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.


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!

Nearly five years ago, Newscorp’s Rupert Murdoch bought over Wireless Generation (90% for USD 360 mn, such a hit) with the belief that

“When it comes to K through 12 education, we see a $500 billion sector in the U.S. alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed by big breakthroughs that extend the reach of great teaching, …Wireless Generation is at the forefront of individualized, technology-based learning that is poised to revolutionize public education for a new generation of students,”

They launched Amplify in 2012. As ZDNet reports:

Amplify had a digital library, various tools and a tablet-based platform. Amplify also had analytics, curricula aligned with state standards and distribution tools Amplify and AT&T collaborated on pilots for tablets.

Newscorp is selling out Amplify because of the losses the nearly USD 1 billion investment has incurred. The report concludes that Amplify failed to win sales and acceptance because:

  1. The Intel tablet based solution did not integrate well with Google and Apple and this was an issue because students preferred to bring their own devices to school
  2. Integration with the information systems of districts was a pain
  3. Could not compete with the developer pull from Google and Apple, even though they built a marketplace
  4. Amplify was a difficult choice for decision makers because it did not have scale and expected too much in terms of implementation

Unlikely that this innovation in EdTech, even under new owners, are going to be able to compete with mass user platforms provided by Google and Apple (and perhaps Microsoft, if things go well with them next year in the mobile space).

Contrast with companies like Classdojo, Remind and Edmodo.

ClassDojo and Remind are two of the biggest names in edtech today, with tens of millions of users each, and $10.1 million and $59.5 million raised, respectively.

Also to be mentioned is Google Classroom –

Since its unveiling (Ed: In 2014), 70 million assignments have been created on Classroom and Google Apps for Education has amassed more than 40 million teacher and students users.

Interesting, all 3 are focused on the teacher. All three are looking at embedding themselves in the teacher’s workflow. All 3 have communication and storage at the core. All 3 have assignments, assessments and analytics as the focal area from the teacher’s workflow (should look at WebAssign and Fishtree as well).

They are also a far cry from what Amplify was trying to address in one crucial way, with respect to the grandness of their vision. Perhaps Amplify would have done better to Simplify their approach – perhaps go the way of Smart Sparrow or the latest Knewton beta. I am not sure how platforms like Docebo or the platform side of Edmodo are doing, but it is really important to see what users want instead of seeing what platforms or technology can do. In fact, users have been telling us a lot about their preferences by the results we see from initiatives and companies such as these – there is always a chance that it could be done better, however one could also choose to not repeat certain obvious mistakes.

In a teacher led model, offline digital interventions have been proven somewhat socially acceptable, at scale. In this approach, the teacher is really the only hope for any meaningful and scalable approach to elearning. This is an inevitable fallout of an educational model that has tightly controlled structures and rules, with the teacher being the lead implementer of those rules. Even with the xMOOCs, this model looks as it will continue to flourish.

Another inevitable fallout of the educational model is the propensity to succumb to it. By focus on existing workflows (including procedurally flipped ones), one succumbs to various imperatives – how to decrease load, how to make teachers’ lives easy, how to provide helpful analytics quickly, how to provision a bank of standardized materials or baked content, and so on. So we are then engaged with infusing technology into the status quo, rather than engaging with an environment that has changed remarkably in the past few years.

That environment is not just increased access to open educational resources, better Internet, more Apps and mobility, greater awareness and use of communication tools like Whatsapp, it is also the surge of social networks for learning, cMOOCs, gamification, learning analytics (don’t miss Caliper from IMS Global which seeks to plug the gaps of TinCan) – in general, the possibility that learning is really the process of making connections and knowledge is the network (Connectivist learning).

But more so, it is an opportunity to reinvent the wheel. The more I think about that phrase, the more attractive it sounds. If you think of the wheel as the cycle of learning, it certainly could benefit from re-invention. Of course, if you reproduce instead of reinvent, that is a failed mission from the start. If we try to reproduce a system of learning by using new technological affordances, it is likely a failed mission from the start.

George Siemens vents in a post that describes his emotions upon coming out of a consultation on Innovation and Quality in Higher Education at the White House recently where he was invited. He sees many key things happening:

2. Higher education generally has no clue about what’s brewing in the marketplace as a whole

3. No one knows what HE is becoming.

4. I was struck by how antagonistic some for-profits are toward public higher education.

5. Title IV is the kingmaker.

6. Expect a future of universities being more things to more people.

7. Expect a future of far greater corporate involvement in HE.

8. Expect M & A activities in higher education.

9. The scope of change is starting to settle somewhat in HE.

10. Higher education is a great integrator and subsumer.

11. I was stunned and disappointed at the lack of focus on data, analytics, and evidence. In spite of the data available, decision making is still happening on rhetoric.

12. I’m getting exceptionally irritated with the narrative of higher education is broken and universities haven’t changed.

