Archive for March, 2011

The Parthenon group, whose  mission is to be the strategic advisor of choice for CEOs and business leaders worldwide (Case Studies) came out with a report titled Financing Indian Higher Education during the EDGE2011 conference. So did Ernst & Young, with a report called 40 million by 2020: Preparing for a new paradigm in Indian Higher Education, building on its earlier report with FICCI a couple of years ago.

Another interesting report, which is as old as 2003 and created by All India Management Association, the Boston Consulting Group and Confederation of Indian Industry, is titled India’s New Opportunity – 2020. There must be many others.

The Parthenon report

It starts with the argument that Higher Tertiary Enrolments imply a more educated population. A more educated population implies a more productive workforce. A more productive workforce implies growth – higher GDP per capita.

It uses World Bank statistics to, however, show the reverse chain of logic. A higher GDP per capita is correlated with higher Gross Enrolment Ratios (steeper in countries like Brazil and India and flatter in the USA and UK).

With 8% CAGR economic growth  projected between 2010-2016 as the main driver, it projects that tertiary enrolment needs to increase capacity by 50% to 8.9 mn by 2016.

Next, the report looks at the distribution of income and the affordability threshold.

The Parthenon report draws a single vertical marker for household income showing that currently tertiary education is affordable for just the long tail on the right – the highest income households. This is an incorrect perception. The Bell curve in the report also seems to be incongruous for India – a more reasonable picture is painted by McKinsey.

To preserve the growth story, student financing has the ability to move the affordability threshold backwards, is what the Parthenon report says.

Neither the per capita expenditure on education nor the cost of providing education is uniform across the country. This Planning Commission report throws up some interesting facts. The per capita expenditure varies from income segment to income segment and as percentage of the expenditure, ranges from 1-10%. According to the report, the 1995-96 data suggests:

The differences by levels of education are more striking. On average, a household has to spend Rs.501 per child per annum for primary education. If the child goes to middle or upper primary education, it increases to Rs.901; it further increases to Rs.1577 in secondary schools and Rs.2923 in higher education.

Education on $10 to $60 a year (1995-96 levels) budgets is a vastly different problem. The Planning Commission report actually points out that households end up paying most of this budget for textbooks, uniforms and private coaching apart from fees; when these items are expected to be free and uniformly available at the right level of quality.

The Parthenon report compares costs of tertiary education between the USA and India and finds that it is more expensive in India for every income bracket. I paid a few hundred rupees for each year of college education and find this cost difference hard to believe from any perspective (even if were to consider reasonably expensive engineering undergraduate courses costing a 10,000 USD packet for 4 years of training).

The report describes the fact that broad financing options in the USA help get low income students access and paints a shocking picture of how advanced the USA is with multiples ranging from 5 to 45 times the number of students in higher education as compared to India. The subtext is, of course, that financing helped that miracle happen. The next slide states that the reason that many low income students cannot attend college is that they rely on precious family funds – if the family cannot afford it, they can’t go to college.

The solution, that the vast majority of India should take on private educational debt to move these budgets up, is a catastrophic suggestion, even if feasible at any level. But the Parthenon report goes ahead and does just that. It presents three options available to increase access to tertiary education in India.

  1. Use capital markets to fund capacity expansion (through private investment…look Brazil opened its doors in 1996 through deregulation and tertiary enrolment increased three-fold!)
  2. Subsidize institutions to increase affordability (nah…requires significant government expenditures)
  3. Provide aid directly to students (you got it…potential effective option for India [in combination with private investment])

Now, having made the argument – growth requires increased tertiary enrolment which requires households to spend money, which they do not have; which means they need to bump up their funds; and what better than to let the market in – its time to substantiate how the tertiary enrolment in the USA actually grew out of student financing reform between 1955-75 (is that true?) which led to capacity expansion in the next twenty years and is now seeing a capacity utilization phase with enrolments growth rate (private sector contributing to the tune of 7 times the growth of public sector education) rising in excess of capacity growth.

To be fair, the report talks about two concerns of student financing – that institutions have increased real tuition levels based on demand and what they can get, and, the issue that private schools want to make money & are less worried about student outcomes. The panacea they specify is the role of oversight to be played by the state. 

Strange, bring in the market, get government to help it make money, let it make great money, then start rooting out the low hanging competition on quality grounds using state power?

And then comes the solution. There are significant problems today. We need to raise awareness, make the process simple, relax current terms (make institutions co-accountable as in the USA) and many other things we could do better and learn from the USA in handling loan processing – basically improve demand and supply factors to develop an efficient financing system.

Why am I being difficult? Obviously, we have to find funds to seed the system to meet the challenges, but how?

In a provocative post, titled US Student Debt Ticking Time Bomb?, from Sept 2010:

Federal student loan debt outstanding reached approximately $665 billion and private debt reached approximately $168 billion in June 2010, for a total student loan debt outstanding of $833 billion. Total debt is increasing at a rate of about $2,853.88 per second.

The amount of new debt has increased every year from 2001. In 2001 additional debt was 29 billion but by 2009 this had more than tripled to 99 billion.

Take a moment. Look the student loan debt clock and read this If you thought the housing bubble was bad.

