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Archive for June, 2010

We have often, actually most of the time, decided to focus on teachers, teaching methods, institutional structures, assessments and certifications, but what is the responsibility of the learner herself in this experience? I am not talking about defining learners by the characteristics (autonomous, takes responsibility for her own learning…) under the category of responsibility, but trying to pinpoint a share of the responsibility in the current scenario.

In scenarios with multiple available educational options, one of the ways learners demonstrate responsible behavior is through making explicit their choice and preference among alternate options. This choice may not be voluntary (viz. parental pressure, social influences) and is influenced heavily by media advertisements, the tell-tale sign of private participation in education. Of course, in scenarios where there are no real options (either due to availability or other socio-economic factors), choice is non-existent too.

This is at the point of entry into the organized educational structures. But there is also learner responsibility that is demonstrated at the point of exit (at the award of a degree) which relates directly to employability and any possible threat to it. This was exemplified by the massive upheaval witnessed all over India (with perhaps the first instances of suicides related to education, linked directly to livelihood) in the wake of the Mandal Commission of 1990 in India which proposed strong affirmative action (through 27% reservations) for the underprivileged backward classes in central government jobs, universities and affiliated colleges and recruitment to public sector undertakings and government aided private institutions. There are more examples of student activism influencing their wider ecologies.

An interesting example happened in 2009 in Germany as a consequence of the Bologna process calling for all educational systems in Europe to be integrated. Examples of student activism from India also exist, primarily as polarized “youth” vehicles for the larger political parties/parents from which they obviously derive.

And I came across the International Students Movement as well which is a platform for “groups and activists around the world struggling against the commercialisation and privatisation of public education and for free and emancipatory education to network, share information and co-ordinate protests together”.

In between entry and exit, there is mandated responsibility (by the institution) with norms related to attendance, conduct and grades.

However, when, where and how does the learner have any control or choice of redress over the quality of the learning experience? And as a corollary to this question, what should be the responsibility of the learner in  the system – really what should the duties be – and how do they change or adapt to new influences such as privatization?

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In this post, I would like to propose some new models/directions for Indian Education by addressing some core problem areas that I have been able to identify. I would like to focus on, in particular how some strategic new models could change the way we are addressing the huge scale and diversity in India.

The underlying realization is since we are a nation with huge disparities and diversity, there is no one size fits all solution, despite vast proclamations for the following (witness strategies like lets build the network and the content and we should have addressed the equity issue, look anyone can access and learn from high quality content prepared by the best minds). And the scale of issues is magnified many times as compared to any other country with perhaps the exception of China.

Democratizing Education

In such a situation, let us think of a model that truly democratizes education. By democratizing, I mean make it by the people, for the people and of the people.

I know that one of the ways to handle scale is technology. Another is a weighty institutional structure designed top down by the government. But I think a powerful way, is to meet scale with scale – to empower local communities to meet educational needs while at the same time being connected to national and global networks of practice. This is a sustainable strategy. But it means that power needs to be devolved in a strategic manner. Loosen some control and let local communities do the job – however, make sure we empower them with the skills and the perspectives of the planners. Use technology and bureaucratic structures to engender creation spaces (as John Seely Brown and co-authors argue in The Power of Pull) or Learnscapes (as Jay Cross would suggest).

The model will scale. It will recognize local constraints, indigenous capability and meet the aspirations of local communities. It will be sustainable since it is bottom up instead of top down. It will adapt faster to national planning needs. It will create opportunities for innovation and growth.

The motivation for this model arises from the fact that we have an over-weight bureaucracy and fragmented educational intelligentsia and polity. It also arises from that fact that people are disenfranchised from the policy-making or educational planning or quality assurance dimensions.

What will this take? Firstly it will take awareness building. Secondly, it will take capability building (not only leadership for the community, but also the vital skills deemed fit to make education a high quality practice). Thirdly, it will take creation of formal structures or spaces where communities can be facilitated, trained and supported. Fourthly, it will take a shift of control and a corresponding alteration of the power structures. Fifthly, it will take the loosening of barriers – legal or procedural – to promote freer flow of resources through the local systems.

This would be a strategic shift in policy. From being responsible for implementation, to being responsible for coordinating, supporting and training local communities to support the national needs and vision.

Make Education a social business

By social business, I mean the kind of change brought about by Muhammad Yunus (Nobel Peace Prize winner for 2006) and the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. Yunus showed that it is possible to lend to the poor and in doing so, he managed to create a new way of doing business – a kind of “not-for-shareholder capitalism”.

