June 1 2014
Education & Entertainment: Two Peas in a Pod
The hardest part of educating children is getting a student’s attention. Ask any teacher, and they will tell you that students are distracted by any number of things: the shoes that their friend is wearing, how to go partying the coming weekend, how mean their parents are to them, and so on. They prefer to watch movies and television shows rather than hear their teachers drone on. Yes, that is right: the entertainment people know how to get and keep people’s attention.
To make the point even more clear, here is a quick quiz:
Which of the following sources will help you learn more about World War II?
- Your history textbook
Your history teacher
A Christopher Nolan movie about World War II
No prizes for guessing that most people would answer number three. Engaging content and media explaining concepts without “teaching” people is the way of the future. Marc Andreessen, the creator of Netscape, the founder of a leading Venture Capital firm (VC) and one of the most prolific thinkers in technology, said that that the Khan Academy is one of the four biggest breakthroughs in high school education along with Google, Wikipedia and Wolfram Alpha. One of the reasons Khan Academy is such a success, is that the founder, Salman Khan, personally recorded videos explaining all sorts of arcane concepts ranging from Partial Derivatives to the Pangea in an extremely engaging manner.
Bill Gurley, another leading VC and investor in firms such as eBay, pointed to MegaStudy in Korea as another example of the future of education. Since Korea has an extremely high internet penetration, MegaStudy delivers courses directly to students from highly qualified teachers over the internet. As a result, some teachers who are able to provide really engaging teaching methods make more than a $1M/ year. Innovative teaching mechanisms are considered one of the ways students in the US can pay off burgeoning student loans, while keeping ballooning degree costs low.
Another very interesting trend in education are Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) where an unlimited number of students can participate online in a course delivered by a teacher. The primary criticism of MOOCs is the dumbing down of education & about the higher purpose of education which is not just to learn & understand concepts but to also build moral fiber, character & leadership. This higher purpose is thought to be delivered in elite institutions such as Harvard where students & teachers interact with each other in rarified circles.
Clay Shirky countered that criticism in his brilliant essay on MOOCs & America’s increasingly bloated education system where he pointed the fallacy of the Harvard comparison:
Harvard, where I was fortunate enough to have a visiting lectureship a couple of years ago, is our agreed-upon Best Institution, and it is indeed an extraordinary place. But this very transcendence should make us suspicious. Harvard’s endowment, 31 billion dollars, is over three hundred times the median, and only one college in five has an endowment in the first place. Harvard also educates only about a tenth of a percent of the 18 million or so students enrolled in higher education in any given year. Any sentence that begins “Let’s take Harvard as an example…” should immediately be followed up with “No, let’s not do that.”
While elite education goals are noble, it is impractical in delivering basic education to large sections of people in a country like India. Interestingly, the Indian HRD Ministry is thinking of ways to develop scalable but effective ways to deliver education to Indian students. This story by Firstpost had identified, the HRD’s top priority as 50 educational TV channels at a cost of Rs 450 crores. This initiative has the strengths of a Khan Academy, Megastudy & the MOOCs (without the interactivity because internet penetration is so low) where the best teachers could make their teaching available via TV.
The Firstpost article talks about senior bureaucrats focusing too much on the technical implementation of the project. While, the real challenges of a successful implementation will be around developing engaging content. This is similar to a TV show where engagement is critical to retain viewers. Thankfully, Smriti Irani, the new HRD Minister & TV Soap opera star, cut straight to the chase and asked the senior officials to focus on the content. Her background as a long-running TV star and dealing with the hyper competitive evening Hindi soap drama had made her extremely attuned to getting people’s attention and keeping it. She gave Discovery channel and Animal Planet as examples of channels that provided engaging content. She further went to the production aspects of the channels and pointed out the inefficiencies in the process.
Who would have thought that just as the world is waking up to the fact that education means getting people’s attention, an expert at getting people’s attention would end up as the minister in charge of education in India? The question now that she is here is: can she deliver another blockbuster?