Archive for January, 2010

I had not heard of  games of this genre before, but they are pretty exciting and I must thank Ulises Mejias for my first introduction to  this medium. There are many definitions including the one here where ARGs are contrasted with serious games.

Apparently, the first such “game” dates back to 1996! Wikipedia defines it as “is an interactive narrative that uses the real world as a platform, often involving multiple media and game elements, to tell a story that may be affected by participants’ ideas or actions”.

Think of it as a dramatization parallel to the real world. The organizer, or Puppetmaster, starts by telling a story or leaving a cue, as in a puzzle. Real people and real technology are drawn in to real world dialogue and just like in real life, information is pieced together by the participants. The “game” word is a misnomer, really, because an ARG is very different than a game – in fact ARG creators follow the TINAG (This Is Not A Game) principle. Read about The Beast to get a deeper sense.

If you think of it, some aspects of the CCK08 course run by Stephen Downes and George Siemens in end-2008 resembled an ARG, in fact, hold true to the concept of sense-making in connectivism. I think a new analogy/metaphor of an educator could be the puppetmaster.

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Ulises Mejias writes a very thought-provoking post Disassembled Spaces. He makes the point that if we are not able to ensure that a substantial part of our social and cultural production over the Internet is controlled openly rather than by a handful of private corporations, should we begin “unthinking the network”? He explores many dimensions of the concept in his post The tyranny of nodes.

He calls upon us to think of “open space as an un-thinking of the digital network”. According to him, the digital network creates inequality. It “(network) undermines productive forms of sociality by over-privileging the node”. He states “to the extent that the network is composed of nodes and connections between nodes, it discriminates against the space between the nodes, it turns this space into a black box, a blind spot” .

By reinforcing a “stay-in network”, the network “(becomes) an epistemology, a way of interpreting the world, a model for organizing reality.” To the extent that, quoting Vandenberghe, “the economy is no longer embedded in the society… society is embedded in the economy”.

I am inclined to believe this is true with my experiences while learning Economics at the post-graduate level. My professor applied game theoretic techniques to try and solve a village-level problem of contracts between a moneylender, a landlord and a tenant. To my then, and still, ignorant mind, it was ludicrous to reduce the problem to strict assumptions of rationality that economists need to make. They ignored the spaces in the network – the politics of fear and repression that exists at the village level in India. Perhaps it contributed to my disenchantment with the subject.

But it is also true of any theory or opinion that seeks to abstract meaning from an otherwise complex world. Perhaps thinking about a “continuum” between nodes is necessary but may not imply that any thinking that doesn’t incorporate these notions is infructuous. In fact, one could argue that since the “continuum” is infinite, it is not amenable to analysis at all.

Ulises agrees when he states “Surely, we cannot pay attention to everything, and as a result we have developed self-interested strategies (predating networks) for making some things more relevant than others” and concludes with the following:

My point is that although self-interest might be a functional principle to organize networks, even at a local level, it might not be sustainable as the basis for a social ethics, which requires a degree of selfless engagement. If we are going to go with the network metaphor, we need a praxis and an ethics, for engaging with the world beyond our interests, which means accounting for the space between nodes, becoming invested in the non-nodal.

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For those interested in operating systems for education, such as the OLPC Sugar project, you must check eyeOS out. The OS is completely browser-based and built on open source technologies. Apart from being painless to administer, it has amazing possibilities for the classroom. From their website:

eyeos can provide schools and universities with a full web platform where students, teachers and parents will have a personal yet collaborative desktop to work and, communicate between themselves and get organized inside and outside the school. The students and teachers will have an intuitive and easy-to-learn Desktop System, to work with school resources and communicate with other students and teachers.

One of the interesting features is their re-architecture of how the operating system should look for children of different ages. The interface can be used anywhere. It also has some creative applications for learning support – such as a mindmapping application. It has special affordances for the teacher, for example, an exam mode that blocks off applications that are not permitted to be accessed during exams.

They also have a developer outreach program where developers who are proficient in pHp can build applications for that platform.

This broadly mirrors what Sugar can do in terms of functionality, although their are  substantial differences in their instructional and technical architecture and design.

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Check out Microvision’s SHOWWX. The SHOWWX Laser Pico Projector is a pocket-sized projection device that can connect to iPods, PCs and other TV-Out devices expected to be made commercially available in March 2010 in the US. Microvision also offers an evaluation kit for other companies who want to embed this technology in their digital products e.g. mobile phones.

While there are obvious uses, this is really intriguing technology from a learning perspective. For the mobile learning folks, this should be a cause for some celebration because of now the ability to use a much larger and high resolution screen estate for animations, videos and regular learning materials.

