Thumbs Up, Ekalavya!


As a child, I was dismayed at the story of Ekalavya, a boy of “humble birth,” who asked the sage Drona to accept him as a pupil. Seeing that the talented youngster was a potential rival to his royal students, (and no doubt remembering the non-compete clause in his contract), Drona first refused to accept E (the dreaded reject letter from Drona U.!) and then asked for the archer’s right thumb as gurudakshina (tuition fees by another name.)

Allow me to venture that high education costs are the equivalent of Ekalavya’s thumb for low-income students who are crippled by the burden.

Desi immigrants are uniquely positioned to understand that a college education can be a ticket to the American Dream. Even after admission is secured, steep college tuition remains a formidable barrier.

But perhaps there is hope. The “other,” arguably less famous, Salman Khan of Khan Academy has been in the news recently. The son of Bangladeshi parents, Sal attended MIT and Harvard before founding Khan Academy.

In partnership with the College Board, Khan Academy announced free prep classes that hold the promise of creating educational access. (“Can Khan Academy’s Free SAT Prep Level the Playing Field?” Jason Tanz, Wired, June 2, 2015.)

Could this usher in a democratization of education? Can you say MOOC? (Massive Open Online Course) As in so many fields, the Silicon Valley leads the trend. Sebastian Thrun’s first open 2011 Artificial Intelligence class grew to 160,000 students. Despite some disappointment over completion rates, there is no doubt that the new model has the potential to radically alter higher education. The face-to-face Socratic method of teaching is effective, but expensive. The door has been cracked open just a sliver.

Let’s hope that a modern-day Ekalavya can sign up for a free Khan Academy prep class or a MOOC instead. Thumbs Up, Ekalavya!

Geetika Pathania Jain, Ph.D. is guest Managing Editor of India Currents magazine. Jaya Padmanabhan will return from her sabbatical next month.

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