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I believe we have to seriously think about what open-ness means for Indian education.

There are many dimensions to being open that extend beyond merely making data available for public accountability and transparency. For example, if we do not provide appropriate redressal of grievances that emerge from an analysis of the data, we are not truly open.

The thing about being open is that it threatens to disrupt tightly closed systems. In our schools, for example, the dominant mindset seems to be to stifle and restrict the voice of students and parents; and in most cases even teachers. Free unrestricted communication aided by technology threatens the image of the school, it seems. This is because the school no longer has control over opinions being aired publicly or even within closed school networks. This is for fears that are sound (for example, obscenity), but even more deeply because it unites parents in opinion making and acts of dissent. However schools do not appreciate (or simply ignore) the virtual back channel of conversation and collaboration that open social tools have enabled. It is almost as if what they cannot see or control, does not exist. For schools to allow open communications is almost taboo. And this is not about Facebook pages either.

The other dimension is teacher-student interaction. So long as the school maintains secrecy about what transpires between a student and her teacher, it protects itself from scrutiny and accountability. For example, the open text-book assessments, which is a graded case study based approach for grades 9 and 11, mandates that there be proper reflection and discussion on the case study prior to the assessment – something that I have not witnessed happening. Perhaps schools may not like to expose shortcomings in their teaching learning processes or the abilities of their teachers to communicate effectively in open online environments. The latter is a particularly sad testament because what are teachers without effective communication skills whether online or offline.

Another dimension is the responsibility that students and parents have in an open environment. Each school may collaboratively build a culture and community that adopts its own model code of conduct. This is not easy so long as there is mistrust or irresponsible behaviour on the part of any stakeholder. Being a cultural shift, this is not going to be a one time activity, but there are responsible parents, teachers and administrators who can lead this on an ongoing basis – they just need empowerment. There are also issues that are specific to online networks that need attention in order to protect the interests of the community itself. Essentially, the community has to self-govern if it also wants to be open.

Yet another dimension transcends the individual institution to reflect in practices of school chains, consortia, unions and even organized governmental policy making. Is CABE or mygov.in truly open? Or is the CBSE, UGC or AICTE? Practices behind closed doors often mask incompetence and intention. In most part, attempts at open-ness are really half-hearted (at least at scale, in online collaborative environments). Perhaps it is policy that leads the way. But then perhaps it is better it does not – that the change happens in a more organically emergent manner, from local to global.

Will these challenges to open-ness (not merely restricted to India, not merely to schools and colleges) stifle the growth of social collaborative learning? Will they ultimately stifle India’s equity and growth aspirations?

I believe they absolutely will.

The Open Text-based Assessment or OTBA was also notified on May 31, 2013 by the Central Board of Secondary Education. Applicable to select subjects in Class IX and XI, this was made a mandatory component of the Summative exams at the end of the year. Experts hired by CBSE have now made essays/case studies etc. based around the key concepts covered through the second term in that subject and told teachers to hold group discussions, facilitate exploration and to engage students in “discussion, analysis, self-reflection and critical thinking”. They want to discourage “mugging” and encourage active learning. As the circular states:

The main objective of introducing this element is to provide opportunities to students to apply theoretical concepts to a real life scenario by encouraging active and group learning in the Class.

In a later circular, it is reiterated that:

the main objective of introducing OTBA is to relieve the students from the burden of mugging up of content and provide opportunities in effective use of memory and acquiring skills of information processing.

And the board has actually supplied the content for the OTBA complete with sample questions and assessment “rubrics” (which are nothing but itemized phrases or key points, that if they appear in the answer to the question, may be considered worthy of being awarded the right score). The teacher is expected then to create questions based on a revised Bloom’s taxonomy, assign a marking scheme and keep an “open mind” setting aside own biases while grading an answer.

While the concept is laudable – in fact, this is greatly desirable as a technique – the implementation is and will continue to be a great challenge. It assumes and implies several things.

