Educationist

The youth of today have a much greater opportunity of fulfilling their desire to be a valuable human being. In addition to the roles as scientists or engineers, the new opportunities arise as ‘entrepreneurs’ and ‘innovators’ who help make a fortune with ideas.

Prof Pant best describes his background himself – “a somewhat unusual journey made out of standard elements.” A physicist by training (M.Sc. at Allahabad University, PhD at Roorkee et al), he was selected for research assignments that took him to Europe and to several interactions with Nobel Laureates and renowned scientists. 

After a stint as post-doctoral teaching fellow at the University of Western Ontario, London Canada, Prof Pant joined the IIT Kanpur faculty where he taught for about 10 years, while simultaneously acquiring a professional law degree from Kanpur University via evening classes. Aptly, this teaching-studying method of education would go on to become characteristic of him and his outlook on life, serving him well as Prof Pant went on to don several other hats – of a practicing lawyer (about 7 years), of Director of Computing (education and implementation) and as Pro Vice-Chancellor at IGNOU for about 15 years, and of CEO at an e-learning company for about a year.

An eclectic interested in many disciplines who adapts his methodologies to changing times, Prof Pant epitomises the 21st century educator who flourishes in today’s knowledge-driven economy that favours value creation. An evangeliser of new education models using emerging technologies and innovative pedagogies, he looks ahead to his future self – “a full time storyteller for the rest of my life.”

A lot has been said about the contemporary economy being a knowledge economy – how the IP revolution is definitive of this era, just as the Industrial Revolution was a marker for another one. What are your views on this? 

In my view, knowledge was always important, and is the key driver of the economy, just like the sun is the primary source of all energy. But in the past, till a few decades ago, there was a huge gap between the frontiers of knowledge being pushed by the thought leaders and the daily life of the common person. At present and in the future, this gap is reducing, and probably in the future new knowledge will be created in direct response to the needs of the society to make the world a better and happier place, unlike the past when frontiers of knowledge were pushed by pure ‘thinkers’ typically classified as philosophers, scientists or mathematicians depending upon the approach and methods used by them.

Knowledge was always important, and is the key driver of the economy, just like the sun is the primary source of all energy.

The recent Nepal earthquake illustrates this point of new knowledge being created in response to the needs. In the past the Manhattan project created action oriented research for nuclear fission resulting in the atom bomb. The man on the moon mission also had similar origins. Often it was the spin off from these that led to societal benefits. In future, teams of specialists and explorers will work on keeping the human social problems as the focus and develop the tools, technologies and systems to solve them, and make the world a better place.

But we are still to figure out whether private ownership of Intellectual Property or a sharing economy with free flow of knowledge is better for humanity? This is still an unresolved question.

There is one view that if property is not privately owned, then society does not flourish. This is the driving force for a uniform TRIPS system, which is being pushed globally after the WTO. Garrett Hardin had an article (economic theory) ‘The Tragedy of the Commons Goods’ which enunciated the principle that the only way to flourish and prosper is to hand it out as owned private property, and was considered as gospel, until Elinor Ostrom a professor in Bloomington University Indiana carried out research which led to contrary conclusions, and for which she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2009. Her conclusion was that common goods are better handled by the community than by either the Government or large corporations. This principle is the driver for Creative Commons and Open Education Resources, as well as the Open Software Movement. This is contrary to the regime of patent protection that has been extended to software and algorithms as well.

And what implications does this have for a young person who is about to or has just started his/her professional life?

The most important implication of the above trend is that the youth of today have a much greater opportunity of fulfilling their desire to be a valuable human being. In addition to the roles as scientists or engineers, the new opportunities arise as ‘entrepreneurs’ and ‘innovators’ who help make a fortune with ideas. Completely new and unforeseen opportunities professions and careers are evolving.

One interesting book I’d like to recommend which talks about accepting the potential of introverts and resisting the pressure of networking is Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.

“One interesting book I’d like to recommend which talks about accepting the potential of introverts and resisting the pressure of networking is Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.”

