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Archive for November, 2011

Day Two: FICCI HES 2011

Started off with a bang. Sam Pitroda struck the right notes by questioning the dominant paradigm. He pushed levers when he raised a lot of questions that we have been discussing online – teachers as mentors, need to look at different educational model, need to scale, need to question our view of universities, need to question the structures in education, need to connect and so on. He revealed that the Indian government is rolling out the National Knowledge Network which will the telecommunications backbone for Higher Education at a cost of USD 4 bn. Even more ambitious is a backbone to connect, at a cost of about USD 10bn, the rural network of panchayats. When I asked why we are not moving away from a production system, he replied that we do need to leverage these innovations. I think the major bottleneck is the open-ness of conversation around these issues which currently is really behind closed doors.

The session on Internationalization led by Anand Sudarshan from Manipal, was interesting because it took a good look at the major issues surrounding greater integration of Indian HE with the rest of the world. Understanding why we want to achieve this integration (enlightened self interest) is an important step in this direction. There also needs to be a focus on policies and support infrastructure (Rahul Choudaha and Kavita Sharma) that provides a cohesive and articulate framework for internationalization.

Deepak Pental, ex VC Delhi University, chaired the next session on Learning in Higher Education. Petra Wend from Queen Margaret University, Scotland made the distinction between teacher and learner centered education. Prof. Lakhotia talked about decompartmentalization and greater mobility between disciplines. In view of the scale of the problems in India, he asked if we really need a 3 or 4 year degree? He also focused on teaching quality. SS Mantha from AICTE harped on building upon the strengths of the existing system. I think what he is saying is that the systems are good and robust, but people have failed. He does acknowledge that scale poses a problem to existing pedagogy. He also said we need a focus on students who did not make it to college after grade 12. I am not sure what he was really saying though.

Nitin Khanna talked about the realities of the kind of students that come in to college and the kind of graduates that emerge – there being some fantastic diversity. To teach such people, Nitin started experimented with games, activities, storytelling, outside classroom activities etc. But these strategies were not scalable. Then he realized that education given is not education taken. So he is looking at a shift towards learner centered consciousness and greater bent towards what students want. Deepak Pental made the important point that structural changes are equally important to help some of these things come into effect. He also exhorted industry to come in and offer domain knowledge for courseware development.

Some action towards the end. Pental and Mantha expressed their disillusionment about industry participation and FICCI executives went to some pains to explain that there was a lot being done.

Dinesh Singh started in an iconoclastic way by demolishing the need to prescribe a research environment, citing examples in history who had no research environment or support (Bodhayan, 800 years BC devised a proof for the Pythagorous Theorem, Newton, Faraday etc.) and also to explode the myth that research should be exclusive of any formal teaching work. Seyed Hasnain was quick to retort and quote the need for people like Venky Raman and Gobind Khurana to leave India and move to environments that supported research. Seyed focuses on qualitative expansion that he considers more important. At the University of Hyderabad, he focused on this not to the exclusion of the social equity goal, and talked about the way the University has transformed itself, thanks to a large funding support. He also talked about how Cambridge has partnered in order to peer review and publish Hyderabad University’s research. Pretty impressive stuff!

Wendy Cuiker took a different focus by looking at research and innovation. So this is essentially looking at a different purpose for research – that which drives and is driven by community needs. Innovation and opportunities for research for young students is very important. This is an important look at research capability building and ties in nicely with initiatives many universities are undertaking in building up Entrepreneurship Development cells. She had an interesting video to back this story up. Pete Downes from Dundee talks about social impact in the biotech area that has directly resulted in employment and the growth of industry. There was no strategy, but really driven by opportunities and people. That is not to say that the culture is not important – it is critical.

Couldn’t stay much longer, but it has been a very interesting day! Thanks, FICCI for getting so many good sessions together!

 

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At the FICCI Higher Education Summit 2011 today. Had an interesting first day yesterday. The highlights for me were the talks by Montek Ahluwalia, Deputy Chairman, Planning Commission, Mr Michael Russell, Member of the Scottish Parliament, Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, Prof. David Naylor, President, University of Toronto, Canada and Dr Daniel C Levy, Distinguished Professor, University of Albany and Director, PROPHE. In particular, Prof. Naylor stood out by envisioning a future for India that is extremely diverse in terms of structures, strategies and outcomes for education. He talked about differentiation, system design and many other interesting things India should look out or while planning and executing its strategy for Higher Ed. Dr Daniel Levy also tabled his research at PROPHE – very interesting analysis of types of HE models across the world.

All talks so far have focused on the core challenges of an ordered traditional education system. There are the challenge of scale, attendant challenges of resourcing, financing, quality and innovation & research. It was also clear, from the international participation, that India is being taken extremely seriously as a higher education market and research venue.

The discussions on ranking (as also the overall discussions) ranged from people who cautioned against the use of ranking as a tool because of some very valid issues (accuracy, coverage, limitations of a single index) to others who questioned the concept of a “world class” university to yet others who have spent a significant part of their working lives trying to devise ranking methodologies.

Prof. Shailendra Mehta presented his study on how alumni were perhaps the most important determinant of an institution’s success. Dr. Nikhil Sinha, VC, Shiv Nadar University, provoked much needed thought by suggesting we focus on an institution’s curricular and pedagogical prowess as an important determinant of student choice rather than just placements and rankings. This, I believe, is extremely important because students’ choices in Higher Ed today are not really a function of pedagogy. To this end, Dr. Sinha pushed for curricular liberalization, something that institutions struggle with in India.

