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Articles, Commentaries, Education, History, The Edge

School is Dead, Long Live Education

By Ooi Kee Beng

For THE EDGE, Malaysia (29 October 2012)

Under the rubric of Nation-building, countries throughout modern times have been struggling to construct institutions that can safeguard national independence, bring economic growth, and create a harmonious society.

Thus, small and new countries like Malaysia have been frantically trying to put their house into some semblance of good order, and play catch-up on as many fronts as possible. It is a valiant—and yes, defiant—project. But the trap they tend to fall into is to adopt a defensive attitude in protection of the often innovative measures taken by their founding fathers. In the process, they also perpetuate the national nationalistic mindset that was appropriate in earlier times.

This navel-gazing—which is what it becomes in the end—saddles later generations with leaders and civil servants who through lethargy if nothing else, are keepers of the past and not nation-builders for the future. It leaves them oblivious to the fact that the race is not so much against time as against further global technological and other advancements moving beyond its people ability to comprehend and utilize. Once that happens, provincialism takes hold and scientific thought is ignored.

So, this brings me to the importance of education—and to the challenges that developing and even developed nations face. What has democratically been an incredibly liberating factor in modern life is the universal access to education. Except among Talibans in Afghanistan, this is now an unquestioned claim.

Nothing undermines authoritarianism the way a good education does, and nothing spurs social mobility in post-colonial and post-feudal societies the way mass education does. Without the enormous investments put into schooling, the huge income gap that now troubles successfully developing countries like China, Singapore and Malaysia would be much worse. Poor kids can beat a path to a professional career and a decent living through education.

However, schooling and education are not static things. As we know, the school system that most countries still use today was actually constructed to serve 19th century industrialisation. [Here, I would suggest readers listen to Ken Robinson’s lectures available at http://www.ted.com.

The speed at which new knowledge is being generated is exponential, and simply beyond imagination, be this in biology or computer science, mathematics or geography. And even more importantly, the amazing advancements in communication technology over the last three decades, and even over the last three years (what with smart phones, the wi-fi revolution, the search engine revolution and the social mass media), have turned old educational structures into a hindrance.

The race to innovate in the global education industry is on; and it is a race that must push us to ask if further investments in schools and school buildings are a good idea; if squabbling and quibbling over languages of instruction is costing us too much time, resources and opportunities or not; if the teaching profession should not undergo a painful revolution; and if it is perhaps time to release the brakes on development which post-independence thinking has become.

ACCESS TO KNOWLEDGE

What has become obvious today is that access to knowledge—crispy new knowledge even—has increased a million fold. This is thanks on one side to the Internet, the search engine revolution and the household wi-fi. On the other side, we have the innovativeness and generosity of top universities in the world; not to mention the big-heartedness of many scholars, who are making their lectures and their knowledge online for the world to use. The TED site is already well known for its many quality talks.

What are really revolutionary are the sites that provide university-level courses gratis. Just take a look at http://www.coursera.org for starters, if you don’t believe me.

With knowledge, lectures and course choices so easily available already today, we have to wonder what school certificates are going to be worth in the future. What is it that they will be attesting to?

Is this not the end of the paper chase era?

What about the teaching profession? Can teachers continue pretending that they are the only experts available to the student who, for the opportunity to listen to him or her, have to keep time and be present in class? Certainly not. Today, a student need only to pick any subject online and he or she can immediately listen to a world authority instead.

Who needs the sarcasm, the caustic remarks, the controlling schedule, the wagging finger, and the disciplining?

With a simple registration, I can follow courses that no institution in my neighbourhood can offer and be taught be world experts whenever it suits me. I can click in to a lecture just before bed, at breakfast, in the bath, under the coconut tree in the garden, and even at work.

Can you beat that? Our industrial-age school system is definitely running out of relevance faster than you can upgrade your smart phone. Our thinking about the providing of education is archaic and inefficient, and is done more for societal control than for social education.

The amount of new knowledge found in the English language is growing by the second; and the means for their dissemination are growing by the megabyte. This revolution in pedagogy is upon us whether we like it or not, and I don’t think it is a good idea to wait for politicians to realise this. For our own sake and for the sake of our children, we should seize the moment because the moment is not going to wait for us.

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About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.

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