How are you creating value in the field of contemporary education and what lies ahead for you?

Because of multiple perspectives that I can bring to a situation, I am able to look at contemporary and futuristic education in somewhat unusual ways. My specific tangible goals are

  1. To help every learner to become a better learner, not only with better grades, but a well-shaped mind as well.
  2. To make every teacher, a better teacher, transcending the limitations of their own circumstances.
  3. To help every parent evolve into a more enlightened parent who can guide their children with their journeys into the uncertain and ambiguous future.
  4. To help all educational entrepreneurs to become successful at disruptively transforming education.

And as I said earlier, storytelling is next.

What sort of education is an absolute essential for your kind of life pursuit? 

The best formal education that your circumstances can provide for you. Gibbons who wrote Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire said that ‘Education is of but little effectiveness except in those happy circumstances when it is almost superfluous’, and therefore I do not recommend chasing rankings in educational Institutions, but studying in one of them gives a degree of self-confidence and social acceptance, which reduces some of the barriers to further progress.

What are the career options you envision for someone who’s in senior school right now – say 10 or 20 years from today?

In a recent interview the well-known journalist Thomas Friedman had said, “Need a job? Invent it.”

So a school student contemplating the future today needs to appreciate that it is no longer about fitting into a pre-existing slot, but preparing for a new world, the shape and landscape of which we don’t really know. I have a phrase that I use – “Be distinct or be extinct” – to motivate the young. The Latin expression for this is Sui generis or ‘in a class of its own’.

What do you do when you are stuck with a problem?

I have had a lot of exposure to the writings and views of thought leaders including poetry and literature, which helps me tackle problems that confront me, and they do so with significant regularity.

My favourite starting point is the one from Voltaire – ‘No problem can withstand the assault of sustained thinking.’

My early days as a researcher were also my introduction to computer programming and one of the key skills was ‘debugging’ as part of coding, which looked at the ‘small’ things which resulted in the program not working. As a lawyer, I got experience in interpreting each fact/evidence towards its legal implications. And years of experience in the IT field has inculcated the spirit of ‘computational thinking’, all of which help me in traversing unknown paths with a degree of confidence.

Unconventional and non-traditional means of knowledge acquisition are gaining ground– some people in academia have started talking about the legitimate value of MOOC’s, for instance. While this seems to suggest greater avenues and opportunities for students and learners today, it also throws up its own unique challenges and anxieties, which often go hand-in-hand with offbeat paths. What is your advice on tackling such concerns?

The time is ripe for a disruptive transformation in education. The recent and emerging advances in technologies and their ubiquitous access will provide a great stimulus to new ways of learning. Work by Clayton Christensen and his colleagues at Harvard University and his Innovation Institute have done extensive research to predict that in the next 5 years a new revolution would take place. 

Yes there is initial resistance and formal and regulatory opposition, but eventually the new models win because they are more appropriate to the changing times, the changing learning needs and profiles and dispositions of the new age learners. 

I have a phrase that I use – “Be distinct or be extinct” – to motivate the young. The Latin expression for this is Sui generis or ‘in a class of its own’.

When we’re in school, we’re told cheating is bad and then as we begin our work lives, we realize that there’s something called “collaborative thinking” and it’s not bad! What’s your opinion on collaborative thinking and how it’s shaping the world today?

Cheating and other forms of unethical behaviour is always bad, whether as a child or in adult life. Quite often there are situations when cheating seems to be rewarded and honesty and righteousness is punished. 

Collaboration is not cheating. Great people have always expressed gratitude to the people whose earlier efforts have benefitted them. ‘If I have seen further, it is because I stood on the shoulders of giants’ said Newton.

Did you ever want to change the world?

My world view is not of ‘changing the world’, but of understanding the world. The fond hope (unlikely to be achieved) is to be able to understand the working of the world, from its creation, its evolution and its future from a few fundamental principles. Physics goes a Iong way in helping understand the inanimate world, but understanding the living world in all its glory is beyond some simple principles. It is the field of ‘complexity.’ Perhaps the theory of ‘karma’ has big significance. 

