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I didn’t know it at that time, having been born just a few months later, that the revolutionary Open University, UK was born in January, 1971 with 25000 students. Of course, my parents didn’t know that either when they named me Viplav (my Sanskrit origin name literally means “revolution”). It’s just one of those weird coincidences.

The OU was born amidst great opposition as a “University of the Air”. The concept was being discussed from the early 1960s. Touted as “an experiment on radio and television: a ‘University of the Air’ for serious, planned, adult education”. It was revolutionary also because it did not ask for prior qualifications and placed a premium on students acquiring the skills to study in this medium.

Although the first correspondence (read Distance Education by local mail) based course was organized in India by Delhi University in 1962, Andhra Pradesh Open University (now Dr. B R Ambedkar Open University) was the first Open University in India when it opened in 1982, 3 years before the famous government-owned Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) that opened its doors in 1985. IGNOU has now about 4 million students and serves 20% of Indian Higher Education students.

There are many parallels to the growth of the two systems (UK and India), and the UK OU’s trajectory was a pivotal influence on what our policy makers envisioned. In fact, I have direct evidence that this is so.

Between 16-19 December 1970, there was a seminar organized by the Ministry of Education and Youth Affairs, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and the University Grants Commission (UGC). The Seminar’s focus was on an open university.  J C Aggarwal chronicles the event in his book, Landmarks in the History of Modern Indian Education, and states:

In the United Kingdom the proposal for the establishment of an open university, originally called the university of the Air, took 4 years to take definite shape. Profiting by what has been accomplished in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, and also by the experience of the correspondence courses conducted by several Indian universities, it should be possible for shortening the time that will be needed for planning and preparation.

It was proposed that a study group be established to work out the details so that an open university be created “at an early date”.

This open university was envisioned to make higher education available to those with “the capacity for it to benefit from the existing facilities.” It was meant for highly motivated adults lacking formal qualifications or means to join universities full-time. In their conception, the Open University could be used for:

  1. providing education to capable, independent and mature learners
  2. providing education to the masses at a reduced per unit cost
  3. making higher education more effective by leveraging scarce resources
  4. as a means of employing new and unconventional methods of instruction and exploiting new technologies

Very interestingly, they placed focus on ‘open-ness” to new ideas as fundamental to the open university concept. Perhaps they were prescient about the current xMOOCs when they wanted the  best in curricula from Indian and foreign universities.

It is interesting that the dominant paradigm (as Prof. MM Pant pointed out to me yesterday) was the television, and thereby video. I was told recently that we have many tens of thousands of hours of taped educational videos (between CEC, IGNOU and others). Supporting technologies included the radio, postal communications and localized study centres.

Aggarwal also points to an interesting government committee on Audio-Visual Aids in Higher Education (1967-69) set up by the UGC. Video was preferred because it provided “sight” and sound to enrich the learning process. They acknowledged that:

Films, filmstrips and transparencies are being increasingly used in educationally advanced countries as visual materials which can be used in any teaching situation when it becomes necessary to demonstrate a point, a fact, an idea or a process.

It is perhaps being inspired by these ideas that even today the government is commissioning advanced direct to home channels for education and have created NPTEL (Engineering disciplines OER repository) and NMEICT e-Content (by CEC and others).

Together, India must absolutely have the largest collection of educational material in the entire world. And I would wager that a large percentage of it is really good quality material suitable for leverage by everyone, if only the government would make it really open and accessible.

Over time, the confluence of developments in affordable technology as well as developments in educational theory, has brought many inflections on our policies and curricula. Our educational systems have time and again, faced up to these developments in an incremental fashion to various degrees of success.

Globally as well, when elearning came in, it was more of a response to standardize learning “packages” so that they could be uniformly consumed by a large number of people. Driven by the emphasis on cost reduction by Western corporates, eLearning quickly took off as a time and money saver. Traditional education systems too realized the potential, but were limited by available funds and perhaps a greater aspiration to quality than the corporates.

Now there is a point to which an existing paradigm can stretch and contort to keep up with surrounding developments in technology and learning theory. We passed that point about 10 years ago when dramatic changes in networks and social media started surfacing.

The current thinking is all part of an evolution that is now about 60 years old (perhaps more!). New thinking cannot be built on top of something that ancient. We have to start from scratch, re-envision the educational process and systems from the very ground up so that they reflect our possible futures that are in all honesty going to be dominated by intelligence brought to us by networks and data.

