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People keep on going on about there being so much shortage of good quality faculty. That, they bemoan, is the most important factor behind the problems that we face in K12 or Higher Ed today. It is definitely true to an extent.

I believe the bigger challenge is to find learners. Not students. But learners. Or capable students who take greater responsibility, initiative and interest in their own education as well as the education of their peers.

If we flip the problem, we can perhaps leverage the scale of learners to overcome most of the problems in education. To do this we have to break from the belief that students have to be led. They don’t. They need to be helped to become more capable of learning in an environment mediated by social and technological networks.

This can reshape how we think about teaching and learning. Teachers then need to make sure that students become more capable (instead of becoming more knowledgeable) and that they have help and facilitation when needed. Students have to acquire critical literacies (and heutagogical capabilities) to transform into Learners. The Government needs to reshape the ability of these new generation of capable learners to acquire credentials that can be interpreted (and later perhaps even replace) at par or higher (or differently) than existing credentials. Our institutions and employers need to reshape structures and practices to allow all this wonderful learning led by the ones that are most impacted by it.

This is why, in the FICCI Vision Paper on MOOCs in Higher Education that I co-wrote, my vision for MOOCs (and in general the educational system) was:

Learning through Massive, Open and Online courses (MOOCs) will enable all Indians who want to learn, earn, teach or innovate, the capability to realize their true potential and transform our country.

The vision talks about building capability, not creating trained engineers or research scientists. Replace “MOOCs” with “our Educational System” and the vision would hold, really.

Are we really chasing the wrong problems?

Do you go to the football field to learn music? Or to the art gallery to learn fencing? Or to a library to learn oratory? You don’t. However, irrespective of whether you are studying history, economics, physics, languages or architecture, you go to that one singular invention – the classroom.

In the age of networks, this notion of a classroom perhaps needs a serious rethink.

What should a modern day learning environment look like? Should it extend the notion of the classroom (and the class) in the belief that this notion is capable of handling the new digital and social learning environment? Or should it be disrupted by something entirely new?

Extensions of the notion of classroom have been notable. The Flipped Classroom has caught the imagination of the world as a way to use digital technology to invert/optimize the use of learning events/activities inside and outside class. There have been many developments in the physical design of learning spaces that promise enhancements in in-class collaboration and learning by doing. Peer instruction has been found to be another way of extending the notion.

Christensen thinks disruption is the best way to go. Many other folks believe that online education using MOOCs and technology such as adaptive learning is that panacea – a panacea that can personalize learning and address individualized issues of knowledge and motivation.

I believe that class needs to be disrupted. And I believe networks are the key to disrupting the classroom. What if you could learn from someone who could teach the way you learn? What if you learned with people and things that directly reinforced what you were learning? What if you did not just learn to do, but also learned to be – to be a practitioner in networks of practice?

One of the interesting observations seems to be that in  the traditional educational system there is invariance to scale or scale-free behaviour. Scale free behaviour is exhibited by some very interesting networks like the Internet in which a few of the participants make the majority of interactions, and a long tail of participants exist with little or no engagement or levels of activity. Perhaps a disruption will truly arrive if we invert these scale free networks or even if we flatten out the interactions (raise the long tail). Perhaps we need to recast the classroom as the network itself?

On Teacher’s Day

There is a teacher in everyone of us. It is useful to acknowledge that a whole lot of things are learnt without someone actually teaching us, and that perhaps someone is right now learning from us without our even knowing it. On the Internet, this is possible at a very large scale. We learn from other people’s review of the computers we buy or the places we visit. We learn to dress by looking at what others wear and talk as we hear others speak. We learn from reading a blog post or the fact that a guru likes a particular URL or that an expert just followed an innovative startup’s twitter handle.

So when practicing teachers and real experts, who really do all of this teaching and coaching professionally, start making their actions, their learning, their idiosyncrasies public, a whole lot of people will end up learning even if they are not in their class. Perhaps their class will also learn much more if they share the guru’s network, the guru’s learning trails across the World Wide Web.

As teachers, it is really about how we learn and how we share how and what we learn. It is not learning how to use technology (which is an important enabler, but not an end in itself), but how to embrace a culture of open-ness, sharing and a much heightened consciousness that we are professional performers of a learning process; that as teachers we are actually enacting the role of expert learners.

