Archive for April, 2014

There are many positives happening in EdTech in India. A government led mission called the National Mission on Education using ICT (NMEICT) has created massive amounts of content for engineering, arts and humanities, social sciences and natural science. It has also delivered the under 50 USD tablet, Aakash and a slew of innovations including Virtual LABs and the A-View web conferencing tool (that seems to work better than Skype). The school sector is running alongside nicely with initiatives to build content (NROER, K-OER) and delivery systems (Virtual Open School, NIOS). Teacher Ed is also getting the necessary focus from a content perspective (though the technology pieces are still being conceptualized). The Vocational Ed sector is running behind yet (although I have word of some level of content development), but one hopes it will catch up sooner than later.

The writing on the wall is pretty clear – India seems to be moving quickly towards a blended learning strategy that relies on platforms such as edX, existing physical infrastructure & “facilitator” faculty, and video lectures. Learning Analytics and Badging seem to be getting a mention (only just).

It seems an obvious response to scarcity of quality teachers, also exacerbated by the remoteness of interior locations. But interestingly these seem to ignore some of the learnings of the past 20-30 years and even some current work such as Sugata Mitra’s SoLE research and pilots in government schools.

Carefully crafted models of blended teaching and learning can definitely impact the system. However, systems designed to “spray and pray” will cause more harm than good. The current approach to virtual schooling seems to be to provide technology to broadcast lectures by the expert teacher and leave the local facilitator to do the support job. Blends are far more involved than that simplistic view.

Blends place a larger demand on students capability to learn with the help of technology. Learners need to build the capability for self-discipline, self-motivation, self-organization, peer learning, higher levels of exploration & discovery and even how to overcome technical constraints of under-reliable hardware, software and connectivity. 

Blends also place a heavy demand on the local facilitators of such instruction. The “distance” between the teacher and student needs to be filled by the facilitator. This distance is on the emotional plane as well as on the planes of knowledge, coaching, mentoring. contextualization and organizing the process of learning. In that sense, the facilitator needs to work very closely with the remote teacher and needs to understand the very intent and idiosyncrasies of the remote expert.

On the other hand, the remote expert needs to understand the limitations imposed by “distance”, and work to the capabilities of the facilitator. The expert also needs to cope with diversity, since it is obviously a much larger class than before and very diverse. The expert needs to be able to design learning paths that the facilitator can effectively implement. Especially in cases where the facilitator is also a competent and experienced teacher, the expert must allow for some level of creativity & local insight to be exhibited by the facilitator. Additionally, the remote expert must learn how to leverage data – about classrooms, facilitators and learning patterns – to make the blends iteratively more effective.

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I didn’t know it at that time, having been born just a few months later, that the revolutionary Open University, UK was born in January, 1971 with 25000 students. Of course, my parents didn’t know that either when they named me Viplav (my Sanskrit origin name literally means “revolution”). It’s just one of those weird coincidences.

The OU was born amidst great opposition as a “University of the Air”. The concept was being discussed from the early 1960s. Touted as “an experiment on radio and television: a ‘University of the Air’ for serious, planned, adult education”. It was revolutionary also because it did not ask for prior qualifications and placed a premium on students acquiring the skills to study in this medium.

Although the first correspondence (read Distance Education by local mail) based course was organized in India by Delhi University in 1962, Andhra Pradesh Open University (now Dr. B R Ambedkar Open University) was the first Open University in India when it opened in 1982, 3 years before the famous government-owned Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) that opened its doors in 1985. IGNOU has now about 4 million students and serves 20% of Indian Higher Education students.

There are many parallels to the growth of the two systems (UK and India), and the UK OU’s trajectory was a pivotal influence on what our policy makers envisioned. In fact, I have direct evidence that this is so.

Between 16-19 December 1970, there was a seminar organized by the Ministry of Education and Youth Affairs, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and the University Grants Commission (UGC). The Seminar’s focus was on an open university.  J C Aggarwal chronicles the event in his book, Landmarks in the History of Modern Indian Education, and states:

In the United Kingdom the proposal for the establishment of an open university, originally called the university of the Air, took 4 years to take definite shape. Profiting by what has been accomplished in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, and also by the experience of the correspondence courses conducted by several Indian universities, it should be possible for shortening the time that will be needed for planning and preparation.

It was proposed that a study group be established to work out the details so that an open university be created “at an early date”.

This open university was envisioned to make higher education available to those with “the capacity for it to benefit from the existing facilities.” It was meant for highly motivated adults lacking formal qualifications or means to join universities full-time. In their conception, the Open University could be used for:

  1. providing education to capable, independent and mature learners
  2. providing education to the masses at a reduced per unit cost
  3. making higher education more effective by leveraging scarce resources
  4. as a means of employing new and unconventional methods of instruction and exploiting new technologies

Very interestingly, they placed focus on ‘open-ness” to new ideas as fundamental to the open university concept. Perhaps they were prescient about the current xMOOCs when they wanted the  best in curricula from Indian and foreign universities.