That work has to begin in earnest now. Very soon, we will be seeing the rear end of the demographic dividend (which shall move to Africa). What are we doing to prepare ourselves for that future?

There are some key challenges that we are facing in eLearning today. And I am beginning to think that these are pretty much invariant to scale. I am beginning to think that perhaps many of them happen at smaller scale in traditional face-to-face education. Here is an indicative list.

  • High dropout or low completion rates
  • Low engagement and retention (motivation)
  • Lack of data driven analytics cramps scalability
  • Low use of collaboration/networked learning tools & communities
  • Lurking as a legitimate activity
  • In courses that need them, lack of physical F2F & LAB support
  • Increased demand on the student’s capability for self-directed learning
  • Need sophisticated auto-grading (or scalable high quality peer review) systems for large scale assessments
  • Video lecture fatigue
  • Lack of interoperability with traditional institutions (incl. curricular)
  • Availability of Localized materials
  • Access to power, infrastructure and connectivity
  • Credibility / value perception of learning for employers or for credit transfers by traditional institutions

Some of these are definitely challenges that would constrain any system. But perhaps the real challenges lie elsewhere. For example, I am getting convinced that more than anything else, the capability & motivation of the learner to learn, is the most limiting factor.

We see a lot of power laws in the real world of learning – where a few students participate heavily and the largest number contribute to the long tail. Ideally, an efficient and high quality system would be one where the graphs are uniformly flatter indicating wholesome participation in the process of learning. I would think that not much changes at lower scale or with change of modality to traditional classroom scenarios, and that power laws are in fact observable in these scenarios as well.

The aim of most educational systems is to develop students who are prepared for the life to come, who can contribute to  the world as responsible citizens, who are successful in leveraging knowledge and reason to attain their goals and who learn how to learn. I think the last part is really significant – in fact I would say the most significant part.

In thinking about how people can learn to learn, it is obvious that there be a multiplicity of options on how to learn, rather than just any one way of learning. Our education systems have so far taught just the one way to learn, but there are indeed other ways to learn that may or may not be consonant with the traditional approach.

What are some of these paradigms? I think the Connectivist approach crystallizes what learning really means in a digital age. It is sufficiently “alternative” as a paradigm and needs to be explored. The MOOC is perhaps just one instance of Connectivist environments. Other online environments may exist where massive does not necessarily equate to number of learners, and open doesn’t necessarily equate to “barrier-less” and where we let go of the “course” confines.

FICCI held its first school conference at New Delhi on March 10. I was helping facilitate a session on Teacher Education, which has perhaps become one of the really important challenges of our education system. The NCF 2005, NCFTE 2009, the Justice Verma Committee, the Centrally Sponsored Scheme, the new Teacher Mission and the RTE Act provide the backdrop against which the discussions are happening.

As per Dr. Amarjit Singh, AS, MHRD, lots of great things are happening:

  • Focus has been on quality of teacher education, program and curricular revisions. a new model curriculum and various short and long program formats have been designed
  • The CBSE has set up a Centre for Assessments, Evaluations and Research
  • The NCERT is building learning indicators – a set of “common core” learning outcomes
  • NUEPA is building school standards
  • The Open University, UK partnership is underway with 3000 teachers being trained across 150 teacher development units
  • North east state open universities are starting MOOCs
  • The CIET has built a semantic content store called the NROER
  • The Delhi SCERT has actively introduced the flipped classroom and shared curriculum practices
  • Various examples of digital content and community based programs across K12 and Teacher Ed

Prof. MM Pant gripped the crowd’s attention by invoking John Daniels’ solution of training 10 million teachers by flipping pre- and in-service education. Dr. Anjlee  Prakash talked about the role of the teacher and her professional development in the context of a connected, networked and technologically advanced world (FICCI School Conference_LLF_2014 for FICCI), and the role of MOOCs & blends thereof in Teacher PD.

A few other takeaways from me:

  • We need better technology to aggregate, remix, repurpose and feed forward content and conversation to ever-growing networks
  • We need design and development of systems that engender network formation and scale
  • We need interoperability with the myriad tools and systems being developed
  • We need better technology and processes to capture and analyze interactions of teachers and students with the OER created by different initiatives; need learning analytics systems in place quickly
  • We also need to raise heutagogical capabilities in a concerted manner, perhaps with a set of coaches or mentors that we actively support

It was a packed conference session with many other speakers including Prabhaav, TESS India and Microsoft. And we obviously ran short of time (my apologies to the speakers, especially Anjlee and Lokesh!).

