Soon after I relocated to China last year, I had the privilege of meeting a very bright and visionary Chinese government official. He asked me what I thought was the most important contribution that information technology could provide for building a “harmonious society”—a phrase that’s commonly used in China to describe its vision of its future. My answer was instantaneous: education.
Although taken for granted throughout the industrial world, an adolescent stooping under the weight of a backpack full of books is the dream of millions of parents in emerging countries who imagine a better future for their children. This is why I believe that, in the coming decade, the field of education is where IT will make its single biggest social and economic contribution.
This will be true for almost any country—whether it’s China building its harmonious society; India reaping the “demographic dividend” from its favorable age pyramid; the post-baby boomer United States struggling to maintain its economic prosperity; or even an aging, industrialized nation, such as Japan, working to thrive despite a dwindling population.
There are an estimated 2 billion kids in the K-12 age group around the world. Both industrialized as well as emerging nations—for very different reasons—are at a point where they need a significant shift in their approach to education.
Enter the media tablet—a lightweight device (some weighing less than 250 grams, or half a pound) that can store every book in a high schooler’s backpack plus every book in the school library and support new ways of learning and teaching.1 In my view, the media tablet will act as a catalyst for ushering a new, technologically driven educational order that over time will dwarf e-commerce in its economic impact and will be comparable to that of Gutenberg’s printing press in its long-term social impact.
A lofty claim, to be sure. To justify it, let me explain the crucial role education will play in four representative nations—China, India, the United States and Japan—and why a shift in approach is necessary; the extraordinary potential of the technology in enabling such a shift; the difficulties and challenges involved; and the related business opportunities.
No nation left behind
Although these four nations represent different demographics and different stages of development, their needs and experiences help to explain the critical roles that education and educational reform will play in practically every corner of the globe.
China, despite its sustained annual economic growth of about 10 percent over the past 20 years, is getting older faster than it’s getting richer. With fewer younger people to support an aging society and maintain its economic growth, China has to increase the productivity of its younger people to staff its vast manufacturing base and simultaneously move up the value chain into more knowledge-based industries.
Here China is not alone. Almost all of Eastern Europe falls into the same category: emerging countries with aging populations and fewer younger people, whose potential needs to be maximized and leveraged.
India is a different case altogether. Its population is much poorer and much younger than China’s. India is also on the brink of reaping a once-in-a-lifetime “demographic dividend.” There are more younger people who can potentially be more productive, while carrying the burden of caring for the older generation. They are in their child-bearing years but are having fewer children. It’s a rare combination comparable to post-war America, Japan and Germany.
But India’s age pyramid is a double-edged sword. With education that puts its young people to productive use, India could rocket to be an economic powerhouse. Alternatively, a large, uneducated, unemployed youth population with no opportunities could lead that nation into chaos.
A number of other countries with young populations—Mexico, Brazil, Nigeria, Egypt and Vietnam, to name a few—stand at this same tipping point. Education will determine whether they reap their demographic advantage and prosper, or face generations of poverty and social unrest.
Then there is America, one of the few countries in the industrial world with a favorable age pyramid—partly due to immigration and partly due to a relatively high fertility rate. In fact, America’s population is projected to increase at least 25 percent by 2050, and the percentage of people under 18 will continue to be about 25 percent until 2030.
But America has different problems. Much of its traditional manufacturing base is gone; its service jobs are rapidly moving offshore; baby boomers—perhaps the most productive and wealthiest generation that humanity has ever known—are retiring, putting a tremendous burden (and pressure to succeed) on the next generation. To maintain its prosperity, America will have to depend on or even invent very-high-end knowledge-based industries—which requires high-quality education. The United Kingdom is one of the few other industrialized nations with roughly similar age demographics.
With low fertility rates and a dwindling population, Japan—along with most of Western Europe—will have to make do with a much smaller number of young people for the foreseeable future. By 2050, Japan’s population is projected to have fallen by as much as 25 percent, and the percentage of people under the age of 18 will drop to 9 percent of the population. The corresponding figures for Germany are 15 percent and 12 percent. This means that these nations have to maximize the potential and productivity of their extremely small youth population, which again points to the importance of high-quality education.
So whether it’s an aging emerging society like China, an aging industrialized society like Japan, a young emerging society like India or a (relatively) young industrialized society like America, education is set to play a major role in determining their future.
More than a textbook
A media tablet today can cost as little as $200, has a screen, has Wi-Fi or some form of connectivity, can store thousands of books (depending on the format of the book and whether it has images) and can operate for hours on a single battery charge. The prices of memory and screens are falling rapidly, so a reasonable guess is that a media tablet with 16GB of memory will cost around $100 by 2015.
By comparison, it can cost $350 to $450 a year to provide textbooks for one high school student in a US public school. Assuming that the copyrighted content in the books can be purchased for about $100 or so, a media tablet preloaded with content from all the necessary textbooks will be comparable in price or cheaper than what textbooks cost today.
