Archive for August, 2011

What happens to learning histories? Traditionally, in the school or college system, we treat textbooks and references built by experts as the starting point of our education. Students are encouraged to discover through the texts and teacher led activities. However, from one group of students to the other, from one year to the other, it is an ab-initio start. The only continuity is possibly provided by the teacher, who takes to her class the knowledge of any prior learning histories.

The traditional system has a short memory. Histories of student conversations, their trials and tribulations as they navigated unfamiliar terrain, are transmogrified into common mistakes pointed out by the teacher, FAQs built by experts and so on – themselves shortcuts to navigate the longer path taken by the experts to arrive at their conception of the domain. In the process, experts make some reasoned choices about what to leave out. It is important to learn and apply the Pythagorous theorem in a secular manner – never relating to Pythagorous himself or the cultural, social and political context in which he invented the theorem.

These choices are made for the learner. And in this manner, she is condemned to not “know” many learning histories. And therefore, not be able to construct many new forms of learning or adapt histories into new futures. This is typical of a system where temporality is key – competence is generated (or not) out of a structured time-space of an institution.

However, this is simply not the way competence is employed and grown at work or in life. Knowledge management is key to successful enterprises and initiatives, where processes become as important as competence. A hallmark of this competence is that it is based on non-linearity of paths taken to perform based on extensive networks of resources available for self-use.

The core issue is that our systems need several proofs of competence as entry criteria to a variety of different spaces. And they need these proofs to be socially acknowledged, presumably because they shift the burden of proving them to experts. As it happens, the provers and the system are often at odds with each other because they believe in different notions of competence and how to engender it.

Scale entrenches these vulnerable and shifting contracts deeper. With scale (numbers, diversity, globalization, technology), it becomes even more difficult to remember or place learning histories within the context of engendering competence. Someone I know told me about how one of his unofficial mentors spent forty years of his life sifting through Ramanujan’s discoveries, trying to decipher how exactly Ramanujan made his phenomenal discoveries – an anachronistic, obscure but inspiring endeavor in these times.

Learning histories are important. They are important for us to spark innovation, to facilitate the next Ramanujan in his discoveries, to place our learning in local and global contexts within which we exist today. And possibly the way we need to retain these learning histories to record the conversations, curate them, enable connections to them, and celebrate the paths that learners before us took to both fail and succeed. And hope that these inform and help develop new ways of addressing our problems today and for the future.


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Oh! What a tangled web we weave!

Anna Hazare, after today, can never underestimate his own importance to India. A repeat of the 1990 Mandal Commission days greeted Delhi today and promises not to die a silent death. The government, not unlike the British colonial government of the past India, is being felicitated with wild cries of a Second Struggle for Freedom. Gone is dialogue and meaningful governance in the face of, what is arguably, a shining example of the “satyagraha”, long practiced by the man credited to be one of the greatest leaders of the same political party that governs the nation today. Indeed, it is that same political entity that seems to be caught into a tangled web – damned if they do and damned if they do not.

But today is not 1930, when Gandhi had to travel 300 kilometres, visit 40 towns and villages across 25 days, for the famed Dandi March. The government is not colonial, but democratic. Anna Hazare is no Gandhi – there is no parallel.  And today is not 1990, when Mandal was demonized. Today, we face a greater challenge – a weak government and an idolized impostor.

I watched on as a group of young boys drove a fast car, frenzied, singing Vande Mataram. Busloads of young pople and old, being taken to a temporary detention area. The man himself, Anna, proclaiming a second freedom struggle before he was summarily arrested. And now, his release and repeated intention to proceed with his satyagraha, the reason for his arrest in the first place.

Sure. Corruption is wrong. The government is wrong as well for obstructing a movement. The media is wrong for its instantaneous but selectively well crafted coverage. And wrong, is Anna too for being so important. We shall just have to watch as people suffer these wrongs in the next few days.

Which is why Anna Hazare needs to know his own importance to India. He and his supporters have brought an issue to the forefront effectively in a democracy most known for its apathy – of, by and for the people. But he has the support of mindless, super-excited mobs, who like in the Mandal days, knew just one thing – that they were right. He needs to educate them, make them realize that they are every bit responsible for corruption or breaking the laws as the other side is. And with this sobering thought, help transform their behaviour and thought.

Anna Hazare needs to know his own importance to India.

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I was reading with interest Stephen Downes’ critique of Anya Kamenetz’s approach in her book DIY-U. I am reading Anya’s book, but could not help writing this post, even though that exercise is incomplete, so I beg your indulgence.

The point Stephen is making is definitely not just academic. The term DIY (do-it-yourself) affords primacy to the individual and is application based. Over time sites like eHow and companies like Home Depot, realizing different needs (cost saving, interests, job compulsions), put together a set of material (books, online guides, community trouble-shooting and advice etc.) to put structure to “learning” specific things with the objective of being able to apply them in a specific context.

