-founder, erpnext | the best code is the one that is not written
Last week, I was asked by the Principal of Shishuvan, the school my 6-yo daughter goes to, to talk with fellow parents on how to prepare for a digital future. What she had in mind was to talk to parents on how can we withstand the onslaught of social media, attack on our privacy, automation, malicious hacking and other such things we keep hearing of. The ferocious pace at which technology is creeping into our lives and mutating our relationships and our own sense of perception, and has instilled a fear in all of us. The fear of missing out (FOMO) generated by social media leaves us feeling empty and out of control.
In my view, whether we like it or not, the information revolution will most probably not be turned back. I am sure people living at the dawn of the industrial era would have had similar feelings. Instead of resisting and rolling back the industrial revolution, those who embraced it, went on to create unseen prosperity and wealth for themselves.
Even though the jury is not yet out on the industrial revolution, it has helped push the world population beyond seven billion, is the reason most of us are alive today, brought material comfort, healthcare, safety, equality, human rights, education and democracy to dark corners of the world, while at the same time destroyed native cultures, created a more unequal world and pushed the fragile planet on its edge.
The information revolution comes with its own promises and dark secrets.Instead of resisting it, I believe we must harness its power for our own good. At the same time, I do not naively believe that it will be a cure-all for the problems that face today.
“Software is eating the world”
We started the discussion with this often quoted 2011 phrase from Marc Andreessen, the co-creator of the world first web browser. Marc Andreessen was an undergraduate student when he helped create the web browser, and later went on to found Netscape and is now a famous technology investor. His embrace of technology at a very young age is behind his phenomenal impact and influence in the world.
Today the evidence is clear that software is eating the world. The world’s largest bookseller is Amazon, the largest Taxi company is Uber, the largest television network is Netflix, the world’s most valuable companies are Apple, Google and Microsoft, the world’s most exciting car company is Tesla, the fastest growing entertainment segment is gaming. Image recognition and deep learning technologies are helping detect cancer and most of the scientific experiments are now conducted by computer simulations at a scale that is not possible physically.
Our kids too, are growing up in an online first age. The moment I tell my 6-yo that I do not know the answer of something, she will ask me to Google it. The leaps recently made in speech recognition and conversational technologies are just beginning to reach us. I think there is no doubt that we need to equip our children to navigate in this world.
There are three opportunities we discussed that the digital age brings to us.
1. Be a maker and not just a consumer
In this age it is very easy to be a maker. We have lots of tools available to us to build things for our selves, rather than just using something that is readily available. Any number of YouTube videos will show us how to learn to break down or build anything we want. When we make things we push our creative abilities and this gives us a deeper understanding of the world.
2. Learn to Code
Many leaders and thinkers believe that learning to program computers should be a life skill taught in school just like math. Since computers are already everywhere, including in your pocket, learning how to make these machines do work for you will give people a lot of advantage in whatever field they choose to pursue. Not learning to program computers, will leave us vulnerable to those who will learn to harness its power.
Today there are lots of online resources that help you learn computer programming, from code.org to Khan Academy
3. Learn for Mastery
Like all fields, education itself is undergoing a huge revolution. The growth of online courses and platforms like Khan Academy are resulting in better quality of understanding in children. In his second TED Talk, Sal Khan, the founder of Khan Academy talks about mastery based learning. In the traditional system, even if you have gaps in your understanding, you are pushed along with the rest of the class to more and more advanced concepts. This results in loss of confidence and can derail the brightest of students, and even instills a fear of the subject itself. All of us who have done the traditional schooling have experienced this. Using online platforms, children can learn at their own pace and move to more advanced concepts only when the understand the more fundamental ones.
This opens up an opportunity where a large portion of a class can become masters at what they are learning, and not only a small gifted minority.
What can be done at School?
The first step is awareness. We need to have more conversations as teachers and parents on how we want to prepare for the information age. Some specific proposals include:
- Having a formal Computer Club
- Working through the computing curriculum to include programming at a younger age
- Involving children in IT activities at school, by understand how a school uses technology for its administration etc.
- Learning about and experimenting with using online tools to “flip the classroom” and move towards mastery based learning.
We had 50–60 parents in this session and the response was pretty overwhelming. I was expecting more skepticism, but most of the parents were probably experiencing the same as what I was. The computers are here, how can we help our kids handle them.
Few parents narrated their own experiences about their children losing confidence due to a concept they did not understand or how they were already using Khan Academy for their kids (surprisingly though, most parents did not know about Khan Academy). One parent who is working with a private tutorial also shared her experience that they saw engagement and quality of understanding go up after they tried flip the classroom strategy.
I think it was a great first step to start the conversation, now our challenge is to probably have more such conversations with parents and teachers and come up with concrete steps to implement.
The core philosophy of Shishuvan is based on Gandhian thought and anti-colonialism. The new age of colonialism is being brought upon us by the growing power of companies like Google, Amazon and Apple, which is based on their ability to harness the power of computing. The way we can resist is by being masters of our own tools. We need to equip our children at a young age to lead the way so that at least a handful can become leaders of the information age!