My second problem is that India is not the USA. We are different, in case nobody noticed it yet. We cannot compare with what works in the USA or UK. The analysis and solution are all about that comparison. What works elsewhere may not work here.

My third challenge is that the report is about the end justifying the means. Everything is backward, leading from the conclusion that financing is good because it really makes money for those who have it. And the argument is not put together with care, even if that is the belief. For example, it makes the assumption that we are the most efficient spenders of government money on education. It makes the assumption, the really bad one, that we know nothing of student debt problems in the US. And many more such assumptions.

My fourth challenge is the numbers. Our scale is far bigger than what the USA faces. USA has 83% Gross Enrolment Ratio in Higher Ed with 18 mn students. We have a GER of 12% and we are at 16 mn students already. A drop here is an ocean elsewhere. We can create monsters many times the size of the housing bubble in the US or create a benign superpower by making some fairly simple decisions now.

My biggest challenge, though, is that most people will look at this and say it is probably the right solution. If government can’t pay and the vast number of students are suddenly able to pay for education that is obviously too expensive for government to bear the cost of, then the only solution must be to fund it in another way. Or they will hide behind other excuses, saying teachers are so underpaid (and in great shortage) and the infrastructure is so bad.

Its time we stood up and tackled our problems the hard way – and there is no other way to do this that is right. We have enough smart people and enough money to work our way through these issues. And we have many friends in countries all across the world that are dealing with similar problems and would love to help and be helped in the process.

Next post: A look at the E&Y reports. Game changers for Indian education.

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I think this is a key challenge, not only in India, but across the world. It is every bit as important as the quality of educational technology and content in our classrooms.

I am, so far, largely untouched by what I see in India (and maybe I have limited experience).  The first problem, and the most important one that I see, is the lack of open dialogue. Yes, we have conferences, retreats and closed door discussions where people sit together and make policy or strategy. But these are only that – closed and non-transparent.

We need a system that encourages dialogue. But not in the way handled traditionally viz. by stating platitudes like comments are always welcome and it is a big challenge and we need all the help we can get. We need a concerted effort to create academic and professional spaces for educators which brings down barriers and allows at least the new generation to explore the issues, deliberate on them, propose specific solutions and generate consensus.

The starting point will be to do a volte face and state that we do not understand the problems, far less the solutions. The mindset today is that everyone is an expert in educational matters in India (and some probably can hold this claim). But like in all crises, there will be key influencers who, through popular media, will shape the popular opinion.

Today’s news provides a lucid example of what I am trying to say.

The piece on the left talks about a group of 200 central and state university vice-chancellors pulling their weight on the implementation of a semester system and an assessment of teachers by students. The writer’s opinion, substantiated, h/she claims by the HRD Minister, Kapil Sibal, is that these suggestions were lofty and the minister recognized the difficulty in implementation of these ideas.

The writer also expressed another shared (with Sibal) surprise. Sibal had to remind the VCs about their big miss on recommendations on the reform of the examination and admissions processes.

I think the first audit that must be immediately done is of the skills of our educators, their credentials and contributions – whether in government or outside. Apparently leadership is lacking. The VCs in the news report are making this statement in the midst of anti-semester system protests by a large number of teachers.

Pitroda, Chairman, Innovation Council, India, in the clip on the right, distils his experience and wisdom by saying “Only technology and innovation can save (obsolete) higher education in India” and thinks incubation centres and longer working hours are the key to success.

If we don’t have good leaders manning the institutions, we are cutting off our legs and trying to run. Just wondering if anyone has studied how many educational administrators India really has. Off the cuff, about 30,000 would be heading universities and colleges; at the district level, across the 600 districts, there should be 8-10 key people; add about 100 per state others in and across boards, councils etc. (say) 3000 and add in another 5000 in other key positions – that should make it close to 50,000 educational administrators. I think that would be an understatement, but like the number of crows in the city of Akbar and Birbal’s Agra, this is just a guess.    

We must build an open and structured dialogue that acknowledges inputs globally and presents a cogent forum that represents both problems and possible solutions. It is immediately critical to evaluate between competing Educational Futures for India. Rhetoric will see us missing the boat once again, creating far higher unemployment and divides.

There is only the difference of an “i” between “running and ruining” our future. Let us subsume the “I”.

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My talk at EDGE2011 in Delhi was part of a panel that was presenting different thoughts on cutting edge developments in Assessments. I specifically focused on the tracking data, metrics and corresponding analytics that could be found by using games and simulations (or blends of the two).

When I talk of Games and Simulations, I typically classify and differentiate between various types in the following sense.

For me, leaving aside gaming for entertainment genres, games and simulations are a rich source of tracking virtually any kind of learning activity, experiential or intellectual. Some domains may be extremely abstract, of course, and not lend themselves to any clear ways of assessing learning. There is also the argument that games may not lend themselves to clear linkages with performance on the job. But, in essence, games and simulations allow learning and assessment solution designers to build rich reflective environments from which we can make informed judgments of performance.

For simulations and games, as also for Alternate Reality Games, the real complexity is in the design of the environment – the complex of objects and their changing relationships with each other – which by itself is also a dynamic emergent phenomenon. Take for example this hospital simulation developed by Indusgeeks and IIL.