For that, we have to re-envision the way we learn. We are a product of much the same system that we subject our children to. We bind our students by its same constraints. We are steeped in the routines that we have perfected in years we have taught the same curriculum again, again and again. We cannot change ourselves by thinking in the same ways the system has taught us. We must re-envision our own futures, standing outside the systems of today.

Why it is so phenomenally important to re-learn how to learn in today’s networked environments? Its possible because, invariant to scale, the network has opened up hitherto unknown opportunities to teach and learn. Not that you can now learn something that was previously hidden from you, but that you can now learn and teach in ways that may be much more than the classroom we are so used to. In fact the classroom analogy does not even exist in the networked environment (the closest it gets is “clusters” or “swarms”) – the network is not a class.

Since networks are not classes, you cannot apply traditional teaching-learning techniques to it (or atleast not as-is). So an entire paradigm becomes near-obsolete when one thinks of networked learning. Which is not what the xMOOCs would have you to believe, but that is entirely their loss.

If you can think network, you can break away from the traditional mode. It is what we must do. Case in point. If there is no class, who are you teaching? Answer: You are teaching a cluster of nodes (students) bound to you in some manner (through your institution perhaps), but they are really part of many different networks as well. By connecting to those students and promoting transactions between them, helping them add new connections to their network, and leveraging their existing networks, you will build upon a fabric of learning, much like a weaver or an Atelier. You will help them break away from the monotone of traditional systems, help them celebrate chaos and let them build their capability to learn.

When you become that networked teacher, you will contribute to a scale of learning that will be unbelievable. What you will do within your own small networks, may become amplified or contribute to global knowledge about learning and teaching. Just the sheer scale of your teaching and learning, your networks, the types of interactions, will fast transcend the power of any certificate or degree the traditional system may have to offer.

The revolution is here. It is you. Seize the day.

I think we are at an inflection point in online education in India the way Andy Grove from Intel had nicely framed in his book, Only the Paranoid Survive.

Andrew writes of how a 10X change in any one force, namely:

  • Power, vigor and competence of existing competitors
  • Power, vigor and competence of existing complementors
  • Power, vigor and competence of existing customers
  • Power, vigor and competence of existing suppliers
  • Power, vigor and competence of potential competitors
  • Possibility that what your business is doing can be done in a different way

can result in profound changes to our business.

Why do I say this? In the past 2-3 years, there have been several interesting things that have emerged.

MOOCs have arrived on the Indian education scene in an informal way gathering unprecedented response from our students. We have the second largest country presence in MOOCs globally with over 2+ mn registrations. This is important to note in the context of total enrolment in open and distance learning in the country which stands at around 4.5 mn. Although the two are different models solving different needs (at this point), it is a far cry from year 2002 when at egurucool.com we were happy having 20,000 subscribers to our online K12 products. This amazing student response to MOOCs has been fueled by social media and networks. Although we have yet to see business models emerge, but they will. And surely this marks a 10X change in the power, vigor and competence of existing customers.

The Government has invested (and is investing) heavily in the creation of open education resources, software and technologies for eLearning for a while now under the NMEICT. For many streams of education such as Engineering (NPTEL) and humanities, arts and social sciences (CEC), a large corpus of open resources have already become available at the under-graduate level (post graduate level work has also been initiated). The NPTEL Youtube channel has now accumulated over a 100 mn hits and over 290,000 subscriptions. Similar efforts by the NROER team are going to make huge amounts of content available for school educators. High quality content becoming available for adaptation and delivery (under the CC-by-SA license), open software for live classrooms and learning management, research in haptics and many other such developments are definitely set to increase the power, vigor and competence of existing suppliers and potential competitors. Early movers such as MyOpenCourses & ClassLE and many traditional players (such as the publishers) are now starting to leverage these resources. The Government too is investing in building up new platforms and content for MOOCs.

In parallel, complementing technologies such as those for gamification, big data analytics, mobile apps, 3D printing and others are finding their way into the Indian expertise lexicon. We can already witness, for example, the power of data analytics used by school performance evaluation tools.

In what may constitute a tipping point, among other possibilities, if the government legitimizes MOOCs by offer credit transfer, recognition and other measures reserved for the traditional degree and diploma courses (and for vocational education), or if the body corporate or professional associations decide to put their stamp on nanodegree like non-formal learning and employment pathways or if universities (including distance education) adopt MOOCs as part of their curriculum, it will catalyze and harmonize these 10X changes. Business models will emerge, quality and scale challenges will be mitigated, and problems of faculty skill & shortage will be ameliorated.