The discussion around the ambitious National Knowledge Functional Hubs, a parallel initiative by FICCI led by Dr. Barun Chakrabarti (JGM & Head (R&D), L&T) and Dr Rajan Saxena (Co-Chair FICCI Higher Education Committee and VC, NMIMS), was interesting. I think it will have great impact if the team is able to identify metrics that will allow it to assess performance and progress. The initiative essentially envisages setting up hubs that will be responsible for many things – including the upgradation of teaching skills, academic-industry linkages, documentation, learning material creation etc. The apparent overlap with the National Skill Development Council has been resolved by a split in focus – NKFH will focus on “degree” education and NSDC on the vocational stream. Of course, sector skills councils of NSDC will work closely with NKFH.

I missed the parallel session on the Unfair Practices Bill’s implementation challenges. The Indian education system is being massaged for change in terms of the regulatory frameworks and there are many such Bills that perhaps will see a transition to Law if approved by Parliament this year.

The next session was an open house on the 12th Five Year Plan approach. Dr. MK Sridhar (Karnataka Knowledge Commission) came up with an interesting analysis of student enrolment data. His major finding was that we are focusing on the wrong problem – it is not so much the rise in GER due to attracting more students than a problem of retaining students (high dropout rate triggered by financial (male), marriage (female) and career guidance reasons). This is an interesting, but predictable problem. The focus on the 12th plan seems to be on infrastructure, open content, capacity building and employment & entrepreneurship. The four pillars of the approach are:

  1. leading growth through higher demand for skills
  2. focus on unrepresented and under-represented sections of society
  3. significant focus on open and distance education
  4. focus on increased private HEI participation

The intention is to focus on not just expansion in terms of capacity, but also to think about equality in access and importantly, excellence. In fact, Montek pointed out that excellence perhaps needs to move beyond just improving quality to really creating high end research centres. Lokesh Mehra, Director, Education Advocacy, Microsoft talked about the A-G of education – Attract private sector, Balance liberal and professional focus, C – build a credit transfer mechanism, engender competitive funding across public and private sectors, build clusters of excellence; Distance Education focus, Efficiency, Faculty development focus and GDP alignment.

Nothing significantly different in terms of the shop talk. There is the same lack of research in education in general and the corresponding lack of influence/impact it can have on policy. As almost always, I am the lone tweeter (tag: #FICCIHES2011) and blogger which is never a comfortable thought because it shows the absence of an awareness in the education circles in India that there may be alternatives that may address the problems we face more adequately than simply replicating external experiences.

 

 

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Over the past few months, I have seen the signs of what could be the next generation of teaching – learning experiences, the signs that show how traditionally accepted models and conceptions of tools are being superseded and are gaining focus and importance from education companies, vendors and users, not just innovator-entrepreneurs who have a good idea. It seems that the hype is over and there is serious enough interest to put money and focus into production from large players.

Let us look at the top challenges/needs that are being addressed by this serious interest.

Technology

Web 2.0/Web 3.0, Cloud computing, HTML5, Tablets and Smartphones have really evolved during the past year or so, with a lot of new products and platforms emerging that have a direct relevance to how content and collaboration can happen in the education context. Even as the world over people are predicting the death of the LMS as we have known it, the major objections to the shortcomings have been addressed by the LMS vendors.

Features such as the ability to integrate with social networks and media, the ability to use informal learning pedagogy within the structured confines of the traditional environment, the ability to apply traditional business analytics to the learning process, the ability to work with mobile devices for content delivery and interaction and the ability to be open and adaptive to learning needs, are now surfacing in products. One needs only to look at the change in platforms and products for companies such as Blackboard, SABA and Mzinga to witness the transition. Somewhere education companies are signalling their intent to provide, as George Siemens says, platforms for education.

Pedagogy

While net pedagogy has made a tremendous mark with the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), there are other initiatives like the Khan Academy (which perhaps does demonstrate the power of a good instructional technique, but that is about as far as it goes), traditional open universities and the OER movement seem still to be lagging behind the change.

The struggle within traditional systems to embrace the newer and perhaps more relevant pedagogical modes will be shaped by the availability of tools and techniques that are simple to adopt and implement. That is, one of the important factors will be the availability of an institution-mindset compliant technology replacement for the LMS.

Assessments

Assessment remains a sticking point – particularly for informal network based modes – that has not been fully resolved. Part of the reason why it is (and promises to remain) an unsolved challenge is the contradiction in terms with an entire process of accreditation and certification that is the foundation of the traditional system. Network based assessment places far greater responsibility of demonstrating and assessing competencies on the main protagonists – the learner and the employer (/task).

In the traditional scheme of things, however, I do see some interesting moves towards new assessment techniques. One is the evolution of standard forms to more complex forms of assessment – task based and even collaborative. The other is the use of immersive simulation platforms  and serious games, not just for learning but also for assessments.

Standards

There has been sufficient movement around standards as well. With TinCan and LETSI, there are some interesting ways of looking at the learning experience. IMS is also evolving new specifications that accommodate the newer realities (Learning Tools Interoperability, Learning Information Services and Common Cartridge). There is hope that standards will support a shift to easier and more efficient creation of new learning experiences, assessment modes and administration support.

Scale/Reach/Economics

There is also the realization that costs must be contained/reduced (especially in developed countries) and this is placing great pressure on the traditional players in businesses such as educational publishing. And we see them responding to the challenge in a variety of ways – all digital. I think people do realize that these solutions may perhaps be one set of the solutions for the developing countries (over the next 10-20 years) and perhaps the only solutions for the countries that are going to contribute the bulk of our learners worldwide by 2050 – the less developed countries of today. But somewhere, I have felt that policy has been too slow to respond to these change trends and this is a missed opportunity.

In Summary

I believe that we have crossed an inflection point over the past year and now it is a period of growth and consolidation. The contours of the next generation learning experiences are clear in intent, although there will be numerous successes and failures on the way. It is going to be an interesting time for entrepreneurs, because new ideas will find a playing ground.

 

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