Riyan is the two-year-old son of a colleague. His window to the world is a tablet computer. He already recognises icons for his favourite nursery rhymes, videos, games and other applications, and has become an expert at the online memory game, “Where’s My Water.”

Sanya is almost 13 years old, a gregarious girl who has been behaving like a teenager for years. She can’t remember life without the Internet. To her mother, it seems like Sanya has finished studying before she actually starts on her homework; it doesn’t take long for her and her friends to upload their homework – it’s called teamwork. Sanya’s school is home to one of many smart classrooms found across India where teachers facilitate rather than dispense learning and where the line between play time and lessons is getting increasingly blurred. This quantum leap in the design of educational systems would not have been possible without the help of visionaries. Arthur C. Clarke had little Riyan’s tablet in mind in 1968 when he wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey: “He would plug in his foolscap-size newspad into the ship’s information circuit and scan the latest reports from Earth. One by one he would conjure up the world’s major electronic papers…the postage-stamp-size rectangle would expand until it neatly filled the screen and he could read it with comfort.”

Remember Hugo Gernsback? Back in 1912, in the book Ralph 124C 41+, he predicted the video chat that Sanya loves to do with her friends: “He pressed a group of buttons and in a few minutes the faceplate of the Telephot became luminous, revealing the face of a clean-shaven man about 30, a pleasant but serious face. As soon as he recognized the face of Ralph in his own Telephot, he smiled and said, ‘Hello Ralph’.”

Even further back, in 1898, Mark Twain anticipated the Internet in the short story, From the ‘London Times’ of 1904: “The improved ‘limitless-distance’ telephone was presently introduced, and the daily doings of the globe made visible to everybody and audibly discussable too, by witnesses separated by any number of leagues.”

Yesterday’s visions are today’s realities. Riyan and his peers will be responsible for changing life beyond how most of us can imagine it, using artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, virtual reality, metabolic engineering, non-conventional energy and biomanufacturing as some of their building blocks. It may even become possible to customise human beings and their attributes. “You are what you make of yourself” may hold true in the future both metaphorically and in reality. Tomorrow may be for all to personalise. We still have a long way to go in India and our education system certainly has much room for improvement. But, we also have a great opportunity to completely redesign our educational institutions for the 21st century. This will be one of the key themes at this week’s World Economic Forum on India in Gurgaon – the opportunity to create this change must not be missed.

(This article was published on November 14, 2012)
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