For elearning, as such, this becomes another platform for individuals and small groups to learn on. What would be interesting is if Pranav Mistry’s efforts putting a camera + projector + motion recognition could be embedded on top the mobile phone or wearable headsets commercially thus making enhanced learner interaction possible. Perhaps an embedded flip open mouse pad on the mobile phone as one of the connected devices could be invented as an option in the meantime.

Learning that requires physical experiences can also be augmented and supported by this technology. For example, a class taking water samples to check purity, using a laptop with a sensor kit and instrumentation software, could augment physical conditions with other sources of information, such as from a Wiki. (See for example the automobile location charting initiatives).

Using a camera and various technologies to recognize visual objects (that have been demonstrated recently in addition to tag-based solutions like QRCodes and Microsoft Tag), physical information can be marked up and even analyzed across other learners and data sources, thus enhancing the learning experience.

In the classroom, we could have one or more hubs actually sharing out information, if so designed to be used, even while the class is in-session – with multiple displays replacing or supplementing the traditional whiteboards.

Perhaps new media forms will emerge as a result. For example, clusters of pico units could integrate into a central console that instructors could use to flip between for the entire class. The experience itself could result in the classroom experience being captured and rendered with different perspectives in mind.

Perhaps, applications will start becoming gesture-enabled as projects such as Microsoft Natal and Mistry’s Sixth Sense begin to capture commercial and popular interest.

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I have started research on alternative education systems. Right off the bat I found a website that summarizes some of these initiatives in the Indian context – Alternative Education in India. Two really interesting categories were Alternative Schools and Learning Cooperatives. I like the fact that the latter prefer not to be called “schools” at all.

Among the Alternative schools is the Atma Vidya Educational Foundation in southern India. If  you look at the KPM approach (they started in Kerala and now have an extension in Austin, Texas), the focus is heavily on guidance, teacher involvement, learning freedom and experiential learning. I am impressed by the examples – but still need to research on how they really accomplish their goals. I next looked at a cooperative, Bhavya, which also looks like an interesting approach, particularly as it attempts to merge with the mainstream systems at a particular age.  Mirambika is an example of a K8 school with an alternative approach too. I particularly liked the idea that there is a community out there that encourages and provides support for home education. Wonder how that works!

In the US, the trend in public education around Charter Schools is also encouraging. These schools are set up to innovate within the public school system as this report shows.

More on these systems as I move ahead. Would love to hear from you if you know an educational system or movement that is an alternate.

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For my hundredth post, I would like to focus on a few key questions that attack various aspects of what I have experienced and learnt in the past two years. These questions are extremely important for me to attempt to answer and I hopefully will, atleast in part, as I go on. The questions may seem disjointed, but perhaps have a common set of answers.

The first, and overarching, question is:

Are there (or what could be) education systems that have (or would) worked outside the box (in contrast to what exists today) and have proved their reliability and validity in the context of today’s and future needs?

This is important to me because I need to understand if we can really envisage an alternate system of education – one more geared towards achieving a vision of a just, inclusive and humane society – than the one we have now. Not that an educational system is solely responsible for all that is wrong today, but in the sense that the educational system is an important enough component of achieving that vision.

There are many strands of thought that connect to this question, not the least being whether this disruptive change is at all required, but it is a question worthy of building an informed belief around. I would further acknowledge that perhaps this change could happen in a way that replaces a portion of the existing system.

The second question relates to the qualifications of a teacher in higher education in India. 

Do undergraduate and post-graduate teachers need a qualifying degree/diploma in educational theory, instructional design/methods and learning technology with a model of internship before they start teaching?

As I have noted before, this question puzzles me no end. I can’t understand why this is not a pre-requisite already (rather than a possible refresher down the line). School teachers require certification, but others do not? It is a different matter that existing certifications in India may perhaps need to be effectively revamped to meet today’s and future requirements.

But I think the answer to this question may have huge implications for achieving the overall vision of any educational system. In particular, it may help bring disruptive change that partially replaces the dominant paradigm.

The third question relates to the role of assessments in an increasingly collaborative world.

How does one assess learning based on principles of collaboration, free thinking and reflection?

What happens when we remove the boundaries of formal curricula, competency models and organizational metrics? This is an important gap, I believe, in connectivist thinking. I am particularly interested in this because the traditional model has an answer that can be tied directly to economic models, social aspirations, development and growth paradigms.

To build an alternative, intelligible and acceptable bridge to other parts/components of our world, we will need to answer this question. Lots of these other systems depend upon the ability of an educational system to provide these assessments to be efficient and effective.

And finally, the question:

What will it take for the change to happen?

I believe that a change is needed and that it should be disruptive change. The change has to be wrenched out and has to stand tall. What will  the drivers be? I think we need to look outside the educational system in order to assess these drivers. 

Perhaps we need to ask ourselves what the political system needs, what the justice system needs, what the economic system needs, as inputs that will help reshape their own destinies in the quest for a just, inclusive and humane society.