I believe the inflection point, if we are not there already, will be reached fairly soon, catalyzed by some of these possibilities. What do you think?

First published by EDU Tech on 24th July, 2014

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are an exciting new development in online education. In this article, Viplav Baxi explores the origins of MOOCs, their two main (‘c’ and ‘x’) variants and why it is critical to appreciate the distinction.

October 2008. Three Canadians, George Siemens, Stephen Downes and Dave Cormier started the first Massive Open Online Course called Connectivism and Connective Knowledge (CCK08) based on a new theory of learning called Connectivism proposed by George Siemens in 2005.

Positing Connectivism as a learning theory for the digital age, Siemens asserted that learning is the process of making connections. These connections could take different forms such as those found in physical, social, cultural, conceptual or biological networks. These connections shape our learning because they help us navigate the increasing over-abundance of information and knowledge, leverage diversity of opinions and build the capacity to know, learn and adapt.

Stephen Downes proposed a new definition of knowledge which he called Connective Knowledge. Downes asserts that knowledge is the network. As Downes states: “at its heart, connectivism is the thesis that knowledge is distributed across a network of connections, and therefore that learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks”.

Dave Cormier is credited with coining the term ‘MOOC’ itself! He is also well-known for the theory of Rhizomatic Learning.

CCK08 transformed the way many people, including me, thought of education. The 12-week course was open and free. Over 2,200 people registered from over the world.

Even before CCK08 started, participants shaped the curriculum by suggesting areas of personal interest. Each week of the course, facilitators would briefly introduce the topic and suggest relevant open resources. Experts were invited to engage with course participants on each topic followed by an unstructured online conversation. Learning was distributed – participants interacted through tools they were comfortable with (like Twitter, Facebook, WordPress and SecondLife). The facilitators made their network connections and activity public, so participants could follow the leaders in the field and keep abreast of the latest developments.

Each day, using Stephen’s gRSSHopper technology, participant contributions would be harvested from all over the web, important contributions identified and a newsletter sent on to all participants enabling them to keep up with the activity in the course.

A few students (including me) signed up to become the first paid students in this the first ever MOOC. We submitted 3 essays that were evaluated directly by the instructors. The final certificate was awarded by the University of Manitoba (the course hosts) at the end of the course. Like many others, I started a CCK08 Blog that has a collection posts from each week of the course.

Participants self–organized to form many virtual and face-to-face open learning networks (that outlasted CCK08). They adapted material into their own language and context. The facilitators were always available as expert co-learners rather than as instructors. The sheer diversity in the community created tremendously exciting opportunities for learning.

CCK08 also illustrated four key principles of MOOCs – diversity, autonomy, open-ness and interactivity. Learning “emerged” rather than being pre-designed. Participants learnt to be practitioners rather than just “learning to know” or even “learning to do”. CCK08 also redefined the roles of teachers and students. The role of the teacher as an expert learner was to model and demonstrate while the learner had to practice and reflect.

Such a learning ecosystem reflects the reality of learning in a digital age, where information is over abundant, knowledge is increasingly specialized, change is extremely rapid, networks & social media have revolutionized communication and learning has become largely informal.

Such systems of learning can potentially solve the burning problem of employability of our students. It can help them gain the capability to become lifelong learners, negotiating external changes. It can raise the quality of teaching and learning significantly, in an equitable and affordable manner.

Since 2008, there have been a large number of MOOCs on the lines of CCK08. These MOOCs such as the Future of Education, Critical Literacies, Rhizomatic Learning and other versions of CCK itself, have seen rich interaction globally. A lot of published research and a strong community of educators, theorists, developers and thought-leaders have emerged. The new field of Learning Analytics has also emerged as a corollary of this approach.

Later, in 2011, two Stanford professors created an online course in Artificial Intelligence. They took the decision to make this course open and free for anyone who wanted to enrol. To their delight, almost 170,000 students registered for this course!

They discovered that people did in fact like the idea of coming online to learn in large numbers if the course was taught by reputed professors from top universities, was accompanied by a certificate from the university and was free.

Interestingly, they also started calling their online courses, MOOCs. The name stuck and MOOCs, so defined, soon caught popular imagination when more top universities got involved, technology to effectively manage large sets of learners matured and venture capital (& institutional) funds started backing the concept. Soon, we heard of massive investments in MOOCs and some of the top university brands like Stanford, MIT, Harvard and others backing them.