This simulation is built up upon a complex environment of objects and their relationships within the added affordances of a Virtual World environment. There are some key advantages of these types of simulations.

Firstly, since the platform is that of a virtual world, players can visually observe the behaviour of other participants in the same scene. This lends itself to a way in which player behavior can be assessed and feedback provided. This is critical to solve many infrastructural challenges. LABs are expensive to build and maintain in a physical world and there are space-time limits to intervention by teachers. In a virtual world, actions can be recorded – thereby not only breaking the time challenge, but also by enhancing the teacher’s ability to capture and display best practices. Not only that, it allows teachers to personalize feedback by being part, directly or indirectly, of multiple virtual spaces concurrently. Imagine having a set of consoles at the command of a teacher – each monitoring a specific LAB – that would show indicators when a student is stuck or making a serious mistake!

Secondly, the scenario can be manufactured. Often, scenarios can be constructed that are difficult to replicate in real life. But artificially manufactured scenarios, provided they are sufficiently hi-fidelity, can provide an intense learning/assessment experience. By virtue of this manufacturing activity, the domain knowledge is exposed in a substantial manner, thereby supervening the need for elaborate teaching artifacts and curricular structures.

Thirdly, by being visually (and otherwise) immersive, these types of simulations provide a first-hand account of future real life experiences. This gives much more comfort than traditional assessments, specially to the potential employer, because she knows the learner has experienced the job situation even before she has been hired.

Fourthly, simulations lend themselves to new forms of collaborative construction. For example, we built a prototype with Indusgeeks, that showcased how virtual props could be used in SecondLife ( a virtual world platform) so learners could collaborate and perform.

Students building a model of a network

Fifthly, the environment can throw up rich data sets for subsequent analysis. Not only can we track behavior, but also compliance, knowledge, collaboration skills and a host of other competencies. Not only can we do it for one learner, we can do it across learners. We don’t any longer need to build top and bottom performer reports, but we can get insight that is far more fine-grained than that. This allows us to design various means of remediation as well by seeding simulators with specific conditions to train and test learners on.

In summary, simulation based training and simulation based assessments, are both key innovations, that must be broad-based into education. This has the power to transcend traditional curricula and assessment structures if used in a relevant and maximally effective way.

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At TEDxSPSU – Part Six

TEDxSPSU was held on March 12, 2011 at Sir Padampat Singhania University, Udaipur, India, with the theme Order from Chaos. This series of posts are what my TEDx presentation was based on. This is the last part – Part Six.

Meeting scale with scale means leveraging the diversity, passion and insights of a very large number of people to solve a very large problem.

This means we need to move some of our focus from hierarchies and ordered structures to open and distributed networks.

My concept of learning would be analogous to drinking at a giant watering hole. It’s having all sorts of people and resources coming together to spark off conversations, not unlike this TED conference, united around a common theme. Except that there is no single watering hole or TED conference that I could point to as being the site for learning.

It’s chaotic, it’s messy and it requires an altogether different set of skills to navigate – skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, reflection, communication and adaptability, rather than rote learning and subservience to the exam. Sort of like the real world.

We think personalizing the learning experience is tough, if not impossible. We think scale is impossible to solve without orderly structures. But perhaps it is possible to leverage both personal learning experiences and the enormous scale itself to find someone who teaches or learns the way you do or aspire to do.

I call this, not un-ambiguously but rather simply, Network Based Training or NBT. My belief is that we are moving to a new evolution in online learning just like we moved from a CBT to a WBT with the advent of the world wide web.

The NBT is a way to network people and resources around a learning topic. No one theme or person or resource or process of learning is supreme. Unlike a WBT, which is individual and generic, the NBT operates in a networked and personalized context. Unlike a WBT which is visually and instructionally programmed for an assumed closed context, the NBT is open, distributed and rich in diversity. Unlike a WBT which is built for predictability, the NBT is built for encouraging complex behaviors required for learning.

We need to go local and global. These networks will be local, seeded by local communities, their skills and needs, at the same time be federated to align with regional and national goals and connected with a global environment. We need to allow these networks to self-organize and self-regulate. Instead of funding centralized initiatives, we need to fund and empower local initiatives.

Instead of building cadres of educational bureaucrats and technocrats to staff superstructures, we need to invest in building an Architecture of Participation across these networks so that they are equipped to take decisions about how education should be.

We need to build multiple paths to specializations allowing our children to learn at their pace and for the needs of their communities and disciplines.

And really importantly, we need to reduce the amount of content we use in our classrooms drastically – shift focus a bit to the experience from just the knowledge – a state of learning to be rather than learning to know.

This is a model that will truly democratize education – make it by the people, for the people and of the people.

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.

And in doing so we will move from a conception of Education as a process to create the learned to a conception of education as a system that fosters learners.

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 seeded 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.

Maybe we could evaluate how education could be made a social business.

We need to explore the chaos that can continuously upset the existing desire for order. Hopefully I will be able to see my son, Sambhav, who is 5, taste a bit of this change before it is too late.

I would like to end with a visual that I have come to love. It’s symbolic of many of the things I have talked about today.

The right and the wrong answer

I rest my case.