It assumes that teachers will be able to execute if oriented and trained. While this is a good “upward” aspiration, it is unlikely to be true on a significant scale as pointed out by the NCFTE 2009 report itself. The report bemoans that:

Teacher education programmes provide little scope for student teachers to reflect on their experiences…There is no opportunity for teachers to examine their own biases and beliefs and reflect on their own experiences as part of classroom discourse and enquiry.

Teachers who have not experienced or practiced lateral and critical thinking themselves are not going to be able to do so basis an orientation program or workshop conducted by the CBSE per se. For them to be able to do this, they will need extensive on-going coaching and mentoring.

The other thing is the format itself. The beauty of an open assessment like this is that it needs time in the classroom and beyond it to appreciate the text and its interdisciplinary nature. But if the text itself becomes a chapter-like construct, because the same text that is given in advance becomes the one upon which assessment is conducted, it has already negated the technique. In the end, publishers are incentivized to come up with yet another textbook around the passages and the child ends up resorting to cramming it, defeating the very purpose of the assessment.

Not just that, there is no evidence gathering mechanism to demonstrate what the in-class and beyond-class exploration and thinking around the text has really resulted in. This means that teachers have no compulsion to treat this as any different from what they normally do. Even if they  were able and willing, they have little prior experience in negotiating loosely structured learning processes.

Then again, the beauty of any such technique lies in the open interpretation of the text in the context of all the learning that the child goes through. However text based assessments are divided subject wise, automatically constraining the extent of interpretation and analysis to the chapter of the subject being taught. So it is not even a true case based approach. If it were, it would place even a greater load on teachers who would be expected to have that holistic approach and knowledge.

The other important thing is the naming of the assessment itself. The use of “open” as a qualifier to “text based” is contradictory in terms because it restricts the learning context to the text itself (and some supplied references, many of which are dead-ends for discovery and exploration of the theme). The text could be one starting point, but not the only one. And it must be clear of political overtones (like the preoccupation with the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan).

In fact, if it was called open learning assessment, it would be much more appropriate. For these type of assessments, we cannot apply the same context as that for closed learning assessments. The concept is not new and even a cursory examination of the research on the web reveals practices, techniques and critical opinions (see also Can students also learn…) about open “authentic” assessments vs. traditional closed assessments. Of course, one cannot ignore other “get-around-it” methods such as plagiarization and cheating, which must be combated in these kind of assessments if they are truly open, but there are methods to handle these anomalies as well.

The question is how deeply are we thinking about these assessments and learning processes? Are we playing lip service or do we really think this can be a silver bullet? We need to think deeply about the ecosystem we want to foster for deep authentic learning – are our designs going to further learning or are they going to serve entrenched interests?

If we do really intend OTBA type assessments to result in something significant for our students and teachers, we need to address some deeper issues.

  1. How can we first engage our teachers (and teacher educators) in ways through which they truly begin to understand and appreciate “open-ness”? How do they start practicing open-ness? What practices and tools are they most comfortable with? How do we ensure that they are given a conducive environment to fill their own learning gaps?
  2. How can we start encouraging our students to learn new practices, especially the social and digital ones, to aid authentic learning?
  3. How can we plan this in a way that we have the ecosystem in place before we scale it to students and their parents? It is tiring to see students being guinea pigs of every new brainwave.
  4. What should the ecosystem contain? This should involve skills development in various areas (student, teacher, parent, school administration), community development for learning and practice, social online literacies, tools and platforms, audit and measurement leading to analytics and actionable insights, and other elements such as linkages with real-life scenarios, experts and data.
  5. Perhaps the greatest contribution in these can be made through cMOOCs, because they are truly fit for authentic learning. If platforms such as SWAYAM could be adapted to become the cornerstone of this approach, especially for technology enabled communities, this could really be the platform that would make this kind of learning and assessment possible. Why can’t every OTBA be a MOOC? For those who do not have access to technology or the Internet in a reliable fashion, what are the other ways of dissemination and collaboration (inter/intra-school debates, mock discussions, paper-writing and many other activities could be conducted)?

Is this plain lip service to open-ness and authentic learning? Or is it being thought of as this incredible silver bullet that at some point will transform Indian education. Either way, we need to think deeper urgently.

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.

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