The social business would be one that is a partner to  the local needs of the region. Maybe defined outside the legal frameworks that are in use today for profit and non-profit organizational forms, the social business, for example like Grameen Bank, could be owned by its customers. Of course, it would need to be supported (and there is plenty of scope for private and public partnership to make this work) by R&D, finance, support centers etc.

Its an intriguing idea. Can we make students, parents, teachers, educationists and administrators actual stakeholders in a social enterprise? Can we think of a network of such businesses working together to meet national level planning goals? I think we can, but it will require a major shift in perspective.

Such a model will leverage local resources to the maximum, thus alleviating the need for massive and centralized planning and execution of schemes for scholarships, disadvantaged sections, setting up infrastructure etc. The opening up of scale would render these businesses attractive for not only social investment but also for private capital and R&D.

Bring down barriers

For these to be successful, we must bring down a lot of barriers. Let us take, for example, the issue of having enough skilled teachers (not only new recruitment, but also in-service teachers). Models which can leverage existing skills such as the Teach For India movement or the Teach India movement by the Times of India are important movements that seek to break down the barriers with clear empowerment of a specific class of people. I think we are ignoring the informal coaching/tuition sector massively too. What if we strategically empowered this segment, which has a lot of skill and experience and reach, to be counted as regular teachers in our system through a process of certification and training?

Could we lower barriers elsewhere? John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid suggest an interesting model in The Social Life of Information. They suggest that we democratize the degree granting function itself. Typically universities and special institutions are degree granting bodies (DGBs). Suppose we were to enable the local art and craft guild to also take on a degree granting role? Further these DGBs could empanel local scholars/formal teachers certified to teach students as per the needs of the guild.

Faculty could find their own facilities, whether for teaching or for research. Technology, libraries, LABs and classrooms could all be pressed into service with this model. Further, private investment could be welcomed to set up, say, 2000 K5 libraries in a specific region. And remote scholars could become consultants for students, teachers or the DGB itself.

The other lowering of barriers is in the flow of information and the connectedness of communities. In India, the networks of practice do not have a strong digital presence. As a result, thinking at all levels cannot leverage collective insight, serendipitous combustion of ideas and all  the other benefits of social media.

This kind of a distributed and democratic system will benefit from the lowering of traditional barriers in accreditation, teacher certification, number and type of certifications/degrees etc.

Summary

Models such as these could be made to work in my opinion and more effectively than we are doing today. As always, would invite critical opinion.

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There are doubtless many models put into use to try to analyze the working of the education sector and there is significant interest in this space. Here are my initial thoughts on how we could create a useful analytical model. I consider three dimensions to be vital for this model.

Infrastructure
This first dimension concerns the level of development of infrastructure that includes:

  • power,
  • provision of minimum needs (health, nutrition, sanitation, food and shelter),
  • connectivity (transportation, economic activity and integration with other regions)
  • technology (including but not limited to information technology)
  • law and order (both internal and external facing)

The government plays an important role as a provider whose responsibility is to maintain and coordinate the growth of this infrastructure. But there are many examples of private or public private infrastructural initiatives basically because the government needs expertise and investment sharing partners. As a result, policies (politically biased or not) and their implementation have a direct impact on infrastructure and its evolution in a particular region or country.

Leadership
This is the second dimension. Different countries in this spectrum will be at different levels (and different regions within these countries will demonstrate different levels) of development. A major challenge is to use limited funds and resources to remove disparities between regions as far as possible and the decision-making needs to be extremely strategic and planning – visionary. And it requires extreme focus on execution once plans are set. This is a key challenge for Leadership (government or non-government) which given political instability and external pressures, usually plays havoc with well-laid plans or well-conceived visions.

Leadership, though is not only from the government. It is usually also played out by professionals/experts from the domain under consideration. For experts to have a say in determining the vision and approach, there definitely needs to a participatory and responsive political and economic culture, but there also needs to be a certain amount of structured domain leadership, typically through established organizational structures, whether state or non-state. The two need to work in concert and that can be a delicate balance.

This is often cited as the major stumbling block or transformative agent in a country’s evolution. And the level and type of structures, organizational knowledge and collaboration very often will determine the quality of response to issues such as those in Education.

State of Art
The third dimension, the status of knowledge, the level of expertise and know-how or access to it, as critically defines future scenarios as does the provision of structures for leadership and collaboration. Leadership can make decisions based on available know-how and opinion. If leadership is not exposed to cutting edge thinking or technology, it will make less effective decisions. If the right structures do not exist for flow of information or for participatory opinion, the state of art stands diminished.

Society and culture, heritage, attitudes and values, social movements, religious beliefs, globalization – all also impact and are shaped by these three dimensions. They are intrinsic to understanding why a country is at a particular stage or has a particular pattern of evolution. But in my opinion, these three dimensions are the core dimensions shaping our educational futures at this time.

