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My presentation at the Technology in Higher Education at the edTechNext conference today.

Not without books. Books are great. I mean textbooks as they are academi-factured (if that can be a word to denote academic manufacturing) and used now. The written word that becomes the gospel truth for 250 million students and millions of teachers in school today in India.

Seriously, the textbooks we produce are perhaps the greatest barrier in the system to fostering capable and autonomous learners. The fact that something is written in the textbook becomes the gospel truth that children cannot but recite.

There is the fact that most teachers cannot deviate from the text, cannot award imaginative, researched answers to questions given in assignments and tests. Many teachers would neither have the motivation, nor the passion, to understand these deviations.

Then there is the length of the written text, often verbose, and sometimes too simplistic or inadequate on even slightly deeper inquisitions. The sheer length of the discourse simply limits the extent of engagement that a student can have with the topic.

Compounding this litany of problems is the obsession with facts, so microscopic and so many, that you would even wonder later in life, why you were even expected to remember them, particularly as you could get to the net and answer them in a jiffy.

Ironically, TV shows that demonstrate the greatest failures, like the one that asks adults questions to check if they have actually passed the 5th grade, become the subject of great popular mirth and unconscious intellectual debauchery.

Then, as a result of the enlightenment that our students are not learning, they introduce new ways of assessments that actually end up spawning (to the publishers’ delight) new textbooks. And the whole cycle starts again.

There are umpteen examples from our system of textbooks that demonstrate these problems. CCE (Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation) is a mechanism that was supposed to induce children and teachers to think more, memorize less. But like the USA with the 21st Century skills curriculum, this got reduced to textbooks and project guides. The travails of the CCE, in the end resulted in diagnostic tests to check the problem solving skills of students with the PSA (problem solving assessment), which again has become the subject of many textbooks (almost like a separate subject).

Again, the system of gradually exposing students to a topic, in a step by step manner in each successive grade, leans exactly in the opposite direction of the non-linearity of learning through discovery, problem solving and peer-negotiation, because it limits the precise extent to which one can explore any topic and restricts, in effect, students to the contours of the author’s creative and intellectual boundaries.

My sincere apologies to the experts, but remember you were children once. In fact, it is a cruel testament to time, that you follow the same general methods that you were steeped in, perhaps with a liberal dose of buzzwords that you choose to believe make crucial differences to the way children learn now.

Perhaps it is time to stop treating children as dumb witted morons who will be developed into fine holistic individuals by using textbooks and allied means, however utopian and unrealistic the alternative may seem at present.

So, let us imagine a school without textbooks.

It will be a load off the shoulders, literally. Everyone will breathe a sigh of relief. And then will come the true revolution.

Perhaps then the students will be introduced to a world of themes, which they desire to investigate, alone or in groups. The themes that they choose will be their personal journey into the world, trying to decipher its working to the extent they can, facilitated by not just the teacher, but every adult or peer who can contribute.

Along the way, they will leave a trail of learning and sharing. Themes may span across multiple years, result in multiple explorations and projects, depending upon interest and guidance. In short, the curriculum will be a co-creation, the syllabus a much wider canvas to draw on, and the assessments driven by the capability to learn and master different dimensions and levels of technical complexity.

At all times, the focus will be in fostering skills that promote autonomy, open-ness, collaboration, scientific temper, values and logic and seeing their application to the theme. It will celebrate curiosity and wonder, aesthetics, sensibilities, discovery, inferencing, deduction and a host of skills that will define the individual.

The spaces of learning will become a celebration of coming alive.

And we will have done what is expected of us – we will have given our children not the right to education, but the right to learn. Amen.

I recently made a presentation to a group of Library Information professionals at a conference organized by the National Law University, Dwarka. My short research on the topic led to uncovering many of the challenges these professionals face when it comes to MOOCs and Open Access. I am convinced that there is a significant role that libraries can play in the MOOC revolution.

Whither Indian MOOCs?

Today, India is at an important crossroad when it comes to MOOCs. Much has been written and spoken about the potential of MOOCs in this country. Unfortunately, most of the conversation has been around platforms. It has also centered around xMOOCs or XBTs as I term them, ignoring the rather rich discourse around the cMOOCs. And it has centered around who gets to own them (from a public resource perspective). This confusion has led to inevitable delays in the launch of a mainstream MOOCs implementation and accompanying policy. Is there a way out for us?