<< Part 5

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Another news item provokes a sense of deja vu. As part of the EDGE2011 report, I had pointed out the dismal state of affairs in collecting and analyzing educational data in India. In Higher-Ed specifically, the HRD ministry is undertaking a unique, first of its kind survey to collate data and to update it on an annual basis. The task has been entrusted to NUEPA.

I am sort of hoping it won’t be the same as DISE. Yash Aggarwal, NIEPA (why does this exist at all if NUEPA exists or vice versa?), has an undated (I am presuming less than a decade old) report on the Revitalisation of Educational Statistics In India.

The 2008 Sathyam Committee report, constitued at the behest of the MHRD (another good initiative), goes so far as to state about DISE that:

DISE makes substantial use of the technological advancements. But its main weakness has been inadequacy of M.I.S. staff.

Imagine that! The system is broken.

I am wondering though what would happen to the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) reports on Higher Education? They have an elaborate review system that include peer review and an appeals system.

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Another example of how we want more order. Apparently, there are 47 different Boards of Education in India and COBSE (Council of Boards of Education, India) is a body that:

…provides academic support to its member Boards on:

1.     Setting and maintenance of educational standards.
2.     Curriculum planning
3.     Preparation of Curriculum materials and transaction
4.     Evaluation in Schools
5.     Public examinations

COBSE has 3 office bearers, six Vice Presidents, 17 consultants, 2 nominated members and a 15 member Executive Committee! It also has 9 associate members spanning worldwide bodies like the World Bank (?) and Education boards from countries like Mauritius and Nepal. According to the website, its major functions are:

(i) Provide a forum to its members to discuss issues of mutual interest and to learn form each other for improving quality of education
(ii) Curriculum reform and improvement in evaluation systems.
(iii)Respond to national concerns like Population Education and Disaster Management.
(iv) Professional Development of officers of the Members-boards.
(v) Interactions with NCERT / NUEPA on Professional issues.

Interesting…they have been around since 1979 and have just 12 publications (none of which are online). Do check out their news page.

Anyway, what sparked off my research was the following newspaper article (also covered here) which talks about a common national curriculum for science, maths and commerce:

In March, 2010, there was an article outlining some dissent by prominent people in the NCERT and NCTE stating there was a duplication of effort. Here is Kapil Sibal, Minister, HRD’s 2009 speech to COBSE in case you are interested.

I would love to see Kapil Sibal strike a similar vein as James Hacker trying to tackle the excessive British administration and Sir Humphrey. Of course, would like to see strikingly different results!

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At TEDxSPSU – Part Five

TEDxSPSU was held on March 12, 2011 at Sir Padampat Singhania University, Udaipur, India, with the theme Order from Chaos. This series of posts are what my TEDx presentation was based on. There are six parts that shall be published sequentially over the next few days. This is Part Five.

We all like order. We love order. Order means getting dinner on time, flights without delays, people not jumping the queue, police to keep criminals in check, doctors to give the right medicine, politicians to govern responsibly, teachers to teach well….the list is endless.

On the other hand, we all hate chaos. Chaos is messy. It is unpredictable. It cannot be controlled. It creates confusion.

And my belief is that rather than wanting Order from Chaos, it’s time we started wanting more chaos from this order.

I am not saying we address deficiencies in the system we have conceived. Rather I am saying that we ought to question our conception of what our educational system is.

In fact, by the early 20th century, people started looking at phenomena that could not be described by this classical, ordered view of a system. There were many phenomena, they argued, that did not fit into this classical notion of order – there was an element of probability that threatened the concept of order and predictability. For example, weather is impossible to predict in detail, but general patterns can be observed and predicted.

This started work on what is called Systems Theory which focused on “arrangement and relations between parts which connect them into a whole”. Some of the earliest work in this area was from people like Alexander Bogdanov, Ludwig von Bertalanffy, Norbert Weiner (who founded Cybernetics in 1948) and von Neumann. Cybernetics concentrated on the interface between man and electronics particularly for mechanisms of feedback, complexity, self-organization and adaptation.

The basic ideas around systems theory was that all around us we have systems or models that are complex. They are complex because they are made up of elements that have strong relationships with each other and with the environment in which the system exists.

What is interesting is that none of these elements completely describe the system they are part of and looking at their behavior may not provide us a deterministic way of predicting the behavior of the system as a whole.

For example, a gas particle is defined by its position and velocity. However the gas has properties like temperature and pressure. Not just that, under different environmental conditions, the gas may exhibit entirely different sets of properties i.e. new behavior may emerge.

Or look at the behavior of a flock of birds. You must have noticed how beautifully they fly in a self-organized formation even though there is no one bird that acts as the head. They follow some simple rules such as:

  1. Follow a flight path that is aligned to your closest neighbor
  2. Keep a safe distance from your neighbors
  3. Avoid hitting obstacles

All the birds in the flock follow these simple rules, but as you may have seen, their collective behavior is unpredictable and does not repeat itself.

Or the music produced by a jazz band, in which members agree to obey some general rules but are free to create their own variations, producing impossible to predict music. What’s more, members of the band may be influenced by their environment (e.g. changing audience preferences) and adapt their music in unpredictable ways.

One of the most amazing phenomena to be studied is Chaos. Small changes in initial conditions could lead to very large differences in outcomes. This was first found when Edward Lorenz studied weather patterns.

