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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.

The game is afoot. There seems to be some signs of a resurgence in xMOOCs in India.

The government, it seems, is asking folks at CDAC to put together an indigenous platform within 3 months and asking both school and higher education institutions to contribute by January 2016. This is SWAYAM 2.0 it seems, an aggressive roadmap to put MOOCs (alas, xMOOCs) in the hands of our children. Pity that we still do not know or appreciate the difference between a MOOC and an online course. Skill development folks also seem to be riding on this path.

Meanwhile Amity University has placed an actual undergraduate degree on its MOOC platform. The degree is being provided from Amity University and the website is silent on the exam fees it hopes to generate. Is the degree something that has the endorsement of the doyens in the government?

Incredibly the government has also created a veritable marketplace for digital content with ebasta.in. The ostensible aim being to do away with the heavy school bag. I don’t know if it will also shift the heavy load that we call our education from the students’ shoulders.

Somehow we are stuck in the ICT age and mould. Provisioning network, hardware and now Apps seems to be the secret sauce behind making learning and teaching better when what is needed are the skills to learn online, to teach online and to administer online.  That perhaps will see the light only organically, if at all.

What we need is to first understand the cultural gaps in online education and then devise our strategies for technology enabled learning. Unless this gap is addressed by making the academic workflow online seamless, there will be no significant progress made. Practice, not provision, will make us perfect.

Most of our education system is geared towards a particular conception of a student and her specific way of learning. Let’s face it. We give our children the same amount of time to learn every day. It is the same time in the day for learning. It is mostly the same cohort with which you learn. The same methods applied to each student. The same subjects to learn. The same textbooks to read. The same boundaries of what you can or cannot do. The same metrics to judge performance. The same number of years to study. The same choices each year until they leave, and then precious little choice of what to learn afterwards. Day after day. Year after year.

On the other hand, we struggle with this sameness. No two students are the same, we say. Learning should occur outside too, through real life applications and experience. It should probably also be flipped. We should use digital content and technology to give students more choice and exposure. We strive to be different each day, try to negotiate their individual complexity within these constraints.

It is almost as if these are two different things – schooling and learning. The end results are fairly predictable. Our children learn to cope with the system. Some manage to master it. And some give up.

Does each student take away enough to be all that we desire them to? Are they really equipped to be responsible citizens and family?

The sameness of our system is a dramatic simplification of teaching and learning. Our struggle against it, a Sisyphean challenge. Our success, partial at best. Thousands learn , but millions don’t quite get there. A scorecard we would not and should not find acceptable.

Do we know any better? Perhaps we do know a bit more than we did. We know it is far more important to push and extend the limits of what our childen can do, like athletes preparing for long hard days on tracks they aspire to reach. We know of more ways to reform or beat the system.

But the system stays, inertial and unyielding,  perhaps we collectively do not believe in our own hearts that the any struggle against it can possibly succeed. Perhaps we believe that it is our fault that the system does not work. Perhaps there is a hope that it can still overcome the contradiction between the simple and the complex, the sameness and the diversity.

We can change it if we really want to, if we really care. We can start by making a commitment to all our children that we will help them learn – that we will not have them bear what we had to.

How can we change?

Update (Aug 6): IIT Roorkee has decided to re-admit the expelled students, on certain conditions.They have taken a lenient view, considered the situation again and accounted for the impact of the expulsion on the students’ future. #inanity-of-it-all


IIT Roorkee, a premier engineering institute of India, recently expelled several first year students for not meeting the requisite grades. Predictably, there is a backlash both outside and from within the IIT communities themselves, although there are more examples in the past of such incidents in the IITs. There are also insinuations that the decision, by affecting mostly students from disadvantaged backgrounds, is discriminatory in nature.

Many important issues in our education system are laid bare by this unfortunate event. As the author of one of the articles asked, why is the teaching not being questioned? Or the academic practices? Or counseling and remediation? Where are the voices of students in decision making? What legal and educational recourse do students have in the face of such orders? Why is the evaluation and grading system designed in the way it is? Why expel at all, anyways?

It makes me question why we take our education system so seriously. It also proves a thesis I have evolved. For generations we have believed that the education system transforms students, with each class level and exam signifying one step in that direction. But if that were really true, in general, then we would be living in a far equitable, happier, sustainable and prosperous world.

Instead, I have come to believe that the student, far from being transformed, represents a form of organized labour, who along with the academic and administrative labour, and the capital inputs of buildings & infrastructure, actually manufactures certain outputs – the outputs being marks and degrees. These marks and degrees then become commodities used to transact production downstream – either more degrees or formal employment. All funding, policy, standards, school practices and the like are subservient to this production process.

This is not learning. This is production. And production by any means possible – even those that cannot ever pass for anything close to academic excellence, far less to the delight and joy of learning. So we see ministers with fake degrees, grace marks in standardized exams, teachers or school leaders with zero qualification, schools with no infrastructure and research that is non-existent – but still reports that our children have completed school levels or have got into the IITs in droves – as evidence that the system really, really works.