I think there probably is a way out. But first our educators and policy makers must fully understand core aspects of this revolutionary development in online learning and decide their strategy for the future.

The very first thing to note is that MOOCs are not (or should not be seen as) traditional eLearning. Online courses do not equate with MOOCs. The point of confusion is that bit about “online” and “courses” that confuses many people and leads them to conflate the two things. The distinction between what is meant by online and courses in MOOCs is really important to establish.

In MOOCs, “online” does not only just imply accessibility to digital resources using the technology behind the Internet and multimedia. Online implies the social, the neutral, the connected and the collaborative online practice of learning. Rather than focusing on the message, the focus is squarely on the medium. More than the content, the focus is on the connection and the “dance of conversation”.

Traditional eLearning was constructed within an older paradigm of the Internet that has completely revolutionized in the past few years. In that paradigm, putting WBTs (or web based training) on the web and then monitoring activity and scores with the occasional discussion forum, is the norm. Being predominantly an expedient, factory approach, we had to worry about packaging (SCORM/AICC), interoperability (LMS, Common Cartridge) and rich media (usually Flash/Flex) for interaction. Content factories had sprung up in countries like India to service the huge demand to create vanilla WBTs. These WBTs stereotyped learners, had self-contained learning (I don’t want to use the vitiated term “self-paced”) and were produced in low cost locations for budgetary reasons (cost cutting on face to face training and offshoring advantages). Content development is expensive and most organizations created page turners at scale. Few organizations spent large amounts on advanced eLearning development, such as for serious games and rich interactive WBTs. Return on investment in terms of learning was difficult to demonstrate, but the return on investment in terms of being able to “train” much larger populations at a fraction of the cost was demonstrable.

But the Internet changed. It became writable, connected, social, open and interoperable. However eLearning remained woefully the same, rooted in the old Internet. And when cMOOCs came along, powered by the new Internet, eLearning folks had no tools in their armory to adapt to them. So they ended up interpreting MOOCs as just very large eLearning courses. In fact, if you were to compare a xMOOC to an eLearning course, many people would not be able to tell the significant difference in approach.

With cMOOCs, however, George Siemens (who brought in the theory of Connectivism) had quickly realized that the Internet had changed, and eLearning needed a new approach (often called eLearning 2.0) in the face of supra-abundant information and connectedness. With Connectivism, learning is the process of making connections and knowledge is really a network (Stephen Downes). This meant that the role of the teacher (or instructional designer) had to change to someone who could “model and demonstrate” paths to learning and the role of the student had to be to “practice and reflect” through a greater connectedness. In that sense, learners had to become more heutagogical in nature with a deeper sense of and skill for learning.

The second difference is in the term “course”. The “course” in cMOOCs was a journey of way-finding and sense-making, with minimal facilitation. It is a bit of a stretch to use normal definitions of what a course is, in the cMOOC context. To take an extreme viewpoint, cMOOCs are a bit like learning on the tap, like learning to be, episodes in a continuous stream of learning that you can access by connecting to others. In cMOOCs, both structure and content are loosely defined, with the community determining the nature and the contours of learning (community as curriculum). This “un-course” definition flys in the face of standard understanding of the term “course” which has rigid membership, duration, curriculum and outcomes.

To take an example, in a “course” , the teacher would draft a course outline, supply readings and references, provide a tightly designed progression for learners (read this first, take a test, move to the next topic) and so on. Students are particularly dependent upon the teacher and work in a closed group. In a cMOOC, people form a loose network (open, no membership bar) based on interest, the community members decide to engage on a theme/topic, they supply (as it goes along) the resources that interest them and those they think will interest others, engage freely on certain ideas, contribute to and document/reflect upon their learning and use a plethora of tools they are comfortable with.

The cMOOC platform enables the conversation by aggregating the member contributions, making them accessible, remixing and repurposing them in forms that are useful to search/consume and feeding them forward to members and into newer directions not anticipated when the cMOOC was conceptualized. In this sense, learning becomes an emergent phenomenon with ever changing contours. And learners learn to adapt to these chaotic conditions and to self-organize in ways that are meaningful to them. This is what happens in real life as we learn and evolve. As Stephen Downes remarks:

“What happens,” I asked,”when online learning ceases to be like a medium, and becomes more like a platform? What happens when online learning software ceases to be a type of content-consumption tool, where learning is “delivered,” and becomes more like a content-authoring tool, where learning is created?”