Since the elements of a system are networked, there is a huge value in deciphering patterns of behaviours in a network. For example, organizations are built hierarchically. But the way work gets done in the organization resembles a network.

Stakeholders are connected to each other in multiple ways spanning across traditional silos in an attempt to get the job done. We observe that information has many cores of distribution, not just one. We observe that an individual when replaced in an organization changes the network structure and consequently some of the efficiencies in the system, especially if she is a link between multiple sub-networks.

It has become apparent that closed-loop predictable systems are just one form of a system that exists in real life. All around us we have systems or models that are complex, open and distributed.

 They are made up of networks of elements that have strong relationships with each other and with the environment in which the system exists. Like the educational system.

These systems exhibit very interesting behaviors. As the environment changes, these systems adapt. Small changes in initial conditions bring about large changes in outcomes. New behaviors emerge rather than being designed to occur. Not only that these systems do tend to self-organize and self-regulate.

Some of this work also inspired the thinking around the early web. Joseph Licklider wrote about man-computer symbiosis in 1960, extending from Norbert Weiner’s work on Cybernetics. Licklider wrote on the Computer as a communication device in 1968, where he saw the universal network as a network of people, connected to each other, and producing something that no one person in the network could ever hope to produce. Lick’s efforts led to the creation of the first Internet.

The rest is history. The ARPANET emerged in 1969. By 1990, Tim Berners-Lee had created the hypertext transfer protocol (http) which marked the birth of the web, and the internet started growing exponentially.

By 2005, Tim O’Reilly had marked another phase of the evolution of the Web and called it Web 2.0. While the earlier web was about connecting people to resources, this web was about people being able to create their own content, search it, share it and digitally collaborate. It was about harnessing collective intelligence ushered in by Amazon and its recommendation service. The last 5 years or so have seen tumultuous development on the Internet.

Neuroscientific advancements are also pointing to a different conception of the brain – not as an information processing unit, but as a system of massively parallel and networked connections. Symbolic language is being considered to be at a level higher that what occurs in the brain and that has important consequences for the way we treat the written or spoken word.

Analytics have changed in turn – there is a move from analyzing relationships to analyzing underlying patterns in a huge and growing, now digitally available, data, also called BIG data.

There is an even greater change that is looming on the horizon – that of the Semantic Web. Web 2.0 is collapsing under its own weight. The gigantic amount of information that is being created everyday is burying search. This is a really important development. So instead, we are moving towards Web 3.0 – the promise of a ubiquitous, semantic, location aware and contextual web – that Tim Berners-Lee originally envisaged.

But in our quest for ORDER, we have consciously excluded precisely this kind of emergent, self-organizing, chaotic, adaptive behavior.

And I believe we need to correct this. Once we shift that perspective, powerful alternatives emerge. And one of them could be to challenge scale with scale itself.

<< Part Four >> Part Six

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At TEDxSPSU – Part Four

TEDxSPSU was held on March 12, 2011 at Sir Padampat Singhania University, Udaipur, India, with the theme Order from Chaos. This series of posts are what my TEDx presentation was based on. There are six parts that shall be published sequentially over the next few days. This is Part Four.

What doesn’t help is that we live in one of the most diverse nations in the world. We have 200 million school going children, over 16 mn higher education students (expected to touch 40 mn in 2020), 35 geographical and ethnic units, 22 official languages, 1.25 mn schools, about 500 universities, over 26,000 colleges and over 6 million teachers in an area spanning over 3 million square kilometres.

We have a huge scale with no one unique approach or one size fits all solution possible.

But what we are really saying is that we want ORDER.

Order implies design and organization of systems and structures with predictable outputs.

We have created boards of education, district, state & national level hierarchies, and many other superstructures that include accreditation and degree granting bodies. On top of that we have unifying national policies and curricular frameworks. All working on the principle of centralized direction.

And when this order fails, we add even more Order. And at any cost.

It’s a pity that the largest education companies are built on standardizing content and assessments not enriching experience. It’s a pity that education technology today means Learning or Assessment Management Systems and page turning multimedia content in classrooms. It’s a pity that we are increasing the power and quantity of superstructures to govern education.

Not surprisingly, our conception of educational systems as being orderly embraces some vast over-simplifications.

We conceive of stereotypes of students, teachers, educational environments, learning processes and hammer out a unifying certification and assessment system that actually drives all learning and teaching.

These oversimplifications, on a lighter note, result in some fantastic vision statements. Here is one that envisions the Engineer of 2020 crafted by the National Academy of Engineering in the US.

“What attributes will the engineer of 2020 have? He or she will aspire to have the ingenuity of Lillian Gilbreth [The first Lady of Engineering], the problem-solving capabilities of Gordon Moore [the co-founder of Intel], the scientific insight of Albert Einstein, the creativity of Pablo Picasso, the determination of the Wright brothers, the leadership abilities of Bill Gates, the conscience of Eleanor Roosevelt, the vision of Martin Luther King, and the curiosity and wonder of our grandchildren.”