Of course, once you understand the world through science, you can create technology to tinker with the world. So we can make cars, aeroplanes, rockets, computers etc. but that is not changing the world. They are all applications of the existing laws, some of which we can now understand. The laws of human behaviour are not yet understood. Philosophy speculates on how humans should behave; psychology tells us how they behave in experimental conditions; and history records how they actually behaved in different situations. But we cannot still draw useful generalisations to have a kind of science of human behaviour. 

What would your advice be to a young person at the start of his or her career and confused about pursuing passion versus being pragmatic?

The current view from Science is largely about duality. Even at the smallest atomic level we have a wave particle duality, and the uncertainty principle states that one can never know precisely the values of two canonical variables. So will it be between passion and pragmatism. Ken Robinson refers to ‘your element’ where passion meets aptitude but pragmatism tells you what the ‘niche’ is within which you must operate, in order to flourish.

It all boils down to mindset and developing the right mindset becomes the most important challenge. 

If you could do some time-travelling and go back to meet yourself at 17, 25, 35, what would you say to your selves then?

For me life has been a pretty continuum. I am no match to him, but I like to echo the sentiments of Isaac Newton, who said that he felt like ‘ a child on the seashore, looking now for a smoother pebble or a prettier shell, while the ocean of truth lay undiscovered before me’.

If I could go back in time, I would have chosen subjects that I really loved like Mathematics and Literature (especially poetry) and traded them for closely related subjects like Physics and Computing, for their practical utility.

If I could have had my way, I would have stuck to pure Mathematics, and not its useful manifestation as Computing.

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“If I could have had my way, I would have stuck to pure Mathematics, and not its useful manifestation as Computing.”

Your views on education do not necessarily include “formal” education; what is the supplementary informal learning that you engage in personally, to ensure that your own journey of learning is always in the making?

During my years at school, I was encouraged and oriented to explore knowledge and answers to questions with the help of dictionaries, thesaurus, encyclopaedias, handbooks and other reference materials. I still derive much information from books which I browse at libraries and bookstores and serious magazines such as Nature, Scientific American, New Scientist, The Economist, The Harvard Business Review, The MIT Technology Review etc., but unlike my earlier years as a scientist, I do not regularly peruse serious leading edge research journals now.

I make good use of e-resources and content from the Internet. I subscribe to and regularly receive directly in my inbox a number of newsletters in my areas of interest, such as from Stephen Downes, Education Technology & Mobile Learning, Digital Forensics, the Mckinsey Global Institute, Ray Kurzweil on AI, the Christensen Institute on Innovation etc.

I have also subscribed to several Google Alerts in my areas of interest such as educational innovations, apps, MOOCs, entrepreneurship, learning analytics, Flipped Learning etc. This helps me get daily updates on such topics. I also follow a number of thought leaders on Twitter, listen to their podcasts and subscribe to relevant RSS feeds. I am also a member of several ‘special interest area’ groups.

The totality of information received from these sources keeps me updated and gives me opportunities for generating new ideas.

What is most rewarding about your work?

The most rewarding aspect of my work is that every day I am able to move some small distance in my exploration of questions and puzzles that interest me. I represent the person for whom ‘learning is its own reward.’

Networking is considered an important skill today, and one that’s increasingly gaining more importance – How do you define networking and what does it enable you to pursue in the context of value creation being the key to a successful career in the 21st century?

For some people, especially the golf-circuit variety, networking was a means of access to information not available in the public domain, and this could favourably swing business decisions. It also created a degree of trust in terms of forming new relationships.

Today in an electronic media rich society, networking is about harnessing the cognitive surplus of members of the network.

Sometimes intense personal reflection gives great insights – the Eureka moment or the moment of Enlightenment of Buddha. But collective wisdom is often a great facilitator.

I think we still don’t know which should be the preferred approach for which category of problems. Therefore skills of both kind are valuable.

One interesting book I’d like to recommend which talks about accepting the potential of introverts and resisting the pressure of networking is Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.

Interview conducted by Pooja Pande.