Archive for January, 2013

I just visited StraighterLine, got a demo login and went to the course demo. The name StraighterLine suggests that it is a more direct, efficient, economical way to get to what you need – a degree credit. The website has great messaging, good graphics and a slew of the mandatory big brand names as partners, and an impressive array of subject coverage. Do not miss the money back guarantees.

But take a look at the content, please. Take a look at the learning experience. Do people, in this age, really think that good packaging is more important than learning outcomes? When do we wake up and realize that we need to evolve learning experiences so people actually learn effectively online? And build a business plan around that.

It is the same with the (now boring and regular) announcements in the xMOOC space. Every new announcement (witness the last one on student verification/credentialing services by Coursera), seems to be extending the state of art in a revolutionary manner. All it is, is an extension of business models for revenue making opportunities. When was the last (or first) time you heard the xMOOCs making an important pedagogical announcements – “we have built an ABC engine/technique/interaction that ensures XYZ learning skills are encouraged in students”?

The trends for monetization in this “industry” are so boring to watch evolve, that I am tempted to write my own list and watch it pan out over the next two years. There are 7 players – student, teacher, institution, government, employer, providers and for profit company. These 7 players each need a variety of services based on the interactions between them.

A large part of the services are entrenched in offline ways in the existing system and need to be converted online (for a fee mostly). Some of the services that are monetizable are because they exist as part of the new online space itself (i.e. they would not have existed if the medium was offline).

It does not need a rocket scientist to figure out what services can be digitally automated or created anew, and it does not require more than a board room confabulation (with accompanying opportunistic or trial and error based thinking) to figure out which service to monetize first in a disaggregated (and later consolidated) fashion.

Yeah, right. Learning innovation will be counted in terms of business metrics – on how many students placed, on how many dollars made and saved by universities, of how many numbers of people you aggregated on your site so you could monetize irrespective of whether you contributed to learning (apparently Facebook is now charging to send targeted messages, so may be the xMOOCs should learn from them). No wonder the universities are frightened and want part of the bull-rush.

And as Joshua Kim states, providing a more holistic perspective, “Simply grafting a MOOC or an online program or online course on to the existing structure of course development and delivery will prove to be an inadequate an ineffective response to the changing higher ed market.” Like this post on Adjunct Faculty.

I am swiftly coming to the conclusion we are creating a monster. This is our second monster, the first being the current industrial age education system. Except that this new monster will reach a phenomenally large number of people (some of who, from less advantaged groups and countries will have no choice but to accept a lower quality alternative) because of the same reasons it will be made powerful – open-ness, cost efficiency and accessibility. Even in India, we seem to moving policy towards (ahem) institutionalizing this new monster.

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Much of the discussion I am involved in (I am lurking here) with some senior education leaders from industry, government, academics and NGOs here is revolving around issues such as:

  • The Regulatory aspect: In India, with its regulatory restrictions, is it possible to find a parliamentary/administrative way to foster a marketplace (euphemistically called an exchange) for education – a place where service providers utilize content and technology to service the needs of students and teachers; enable companies (should we privatize?) to start online degree providing universities not subject to territorial restrictions of state boundaries; enable an equivalency between modes and types of education (online, distance, regular) in terms of status of the degree; define a framework for such service providers so that we can mandate a level of quality and fair play/ fair use
  • The Technology aspect: The much touted national network (to every student’s home or millions of public hotspots) and the Aakash tablet in the hands of every student and teacher backed by an online marketplace
  • The Content aspect: What content do we need? What do we have already? And how can we leverage the power of open education resources?
  • The Student and Teacher needs aspect: What challenges and aspirations do students and teachers have? This is the focus of the group I am supporting – we need to determine the exact nature of the problems and expectations from education technology that they face at different levels, before we can suggest possible directions for enabling policy. We have launched a survey (to start with, for teachers) that is helping us pinpoint some of the real issues.

A few years ago, I was naive and impassioned enough to ask some leading educational leaders at a conference the source of their knowledge about Indian education. Did they really understand what the core problems were? Did the mantra of equity-excellence-expansion really cover the aspiration of the nation’s education system? Did blaming the regulatory restrictions and asking for change really solve core issues? And so on. I was assured that they knew what they were talking about when they referred me to the scores of reports that government and companies had generated.

