Event Report: Transforming and Scaling Education – D.B. Phatak

(This is a live-blog of a talk Prof. D.B. Phatak of IIT-Bombay gave a few weeks back in Pune, titled “Rethinking Education – Transforming and Scaling the Learning Model”. Note, this is a live blog, so please excuse the fact that it is unstructured, incomplete, and might contain errors. Note: this talk is being live-cast to 30+ colleges and other institutions all over India.)

Introduction of D.B. Phatak, by Anand Deshpande (CEO of Persistent Systems)

  • Prof. Phatak is my Guru. I have not been his student, formally, but I know him since early 90s and I always go to him for advice before anything important.
  • He did his engineering from Indore and PhD from IIT Bombay.
  • He got the Padmashree last year
  • He is a great speaker and anytime he is going a talk, you should always attend it.

Transforming and Scaling Education – by D.B. Phatak

  • This talk will touch upon these topics: 1) Learning, 2) Education, 3) Scaling, 4) Open Sourcing of Knowledge and 5) Technology Crystal Gazing


  • We are all familiar with learning in groups. Classroom learning. Fixed time slots. Typical: 1 teacher, 50 students, 1 hour. Teacher has (hopefully) pre-prepared the lecture. The students are supposed to listen with attention, throughout the hour, but this never happens.
  • So does learning happen in a classroom? Partially. Maximal learning happens when you try to apply knowledge that you’ve acquired.
  • All the advocates of e-learning and e-everything claim that if there is access to good quality knowledge, that is enough for anyone to learn. This is false. If just access to knowledge was good enough for learning, then librarians would be the smartest people on earth.
  • Learning needs applying knowledge, failing to apply that knowledge, correcting the failures. Without these steps, learning cannot happen.
  • Can an individual learn entirely on his/her own? Eklavya. Yes, there are cases of this. But don’t forget that here is only one Eklavya, but 7 billion non-Eklavya humans who also need to learn.
  • Why do we learn? Primarily for survival. Then betterment of ones life. Two other reasons which not everybody follows: learning for the sake of learning, and learning to advance human knowledge (research).
  • Unfortunately, we seem to have separated “research” and “education”). But research shouldn’t be just the domain of PhDs writing papers. The most important things needed in research should really be included in the mindset of everyone – Meticulousness. Curiosity. Precise Articulation. Diligence. Discipline. Rigor.
  • The most important learning happens from the age of 0 to 5 (-9months to 5 if you consider Abhimanyu), before the child goes to school. Social behavior. Basic Articulation. A second language. Ethics. Humility.


  • We think of education as a formal system of knowledge being imparted through training and/or research. But education is happening all the time. Every interaction with someone else is an opportunity for self-education.
  • Our existing system is broken. Too much emphasis on rote learning. Children cannot apply what they learn. Industry says that less than 25% of our engineers are employable (and apparently the number in China is even lower).
  • We as a society have concluded that getting a degree with good marks implies that your career will be successful. And also, that the manner in which the degree and marks are gained is irrelevant – so optimizations (classes, cheating, leaked papers) are widespread.
  • The teaching is syllabus driven, and the learning by students is examination driven. The teacher must stick to the syllabus because the exam papers will be checked by a different teacher based on a paper set by a third teacher.
  • Is autonomy the answer?
  • The problem is not that our existing system is broken. The problem is that our system refuses to break! It is so well-entrenched. So any solution cannot emerge from complete disruption. The change has to be incremental and needs to work with the system.


  • A claimed advantage of India is the demographic dividend. 300 million people under the age of 19. Educating them well can lead to huge gains for us. But we spend a very small fraction of our GDP (compared to other developing countries).
  • Gross enrollment ratio – the ratio of students who actually enroll for higher education to those actually eligible for higher education – is 60-80% in developed countries. In India it was 8% about 6 years ago. It has been brought to 13-14% now. We are hoping to bring it up to 30% by 2020. Double! To achieve that, we need to double all our educational institutions in 7 years. This is a tall order.
  • Another problem: last year, our engineering colleges’ capacity was 1.45million, whereas enrollment was 1.25million. So, while capacity is growing, enrollment is not growing. Parents and students have begun to believe that getting an engineering degree might not be worth it in all cases.
  • This is the situation with engineering education. It is much worse as you go lower.
  • Think of the problems we face, and the scale of the problems. And we need to solve them at that scale. If we double all our higher educational infrastructure in 7 years, and we convince students/parents to join the new schools, we’ll just get the enrollment ratio to just 30%. And we need to get to 80%
  • Teachers need to be convinced that their main job is not to teach. The main job is enable students to learn. The student should be able to transcend the knowledge of the teacher if/where needed. Also, student should be able to learn in the best possible manner for that student. The manner will be different for different students.
  • Our current education system allows a fixed amount of time for learning, but given that different human beings learn at different rates, it results in variable amount of learning. How does our education system deal with this difference? We grade the students. And denigrate the students who get lower marks. Not just society, friends and family start looking down on the student, but the student himself loses confidence and motivation.
  • What is needed is fixed amounts of learning in variable time (as long as the time is not too long). Is it possible to do this? Maybe – the technology, for the first time in human history, might allow this. Conventional education does not admit this possibility.

