Archive for June, 2011

Yet another example of a one size fits all approach has manifested itself recently. An excerpt from an article in the Indian Express on June 29, 2011 titled B.Ed. must, alternative schools weigh options reads:

At Rishi Valley School and Doon School, many teachers have been working for a long time without a Bachelor’s degree in education, though some have a Master’s and some even a Ph D from elite institutions such as the IITs in India and Harvard abroad. Now the government has asked these teachers to enroll in a distance learning programme, such as those offered by IGNOU, and get a Bachelor’s degree a diploma in education. With the government firm that a teacher’s qualification must be standardised under the RTE Act, bigger “alternative schools” have fallen in line with the NCTE’s prescription while the smaller ones are looking at the prospect of closing down.

This is quite ironic. Why make sweeping generalization that wilfully result in situations like these? Teacher education is an important issue involving not just the state of teacher qualifications like the Bachelor of Education degree, but also the working conditions, incentives, support, motivation and skill development of teachers in general. Not to miss the sorry conditions of para-teachers in India.

I have often said that we are making a mistake by arguing against the current exam focussed educational system, while at the same time putting our own teachers and future educational administrators through the same process. There is also the question of the relevance of the current curriculum itself. Interestingly, the Faculty of Education at Delhi University does not even have the syllabus online for its various courses! At some point, we will encounter the argument for more vocational based certifications for teaching given the large scale we face.


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An interesting post, over at GigaOm, on When big data meets journalism, talks about how companies are using the power of tools that allow journalists to analyze information. At the least, through simply analyzing content for times, dates, places, phone numbers, data (structured and unstructured) and people references, a lot of connections to a resource can be uncovered (remember Zoetrope?). This becomes the basis for a whole lot of possible collaboration and contribution to a topic.

I think this is a format that is extremely well suited for collaborative educational research. I am sure people will be worried about the quality of connections that are generated by a machine algorithm, but this can get better over time and actually allow curation as well. But the idea that structured and unstructured sources of information can come together in a Powerset, the erstwhile Twine and Zoetrope manner, is brilliant for the learning process.

The ability for a learner to be able to get such views of information in a curated manner is going to be really important. The information largely exists on the web, but really in as many bits and parts, rendering it unusable or very inefficient from a learning perspective. Our current mode is to do the search and use intelligence to sift through many dead-ends and irrelevant information to actually get what we need in the way we need it. There simply has to be a way to accomplish the latter, at least to a large extent. It is only then that the online learning process will become efficient enough for more people to use.


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There are both champions and detractors of para-teacher schemes in India. Champions claim that these schemes reduce pupil-teacher ratios (PTRs), eliminate single teacher schools, lower the cost of providing elementary education and may increase teacher accountability to local panchayats. Detractors, on the other hand, rue the lower professional training and allegedly lower educational qualifications of para-teachers (compared to regular teachers), and they also dislike the dual salary structure whereby para-teachers are paid much lower salaries than regular teachers within the same schools.

This snippet, taken from Geeta Gandhi Kingdon and Vandana Sipahimalani-Rao’s article titled Para-Teachers in India: Status and Impact, from the Economic and Political Weekly (Mar 20, 2010, Vol XLV No. 2) intrigued me immediately as a debate that needs to happen more strongly.

The fact that we need para-teachers (defined variously, but broadly as non-full time teachers) as a possible quick solution to the immense teacher shortage in India (1.2 mn required or more based on other reports), which could grow exponentially if you were to start improving the student-teacher ratios, is undisputed. So is the fact that we need them dispersed over a large geography. The equally important fact is that these educators need to be brought into the mainstream over a period of time as well, reducing or eliminating some of the more obvious disparities with their full-time colleagues.

The skill and talent exist – within existing teachers, para-teachers, and very importantly the competitive tuition or coaching private marketplace – but the economics is skewed and inclusive utilization of these resources is a challenge.

As always there are multiple parts to the problem:

  1. Teacher Education itself needs to concentrate on investigating ways to upskill and make supporting infrastructure, including technology, available; while at the same time making sure that existing teachers are set higher standards and given the right kind of training environment
  2. Educational providers and education technology companies must make a concerted effort to enable teachers to transcend distance through the use of technology and innovation in pedagogy (an important piece of which, in my opinion, is going to be portability with network access)
  3. Policy makers must concentrate on providing an easy to implement career progression for para-teachers – sort of a vocational strategy for the educators profession strand
  4. Students need to be more exposed to using technology and participating in distance education initiatives. The state of educational data mining or learning analytics in even the largest distance education providers is abysmal, to say the least.

The challenges can be met, but require strong leadership at local levels supported by policy changes at the top. And as I said, there needs to be more broad-based research, especially around effectiveness and productivity.


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Tablet Education or tLearning has really advanced over the last couple of years accompanying the hardware advances that have been made. On the face of it, portable hand-held devices that can augment learning are a natural ask from the consumer today in many markets. In my opinion, tLearning will succeed where mLearning (m=mobile) failed, primarily because of the increased screen estate and touch based technology makes it viable.

Some of the advantages of tLearning include:

  • Ubiquitous learning, portability and ease of use
  • Sufficient screen estate to accomplish learning tasks when compared to the mobile
  • The current spate of innovation is making a host of tools available that are suitable for the medium & hardware
  • Closer to chalk and talk or traditional pen and paper teaching and learning through features such as pen (stylus) based collaboration

There are a spate of offerings & initiatives now on the ground to leverage the power of tLearning. Here are a few interesting ones.

  1. Kineo Brainchild
  2. iProf
  3. Prazas
  4. Kno
  5. Nook
  6. iPAD
  7. India’s 35$ tablet
  8. Notion Ink’s Adam
  9. Marvel / OLPC XO 3.0

As a result, a lot of companies are getting into or promoting tLearning. From my perspective, tLearning offers a fresh new field for instructional designers, technologists, graphics people and eLearning solution designers where research and innovation is required to leverage the new collaborative features of the medium. For example, Prazas combines online tutoring/collaboration with an “upload any content” feature, which makes it easy to access, share and co-annotate learning material.

This is an exciting time to be in the industry. Hopefully researchers will take a strong look at tLearning and start contributing to learning solutions design thinking for this medium.

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Sometime ago, I gave a TED Talk. The extended transcript, by way of blog posts formed a six-part blog series, and the video was upload recently. The theme of the talk was essentially that we have become used to thinking of the educational system as a system to produce the learned rather than a system that fosters learners, and that scale is our biggest challenge today.

As always, would love to hear your comments!

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