Many reports and meetings later, it is, however, pretty clear to me that this may not really be true.

I suspect the reason is tunnel vision. When you are speeding, the landscape around you blurs and obfuscates. The focus that you have obscures the fact that the high speed highway that you are building has fewer exits and consequently bypasses a large part of the problem you were supposed to solve.

Let me explain.

When we are talking content, content taxonomies, sourcing & integration, creation, quality, delivery, consumption, metadata & semantics and tracking – both online and offline – are all key aspects of a content strategy. However,  the conversations I have witnessed focus on catchphrases like open education resources and the whole challenge of using public funds to create and deliver traditional content (mainly inspired by Khan to include videos). The target is clear (and debatable) – we need a large electronic repository of content that can be consumed by everyone. But is bypasses almost everything we have been talking about with respect to content in the past few years worldwide. Take for example, gamification. This is a term that our experts are blissfully unaware of (one of them asked how to spell it!). My guess is that if I ask them what a learning content management system does, they would have similar reactions. Forget Web 3.0, semantic and augmented web.

When we are talking about technology, the buzzword is social media (Facebook and because our new minister of state uses it to political chagrin, Twitter), classroom clickers, smart board led classes and our favorite, ICT. The conversation is blissfully aware of most of what is happening out there – networked learning, curation, the power of user generated content, adaptive learning, learning analytics, learning architecture, location awareness and education networks. Even the conversation around the MOOCs centres on the hype created by the Coursera and Udacity phenomena, blissfully ignorant of Connectivism and the paradigm shift that it brings to teaching and learning.

When we are talking about vocational education at scale, we are blissfully unaware of the power of simulations to deliver real world training to an audience that has no alternative (at scale). In fact, we are even unaware of the low level of respect that VET courses have in the minds of our students and their families that aspire for degrees and unaware of the fact that employers are not willing to either provide the respect or the working conditions that VET students aspire for.

When we are talking institutions and regulations, it gets even worse. Today’s news is that the AICTE, the body regulating professional and technical education in the country (with an avowed allergy to distance education) has approved the distance mode with respect to management and engineering courses, subject to the student having already procured a classroom degree at the Bachelors level AND gained 5 years of work experience before applying for an entrance test. Not only that, the student has to qualify a national level exit test, ostensibly because the exit and entry mechanisms in Distance Ed do not ensure quality. Now how impenetrably stupid is that?

Furthermore, policy recommendations are being constructed for new (private/Sec 25) online universities without a care in the world of how they are going to deliver an educational promise. eLearning does not scale. We have found that out after years of experience. Now we have mechanisms (at least some) that will predicate a bit of quality of learning experience in online learning, but our mindset (witness the NBA accreditation guidelines) is based on old page counters and clicks mechanisms which are vastly inadequate to determine outcomes. We are in the precarious position of using old tools to guide new technology and practice!

And then this whole notion of services. Ostensibly, empowering any organization to come up and deliver an educational service through the marketplace (hate that word now) is an enabling policy measure for innovation and competition. However, this is yet another way of letting the big players market their wares – why, because of their brand and existing track record in the regulated space. If the empowerment was for any teacher, as an individual, that would stand a much better chance (you have to only looking at the unorganized coaching segment). There is also the conflict – the subtle and insidious greed of private agencies to leverage public content and infrastructure for private gain. More than anything, it is just wishful thinking that this is an equitable and high quality way of ensuring that our scale gets addressed.

The one thing I am happy about, though, is the efforts of Surbhi, Atul, Anirudh, Amruth and Manish, to help me put together and translate into multiple Indian languages, the teacher survey. We believe that this is a step in the right direction. To really uncover the problems and opportunities through these surveys and focused discussions, will perhaps, backed by the work of many committed people in the sector, provide us the insights necessary to take a stand on what needs to get done. We will make the survey results open and accessible as we go along.

In summary, I don’t really understand where we are headed in Indian education or how we will solve the systemic issues at the policy and expert levels. But I am hopeful that unlike 2012, this year will find a lesser cynic in me!

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