Open Sourcing of Knowledge

  • One of the important reasons for creation of the copyright and patent laws was to ensure that after a fixed amount of time, the knowledge contained there is available for all of humanity. But industry is manipulating the system to increase the amount of time.
  • The open source movement, creative commons are ways to get around the problems now being caused by copyright and patent problems.
  • There is lots of knowledge available on the net for free downloads, but because they are not appropriately licensed, it is not possible to distribute this knowledge in a system like Aakash. It is quite likely that the original author would have happily consented to the knowledge being used in this way, but often it is not possible to contact the person, or other problems get in the way. So good knowledge gets lost because of lack of awareness of open sourcing of knowledge.
  • However, if there are companies who are spending money on innovation, and would like to benefit monetarily from those innovations, it is only fair to expect that they use copyrights and licenses to enforce their rights. But as far as knowledge dissemination is concerned, open sourcing the knowledge is what will benefit the most people. There needs to be a balance between these two forces.
  • To do anything sustainably – including bringing changes into education – there needs to be revenues and financial management. But, for some reason, India has conferred a moral high ground to the education sector, and there is a belief that education sector should not be making money. That is not a sustainable thought.
  • Premji Foundation has an initiative in rural Karnataka where they are using computers to enhance education. They’re not teaching computers to the students – they are using computers to improve teaching of Kannada, Maths, etc. The program is funded by the foundation, the government, and the students. (There was a proposal to make this free for the students by taking more money from the government, but they found works better if the students pay.) The foundation has used controlled studies to show that the technology results in significant improvements in education.
  • IIT-Bombay runs a course to train teachers. It reaches 10000 teachers in 250 institutions across India. They’re trained by faculty from IIT Bombay. 4 of these centers are in Pune. This initiative is extremely well received. It is a costly model because it costs Rs. 6400 per teacher for a 2-week program – but by introducing a fee for teachers (because the teachers and colleges do benefit from this program) they’re hoping to reduce the cost to run this program.
  • MOOCs (Massively Online Open Courseware) like Coursera and MIT OCW are a new entrant with a lot of promise. IIT-Bombay has just concluded an MOU with edx and should be the first Indian university to offer an MOOC in about 6 months. Some courses can easily scale up to 1 lakh students. This would ensure that quality education will reach the masses.
  • Sam Pitroda makes a point that students who earn credits via MOOCs should be permitted to transferred credits/marks in their educational instituation. i.e. a COEP student taking an IIT-Bombay MOOC should be able to get COEP credits for passing that course.
  • Currently MOOCs are free, but there needs to be a revenue model for MOOCs. IIT-Bombay believes that knowledge should be free – so all the course material should be available using an open source license, but actual interaction can be paid.
  • But, one problem of MOOC is that often students don’t complete the course, or don’t take it seriously. One big advantage of actual physical classrooms is that in spite of all the distractions, you still end up paying attention to a significant fraction of the lecture.
  • These problems with MOOCs will be solved, and MOOCs will play a very large role in scalable education in India. Via internet. On the cloud.

Technology Crystal Gazing

  • MOOCs will be big – and will become the predominant technology platform for education. (IIT-Bombay picked edX instead of Coursera and others because edX is open source.)
  • Everything will be on the cloud
  • Bandwidth requirements will increase significantly
  • Every educational institution should plan for 1 gbps bandwidth.

Concluding remarks

  • Government must invest much more money in education. Government should not be a benevolent dictator. Education institutions, good or bad, need to get autonomy. Why do we have bad institutions who are simply degree factories? Because industry and society tremendously value degrees and marks. As soon as industry discovers that it can quickly and accurately evaluate students/job-seekers on the basis of their actual capabilities (as opposed to their marks and degrees), universities’ arrogance will disappear, and education will become much better.
  • The same technology which allows us to teach lakhs of students simultaneously and scalably, will also allow companies to assess and evaluate lakhs of students quickly and accurately.
  • Education does not end when you graduate from an educational institution. Education continues forever. Students and professionals need to understand this, and companies need to start focusing on this aspect.
  • Parents need to re-think their priorities. Forcing your child to prepare for JEE for 2 years is causing them to lose two years of their life that they could be using for actual education. And they’re learning to cheat – attending classes and skipping college, but getting “full attendance” at college anyway is being encouraged by parents.
  • It is well established that the best education of a child happens in his/her own mother tongue. Yet, most parents opt for English education. This is acceptable for parents who converse with the children in English on a regular basis. But this is a tiny fraction.
  • Students: enjoy education. Enjoy solving problems. Enjoy life. Dream big. But work hard.
  • There are 300 million Indians younger than 19, younger than the people in this room – and they’re waiting for us to do something for them. Independent of whatever else you are doing in your profession, you must think of making some contribution to making life more meaningful in terms of better learning and better education for those 300 million.