And yes, I am building up a repository on teacher education. Please do send me your links!

Before I begin (and I am going to miss the hangout again as it will be at 3 AM India time), I think Dave rocked again in #rhizo14. Way to go Dave!

Dave is our Elvis

Dave is our Elvis

I am conflicted when I think about curriculum. I have experienced it prescriptively in the formal education system and I realize that it is bounded by its philosophical basis as well as the competence of stakeholders to transact it (the two sometimes straining in opposite directions).

In the rhizomatic sense, I am guessing curriculum is evidenced by the community members through their open reflection and practice.There is no core.

In the Community of Practice sense, the community itself evolves through various stages -  Potential, Coalescing, Active, Dispersed and Memorable as in the chart below.

In another take on this, George Siemens in Connectives and Collectives: Learning Alone, together suggests that as ties become stronger and individuals aggregate into groups and collectives, the discourse becomes normed (in fact there is a veritable coercion to the norm) that leads to a drying up of new ideas that are novel and diverse.

In the diagram above, he also ties it up with autonomy to the learner, which he believes to decrease as these ties increase in strength and degree.

I think the strength of Rhizomatic and Connective Learning is the “personal formation” of curriculum and the heutagogical “capability” to contextually adapt the curriculum evidenced by the community to transcend personal learning plateaus.

In that sense learning becomes a process of, among other things, shared discovery of curriculum itself, a way-finding and sense-making exercise.

It also makes sense to think of curricula instead of curriculum – different ways to transcend the same plateau. The community then evidences things such as values, beliefs, patterns of use and engagement that equally constitute any curriculum (one must consider failure in a Rhizomatic community as well. What mechanisms exist when a curriculum itself fails to empower.)

Like a Rhizome, Rhizo14 is an event in my meanderings. The event may end, but the rhizome continues to flourish and grow.

Bernard Fryshman wrote a post titled  MOOCs are Books, too. I responded saying it depends on whether it is an xMOOC you are talking about or a cMOOC, amongst other humble assertions that “MOOCs are not books”. Then I found Dave talking about MOOCs to create/update open textbooks. In Are MOOCs the Next Textbooks, Gregor Kiczales makes the point that in “author” or “expert” videos, the persona of the author is really important. Others comments that free MOOCs could potentially replace textbooks, while others feel that MOOCs (when standardized like JusticeX) may become textbooks themselves, especially when created by A-grade professors and experts.

Dave, in his video challenge for this week of #Rhizo14, asks the question – are books making us stupid. He identifies a few negative connotations and one positive connotation for books in his mind. The negatives are:

  • have a finite end to the journey of learning at the end of which judgment awaits us
  • deny the orality of the conversation
  • bring in objectivity
  • amply distance
  • are definitive, not relational
  • bring in impartiality
  • are less participatory
  • have a long history of “making us stupid” and are not trustworthy

The positive connotation is that there is value in books as historical records (and emotional pleasures of the medium that we are used, but others ahead may not even desire or be able to experience).

Several things confuse and distort responses to this challenge immediately. Are we talking about book “technology”? Are we concerned with book “processes” of creating, use in curriculum and uses by learners? Are we concerned with the formats, or the design? Are we talking of all types of books or just a specific type of books? Are we talking of making value judgments – “stupid” in the sense of “closed”, or following something “prescriptive”, or “cognitive” instead of “connective” or “rhizomatic”? Is it about how they impact reading or writing literacies and skills, or it about books as standalone artifacts? Is it about their accessibility or cost that makes their unavailability result in a certain stupidity?

Which is also why people have responded variously to this week’s challenge. Shaw contests the negative connotations and believe it is not an either-or. In Print, Stupidity and #rhizo14, Keith showcases Don Tapscott’s talk, and tries to view printed text rhizomatically. Apostolos refutes some of the negative connotations by looking at books as a vehicle to transfer information and knowledge through the ages, and not limiting conversation/participation just because the author isn’t there to discuss the ideas. Jenny Mackness talks about how “Books are not the problem – it is us and the way we think – our lack of ability to critically engage with learning”.

