On computer education in India

How did you learn your first language?

I bet there were no grammar books involved. You weren’t subjected to critical studies and there were no tests to ascertain your level of intimacy with your mother tongue.

You learnt by immersion. You heard things, repeated them as best as you could (while people around you laughed at you), and eventually got the hang of it. You will agree with me when I say that the method is efficient. I am sure you speak your native language far more effortlessly and expertly than you speak languages you took classes for.

The first time I saw a computer was in my uncle’s office. I wanted to know more, so I started frequenting a cybercafe in front of my college where I had to pay them by the hour. I was fascinated. I told as many of my friends about ‘this Internet thing‘ as I could. I wanted everyone online. Some listened, most didn’t. They couldn’t imagine how computers might change things. They admitted the experience was fancy though.

A few months later, my college introduced a basic computer course. Those who signed up would get a DCA (Diploma in Computer Application) certificate after ten months. The lure of an additional certificate got many to join. Where I come from, your chance at employment is considered directly proportional to the number of certificates (fake, pointless, or otherwise) you have.

Nearly four to five months later, I learnt that none of them had even touched a computer yet! I hunted down someone from the economics department who I knew was taking the course and asked him what the classes were like.

They were just classes, he told me. The instructor dictated notes, which they dutifully jotted down (with pens, on paper notebooks) and memorised. Then they took written tests where they were asked questions like ‘What is a dialog box?’ and ‘How would you shut down Windows 98?’ and ‘How would you launch Microsoft Word?’ and ‘Define an operating system.’.

This was stuff I figured out on my first day in front of a computer! And I am no genius (though I will happily forgive you for thinking so). It was the Windows 98 GUI for God’s sake! I asked him if they were ever going to actually use computers. He said, “Of course. But the basics are most important. We have been told we will be allowed to operate on the machines soon. They are making us ready for it.”

Where do I start? Never mind. I will refrain from fault-finding and skip straight to the solution part.

I don’t think computer skills of the basic kind fall under the scope of science anymore. They are more of a social skill nowadays. For a course like DCA, you definitely don’t need to memorise the definition of an operating system.

How about if you just let students play around with computers and acquaint themselves with the system? Then the instructor comes in and fills them in on the technicalities. It is simple, workable and saves a whole lot of time and energy for everyone involved.

Sadly enough, most ‘computer institutes’ spread all over the small-town India follow the age old top-down classroom model. Small wonder then, that most of them have one or two computers for a class of over twenty students.

We are kind of missing the whole point of computer literacy if you ask me.