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Of late, I have been increasingly dismayed by the growing indignity in Indian Education. Somehow the very character of the system seems to be under great stress.

Take for example, the Manoj Mishra-ization of Indian education. This gentleman, lauded by the Times of India as one who is Leading a fight to get India’s truant teachers back in class, is a District Education Officer in Uttar Pradesh. The Times eulogy is deafeningly definitive.

As he walks along the dusty streets of the wheat-farming villages a couple of hours’ drive from Nepal, older people touch his feet in a sign of respect. Young women pull out their phones and take selfies by his side.

Mishra took it upon himself to reform teacher attendance. Faced with various problems, he has been unyielding in his efforts to get truant teachers back into school, resisting political pressure and threats to his life. His state education minister seems to be more than supportive too. He has had to resort to several unconventional methods.

By August 2014, when he showed up in Deoria, he was already causing a stir. He had been reprimanded for beating up three teachers with a stick because he believed they had landed their jobs using fraudulent documents. That episode made the headlines in the nearby city of Gorakhpur.

The punchline for the article is interesting. Mishra says:

…making teachers go to school is only one small step forward. Whether they teach or don’t teach, I can’t tell. But now, at least, they come to school.

Perhaps there is a certain indignity in both these realities – that teachers do play truant and that such totalitarian corrective measures are equally endorsed and vilified by a political class.

And then there is the indignity of our educational leadership.

Earlier, schools would be run by educationists for philanthropy. But now businessmen, property dealers and families run schools. They deal with teachers the way they would treat their other staff. They have made recruiting teachers as simple as hiring an office boy for just Rs 10,000 a month.

In fact, this is admission time – translation – the time when the coffers will get filled with soaring per seat rates for parents and new farmhouses are bought in cash.

Or the indignity against our educational leadership, as in the AMU case (and of which I have been personally a witness too, in another context).

His confirmation comes after a controversy broke out on social media that he was “humiliated” by Ms. Irani when he went to meet her as part of a delegation led by the Kerala Chief Minister on January 8, to seek her support for the off-campus AMU centre in Malappuram, which is “developing much slower than expected.

Or it is the radicalization of dissent, sharply polarizing the country, whether on caste or nationalist lines. I must point out A Syllabus on Sedition, an almost MOOC-ish effort to bring forward a repository of curated resources to frame the events at JNU and the Hyderabad Central University.

These indignities worry me. These are indignities, among many others, which our children face, everyday at school. In humiliating ourselves through our greed, quest for power and incompetence, we humiliate our children and propel them backwards in development of visionary thought, prosperity and power.

Perhaps this is not just an Indian phenomena, and that we are cursed into it because we are human. But that doesn’t make it any better, does it?

This past year has been very eventful. Here are some of my impressions of 2015.

xMOOCs have strengthened this year. The major players have received lots of new funding, added 1800 new courses, 100 new credentials, doubled enrollments to 35 mn students and co-opted many new partners from academia (over 550 universities in all) and industry.  Class-Central’s report talks about 5 emerging trends.

  • Rise of self-paced courses (20% of the course listings on Class-central are self-paced)
  • Death of the free certificate (average per course costs are USD 50+ for providers such as Coursera and edX)
  • MOOCs for High schoolers (to bridge the college readiness gap)
  • Sharper business model (with paid credentials) – also aligning to the for-credit model, which has the required scale if endorsed by university partners, althoughJust one specialization from Coursera makes 10x the revenue, in ten months, that the entire university of Harvard makes with 60+ courses. The numbers tell a clear story: students don’t care if the certificate is id-verified or not.“. There is also a revenue model in tying financial aid/loans for these courses.
  • Huge funding (nearly USD 200 mn between just Coursera, Udacity and FutureLearn)

All in all, xMOOCs have started looking rather like Lynda (which LinkedIn, very sensibly, acquired) and so many other online course providers who have established business models in traditional online learning. What is different is scale and hype, but the rest remains essentially the same. In fact, it is a well rehearsed strategy to grow the numbers using a free approach and segue into a paid marketplace, the runway being the patience and appetites of investors.

India, too, has joined the bandwagon. With early experiments by the IITs and other institutions, now the focus is on converting existing content into ‘MOOC-compliant’ (whatever that means) offerings from existing content and the building of an indigenous platform called SWAYAM. SWAYAM is supposed to be a “Single Window, centralized, integrated, multi-lingual, user-friendly platform enabling module based efficient learning” and will integrate central and state universities, training providers, educators, students, examination partners, internal platforms etc. and will feature Enterprise CMS, CRM, Analytics and eCommerce and other supporting modules; available in offline modes and on any device (Volume 2).