This took the form of learning packages, not unlike our monogamous WBTs (web based training) formats. Now these are being extended by the affordances of the networked digital economy like open access, social search, social networking and location awareness. This is very akin to the way our LMSs have evolved. They started with learning packages (which evolved into standards based packaging like SCORM), and then as the network surfaced, they added the “social” to it and called them the next version / next generation social collaborative learning management systems. That is also why these vendors cannot seem to position the Edupunk version as the alternative and have ended up creating a “me-too” add-on feature set for “informal learning”.

There is a deeper malaise, one that Stephen also points to. We are thinking inside the box (very un-Edupunk), when we do try to map an existing system with a new alternative way of doing things keeping the existing system as the base reference. Edupunks (I am hoping) will not look at taking the affordances of an educational system and propose an alterative that will map to its “benefits” or affordances. Rather, they will stand outside the box and raise questions about whether the box really is what we need (why not look at the sphere next to it or why look at all at a closed bounded object). This is similar to combating the oft-heard argument or stance – “technology cannot replace the classroom”. Stephen is right to remark – “It’s establishment thinking combined with a good dose of offloading costs.”

A direct consequence of thinking like that is the “objectification” of learning and the learning process. The approach is to “objectify” or treat learning as a structured process with pre-identified participants, an approach which tries to build a marketplace and commodifies learning. Teachstreet, for example, has the tag line – “Learn Something New” – exhorting us to “find great classes and courses”. Similar to how Anya talks about “content and skills”.

The MOOC Edupunks have demonstrated the way to think outside the box – of becoming rather than doing or getting, of being able to measure your performance. And in doing so, they have exposed core principles of how learning happens (at least their perspective). There is great learning happening as well, as the MOOCs & accompanying deliberations evolve. No one claims to have the final recipe (maybe because none is needed or even possible), which is also why DIY is perhaps a bit presumptuous. But the focus on thinking outside the box rather than inside it is the biggest contribution being made to start with.

What is required is greater investigation into “design” of connected environments, into techniques/patterns that underlie the conversation itself, into technologies and designs that support these connections – in a way that does not translate into “design” of learning, like in the traditional system.

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Holographic eLearning

This has got to be more than awesome. I found this article on Samsung’s use of holography to position a new product and then went on to look at Dimension Studio’s Holographic Projection System. Further investigation got me to the first holographic training session from OnTrack, a paper presented at the InSITE 2010 conference on 3D Holography Technology in Learning Environment, and even a 1989 article titled Holography: Opening new horizons for Learning (on JStor, for which I have, alas, no access).

With Telepresence being one part of this phenomenon, in my mind there is more than the cost dimension to this technology that promises to make it an important part of how we learn and collaborate in the future. I can immediately think of simulations or even real world impacts from local settings. For example, think of operating (robotically controlled) real equipment from across the world in an immersive manner, or operating upon virtaul objects in a multi-user collaborative environment. The possibilities are real and worth investigating from a learning perspective – maybe the advent of Web 4.0?

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A chance conversation prompted me to think – why and how does a consumer student/learner decide on taking a course? The answers are many depending upon the stage in the student lifecycle, context and many other factors. So it is interesting to see how marketing and sales functions view the problem of student acquisition, how companies procure eLearning for their employees, how governments model the educational system and associated certifications mechanism, and so on.

The problem is that, in general (and I want to generalize based on the proportion of students affected), this conception of student choice is independent of student choice in the classroom. In fact, two things here – one, that student determination of an academic institution is largely independent of the considerations of the learning process (which is more determined by the prevailing educational systems), and two, that decisions to join a particular course/program/institution are fairly independent of learning methodology and pedagogy itself. This may not be true in specialized conditions – conditions where sufficient choice exists AND students have an opinion on how they should learn.

So it is only very natural that marketing functions should depend upon institutional brand, star faculty, a very agnostic feature-differentiator led approach to technology (and mobility etc.), certification value, alumni credentials and employability/placement potentials. I am fairly certain that nobody compares the levels of educational technology or pedagogic superiority (which gets subsumed under quality of star teachers).

For example, companies that buy off-the-shelf elearning from vendors for their employees do discern between levels of interactivity, multimedia and other factors, but employees don’t have that choice to make. Similarly, parents make decisions based on employability and brand, rather than on how well their children will learn at school. These decisions are, obviously, threatened when the outcomes are not as expected. That is when stakeholders start probing a little deeper, sometimes trying to make more informed decisions around choice in pedagogy.

There is partial student choice in select segments. Retailers in education are in the race for credentials and whatever adds to a market differentiation, helps student acquisition. But these choices are not generally (in large proportions) borne out of a need to use educational technology to its maximum.

This extends from students equally to teachers and researchers – two other consumers in the education space. But here the choices are more refined and the stakeholders generally more informed and discerning. Which is also why nobody overtly talks about teacher acquisition marketing campaigns (that’s just the internal referral, brand and networking).

This is disturbing for me. I want students to be more informed about the choices they have when they go to learn and to be responsible and skilled for creating choices for themselves in constrained environments. Unless this happens, there will really be no pressure on institutions to evolve pedagogy & technology in a concerted manner. Whatever pressure that exists comes from passionate teachers, students and administrators, who feel that they have a responsibility to learners once they enter the doors of the institution. Which is really the brand.

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