If CBSE’s plan materialises, it will not be long before schools will start to have robots and artificially-fed machines plying on play-grounds. According to a plan in the works, students studying in CBSE schools may soon get to study artificial intelligence (AI) as an elective subject.
While the Central Board of Secondary Education’s decision to introduce AI in schools has not yet been officially announced, officials confirmed that the idea has been on the agenda of the board.Once introduced, students of classes 8, 9 and 10 will be able to opt for it.
“It is an emerging area and one that is extremely important globally. AI education exists in schools in the US. It is the only way forward,” a senior CBSE official told News18 on condition of anonymity.
Once introduced, students of classes 8, 9 and 10 will be able to opt for it.
2018 has been an important year for the growth of AI as a potential research and job sector in India. According to data from job search site ‘Indeed’, there has been a 179 per cent increase in job seekers looking for jobs related to AI.
NITI Ayog, the brainchild think tank of the Narendra Modi-led NDA government, released a ‘national strategy’ for AI to give India an edge over the rest of the world on the subject. It also launched its #AIforAll initiative to further research and support in the sector in order to achieve inclusive growth. Studies crowned the Indian workforce as the third most skilled in AI in the world after US and China.
But is the school system in India competent enough to provide the level of expertise needed to introduce the concept of AI to children in India?
Who will teach AI?
While CBSE can introduce the subject, it will be up to the schools to provide teachers qualified enough to teach it to young students.
“Firstly, we need to undo the idea that computers cannot think, only humans can. That itself is the basis of AI, teaching machines to think and understanding how that can be harnessed to further human goals,” said Professor Gautam R Desiraju of the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru.
“For that, we need to first revisit the computer classes and clarify to students what computers can and cannot do. Currently, most schools do not even have good computer faculty,” the professor said.
In 2017, the Human Resource Development Minister Prakash Javadekar announced that there were 11 million untrained teachers in the workforce. In 2016, the Minister had also informed the Lok Sabha that there 17.51 per cent posts for elementary school government teachers were vacant. The same was true about the 14.78 per cent secondary school level teaching positions.
To fix the problem, the centre has introduced several schemes including a four-year BEd course for aspiring teachers as well as removing the TET examinations required to become a teacher in certain states with low-teacher density.
Prof. Desiraju who is an acclaimed structural chemist and has been working in the teaching field for almost 40 years felt this could actually diminish the quality of teachers further. He opined that more short-term or refresher courses were needed to improve the condition of existing teachers, especially in the field of technical knowledge.
Former Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) engineer Germiya Ongolu called it a “bad idea”.
“What is the point of teaching AI in schools? A majority of schools in India do not have the resources for good physics and chemistry practicals. Computer classes are mostly a joke,” Ongolu said adding that first, the government needed to focus on building educational infrastructure.
He added that teaching AI would require teachers that have a grasp on robotics, on the internet of things and big data. These are new avenues and if CBSE makes it a school subject, it will further widen the divide between private and government schools, the scientist felt.
“Only schools that will be able to provide the required technology and machinery will be better at teaching AI. It is a practical subject and just theoretical teaching will not be enough,” Ongolu stated.
#AIforall or only for those who choose?
While experts are debating the pros and cons of AI, students felt that it was a good idea as long as they could manage to make the subject interesting and not increase the burden of students.
Edraa Chatterjee, a student of Class 8 in Narayna School, Kolkata said that as long as it is an elective subject, it was welcome. “We already have a huge syllabus to cover. The subject could be interesting but it should only be taught to those who are interested,” she said.
Class 9 student Priyanshi Chib from Delhi’s Maxfort School felt that students were anyway aware of AI because of the smartphones and Amazon Alexa and that it was a good idea to explain the subject to those who wanted to study it further. However, she also added that several other subjects like sex education, gender studies and physical fitness should also be considered as they are an important part of a teenagers’ understanding of the world.
The choice should also extend to schools, asserted educator Parth J Shah, founder of the Centre for Civil Society which focuses on furthering social work through policy changes especially in sectors of livelihood and education.
According to him, a pre-requisite for teaching AI in schools is for the schools to be able to cope with the infrastructural demands of the subject. A transition from the current system of schools teaching technical subjects to one that can hope to accommodate AI needs to be structural.
“Schools should be given the ability to choose if they want to opt for AI or not,” Shah said adding that state and central education departments should meanwhile start training programs for teachers and schools instead. “Adding a subject to a school syllabus means nothing to students, they will just take it another subject to pass. What is really important is to make students understand the need for AI,” Shah said.
He also felt that giving mostly private schools under the CBSE the option to include AI would further deepen the gap between government and private schools or between CBSE and state board schools.
While CBSE has not announced anything formally, sources told News18 that discussion regarding the drafting of an AI syllabus for classes 8-9-10 was already underway. However, India might still be years away from successfully introducing AI lab classes the way it is done in certain schools in US’s Silicon Valley or in China.
Despite high demand for automation, more than half of India’s colleges have no new AI courses. In June last year, CEO of Tech Mahindra CP Gurnani had said in an interview to Times Now that 94 per cent of IT graduates in India were not fit for hiring.
While the central push for AI has been purportedly designed to achieve greater inclusive growth in India, it may be necessary to look at the substructures that are being entrusted to support these advancements in technical education.