Meanwhile, policy changes are towards more open-ness in sharing resources and textbooks for free/paid online access. There are several new initiatives like ePathshala and eBasta (which I never really could get my arms around; in any case it has no more that about 6,500 downloads in the past 6 months) that aim to bring free and paid digital versions of textbooks and learning materials to the mobile devices in online and offline modes. Government continues to exercise muscle power in online learning, being the main funder and the largest scale provider, probably to the angst of private players. A realization also seems to be seeping in that offline versions are key (look at what Khan Academy Lite is trying to do) and so is multi-lingual content (Khan Academy Hindi). Be that as it may, these are moves that utilize technology for some kind of dissemination, hardly moves that are going to improve education. Elsewhere, government is also waking up to the fact that it needs to put information systems online, such as Saransh.

The unregulated Indian PreK12 market seems to be consolidating. Zee Learn and Treehouse have merged to create the largest player with over 2000 pre-schools, with Eurokids (884 centres) and Shemrock (425 centres) following behind.

EdTech funding this year has touched a new high. Over USD 3bn was invested worldwide with nearly half that in education finance companies Social Finance and Earnest.The rest mainly in online edTech providers, xMOOCs and tutoring. In India, edSurge reports, there were 27 deals valued at about USD 60 mn. Audrey Watters is doing a great job at putting some of this information together.Top areas of investor happiness? Test prep. Tutoring. Private student loans. Learning management systems. Online “skills training.”

More detailed figures on Indian edTech reveal a total investment of USD 66 mn in India. This is compared to USD 60 mn in just one of many edTech investment in China. Indian investment looks to follow a similar pattern – Test Prep. Online skills/training/curriculum. Tutoring. And this is less than 1% of total private investment deals in India in 2015.

I can’t recall, sadly, innovative ed-tech in 2015, perhaps apart from some work in adaptive learning by companies such as Knewton. Perhaps it is just that I have not kept up, but nothing stood out really.

Atleast I had fun being part of Dave Cormier’s Rhizo15. The great part of a cMOOC is that you get to meet some incredible people who expose you to some really mind-blowing thinking around learning and education. You learn to renew yourself through the experience of being connected with others and discussing new ideas. I hope that good sense will prevail in India and we will start experimenting with some of these models instead of aping the xMOOCs and building learning management systems.

And I cannot but mention the most impressive post of 2015 for me. Audrey Watters wrote The Invented History of ‘The Factory Model of Education’ and questioned popular rhetoric. Not merely is the analogy anachronistic, but it is also not very relevant. However, the big revelation to me this year, is that there is an organized system out there whose outcomes are not very educational after all! More on that later.

Inexorably though, in 2016, the online courses and tutoring juggernaut will keep progressing and the space is going to be of the more of the same variety. Hopefully India will see increased traction – it is just a matter of time.

RIP Jay Cross

People ask how my new book is coming along. I tell them I’m not writing a book, I’m leading a crusade.

Jay Cross, The Real Learning Project.

The last interaction I had with Jay was in August this year. Jay shared a copy of his latest work “Aha! Get Smart – The missing manual for do-it-yourself learners“.  He wrote:

I hope to inspire hoards of people to experience the Aha! of having learned something significant and remembering how they did it.

Through this project, Jay wanted to empower learners to discover their agency in learning, something that is incredibly important for the future.

Jay tells us to remember that we are in-charge of our learning, not the teacher or the institution. It is not something that happens to you at events or courses, it is something that is owned by you, on a continuous basis, life long. Learning becomes a process for improving your Life.

Throughout the book, there are useful cues and practical help to JDI (Just Do It). The ideas that learning is personal, social, conversational, tacit, reflective, continuous – run through the book. Jay also ran up against the power law in networked learning:

Fifteen years ago, a rule of thumb for community participation was 1-10-100. Out of 100 people, 1 would lead the charge by posting interesting and provocative information. 10 would comment, converse, and otherwise post. The remaining 89  would watch. The ratio must have changed. People who are accustomed to posting news and pictures on Facebook are more likely to take part in any social network they come upon, but that doesn’t seem to be the case with us.

Although we had episodically interacted over the web in various contexts, I remember first meeting Jay when he was kind enough to come all the way to New Delhi for the EDGEx conference we had organized in 2012.