If you are thinking, yeah right, what could they be influenced by when they wrote this, consider what the National Council on Teacher Education has assessed what our system wants its teachers to be:

“The teacher must be equipped not only to teach but also to understand the students and the community of parents so that children are regular in schools and learn. The Act [Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act] mandates that the teacher should refrain from inflicting corporal punishment, complete the entire curriculum within the given time, assess students, hold parent’s meetings and apprise them and as part of the school management committee, organise the overall running of the schools. In addition, the NCF requires a teacher to be a facilitator of children’s learning in a manner that helps children to construct knowledge and meaning. The teacher in this process is a co-constructor of knowledge.”

Why do we make such assumptions and over-simplifications? Perhaps the most important reason is scale. We feel we can hammer predictability in the face of scale by making orderly processes and structures. And order is our typical solution.

<< Part Three >> Part Five

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At TEDxSPSU – Part Three

TEDxSPSU was held on March 12, 2011 at Sir Padampat Singhania University, Udaipur, India, with the theme Order from Chaos. This series of posts are what my TEDx presentation was based on. There are six parts that shall be published sequentially over the next few days. This is Part Three.

On the other side, in teacher education, there is a really funny contradiction that I recently came across in teacher education. The MHRD talks about in its annual reports setting up of about 600 District Institutes of Educational Technology covering the whole of India, one for each district.

The DIETs, as they are unfortunately abbreviated, are responsible for improving the quality of basic education and increasing enrolment as well as retention. They are supposed to mentor teachers in the District and supervise educational schemes.

However the National Commission for Teacher Education on the other hand bemoans the fact that they do not have enough qualified teacher trainers to staff these DIETs!

National Curriculum Framework for Teacher Education, 2009, NCTE, India

They go so far as to state – “Teacher education programmes provide little scope for student teachers to reflect on their experiences.

National Curriculum Framework for Teacher Education, 2009, NCTE, India

Not only are we burning our children at the altar of this education, but our teachers-to-be are going through no different a process!

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At TEDxSPSU – Part Two

TEDxSPSU was held on March 12, 2011 at Sir Padampat Singhania University, Udaipur, India, with theme Order from Chaos. This series of posts are what my TEDx presentation was based on. There are six parts that shall be published sequentially over the next few days. This is Part Two.

Why is it that our children are trained to lose every shred of empathy, curiosity, interest and creativity?

It’s all very good to have a national policy on education that promotes critical and creative thinking and all that great stuff.  It’s great to recognize the impact of technology in education. But on the ground, this translates into the ability to orient and train teachers to bring in these skills, to build the infrastructure to support the development of these skills and attitudes in students and to align these developments to what we need as a society, as a culture and as an economy.

Curriculum designers could tell you that if they were to put every little bit of detail in the textbook, it would grow too large to handle in the time they had to teach the children about Gandhiji and the Dandi March.  As it is, there is so much to cover and such little time.

If you were to look at the curriculum, you would find that the average topic of instruction does not allow for more than an hour or so of average classroom time per topic. And this includes reading the book, explaining segments, answering questions, giving homework etc.

Consider the learning objective:

“Discuss the critical significance of Nazism in shaping the politics of the modern world”

In case you are wondering if I have made the transition to an under-graduate class in Political Science that would be slightly incorrect. This is part of the Central Board of Secondary Education (India) curriculum on Social Science for Class IX

For some people, this would perhaps take a lifetime to discuss. So one would say, we don’t want a PhD thesis in class IX, just want the salient/critical points for them to learn about.

What in effect we are saying then is that we do not want understanding, but an ability to repeat the writer’s belief in specifically those words that the writer has penned down. Not only that we will assess how closely the answers match with these words because our teacher may not know how to handle a perspective not expressly recorded in the book.

By the same argument, our children make the case that they cannot answer questions “in their own language” – i.e. in a language that is not the language laid out in the book. In the epic movie 3 idiots, this contrast is sharply brought out. The informal, meaningful way of describing a machine is:

“A machine is anything that reduces human effort and saves time”

While the formal, a book centered exam-accepted definition is:

“Machines are any combination of bodies so connected that their relative motions are constrained. And by which means force and motion maybe transmitted and modified as the screw in its nut or a lever turned about a fulcrum or a pulley by its pivot etc. especially a construction more or less complex consisting of a combination of moving parts or simple mechanical elements as wheels, levers, cams etc”

No guesses on which answer will get you marks in the exam. 

<< Part One >> Part Three

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At TEDxSPSU – Part One

TEDxSPSU was held on March 12, 2011 at Sir Padampat Singhania University, Udaipur, India, with the theme Order from Chaos. This series of posts are what my TEDx presentation was based on. There are six parts that shall be published sequentially across the next few days. This is Part One.

Art Credit: C S Prasad

I would like to begin with a personal anecdote.

My daughter, Pari, is eleven and like other grade V children, she studies something called History. She is learning about the Indian Freedom struggle and the role Mohandas Gandhi and others played in it. Her book has some interesting facts, biographical and historical, about what Gandhi did and that his philosophy of non-violence is so important. We came to learn about the great Dandi March.

Gandhiji decided to walk from his Ashram in Sabarmati, near Ahmedabad in the western state of Gujarat to the shores of the Arabian Sea to a place called Dandi. He went there to produce salt from the sea. In doing so, he violated the law through which the colonial powers, who had the monopoly on salt, imposed taxes on the purchase of salt. The book tells us it was over 300 kilometers away.