The system works, but it is not learning, it is production of a different kind altogether. And this system of production, at scale, can have no other ways to work – it knows nothing about people and learning, but a lot about numbers and certificates.

People, though, are another thing. People are resilient. They understand the value of the system in transacting the business of living, and accept it as yet another fact they have to deal with, and carry on. That single fact pushes the system through, from generation to generation, from shocking fact to abysmal deception. And people do succeed, some due to and some despite the system.

But it does not need to be this way. There is great joy and reward in learning and sharing. The potential benefits of a well thought out educational system can really result in social outcomes of equity with growth. Such a system would have none of the trappings of the production organization that education is today.

The countless folks who have been rejected or denied education, both outside and inside the current system – there is hope that things will change. Or else they shall have to be made to.

In solidarity, then!

A brief introduction

Rhizomatic Learning is an important way to think about learning and teaching. It describes a learning experience where learning itself is organic and emergent, deeply driven by personal context, flexible boundaries and multiple pathways. It describes a teaching experience that sets the context, facilitates the inter-connections of ideas through conversations, and empowers the community to engineer their own curriculum.

Rhizomatic Learning builds up the core capability to learn in a distributed learning environment. It leverages all the attendant benefits of network-led and community-based learning, but distinguishes itself by describing a personal “self-reproducing” capability to learn.

The agency to learn rests with the learner and the learning community she is part of. The agency to teach is distributed among all the learners, who really establish the curriculum. The resultant is messy and complex, with individual outcomes possibly far in deviation to any expected outcomes from the community.

In Rhizomatic Learning, the definition of a “course” veers away from the traditional. It is a sense of time-bound evented-ness, a shared context which aggregates a community. It’s curriculum is formed by the community, that evolves and extends it continuously through prior knowledge and emergent opinions. It may engender several artistic and creative forms of expression, not necessarily formal artifacts associated with traditional courses.

Rhizomatic Learning is characterized by learning freedom. It draws heavily upon open-ness, lack of centralized control, autonomy, diversity and interaction. Freedom in learning drives most of the interactions, liberating the learning experience.

In contrast, Connectivist models uphold “connection-making”  as the primary source of learning and knowledge. There is connection-making in Rhizomatic learning, but that is merely a medium. The focus is on free, unrestricted sharing and unpredictable pathways in learning. In that sense, the afterthought focus on Critical Literacies in the cMOOCs, becomes the starting point for Rhizomatic Learning. What is “tidy” in  the network model, becomes messy in the rhizomatic one. The replication of learning capability in distributed environments is key – “more of how you can learn, is learning” of rhizomatic learning overwhelms the “those that have, get” rules of networks. In  that sense, rhizomatic learning is deliberately empowering personalized learning.

The Practical Guide

So what would a practical guide to Rhizomatic Learning contain for the learner? Having gone through so many years of learning in all modes – traditional, online, MOOC, rhizomatic – here is a summary of how I learn best. Perhaps there are learners like me who will resonate with my approach.

Liberate yourself

The first important thing to realize is that you are in control. You control what you write, how you perform, who you choose to interact with, the level of effort you put in, how you handle critique – in short, your behavior, goals, motivations, discipline and ethics play an important role in Rhizomatic Learning.

Express yourself regularly

If the community is the curriculum, each one has the capability to contribute, in whatever form of expression. In fact, try out new forms of expression, artistic or otherwise, to experiment with ways to put your point forward. You don’t know which part or form of your expression may inspire several others or motivate them to contribute. The point is to verbalize or demonstrate your participation in some way or the other. It is really important to be regular. Make it a point to express yourself at least once a topic or theme.

Keep Track

We will continuously get better at handling conversation technologies, but it is important to keep up with what others are expressing. Understand that other people will also use a variety of channels and techniques to communicate, and that conversation will sometimes get too unwieldy to keep track of. Navigating and coalescing your spaces into some form of organization convenient for you is important.

Small is better

Pick out threads that pique your interest, focus on a small idea at a time and track its development. These small ideas will eventually bubble up into larger perspectives. Interact in smaller groups, one idea at a time. Don’t “spray and pray” and always watch your stats (such as how many views, likes), because the act of expressing an opinion is itself a work of art – your art – which contributes to your own rhizomic development immeasurably. It helps to get and give concise feedback on small focused ideas. It also helps to give some time for the idea to develop, in your mind and through the interactions. So perhaps it is better to culminate a theme/week with your informed perspective.

Be responsive

It is incredibly important to be responsive to people and events, both in instances where you are explicitly part of the conversation and where you are not. Being responsive helps other people with feedback and a motivation to continue their rhizomatic learning. Respond to comments, like posts and comments where you agree, drop a line or two in response to a new contribution – there are many ways to be a proactive part of the community learning experience. I would include empathy and humor as two very important tools in rhizomatic learning.

Be rhizomatic

Above all, reflect on how you are learning. Use each interaction as an opportunity to build your capability to learn. Find what helped, explore a new direction of thought, make a friend, challenge an argument.

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