I believe that Jay’s message is incredibly important for all of us. We need to celebrate the Aha! in learning. Now, more so.

RIP. Jay Cross. The man who coined the term eLearning.

Let us for a moment imagine a future where schools are run by teachers’ cooperatives. That is, instead of an administrative and financial superstructure of wealthy philanthropists or businesspersons or trusts, political muscle, non-academic leadership and all the trappings of modern world schools, teachers would cooperate to teach, learn and administer the school.

The Amul cooperative in India posits a model for cooperatives in the Dairy sector.

The then Prime Minister of India, Lal Bahadur Shastri decided that the same approach should become the basis of a National Dairy Development policy. He understood that the success of Amul could be attributed to four important factors. The farmers owned the dairy, their elected representatives managed the village societies and the district union,  they employed professionals to operate the dairy and manage its business. Most importantly, the co-operatives were sensitive to the needs of farmers and responsive to their demands.

In Education, this is not new (Avalon, SUPAR, Woodland Park). In Can Teachers Run Their Own Schools, Charles Kerchener talks about how such schools lack closed structures, promote open-ness and put greater responsibility on students to manage their own learning.

Advisor Kevin Ward, writes that students who come from a traditional school think, “that an open environment is
the equivalent of an unsupervised study hall and act accordingly. They wait for bells and whistles and detentions and plenty of assignments.” “Parents may expect to see immediate success,” but “learning to become an independent learner takes not only time but a good measure of failure.” These students become successful over time, Ward asserts, because students create their own rules. That struggle can take a long time, sometimes two years before a student understands that success is primarily a function of what they put into it as opposed to how well they play by someone’s rules. Contrast this with scripted teaching, frequent teacher-led drills,
and frequent testing that characterizes some charter schools recognized as successful.

…But regardless of the hours put in, students must design projects that meet all the state standards.

…The credit system—perhaps the most enduring structure of American high schools—is relegated to a bookkeeping function

It is interesting how these cooperatives are organized and how do different stakeholders react to shared leadership and open ecosystems. It is important to note that the exact shape and form for these cooperatives is not something that is designed. Rather it is emergent, based on the dynamics of the people, context and tools.

In India, I have yet to come across a similar vision. Doubtless, there exists someone doing it, but it is an idea not yet discussed or explored in policy or other academic circles, at least from what I know.

However, there is merit in discussing this model if it leads to increased stakeholder trust & respect, higher quality learning, diversity and autonomy. What if there were a significant proportion of cooperative schools in India catering to local needs, responsive to local community, and creating environments where students could really take responsibility for their own learning? Such cooperatives could be served by other cooperatives as well – for needs ranging from administrative/professional services to even needs such as teacher education and leadership development.

Can such a future be?

Let us imagine a future. In this future, textbooks have been removed for students. The only people that have to use them are teachers.

This has solved many problems.

No longer do children have to carry heavy bags to school.

It discourages rote learning from a single source.

It forces certain habits of learning to be acquired by students. Students now have to pay attention in class and personalize their class notes. They have to be able to find content from different sources, including their own fellow students and peers. They have to start asking questions and being more engaged in class because there isn’t a fallback authorised expert true source.

Teachers on the other hand, can no longer rely on the textbook being available to students at home. They must choose other means to educate them. For this they have to provide alternate means or references that can act as starting points. They have a greater responsibility to ensure that students actually learn.

Publishers are forced to get creative because their staple business has just been disrupted. They start pushing resources in small chunks,  creating libraries online and offline. In general, books that students decide brings more value to them, if used at all, actually will get consumed.

This has also created many change issues. Teachers and students have to find new ways to negotiate the syllabus. They no longer have the comfort of a set collection of text and images to build a common experience around. It forces them to be innovative, exploratory and collaborative, skills that were in short supply earlier. Parents don’t have a single frame of reference either. To get around it, some teachers have started subverting the system by pointing the students, unofficially, back to the textbooks.

There is absolute chaos in the beginning as everyone in unprepared to learn. As days go by, people find ways to adjust and adapt. Some figure alternatives that perpetuate the old system while many others try out the new modes.

What if such a future was here?

India’s MOOC strategy is turning into the ephemeral. From the initial heady days of EdX to fragmentation between the IITs, to not so secret ambitions of ‘make in India’, first with CDAC and now it seems a more formal platform development agenda, MOOCs seem to be a buzzword that is losing steam because of both policy/execution lapses and a fast emerging online courses and certification (with/without credit) paradigm that is ‘nano-tizing’ the world right now.