Consider another data point. In 2012, China will spend the equivalent of roughly $320 billion on an estimated 250 million kids enrolled in its educational institutions, at an average of $1,300 per student, which includes subsidized textbooks. Assuming that textbooks represent about an eighth of the total spending per student, they cost about the same as a media tablet.
But a tablet is much more than a textbook. Content can be revised and updated continuously. Textbooks no longer need to be text but can be any media. And a tablet can administer tests, enable students to engage in collaborative projects or support remote education for rural children. Since a tablet is a full-fledged computer, it can also support specialized applications that cater to children with learning disabilities or different learning styles. The possibilities are endless.
Because a tablet’s power requirement is small, it can still be used in locations where power is not reliable. Small solar cells for charging mobile devices are already on the market for less than $20. With backlit screens, students can study at night even without power.
But are media tablets really any different from the One Laptop Per Child initiative, sponsored by the United Nations Development Programme and others, which targets schoolchildren in poorer countries? Yes, for two reasons. First, a computer by itself is quite useless unless it has content or connectivity. OLPC is not a content device, and connectivity can’t always be guaranteed in OLPC’s target countries.
Second, OLPC is an addition to and not a replacement for something that’s already part of the educational system. A media tablet, on the other hand, can enter the educational system with a very modest value proposition—an environmentally friendly, potentially cheaper and more versatile alternative to textbooks. Once inside the system with a primary role clearly established, its other capabilities can gradually be integrated into the educational system, transforming it over the long term.
Although South Korea often leads the world in academic performance, it endlessly laments over its obsession with high school test scores that determine the fate of an individual for life. For its part, America spends more per student on education than any other country (except Luxembourg) but goes into a tizzy whenever it sees kids from other countries scoring much higher on tests. Meanwhile, France and Japan complain that their education systems are too focused on rote learning and do not encourage creative and critical thinking.
And on and on.
Despite this dissatisfaction, few societies have been able to effect significant changes in their education systems. Why? Education is a complex and deeply emotional issue for families as well as societies because it represents their path to the future. As such, it’s difficult to build consensus around any new educational philosophy; experimentation, however well intentioned,2 is perceived as tantamount to tampering with the lives of young people. As a result, education systems around the world continue to chug along with their respective status quos, and reforms amount to little more than short-term, quick fixes.
While acknowledging these complexities, I still contend that the tablet will turn out to be a catalyst for the slow and gradual transformation of education worldwide. Countries of every type—emerging, industrial, young, old—need a massive overhaul of their education systems. As the price of the tablets falls, the case for paper-based textbooks will become increasingly difficult to justify on both economic and environmental grounds.
Unlike the United States (and, to a lesser extent, Western Europe), where education is funded and managed at the city and county level, most large emerging countries have a much more centralized K-12 system. For example, China has a single nationwide education system for about 250 million students, and India has large statewide systems with tens of millions of students in each.
These numbers give them enormous purchasing power that could drastically drive down the price of tablets much faster than would occur other-wise. Another important factor to recognize is that mobile phones have already demystified technology and made it an everyday reality in even the poorest and most underdeveloped parts of the world. A kid in rural Egypt or Nigeria carrying a media tablet is no longer as unimaginable as it might have been five years ago.
There is also plenty of money to be made, which is likely to attract more and more businesses to education. Providing hardware, software, maintenance, content and connectivity to schools are some obvious opportunities for a wide range of players. Retraining teachers, developing and administering testing around these devices and providing specialized applications for alternative ways of learning are opportunities waiting to be tapped. Once equipped with tablets, students may start creating content and software that they can share with others, and we may well see new market mechanisms to monetize these student-created artifacts.3
It’s also worth pointing out that nearly half a billion families across the emerging world have risen up and joined the ranks of the middle class in the past decade or so—a number comparable to the number of families in the entire industrialized world. The single most important priority of these newly prosperous families is to ensure that their progeny have better education and opportunities than they themselves had.4
Although there are no Fortune 500 companies in education today, all these factors, in the aggregate, make me believe that in the next decade, a new crop of Fortune 500 companies may well come from the education business.
If all this were to come true, the biggest losers will be dogs—they’ll no longer have any homework to eat.
1. And in the process, save billions of sheets of paper that the world produces for textbooks every year. (Back to story.)
2. One such experiment in recent memory was an attempt to teach US children mathematics using set theory, an effort that’s now universally recognized as misguided. (Back to story.)
3. For an example, go to www.artsonia.com. (Back to story.)
4. A case in point: In what’s called the 4:2:1 effect—four grandparents and two parents doting on one child—families in China spend more, as a percentage of family income, on education than anywhere else in the world. (Back to story.)
About the author
Kishore Swaminathan is based in Beijing.