It is interesting that the dominant paradigm (as Prof. MM Pant pointed out to me yesterday) was the television, and thereby video. I was told recently that we have many tens of thousands of hours of taped educational videos (between CEC, IGNOU and others). Supporting technologies included the radio, postal communications and localized study centres.

Aggarwal also points to an interesting government committee on Audio-Visual Aids in Higher Education (1967-69) set up by the UGC. Video was preferred because it provided “sight” and sound to enrich the learning process. They acknowledged that:

Films, filmstrips and transparencies are being increasingly used in educationally advanced countries as visual materials which can be used in any teaching situation when it becomes necessary to demonstrate a point, a fact, an idea or a process.

It is perhaps being inspired by these ideas that even today the government is commissioning advanced direct to home channels for education and have created NPTEL (Engineering disciplines OER repository) and NMEICT e-Content (by CEC and others).

Together, India must absolutely have the largest collection of educational material in the entire world. And I would wager that a large percentage of it is really good quality material suitable for leverage by everyone, if only the government would make it really open and accessible.

Over time, the confluence of developments in affordable technology as well as developments in educational theory, has brought many inflections on our policies and curricula. Our educational systems have time and again, faced up to these developments in an incremental fashion to various degrees of success.

Globally as well, when elearning came in, it was more of a response to standardize learning “packages” so that they could be uniformly consumed by a large number of people. Driven by the emphasis on cost reduction by Western corporates, eLearning quickly took off as a time and money saver. Traditional education systems too realized the potential, but were limited by available funds and perhaps a greater aspiration to quality than the corporates.

Now there is a point to which an existing paradigm can stretch and contort to keep up with surrounding developments in technology and learning theory. We passed that point about 10 years ago when dramatic changes in networks and social media started surfacing.

The current thinking is all part of an evolution that is now about 60 years old (perhaps more!). New thinking cannot be built on top of something that ancient. We have to start from scratch, re-envision the educational process and systems from the very ground up so that they reflect our possible futures that are in all honesty going to be dominated by intelligence brought to us by networks and data.

That work has to begin in earnest now. Very soon, we will be seeing the rear end of the demographic dividend (which shall move to Africa). What are we doing to prepare ourselves for that future?

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There are some key challenges that we are facing in eLearning today. And I am beginning to think that these are pretty much invariant to scale. I am beginning to think that perhaps many of them happen at smaller scale in traditional face-to-face education. Here is an indicative list.

  • High dropout or low completion rates
  • Low engagement and retention (motivation)
  • Lack of data driven analytics cramps scalability
  • Low use of collaboration/networked learning tools & communities
  • Lurking as a legitimate activity
  • In courses that need them, lack of physical F2F & LAB support
  • Increased demand on the student’s capability for self-directed learning
  • Need sophisticated auto-grading (or scalable high quality peer review) systems for large scale assessments
  • Video lecture fatigue
  • Lack of interoperability with traditional institutions (incl. curricular)
  • Availability of Localized materials
  • Access to power, infrastructure and connectivity
  • Credibility / value perception of learning for employers or for credit transfers by traditional institutions

Some of these are definitely challenges that would constrain any system. But perhaps the real challenges lie elsewhere. For example, I am getting convinced that more than anything else, the capability & motivation of the learner to learn, is the most limiting factor.

We see a lot of power laws in the real world of learning – where a few students participate heavily and the largest number contribute to the long tail. Ideally, an efficient and high quality system would be one where the graphs are uniformly flatter indicating wholesome participation in the process of learning. I would think that not much changes at lower scale or with change of modality to traditional classroom scenarios, and that power laws are in fact observable in these scenarios as well.

The aim of most educational systems is to develop students who are prepared for the life to come, who can contribute to  the world as responsible citizens, who are successful in leveraging knowledge and reason to attain their goals and who learn how to learn. I think the last part is really significant – in fact I would say the most significant part.

In thinking about how people can learn to learn, it is obvious that there be a multiplicity of options on how to learn, rather than just any one way of learning. Our education systems have so far taught just the one way to learn, but there are indeed other ways to learn that may or may not be consonant with the traditional approach.

What are some of these paradigms? I think the Connectivist approach crystallizes what learning really means in a digital age. It is sufficiently “alternative” as a paradigm and needs to be explored. The MOOC is perhaps just one instance of Connectivist environments. Other online environments may exist where massive does not necessarily equate to number of learners, and open doesn’t necessarily equate to “barrier-less” and where we let go of the “course” confines.

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