Both the paralysis of Indian EdTech and the subsumption of MOOCs into the old paradigm of elearning, are leading to a situation where a cutting edge learning paradigm that could benefit us immeasurably, is being laid to waste.

Of course, another way to look at it is that it is a good delay, perhaps one that will give pause enough to expose the chinks in the new non-connectivist xMOOCs. But I know that our delays will give us more time to fail rather than succeed.

In the seven years since MOOCs first emerged (CCK08), India has had lesser to do with EdTech than ever before. The sad fact is that a revolution in online teaching and learning with a maximal potential for India, has gone unheeded.

The MOOCs as originally envisioned, meant questioning the existing paradigm from the perspective of a digital age, scale and effectiveness. Rather than treating the Internet as a broadcast mechanism, Connectivism looks at learning as a process of making certain connections and knowledge as a distributed network. It meant that,  at a personal level, we would get equipped with how to teach and learn in a digital, social world, not in archaic environments of school and class.

My tryst with MOOCs is certainly not India’s tryst. Perhaps it is never to be.

The most amazing thing has happened in Delhi. Something that I have been advocating for the past few years has actually seen the light of day. Delhi’s AAP government has cut syllabus upto Class VIII by 25%, with the promise of doing that for Classes IX-XII by next year!

Director, education, Padmini Singla explains that no part of the syllabus that is crucial to the children’s understanding of concepts has been removed. “They weren’t completing all the chapters in the book anyway. We’re just reducing them. The sections were selected by an internal committee which had members from the SCERT as well,” she says.

http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/delhi/Lighter-bags-for-kids-as-govt-to-cut-syllabi/articleshow/48839917.cms

For generations, the weight of the textbook, the amount of time and energy spent on memorizing useless information, the burden of studying for its sake, stands diminished at one stroke.

It will increase the time children have to connect with subjects through fun, real life explorations, explorations through performing arts and generally time off to spend on play.

There are the critics though who lambast this decision as retrograde, and one which will further degrade the quality of education, particularly as the cumulative cut up to Class VIII will result in a severe dissonance when the student reaches advanced levels.

But this is a creative dissonance, one that shall force curriculum designers to think anew, give time for teachers to develop new thinking and teaching skills and students to focus on the absolutely necessary (something that they have perhaps anyways been doing by default through choices their teachers make on how much they actually cover through the year).

I think it is a welcome move, though I would push for a far greater reduction in the formal syllabus and a far greater increase in the informal syllabus.

But as with other initiatives, although the change should be effected expeditiously, I would recommend a few other things to reduce the ensuing chaos and support the longevity of this change.

First, I recommend that the State put forward its combined might to support the informal learning process. This means resources of physical and virtual kinds – from playgrounds to theatres, from digital explorations to collaborative sense making through networks.

Second, although teachers may have been already interpreting the syllabus in reduced terms for years, it is time to look at cuts that are uneven and strategic across the early school years, not by the fiat of a uniform 25%. By this I mean we should look at ways to prune directed instruction to the minimum possible levels with each subject following its own logic of progression over the years.

Third, we must push the Boards to follow suit, and then the universities and colleges (starting with our Teacher Education programmes themselves).

Fourth, the reduction must be accompanied by a proportionate (not equal, because in any case the syllabus was too vast to start with) increase in teacher training and community building initiatives.

Fifthly, this is also a good time to start innovating the curriculum. The more we realize the role of informal learning in the curriculum, the better it will get.

Sixthly, we have to leverage the possible shift in the loci of control from the teacher to the student, parent and community. Textbooks are the fulcrum of academic dialogue today. And the teacher is the sole arbiter of that fulcrum in the student’s learning lifecycle.

As we move towards more of informal learning, that fulcrum will become less important, teaching less a loci of control and more a shared experience. Perhaps sometime in the future, the textbook will solely act as a reference for teachers, while students shall mediate/interpret/construct/connect content and build their own learning journeys, collaboratively. To leverage that shift, we must shift towards a “maker” culture in some ways, with increasing responsibility of learning & personal growth on the student.

Without these accompanying initiatives, the fate of the CBSE CCE and the OTBA will surely be repeated. And in some years, perhaps the same or another minister will have the chance to exclaim surprise and happiness that students and parents want the cuts to be reversed!

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