Most people would say that the “course” has value in its traditional format. I do not dispute that. Instead what I am saying is that cMOOCs provide a real alternative to learning in that manner and so instead of ignoring that value, we should embrace this plurality.

The other part of the term talks about another two misrepresented terms – “massive” and “open”.

In popular terms, xMOOCs are known to be massive in terms of the number of students attending one course. However, this is only a conventionally acceptable meaning of massive. What massive also really means in the cMOOC context is to do with how connected the members of the network are (density), how quickly messages reach the members (speed), what is the consumption (flow) of messages in the network and how easily are connections formed and abandoned (plasticity).

To take an example, whenever new information or opinion reaches a node in that network (a member), if that node is disconnected or loosely connected to the rest of the network, the speed of the new information in reaching other nodes will be low, and the information may die before it reaches the rest of the network. In a world where our skill is dependent upon gaining  knowledge of things as they happen, this could be disastrous. Being disconnected or loosely connected with networks that bring us new learning and knowledge will only impair our education.

This is a sharp deviation from traditional eLearning, where these questions are not asked, because the network is the new Internet and eLearning still is stuck in the old Internet age. This implies that we will see the long tail in xMOOCs (where a large number of learners stay disengaged or minimally engaged with their learning, while a few exhibit intense activity) just as we did in traditional eLearning. And this is being evidenced by its high dropout rates.

The last term is “open”. Open-ness is interpreted in different ways in cMOOCs – free or fee, groups vs. networks (closed vs. open), no restrictions on membership, copyleft, diversity, unrestricted sharing, degree of engagement (yes, legitimate peripheral participation is also in evidence), risking public performance of learning (however incomplete), altruism, capacity to change, and ability to take criticism (or barriers to public display of learning). However, the major discourse around xMOOCs has been limited to just one or two of the dimensions listed above.

Hopefully, this understanding of the MOOC phenomenon is the first step that we in India can take while building a long term strategy. It’s important for us to appreciate the differences between traditional eLearning/xMOOCs/XBTs and step away to carve our own interpretations for our needs. If we are able to negotiate the transition successfully, an entire generation of learners will benefit. India has scale and that affords great opportunities for architecting powerful learning systems and for engendering better learners. Let us hope that this happens, rather than us aping the xMOOCs.

In this introductory presentation for Amrita University’s T4E Conference this month, here are a few thoughts on differentiating between Gamification, Serious Games and Simulations.

The presentation that I made at the CEMCA-KNI Workshop recently, explores nine possible dimensions of OERs and how they must be re-contextualized by practitioners in India.

First published in The Souvenir, FICCI Higher Education Summit 2014

Viplav Baxi makes the case that MOOCs have arrived in India. Now is the time to reflect on what pitfalls we should avoid and how we can fully leverage them in the Indian context.

The past few years have seen the rapid growth of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). This emergence has been particularly interesting to follow in India, where we seem to have discovered online learning on a massive scale. Indians account for about 10% of the registrations in MOOCs from the top MOOC providers.

MOOCs actually originated out of a new theory of learning called Connectivism proposed by George Siemens in 2005. The first MOOC (the term itself was coined by Dave Cormier) was organized in 2008 by George Siemens and Stephen Downes. Hailed as a disruptive model of education, the earliest MOOCs (also called cMOOCs or Connectivist MOOCs) offered a whole new way of teaching and learning.

Much later, in 2011-12, top universities in the USA jumped on to the MOOC bandwagon, lending it worldwide credibility and fame. The reasons behind the quick adoption of these MOOCs was the fact that anyone could learn (or get certified), for free or a small fee, from some of the top universities and top professors in the world. Large investments by private capital and university foundations shaped popular perception about the revolutionary potential of these MOOCs. Also universities viewed them as extending the reach and brand of the University. Open Courseware had existed for a very long time, but the shape and form of these MOOCs was far more accessible and exciting.

MOOCs have now progressed from being higher education-only to school, teacher and vocational education. The top 3 MOOC providers now service about 20 million students worldwide, about 5 times the open and distance learning enrolments in India. MOOCs have also taken over imagination at policy levels, with the Indian Government proposing SWAYAM as the open MOOC platform for India.

However, there remain significant challenges with the MOOC model.

Firstly, the pedagogy behind these MOOCs needs a rethink. The type of MOOCs that have gained worldwide popularity since 2011, adopted the title “MOOC” but ignored the rich underlying Connectivist origins. They merely extended traditional online, instructivist Web Based Training (WBT) and Instructor Led Training (ILT) methods to a massive audience, earning them the term xMOOCs, the “x” standing for “eXtension”.

