Gurukula Meets Mass Education

Dr. Viswanath Talasila, Professor, Ramaiah Institute of TechnologyHeadquartered in Bangalore, Ramaiah Institute of Technology is an autonomous private engineering college which strives to deliver comprehensive, continually enhanced, global quality technical & management education under various disciplines, including undergraduate, postgraduate, and PhD programs.

India is the land of the Gurukula system, a key feature of this was personalized education. From the 20th century, mass education(ME) has been the dominant form of education. ME is not personalized; all students are treated alike, taught alike and evaluated alike. Essentially, ME attempts to take individuals, who have evolved through millions of years of slightly different evolutionary struggles and have different individual creativities, and teaches/ evaluates them with exactly the same metrics. Elite level cricket is a case in contrast, wherein each player is trained to amplify his/her individual strengths. If cricket training academies followed the same principles of ME, they would have trained Dravid and Sehwag to bat exactly the same way! Thankfully the Indian cricket training nurtured individual creativity for the cause of the team. ME on the other hand does the opposite, it allows only a certain type of creativity to blossom. By educating every student in exactly the same way it destroys much of individual creativity.

There was a reason for the evolution of ME and it has served India well. It has lifted vast numbers of people from poverty and was a major driver of growth for many decades. The industry demanded the need for large numbers of narrowly trainedgraduates and ME delivered successfully.

In India until recently there were only a handful of places that practised innovation and encouraged creativity. Given that the focus was on capacity building during the early decades of independence educators trained students on established technologies, and not to innovate /create. The engineering curriculum changed very little over decades; this also reflected the fact that, although there were great advances in technology, they occurred on large time scales. For example, the change from the vacuum tube to integrated chips took about many years, and once the integrated chip(IC) was mastered there has been no major revolution in chip technology(Though there have been plenty of important incremental advances, e.g., 8bit to 64bit chips). Educators had plenty of
time to modify engineering curriculum to incorporate new technologies/theories, and the fundamentals of these changed very little. Faculty easily adapted the previous curriculum(e.g. 8bit 8051 curriculum)to the latest chips(e.g.,64bit controllers). Pedagogically, this was still a fairly linear change in the curriculum. The same story holds for most other engineering domains such as mechanical, electrical, civil or others.

The key to a postmodern ME will be to combine the ancient Gurukula system of delivering highly personalized education and use of novel ME tools

Recently there has been a technological disruption via the emergence of the knowledge economy/society. The reason is Artificial Intelligence(AI). AI is expected to dominate all industry. Such a dramatic technological upheaval has never happened on such short time scales in history. The job market is expected to change substantially, which will impact higher education. We are on the brink of a revolution in ME. Unlike before, this change will occur rapidly.I predict the revolution in ME will occur before 2035.

The key to a postmodern ME will be to combine the ancient Gurukula system of delivering highly personalized education and use of novel ME tools. An enabler to this is AI. Good pedagogy requires various levels of curricula design, from rote memorization to enabling creativity. AI is automating the process of creating content for users. From journalism to law, subject matter can be analysed by AI tools and provide meaningful summary to each user. It won’t be long before AI can ‘understand’ the maximum power transfer theorem, the Fourier series or Thermodynamics can provide subjective answers to each user(depending on their requirements and background). When it comes to standard theories and technology, soon AI will outperform any educator. AI will have access to the entire wealth of online information(no educator can equal AI in this respect). AI can understand the requirements of individual students (background, language they are comfortable with, how they like information to be presented and the rest) and can provide tailored information to each user. AI already has the capability to design curricula for at least two pedagogical levels.

How should institutions respond to such a disruptive change?
Educators will have to team up with AI to create new content. The diversity of students in any classroom is staggering, and pedagogical tools cannot handle this diversity. ME teaching methodologies assume a class of motivated students, with Gaussian type distributed intellectual levels. This is absolutely not true. Because of this, ME reaches only a small percentage of the students. No wonder our industry regularly gripes about graduates ill-equipped to tackle real engineering problems and higher academia has problems with graduates taking up research. This is where faculty can use AI tools to deliver personalized education. If I am teaching a class on differential equations, and some students are struggling with basic calculus an AI assistant will recognize this and provide additional support to them. If some students supersede the expectations from a course, the AI assistant will intervene and challenge them in a different way. Such personalized education is the only way forward for educators.

Overall, society is moving towards innovation and creativity. Educational institutions are stuck in a time warp and seem to be decoupled from reality. Hubris often precedes disruptive change, soon educational institutions will be forced to reinvent themselves. ME is expected to deliver growth in the new knowledge/information economy, this will fail unless we incorporate AI into teaching and evaluation methodologies at all levels. The future of ME must focus on highly personalized pedagogical tools.