To distinguish between the two, Stephen Downes termed the original MOOCs ‘cMOOCs’ (for Connectivist MOOCs) and the newer ones as ‘xMOOCs’, the “x” standing for being an extension of something else.

That something else was really the type of eLearning that had grown very rapidly since the late 1990s. Corporations and even online learning providers found it expedient to digitize expensive face to face training and create standardized, mass learning experiences for their employees, in order to cut costs and save lost working time.

For the most part, this type of eLearning tried to simply replicate the traditional classroom and curricular practices online. In traditional online learning, all learning is centrally directed, restricted to the closed boundaries of the course, performed generally alone (collaboration features see very low usage patterns), mass personalized with rigid pre-determined learning paths and assessed largely through objective type assessments.

This type of eLearning had already failed to scale for many reasons. It was designed for stereotypes of industrial age learners. It ignored the diversity and overabundance of information that is present in real life. It ignored the autonomy of learners to personalize the learning experience. It ignored the richness of interaction on the World Wide Web. It ignored the “conversation” and “connections” in learning. xMOOCs are extensions of this type of eLearning.

By only incrementally extending this type of online learning, xMOOCs have massively magnified challenges such as low retention, rote learning, low employability and lack of student ownership, motivation, interactivity and engagement. It is as if they have ignored more than two decades of insights from online, open and distance education.

Backed by venture funding, top universities and media hype, xMOOCs have captured popular imagination. India has not remained immune to this hype. Addressing the need for personalized interaction and for integrating LABs, high quality online self-paced content is to be blended with face to face local faculty interactions and LABs. This addresses some shortcomings of the xMOOCs, but in essence remains their extension.

What we should be doing instead, is to build massively open connective learning ecologies that can help our students and teachers to become capable, connected and responsible digital learners – the promise of the cMOOCs (and of an ideal educational system).

These ecologies will both need and encourage experimentation and innovation. And they will yield better results because learners will be better connected and more in control of their learning.

The important question is: do we really care enough?

In the Oscar-winning movie, Slumdog Millionaire, the main protagonist manages to answer very difficult (to the common person) questions to win a jackpot. People are quite unsure how he did it and he becomes the object of an intense investigation. While providing explanations for how he answered each question, it was found he could answer it because he experienced it in some way. He had never gone to school, where presumably you learn the answers to difficult questions, and therefore his feat was questioned all the more. His experiences (and luck that each of the questions aroused a connected memory deep inside him) enabled him to answer the questions.

Spread around us are slumdog graduates going to the slumdog university that is our combined living experience. Rather than being handcrafted by some elaborate educational system designed to produce certain deterministic outcomes, these graduates are a product of their own epiphanies and will and courage and perseverance. While we spend a good part of our lives imagining change that can be structured through formal education, many of these graduates are continuously shaping and reshaping the world around us.

To call them “graduates” of a “university” is to succumb to tradition, though. And calling them “slumdogs” is itself not free of a certain bias. Let us call them “makers” and “thinkers” of a new world, unfettered by the trappings of our formal conception of education. They do not require the education we “provide” to them or the elaborate restrictions we build around who is learned and who is not. They are not guinea pigs of theory that serves capitalist and edu-casteist practice.

For we keep beating into submission every new innovation and change agent. MOOCs become xMOOCs, monologous extensions of traditional lectures, with the hilarious debate being just exactly how long should each video be (hey, statistically the eDX folks proved that it should be closer to 8 minutes and hey, look again, there is a growing cult that likes the Green Tick Mark that signifies they got something right).

But I am not laughing. There is something very wrong with a system of thinking that precludes change, that feeds carnivorously upon itself only to continuously grow new offspring. Don’t like the UGC, create a super commission. Don’t like the DIETs, reform them and add BITEs. Cry about inadequate teachers, but continue to train teachers the same way our students learn. Feast on your self and cry wolf. Centralize everything and create new systems of governance, but never realize that the world is now distributed.

What we need is to build alternate capacity to think and innovate. Like get a separate booster shot or something, right away.

Immediately, we should design and implement an ecosystem where innovators, educators, edu-leaders should be able to learn and craft distributed systems of learning that empower a whole new generation of makers and thinkers. They should permeate not just the formal regulated sectors of learning, but also address the much larger segment outside this sphere, making it possible to truly reshape the human potential of this country. More on this soon…

Massive Open Online Courses  (MOOCs) and OERs have captured the imagination of our polity.

