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.


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.

There are many positives happening in EdTech in India. A government led mission called the National Mission on Education using ICT (NMEICT) has created massive amounts of content for engineering, arts and humanities, social sciences and natural science. It has also delivered the under 50 USD tablet, Aakash and a slew of innovations including Virtual LABs and the A-View web conferencing tool (that seems to work better than Skype). The school sector is running alongside nicely with initiatives to build content (NROER, K-OER) and delivery systems (Virtual Open School, NIOS). Teacher Ed is also getting the necessary focus from a content perspective (though the technology pieces are still being conceptualized). The Vocational Ed sector is running behind yet (although I have word of some level of content development), but one hopes it will catch up sooner than later.

The writing on the wall is pretty clear – India seems to be moving quickly towards a blended learning strategy that relies on platforms such as edX, existing physical infrastructure & “facilitator” faculty, and video lectures. Learning Analytics and Badging seem to be getting a mention (only just).

It seems an obvious response to scarcity of quality teachers, also exacerbated by the remoteness of interior locations. But interestingly these seem to ignore some of the learnings of the past 20-30 years and even some current work such as Sugata Mitra’s SoLE research and pilots in government schools.

Carefully crafted models of blended teaching and learning can definitely impact the system. However, systems designed to “spray and pray” will cause more harm than good. The current approach to virtual schooling seems to be to provide technology to broadcast lectures by the expert teacher and leave the local facilitator to do the support job. Blends are far more involved than that simplistic view.

Blends place a larger demand on students capability to learn with the help of technology. Learners need to build the capability for self-discipline, self-motivation, self-organization, peer learning, higher levels of exploration & discovery and even how to overcome technical constraints of under-reliable hardware, software and connectivity. 

Blends also place a heavy demand on the local facilitators of such instruction. The “distance” between the teacher and student needs to be filled by the facilitator. This distance is on the emotional plane as well as on the planes of knowledge, coaching, mentoring. contextualization and organizing the process of learning. In that sense, the facilitator needs to work very closely with the remote teacher and needs to understand the very intent and idiosyncrasies of the remote expert.

On the other hand, the remote expert needs to understand the limitations imposed by “distance”, and work to the capabilities of the facilitator. The expert also needs to cope with diversity, since it is obviously a much larger class than before and very diverse. The expert needs to be able to design learning paths that the facilitator can effectively implement. Especially in cases where the facilitator is also a competent and experienced teacher, the expert must allow for some level of creativity & local insight to be exhibited by the facilitator. Additionally, the remote expert must learn how to leverage data – about classrooms, facilitators and learning patterns – to make the blends iteratively more effective.

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.


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