While reading this, I was struck by a question I had never asked before. And perhaps many of you have not either. I wondered how old Gandhiji was at the time of this march. Well, the book tells us he was born in 1869, so that should make him over 60 at that time.

Why would a 60-year old frail man WALK all the way to Dandi, 300 kilometers away when there were easier modes of transport available?

The book talks factually about the march. The book states that he followed a philosophy of non-violence. But the book does not answer my question.

Here is the answer.

Gandhiji undertook to walk because, on his way he wanted to spread the messages of the freedom movement, enlist followers for the breaking of the Salt Law and put pressure on the British government. It took him about 25 days to reach Dandi and he personally addressed over 50,000 people across 40 towns and villages in that time. Gandhiji’s method sparked off a nationwide movement which extended to nearly 5 million people at over 5000 sites.

The Dandi March of 1930 was an act of defiance against the colonial powers. The Salt Tax contributed to over 8% of tax revenue. Gandhiji cleverly chose Salt because he realized how common and necessary it really was. Faced with Gandhiji’s announcement to produced salt from the sea, the Viceroy then, Lord Irwin, said “At present the prospect of a salt campaign does not keep me awake at night”.

As I researched it further, I found it was not an ad-hoc choice. It was a choice carefully deliberated from among competing options. A full strategy and the combined might of all the leaders was employed to galvanize the nation. Massive preparations were undertaken prior to the actual start of the March, designed for maximum impact. Nor was it the end of the road. There were carefully thought out actions at the end of the march – a lot of if-then scenario based planning.

But hold on. The textbook mentioned nothing of this passion, strategy, ingenuity and determination of Gandhi. It tells us nothing really to substantiate why Gandhiji was famous for his non-violent principles.

The questions at the end of the book don’t reflect this either. Instead, the curriculum designers faced the creative challenge of framing questions around these. For example:

Technique: Fill-in-the-blanks

Question: M K Gandhi was born in the year ______

Technique: Multiple Choice

Question: M K Gandhi was born in the year:

  1. 1876
  2. 1885
  3. 1869
  4. 1901

Technique: Match the Following

M K Gandhi                        1875

Nehru                                   1897

Subhash Bose                    1889

Sardar Patel                        1869

Technique: True or False

M K Gandhi was born in 1875? True or False

Technique: Inversion

Which famous architect of the Indian Freedom Struggle was born in 1869?

Why is it that our children are trained to lose every shred of empathy, curiosity, interest and creativity?

>> Part Two

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EDGE2011 New Delhi

The Emerging Directions in Global Education (EDGE) conference in Delhi was a power packed event. It saw a coming together of government, academia and private players in the education sector. It was an intriguing experience. There were some key ideas that I took away from the conference.

I believe now that there is full realization that no one player/stakeholder can meet the challenges which has had several implications – deregulation, shared governance, public-private partnership, increased dialogue, increased allocations in government spending, higher accountability – but most of all, a willingness to break out of the shackles of a dilapidated educational system and mindset.

I felt that this time around, as opposed to what I heard across conferences last year, there is a visible tension to make things happen in a participative manner. We have two very erudite and skilled people in Kapil Sibal, Minister, HRD and D Purandeswari, Minister for State, HRD. Listening to them speak with passion on their understanding on what ails education today in India, and their initiatives to make a change, I felt vastly more comfortable that a certain maturity has stepped in that can only do wonderful things if allowed to flourish.

It is still disconcerting that we are using old solutions to combat current and future problems, though. For me atleast, centralized governance as an overarching one-size-fits-all strategy, doesn’t cut any ice. Scale must meet scale.  Education has to be seeded locally, not centrally.

Secondly, we are throwing outdated educational technology and content formats/pedagogical techniques at the problems. Witness the NMOEICT initiative which will end up creating the world’s largest open courseware repository (of course, at this rate, anything we do will be the largest just given the kind of scale we will end up addressing), but is based on page turning WBTs and non-interactive videos. There seems to be little consensus on revisiting or creating anew, modes of addressing quality content/network provision.

Thirdly, I must say that the quality of educational administrators may need significant investment of time and effort to upgrade and enable to meet the new challenges. I found that a lot of very basic questions on people handling, capability building, government liasoning, operational problem-solving, research, infrastructure etc. were being asked that administrators should have already figured out with experience or formal training/facilitation.

Fourthly, I found a distinct trend, in the workshop topics, to promote ends over means. Excellence is being counted as an end and the definition of excellence seems to be making it to the top 100 institutions in the world, or educational governance (Governance Issues in Educational Institutions, Mahadevan, IIM-Bangalore) along the lines of possibly a Six Sigma for education, or best ways to partner with a foreign university (Making International Partnerships Work), or getting the right financing (Funding Education in the Emerging Market) for education.

There seems to be a strident market propaganda creating hype and fear. It starts with the references to scale (40 mn Higher Ed students by 2020). Then it goes into how inadequate the infrastructure is, how ill-paid the teachers are and how poor the students are to afford quality education. Then it segues into how the West has solved the problems using quality systems, educational financing and de-regulation (which it hasn’t really, but who argues with an E&Y or Parthenon Group report, right?).