The new Government’s election manifesto clearly specifies MOOCs, although not under school or higher education, but under Vocational Training as a means for “working class people and housewives to further their knowledge and qualifications”. Further, there is a firm push, although under the section of School Education, on establishing a “national eLibrary to empower school teachers and students”.

Although, framed under different heads and not explicitly and universally correlated with the underlying issues facing our education system, these two are important areas of focus for the new HRD Minister, whose own enviable background in Media and Communications provide her with some of the necessary insights into how to create engaging media based experiences for our students. I do sincerely hope that this background also translates to many of our teachers who need to enhance their communications effectiveness as also inspires more teachers to use popular media or innovative performing arts led approaches to education (e.g. Theatre in Science or dance in Mathematics education).

National eLibrary

A high quality national eLibrary backed by the right capability, technology and open-ness, can dramatically transform both teaching and learning effectiveness. If these are accompanied by permissive Creative Commons licensing terms that make it possible for any entity to use these materials (like for the NMEICT materials), then this will act as a great stimulant for uptake of these resources.

School OER initiatives such as the National Repository on Open Educational Resources (NROER), NIOS, Karnataka OER, Gyanpaedia, TESS and other national/international OERs like Gooru and MERLOT can be aggregated in the eLibrary. On the other hand, similar OERs for Higher Education and Vocational Education sectors through the MHRD NMEICT projects (NPTEL, CEC-NMEICT, ePG Pathshala and many others across the world like Saylor and edX) can also be combined into the same repository.

Along with these, as NROER and Gooru are fast demonstrating, external data from agencies like NASA or the Indian national archives can really add tremendous value if they are made publicly available.

However, we will suffer since there is no underlying content management architecture or content development (including metadata) standards framework at all. Ultimately, these different initiatives may not be able to inter-operate, quality will not be uniform and scarce expert resources will not be efficiently utilized. Both are solvable existing problems, but need urgent and immediate attention if the national eLibrary is going to succeed in intent and execution.

We shall also suffer if we are unable to decentralize content development and quality review across the board, training both teachers and students to contribute high quality instructional content. We shall also start feeling the pinch very soon for skills such as Instructional Design, which are scarce in the country.

MOOCs

On the MOOC front, we clearly are at a precipitous juncture. On the one hand, the focus on MOOCs and the intent to spread them across sectors makes me really feel that we are on the right path. But, on  the other hand, we need to appreciate the transformative potential of MOOCs as originally conceived.

Also called cMOOCs, these original MOOCs were started in 2008. The term MOOC was coined by Dave Cormier during the Connectivism and Connective Knowledge 2008 (CCK08) MOOC. CCK08 and subject cMOOCs were based on the theory of Connectivism coined by George Siemens and of Connective Knowledge posited by Stephen Downes.

These experts believed that eLearning was at an inflection point – that traditional online learning had utterly failed because of it’s design and execution and that we needed a new way of thinking about eLearning. So they forged a new path that would help learners and teachers to revisit their roles in the context of fast changing information and social landscapes.

It is a path that the later MOOCs (like edX, Coursera etc.; also called xMOOCs) have not leveraged, being content to perpetuate the ills of traditional elearning. Only this time, the scale is massive and that has reflected in the massive dropout rates and low engagement ratios on these platforms. In fact, they simply seem to have missed over two decades of insights from the evolution of open & distance learning and e-learning.

In India, we can still make a more informed choice and perhaps evolve our own MOOC methods and models. Hopefully  they shall be ones that are based on learning from the mistakes the world has already made, rather than porting models from the West as-is.

MOOCs and eLibrary – Connecting the dots

These two initiatives – MOOCs and the National eLibrary (or OER) are more deeply connected and pervasive than is generally realized. A strong and efficient eLearning system is one where the content management process connects seamlessly with the learning delivery systems using standards based inter-operability and metadata.

This inter-connnection helps in many ways. Predominantly, it enables resources to be published and re-purposed into multiple formats for different devices & form factors – mobile, tablet and PC. But it enables production and delivery efficiencies to the tune of almost 30%. At scale, this translates into savings of hundreds of crores of rupees. Significant thought must go into designing these systems and their inter-relationships.

In Conclusion

The focus on technology enabled education is indeed extremely good for India. Going forward, we should fill the obvious gaps in capability, technology and pedagogy, so that we are able to fully leverage education technology for the nation.

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