These are all overall questions that impact my thinking at this point. As is the fact with questions, I am sure many would share them with me. If anyone has what they think could be answers, I would greatly appreciate your stopping by!

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In case you didn’t know, 3 Idiots is now a record-breaking Hindi movie, that explores and exposes the educational system. As of the time of this post, it has been released worldwide and is the highest grosser in Indian cinema history (about US$68mn in 19 days and also made 43 million pounds worldwide to date).

The movie is based in a “traditional” academic setting in an engineering college, reputed for its excellence and for its no-holds-barred-excellence-is-the-most-important thing principal. The story revolves around 3 students who get to live together in the college hostel and become lasting friends. The story tries to bring to the front the problems created by a severe focus on grades and book knowledge and essentially laments the restriction of freedom of thought and reflection that has become a hallmark of the educational system. The term “idiot” is used to refer to not someone stupid but to an irrepressible free thinker who follows his heart.

It has caught the imagination of an entire nation of learners. And that fact bears important testimony to the popular perception that the academic system discourages free thinking, diversity of opinion, creativity and innovation because of it’s over emphasis on grades, bookish knowledge, competitive spirit and teacher-centricity.

The main “idiot”, played by Aamir Khan, is, in my opinion, the only idiot in the film. Born to the assistant of a rich man, he proxies all the way through engineering college for the rich man’s son. As a result, he gets to go where his interests take him, to whichever subject and teacher that excite his imagination. He is naturally inclined to be curious, his questioning ways earning him the ire of his teachers and the ridicule of his peers. But he is brilliant and ultimately emerges as a scientist with a large number of important patents to his name.

Aamir believes in free thinking, of questioning the dominant paradigm. Ultimately he converts the principal of the engineering college, who is fanatically entrenched in the “traditional” mindset, to seeing things in a different light. The movie ends with shots of Aamir in a “school” in Ladakh doing what he believes – teaching kids to let their imagination, innovation and creativity take over.

But there is a bit of demagoguery here, with no clear indication that the ideas are as revolutionary as they seem. For example, a point of discussion should be what is exactly being proposed. The movie is not clear on what or how this pedagogy and system really to be made possible. If it is argued that ultimately it is a movie and not a research project, I would argue that it is not a trifling matter given the reach and success of the movie and its ability to shape popular perception.

The applicability of these ideas and their sudden, almost inexplicable shift from a higher education setting to a school, is a little puzzling too. There is no evidence of Aamir’s school principal having the same endgame delirium as was the case with Boman Irani, who played the engineering college principal. The dynamics are very different between the two scenarios. 

Also, there is little evidence that creativity, innovation and imagination does not at all exist in the traditional system -sometimes teacher-heroes led and sometimes with an organizational focus. It then begs the question – are we talking of a change from inside the box or are we talking about something revolutionary that is at odds with tradition. I don’t see that debate happening around me. Most of the debate seems to be around how the movie has borrowed more from Chetan Bhagat’s Five Point Someone than anything else.

Conflicting verdict at the end for me, though. It leaves me wanting for more because it was hugely entertaining. And a trifle irritable because perhaps the matter should not be trifled with.

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Finally! Indian minister for HRD, Kapil Sibal, has announced the start of an initiative, to be completed in 2011, of pushing all academic qualifications from school to Post Graduation, to a secure, authenticated online depository. The ostensible aims are to provide electronic access, reduce the forgery of certificates and link schools and academic institutions directly to the depository. This is indeed a welcome step from many perspectives.

The initiative will spawn an entirely new set of opportunities. For example, IMS Learning Profile and IMS Reusable Competency Definitions standards could be effectively used to model the data in a standard way. Other enhancements could include things like a Learning Styles Inventory, eportfolio summaries (projects, internships data) and extending it onwards, employment information. Obviously, securely used and properly modeled, this could also provide an amazing amount of research information that will help us improve our education system as well.

This could simplify things drastically. Whether it is transferring from a school to another, seeking internship or project work, applying for a job or any other process requiring verification of these records (like maybe a visa application), a secure, signed certificate with these credentials would remove the hassle and authenticity issues at one go.

Obviously, privacy and authenticity would still be major concerns. I would not want this metadata to be turned over to a telemarketing agency, nor would I want to hire someone whose credentials are not proven (in fact there are companies offering just these verification services).

This means that an effective digital rights management programme, a registrar and an ombudsman would definitely need to be incorporated.  

Information could be personally stored and updated on student/employee ID cards as well that could connect up to the depository and be use to “swipe”  information into a form when required.

This is certainly a good initiative in a country of this scale. I would like to see some more thinking around the possible benefits and linkages that this depository could provide, maybe also track teachers and their ongoing certifications/publications as well. Kudos!

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