And finally, it makes the case that if we do not push reforms for privatization (de-regulation, accountability, quality), open up the market for foreign partners (increasing student mobility through credit systems, influencing students by marketing and advertising, giving access to rural markets etc.) and increase the flow of private funds (financing of education, so that the poor 70% of India can add debt to their woes), then we are going to be unable to reap the demographic dividend, may need to import labour, lose our competitive edge, create internal strife and increase poverty.

This is an eminently laughable and indefensible thesis, a case of starting with conclusions and then gathering supporting facts. I promise to present a full case analysis for the E&Y and Parthenon reports when I get the time. But let me make three overarching statements:

  1. The market knows no social justice
  2. Industrial models of education have failed
  3. Diversity and scale are the biggest challenges facing any educational system

One surprising omission was lack of any talk whatsoever on educational data – from collection to analytics. This is a disturbing piece because without completeness and accuracy of data, we are not in any position to make decisions. Look at the disclaimers on the DISE reports from NIEPA and the disclaimers from the Central Statistical Organization to know that there is something seriously lacking even in basic reporting of educational information.

Another surprising omission was a lack of discussion on new innovations (except for a brief session on New Frontiers in Assessments, which I thought was good and not just because I was one of the speakers) that could prove to be critical in a country this size. I would have thought that if 3-4 innovations capable of reaching mass scale were discussed, it would be invaluable for their evolution and for mass early acceptance.

The good thing in the Assessments panel, moderated by Madan Padaki (from Manipal who incidentally was given a well deserved award for his contribution to the education sector), was that I heard something which was music to my years. The speakers put together accounted for perhaps over 90% of the assessments being undertaken by private assessment companies in India. And a couple of them voiced an interesting dream – that perhaps, very soon, there would be no assessments (atleast not the kind we have subjected our children to so far). I liked that very much.

I liked S B Mujumdar (Chancellor, Symbiosis) when he talked about the triangle of excellence, inclusion and expansion, though the way he put it made me feel that he has no hope of a unifying strategy for all three to grow symbiotically (pardon the pun).

Shashi Tharoor did give an entertaining (and if may say so, rather vague) talk on why Liberal Arts are essential. He felt that the utilitarian approach of professional education may destroy liberal arts and that a Well formed mind is better than a well filled mind.

Workshop Tweets

Active engagement with knowledge. Tharoor #edge2011
Tharoor a liberal arts edu will help you enlarge minds, to make for ordered minds, to develop good thinking habits #edge2011
Well formed mind is better than a well filled mind. Tharoor. #edge2011
Tharoor utilitarian approach of prof education may destroy liberal arts…may not be so #edge2011
Creativity is key Rao #edge2011
Exam system has exhausted and destroyed young minds #edge2011
Liberate education from bureaucracy. This is the biggest obstacle Rao #edge2011
#edge2011 now for Rao’s vision lecture..
#edge2011 university at your doorstep Content can only be provided by institutions of excellence..invest in intellectual development Sibal
#edge2011 meta universities..sit in front of your laptop and decide your level of excellence..Sibal
#edge2011 leverage software capability. Teacher is no longer totally central…content becomes important..
#edge2011 community should take responsibility…
#edge2011 make freedom an integral part of the system..financing education is a commitment..a duty not a power to control Sibal
#edge2011 Sibal speak. Collaborate not seek conquest. We need a change of mindset..govt cannot drive, can only facilitate.
#edge2011 CNR Rao speaks… Real role of a teacher is to give..1500 papers…60 years of scientific research
#edge2011 shashi tharoor will be talking about why liberal arts education is important. Wish this was webcasted.
#edge2011 pillai quoting PM India is an emerging idea?
#edge2011 majumdar symbiosis exploit triangle of excellence, inclusion and expansion
#edge2011 interesting…sibal asked rao to precede him in lighting the inaugural lamp
#edge2011 Kapil Sibal just walked in..Minister HRD
At #edge2011 day 2 in Delhi. CNR Rao is going to be speaking today. Expect some cool insights.
#edge2011 increase participation in governance. Mahadevan
#edge2011 peer pressure and peer review is main driver of excellence. Mahadevan.
#edge2011 interesting…people are saying that public funded colleges could take a leaf out of the book of best practice institutions…
#edge2011 interesting debate…an IIM B perspective on acad perf etc is not universal. Mahadevan
#edge2011 its Mahadevan…not madhavan…oops
#edge2011 internal accruals of public colleges can fund performance incentives. Madhavan
#edge2011 first implementers of acad perf mechanisms should adopt both quantitative and qualitative measures. Madhavan
#edge2011 following Minzberg? Treat students as citizens not clients or customers
#edge2011 academic performance – how do we measure, how do we implement, how do we design metrics..Mahadevan
#edge2011 professors have a half life decay. How to accommodate them. Mahadevan.
#edge2011 teaching as a profession is the last career choice Mahadevan
#edge2011 education is a sellers market for India. Watch out for game changing regulatory changes. Mahadevan
#edge2011 self regulation is particularly important. Don’t depend on the govt. Mahadevan
#edge2011 three issues of the Internet – privacy, trust and security.
B Mahadevan IIM-B what are the core issues in higher edu today? #edge2011 same old stuff
At the edge2011 conference in Delhi

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