WBTs and ILTs were designed as eLearning equivalents to reduce training delivery costs and standardize instruction for large scale corporate training. But nearly everyone realizes that this type of eLearning is not scalable because it is designed for learner stereotypes, does not account for real world diversity and in general, predates and ignores the entire social learning revolution.

Both for WBTs/ILTs and xMOOCs, the model is largely teacher (and/or instructional designer) led and content-driven. It not based upon socially negotiated & distributed learning, the hallmark of the Connectivist MOOCs. This is why it is perhaps more appropriate to call them XBTs (or “massive” extensions of WBTs and ILTs) rather than think of them as a variant of the original MOOC approach.

The XBTs augment the traditional systems, giving importance to institutional pedigree, clearly defined institutional structures & processes (such as courses, terms and exams) and certification mechanisms.

The Connectivist MOOCs are very open, emphasize sense-making, operate in a distributed fashion, legitimize learners at the periphery (legitimate peripheral participation or “lurking”) and do not impose the strict conformance to traditional notions of course, exam and certification. For them, learning is the process of making connections and knowledge is the network, which means that the competency and capability to learn critically determines the learning itself. This is the central theme behind heutagogy – the study of self-determined learning – that, unlike pedagogy and andragogy, marks a significant move away from traditional teacher-centred learning.

It will be critical for MOOC providers to evaluate the Connectivist approach as we move ahead, if we are to build meaningful massive open online learning courses and platforms.

Secondly, engagement and retention are key aspects of the learning experience that the MOOCs, in general, have not been able to address effectively. The long tail of learning, which is that a really large number of learners end up not completing the MOOC or remain at low levels of engagement, is nothing new. It is just that the massive nature of MOOCs amplifies some of these known issues.

It is here that the MOOC providers need to spend a lot of time experimenting with techniques such as gamification, badges, adaptive learning and learning analytics. The Connectivist model relies on learners to build capability for their own learning, something that is the desired endgame for any educational system. By increasing learner capability to learn in the digital medium, cMOOCs can potentially flatten the long tail. The traditional XBT model can only reinforce and amplify it.

The third challenge is in establishing sustenance & growth models, whether MOOC providers are for-profit or not for-profit. So far, providers have looked at monetization/cost recovery through various methods such as charging institutions or teachers for MOOC development; charging potential employers; platform provision; training & support; charging students for blended (online plus offline) learning, mentoring/coaching, special finishing school programs and certification.

For example, Coursera now has about 10 mn students and is supposedly making USD 1 mn a month from its verified certificate courses that cost between USD 30 and USD 100. However, even though these models do not appear to have garnered explosive acceptance from a retail student perspective since they are not really integrated into formally recognized certifications, the hope seems to be to acquire large enough numbers to translate into sustainable and/or profitable ventures.

An interesting comparison for XBT providers are the formal open and distance learning systems, where regulated degrees & certificate programs drive enrolments and fees & endowments drive the income. The UK Open University in 2012-13, earned more than GBP 200 mn as fee income (about 60% of which were supported by student tuition loans) from over 200,000 students. The Indira Gandhi National Open University in India, has an annual enrolment of about 500,000 students (in 2012 annual enrolment was 465,000 students), but the fee per course would be a fraction of the fee charged by the UKOU. Of course, the XBT providers are looking at multiples of these figures as they go about targeting a global audience.

The fourth challenge lies with a weak private/non-profit investment climate for MOOCs in India. Significant public effort and money has and is being spent across various pioneering Government initiatives to build open education resources (OERs), MOOCs and MOOC platforms. These can be leveraged by anyone under a very permissive OER policy, which even allows commercial use. However, barely any private investment is flowing into leveraging these resources.

Innovations and investments are required in multiple areas such as awareness generation, access to technology and communications, capability development, content development (including multilingual), pedagogy, development/enhancement of MOOC platforms, collecting and managing learner progress and performance data to improve the learning experience, as well as areas like gamification, Virtual LABs and other forms of technology augmented learning. These innovations and investments should directly impact our education system in terms of improved access, improved learning outcomes and higher employability.

To summarize, MOOCs have arrived, but if we do not deal with these core challenges of MOOCs, we will end up having a dysfunctional system. To avoid later disappointment, stakeholders must reorganize and focus on how to avoid the pitfalls of the current wave of MOOCs.

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