I think what we are really talking about here is the tyranny of the written word insofar as it leads to our pedagogical oppression (Friere). There is intentionality here in the minds of the oppressors (pretty much most of those traditional educational systems that depend upon rote learning, including some of our xMOOCs) and there is mute acquiescence from  the oppressed (those who unquestioningly accept the written word or “common framework” as someone else put it).

I think, we should have so much democratic and accessible written word, that it becomes impossible for us to be stupid. It should become impossible for any one system to authorize or prescribe the tyranny of the word.

This year I will focus my efforts on the design of learning environments that are complex – adaptive, emergent, self-organizing, chaotic and personal. As a project description at TU Delft states:

In these situations system content, system structure and system boundaries shift and evolve without any global or central coordinator. Instead, order and regularity emerge from widely distributed bottom-up interactions of subsystems, some with centralized control and others fully distributed.

I am particularly interested in complex adaptive systems in the context of learning because I think that is how learning really is. Somewhere in this area is hidden Illich’s “institutional inverse”, the need to combat Friere’s “culture of silence”, to think of learning as making connections and knowledge as the network. Somewhere in this exercise is the continued feeling of being “continually inspired to change”, the mnemonic for a revolution. Many memes will form part of this discussion.

One such meme shall be open-ness. This will relate to both the extent and nature of open-ness within the system as well that outside the system, and specific mechanisms to initiate, alter or transition to a state of “open-ness”. Another meme shall be self-organization. Equally important will be the meme of “evolution’ – of people, ideas and networks.

I shall also investigate the meme of “flexible boundaries” – boundaries that allow dynamic reconfiguration of the contours of, well everything. Closely related will be the memes of “control” and “structure”.

An important meme shall be that of “language” – the language of learning itself. I think a new vocabulary is definitely required if we are to think afresh. And there may be more that I may discover or abandon as I go along.

Dave Cormier’s MOOC on P2PU, Rhizomatic Learning, in week 3 is focusing on the topic Embracing Uncertainty. He says:

At the heart of the rhizome is a very messy network, one where not all the dots connect to all the lines. No centre. Multiple paths. Where we have beliefs and facts that contradict each other. Where our decisions are founded on an ever shifting knowledge base. Our challenge this week… how do we make our learning experience reflect (and celebrate) this uncertainty?

Uncertainty exists in all forms of education and learning. It is not mostly celebrated. In fact, it is suppressed. Or attempted to be. In traditional education, it is systematically constrained by the dimensions of time, network boundaries (class/batch), regulatory requirements and pedagogical biases. It is even systematically constrained in other (non-traditional) environments, even informal ones at most times.

However, it underpins these environments in dramatic ways, so much so that it is a wonder that any intended outcomes are even met. As an example, even the understanding of what a degree program in any subject should contain (content, pedagogy, assessments) is not shared or common across the world. It is therefore uncertain, at least to me, what an MBA degree really means!

Let us talk instead of democratizing uncertainty. That implies thinking of uncertainty as by, for and of learning (and its stakeholders).

Uncertainty by learning is the adoption of certain uncertainties  by learners, teachers and administrators. It is their ability to practice those uncertainties.

Uncertainty for learning is the “framework” or the ecology for uncertainty to flourish and where the participants of the educational system are encouraged to embrace certain uncertainties.

Uncertainty of learning is the uncertainty that society owns and celebrates, and that is what change is all about anyways. This is the most important change that can happen to learning – when there is purpose to driving certain uncertainties through the system.

Not all certainties may be “good” or “appropriate”. What is good or appropriate may differ widely, but no uncertainty can be good if it does not result in the “overall” good (atleast directionally and democratically speaking). There could be more consensus on bad and undesired uncertainties – those that result in (directionally) negative consequences such as high unemployment or obstacles to (say) scientific development.

Some people would then argue that uncertainty should be harnessed in certain ways, and this could progressively lead us to the same traditional paradigm that exists today. We shall also need to “prove” in many ways, that more “good” uncertainty in the system will impact social outcomes positively. We may even need to “prove” that either this is an articulate and cogent alternative to the existing system or stands as an important option in a pluralized education system.

What may happen as well (as with the xMOOCs) that these positive uncertainties may be usurped, distorted and made to work within traditional environments in a manner that is ineffective and diluted (e.g. you want 21st century skills to be “built”, so why don’t you create a new subject called “collaboration” and assign it graded assessments and specialized new content & teaching). In fact, I think we need to see uncertainty as culture, as a way of being rather than a specialized skill or value.

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