed to practice that trade. Your customers had the assurance, that any plumber who was allowed to work in their houses, had passed the approval of his superiors in the trade. After working in the trade for a few years, the practitioner was allowed to sit for another exam, one which awarded him the title of Master, which gave him the benefit of free labour, in the form of apprentices. And so the numbers multiplied, to build, in a few decades a nation so powerful, that it took on the might of the world not once, but twice.

The best way to arrive at a proper curriculum would be to work backwards from the requirements of industry, looking at the kind of business it expects. Using simple mailing lists, experts in the respective fields might lay down, what skills a web designer, programmer or networking specialist might need, and devise tests for determining which students are worthy of representing this community. Educational institutions training people in skills that are in demand should then have little trouble marketing them, which would benefit them, their students, and the community.

The technology for remote interaction is now commonplace. As has been repeatedly demonstrated during the 24 hour Global Learn Day, organized once each year for the last five years by the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Global Education (www.bfranklin.edu), a combination of audio conferencing, text chat, the pushing of web pages to illuminate discussions, and a shared electronic blackboard, make distance education as effective as the face-to-face kind. Even a simple dial-up connection to the Internet suffices to obtain this powerful combination of media in the home (this year, Global Learn Day is on November 16).

Teachers of the traditional kind often wonder how students in distance courses get individual attention. If properly organized, online education forums offer tremendous opportunity for students to interact among themselves, and to help each other. Students in this “self-help” fashion solve their routine problems, leaving the teacher free to attend to the more serious ones.

E-learning offers tremendous opportunities for collaboration between institutions. Since most of the online courses currently on offer are in English, their benefit is limited to a minority. Distance education in regional languages is often considered unviable, because of a shortage of good teachers that are fluent in them. Collaboration between the educational institutions would allow us to address this fundamental problem, while making it possible to bring together enough teachers and students to make the exercise financially viable.

With the excellent reputation India enjoys in IT, we can place as many good programmers as we can train. However, if we continue to rely on our conventional education system to produce them, we could easily lose this reputation.