George has, in fact, exposed the big tensions and rhetoric in the education system, whether in the West or here, in the East. I have experienced the same, without having to go to a White House. It is amazing how the same problems systemically appear in such diverse contexts.

There are changes happening in Higher Education due to technology advances, changes in awareness, student response to online learning in recent times, growing awareness of scale and chinks in the armor of the existing system getting exposed.

Even here, we have mistrust between the private and public systems. Each one thinks, perhaps, that it alone is the future custodian of the education system. Vast amounts of effort and investment are being put in to discredit the public share of the system, while great suspicion is being heaped on the motivation of the private sector. Entrepreneurs are being mostly destroyed by or merged with larger, older, hungrier players, who themselves share a mutual disrespect, if not contempt, for each other. The government and the corporates have very little understanding about the changes and how they will impact education, but their passion suggests either misplaced enthusiasm or pre-meditated greed.

There are reasons that I write so.

One of the biggest learnings of the past 10-15 years has been the abject failure of elearning to scale reliably, with quality. However, we continue to reinvent that same wheel. George bemoans the lack of focus on data and analytics, I bemoan many others.

Like we are also going to, in the name of quality, scale and affordability, push antiquated elearning models backed by blatantly obsolete and irrelevant formal degree & certificate systems, within the next six months or so through the SWAYAM initiative.

Ironically, I helped coin most of the full form of the name – SWAYAM stands for Study Webs of Active learning for Young Aspiring Minds. The “Active Learning” bit was not mine, but the rest was. And the rest was actually inspired by Ivan Illich’s vision of educational webs – which perhaps is lost on the makers. SWAYAM will make high quality teacher videos and other digital material available as part of curricula backed by 500 proctored test centers.

Well, as we unleash it on our millions, who are hungry for these certifications, we will soon figure how inadequate this form of elearning is at scale without webs & networks, collaboration, adaptive learning, learning analytics, new age assessments, gamification and so on. Or perhaps they never will. Even as recently as a couple of years ago, a senior, respected and influential academic figure asked me to spell “gamification”.

Then there is the private sector which thinks they have the wherewithal to succeed where governments have failed and perhaps looking for the equivalent of a Title IV themselves. What better assured profits than infusing corporate management practices over “ailing” public schools – so long as parents can pay more and government can fill in the rest. And therefore they need to create national frameworks and public-private partnerships for everything – assessments, accreditation, curricula, entry and exit – if their model is to succeed – something that is basically untrusted by government.

Then there is this entire brouhaha over skills, a national skills framework, easy bridges between vocational and formal education, money to throw over the fence for just about any scheme – if we really want to build a skills framework at a scale that help 500 mn of our working population, are we audacious enough to believe that a handful of sector skill councils and some tens of partners will be able to handle this? And that too using the same methods for teaching and learning that have proved so inefficient at scale?

Mind you, I am not making sweeping generalizations nor is this generic discontent, and there is some really great work also happening and some very well-intentioned & knowledgeable people in the system and outside it. I am merely laying bare the gaps as I see them in the hope that we start looking at these things before they collapse on us.

I am as staggered as George is – caught in a conflict and witnessing the tensions of the existing system as it struggles to retain its control and coherence in the face of rapid change and massive scale. At this point, it is ours to make or break, or to break something in order to make a better world for our children.

Let us for a moment imagine a specific future. Let us also imagine that future is upon us now.

In this future, pedagogy and technology have advanced so much that students are being taught by intelligent virtual learning environments. Students learn is small cohorts entirely through these machine authored and directed experiences.

This future has been long accepted by all, even the greatest cynics of the system and the greatest proponents of the personal touch.

The dwindling supplies of funding and qualified teachers among other factors such as technological advances and exploding young populations has also played its role in this transformation. What was routine for humans in the teaching learning process is now a monolith buried in time.

How do teachers or schools as we know them face this future where their tradition is expunged from practice, when the routine becomes an exception, when human touch is no longer needed, schools disappear and teaching is replaced by humane, intelligent systems and networks?

It helps to step outside the frame to consider such a possibility. It suddenly gives agency to each and every player to consider a future and determine their response.

The black swan flies, and brings great possibilities for change in its wake.

Are we, though, prepared for such a swan, knowing that this future is greatly possible, perhaps that we are inexorably moving towards it?

We are caught in other tensions.

Atleast in India I can see the tensions between public and private, entrepreneurs and incumbents, administrators and policy makers, teachers and technology. It seems everyone is trying to make impacts but, like a rubber band, each end is ending up pulling the other, keeping the constellation in place to perpetuate the system, to keep order.

When something like this slices through, the order will collapse, hurting everyone in the process. I believe it is incumbent upon us to see and seek such futures, if only to question how resilient or adaptive we are to a specific future.


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