These dimensions are critical to our analysis. They not only describe the current state and constrain what can be achieved, but also point to what could be the primary agents of change for Education. Of course, change can be large-scale, outside the box and revolutionary too, but current state can provide a fairly good indicator of what that we can expect to see.

Tools

I see interventions such as the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTFCE), 2009 in India, as being tools applied on the current state to bring out certain desired outcomes. For the Act to be implementable, a certain set of tools would need to be put into action. For example, a tool could be a school building equipped with basic facilities within 1 kilometer of every child in the age group of 6-14 according to the provisions of the Act. Even assuming that this is feasible, the tool could be evaluated on the basis of certain criteria – capacity, safety norms, student-teacher ratio, library facilities etc. for a school building to be considered at all as a place of learning. Experts could set, validate and monitor the tool’s effectiveness. Teacher training institutes like the DIET (District Institutes of Educational Technology, all 541 of them in India) again are tools that are mandated with certain quality criteria. Under the RTFCE, as another example of a well-meaning tool, teachers, parents and local polity are expected to administer the school and participate in its success – however, who vouches for the skill of the local community council overseeing the school to be able to appreciate (say) inquiry based learning as an effective method for learning?

Certain tools may create conflicts in addition to some obvious benefits – for example, privatization. India has the lowest per unit utilization of educational infrastructure (581 students per college) as compared to US and China. Does it make sense to create more structures creating a new million dollar educational advertising industry for private players? Or does it make more sense for private players to start leveraging the existing infrastructure and bringing in new technology, trained teachers etc. into the mix i.e. rather than scavenging on an already low trained resource base, shouldn’t we be consolidating that base and building upon it? India’s first pure educational financing company hit the streets last month (Credila) just as the Ernst and Young/FICCI 2009 report wanted (financing of education is a game changer for them). But do we want retail financing on an over leveraged and low per capita base or should we figure investment solutions that can yield rich returns through mass enrolments?

Certain tools are completely overlooked. There exists a huge base of private tuition teachers. Anecdotally, half of them do not teach in the regular school/college system and half of them do. If we implemented a tool that was to just absorb the half that are in the informal sector, train this set of teachers and deploy them back in their own neighbourhood but this time with credentials that are standard and higher quality (actually some of these are already much higher quality than most others in the formal system), that would make a huge difference by itself.

These tools affect and change the three dimensions. But it often happens that there are either too few or too many, ineffective or redundant, less than permissible quality or unsustainable etc. What is required is critical analysis of what works and what doesn’t and making sure leadership has state of the art knowledge when it is making these decisions to implement certain tools vs. others. In other countries where such a body exists, perhaps there were other points of differences.

It is also critical to understand that the same tool will operate very differently depending what is the initial state. Lets take for example the proposal in India to create a central overarching body through the NCHER bill replacing or diminishing the role of the country’s flag bearers like the UGC and the AICTE. Except Agricultural education, everything else would fall under this new agency. But the Bar Council of India is in open revolt (ironically, as the education minister himself is a prominent lawyer) and have declared that Legal Education is also autonomous.

Each dimension can be broken down into specific detailed questions. For example, the DISE Flash Statistics provide a reasonable detailed view of some of the parameters of school education in India and they have also developed an Educational Development Index that ranks states on the basis of certain criteria. We can also qualitatively analyze existing leadership structures by asking questions such as “Does a central agency for teacher education exist?” and if it does we could ask “Does it run programs that trains teachers in emerging technologies?”. For State of the Art dimension, we could break it further down into categories such as Availability of data, Free flow of information, existence of communities of practice etc. Each question could have qualitative and quantitative scores applied.

Scenarios

Based on these, we could identify different countries or regions exhibiting similar patterns or question responses. Then we could identify each tool that is being used. There will be a great deal of similarity in the way different countries employ these tools at various stages of their growth. India is definitely not the first to implement the Right to Education, for example. Depending on each country’s own dynamics, there would be a different impact of the tools they use. This could generate scenarios like, if you do this it will most likely result in this and this which shall be invaluable to leadership.

For example, when country A started allowing foreign universities on a large scale, it was found that the nation’s top 10 universities and institutes, those that contributed to over 90% of all research, lost 20% of their teaching staff who left for more lucrative jobs and infrastructure. This resulted in decrease in the research output by nearly 60% compromising several key initiatives as well as transfer out of expertise.

Summary

These are initial thoughts and I hope to refine these as I proceed. A special thanks to George and Dave, and all the great participants in edFutures, who got me channelized into thinking in terms of these kind of models and methodologies! As always, feedback is more than welcome, especially critical feedback!

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