Archive for March, 2015

Mary Cullinane, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s first Chief Content Officer, writes on Why Free Is Not the Future of Digital Content in Education. She makes the case that technology advances will not make digital content eventually free, just like in the music industry. This is because technology is adding value, not just reducing the cost of delivery or production. She writes:

As students engage with the content, the content learns more about the students and it also becomes “smarter”. A digital engine compares students’ responses to those of all other users. Equipped with that data, this adaptive learning system doesn’t just show that a student answered incorrectly. It knows why she did, and uses those insights to create a customized learning path.

In doing so, technology helps solves a big problem that has always confronted teachers: students learn at different paces. Advanced students can get bored and struggling students can give up. Now, as a teacher, I can put content in front of each learner that is personalized to his or her needs. It’s something teachers have been doing through the ages, but technology brings it to the next level of adaptivity.

However, this is not an argument that precludes “free”. Technology has added tremendous value for many services (take, for example, instant messaging) and kept the price at zero. Adaptive learning is just simply not the domain of publishers who have large repositories, author networks and organized funding. It can be done in a free, open manner too (just take a look at Khan’s work, for example). What is true, though, is that content development for adaptive learning can become expensive very quickly. We have come a long way since Ms. Lindquist : The Tutor. Now paths through content leading to mastery can be uncovered through collective intelligence, rather than having to be enumerated as before. However, adaptive content still has design requirements that are in addition to regular content development and learning design.

The other thing I would watch against is taking this as a magic wand that “solves a big problem” for teachers and personalizes learning for students. Personalized learning is a very difficult thing to crack, and it is not the same as recommendation systems such as the ones we see today that crowdsource learning patterns. Ultimately, these systems seek to harmonize existing goals (like solving an algebraic equation or learning a grammar construct) where the ontology is precise and the domain exhibits structured rules. Much of learning, however, is not that. Nor is it always goal-seeking.

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I believe we have to seriously think about what open-ness means for Indian education.

There are many dimensions to being open that extend beyond merely making data available for public accountability and transparency. For example, if we do not provide appropriate redressal of grievances that emerge from an analysis of the data, we are not truly open.

The thing about being open is that it threatens to disrupt tightly closed systems. In our schools, for example, the dominant mindset seems to be to stifle and restrict the voice of students and parents; and in most cases even teachers. Free unrestricted communication aided by technology threatens the image of the school, it seems. This is because the school no longer has control over opinions being aired publicly or even within closed school networks. This is for fears that are sound (for example, obscenity), but even more deeply because it unites parents in opinion making and acts of dissent. However schools do not appreciate (or simply ignore) the virtual back channel of conversation and collaboration that open social tools have enabled. It is almost as if what they cannot see or control, does not exist. For schools to allow open communications is almost taboo. And this is not about Facebook pages either.

The other dimension is teacher-student interaction. So long as the school maintains secrecy about what transpires between a student and her teacher, it protects itself from scrutiny and accountability. For example, the open text-book assessments, which is a graded case study based approach for grades 9 and 11, mandates that there be proper reflection and discussion on the case study prior to the assessment – something that I have not witnessed happening. Perhaps schools may not like to expose shortcomings in their teaching learning processes or the abilities of their teachers to communicate effectively in open online environments. The latter is a particularly sad testament because what are teachers without effective communication skills whether online or offline.

Another dimension is the responsibility that students and parents have in an open environment. Each school may collaboratively build a culture and community that adopts its own model code of conduct. This is not easy so long as there is mistrust or irresponsible behaviour on the part of any stakeholder. Being a cultural shift, this is not going to be a one time activity, but there are responsible parents, teachers and administrators who can lead this on an ongoing basis – they just need empowerment. There are also issues that are specific to online networks that need attention in order to protect the interests of the community itself. Essentially, the community has to self-govern if it also wants to be open.

Yet another dimension transcends the individual institution to reflect in practices of school chains, consortia, unions and even organized governmental policy making. Is CABE or mygov.in truly open? Or is the CBSE, UGC or AICTE? Practices behind closed doors often mask incompetence and intention. In most part, attempts at open-ness are really half-hearted (at least at scale, in online collaborative environments). Perhaps it is policy that leads the way. But then perhaps it is better it does not – that the change happens in a more organically emergent manner, from local to global.

Will these challenges to open-ness (not merely restricted to India, not merely to schools and colleges) stifle the growth of social collaborative learning? Will they ultimately stifle India’s equity and growth aspirations?

I believe they absolutely will.

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The Open Text-based Assessment or OTBA was also notified on May 31, 2013 by the Central Board of Secondary Education. Applicable to select subjects in Class IX and XI, this was made a mandatory component of the Summative exams at the end of the year. Experts hired by CBSE have now made essays/case studies etc. based around the key concepts covered through the second term in that subject and told teachers to hold group discussions, facilitate exploration and to engage students in “discussion, analysis, self-reflection and critical thinking”. They want to discourage “mugging” and encourage active learning. As the circular states:

The main objective of introducing this element is to provide opportunities to students to apply theoretical concepts to a real life scenario by encouraging active and group learning in the Class.

In a later circular, it is reiterated that:

the main objective of introducing OTBA is to relieve the students from the burden of mugging up of content and provide opportunities in effective use of memory and acquiring skills of information processing.

And the board has actually supplied the content for the OTBA complete with sample questions and assessment “rubrics” (which are nothing but itemized phrases or key points, that if they appear in the answer to the question, may be considered worthy of being awarded the right score). The teacher is expected then to create questions based on a revised Bloom’s taxonomy, assign a marking scheme and keep an “open mind” setting aside own biases while grading an answer.

While the concept is laudable – in fact, this is greatly desirable as a technique – the implementation is and will continue to be a great challenge. It assumes and implies several things.

It assumes that teachers will be able to execute if oriented and trained. While this is a good “upward” aspiration, it is unlikely to be true on a significant scale as pointed out by the NCFTE 2009 report itself. The report bemoans that:

Teacher education programmes provide little scope for student teachers to reflect on their experiences…There is no opportunity for teachers to examine their own biases and beliefs and reflect on their own experiences as part of classroom discourse and enquiry.

Teachers who have not experienced or practiced lateral and critical thinking themselves are not going to be able to do so basis an orientation program or workshop conducted by the CBSE per se. For them to be able to do this, they will need extensive on-going coaching and mentoring.

The other thing is the format itself. The beauty of an open assessment like this is that it needs time in the classroom and beyond it to appreciate the text and its interdisciplinary nature. But if the text itself becomes a chapter-like construct, because the same text that is given in advance becomes the one upon which assessment is conducted, it has already negated the technique. In the end, publishers are incentivized to come up with yet another textbook around the passages and the child ends up resorting to cramming it, defeating the very purpose of the assessment.

Not just that, there is no evidence gathering mechanism to demonstrate what the in-class and beyond-class exploration and thinking around the text has really resulted in. This means that teachers have no compulsion to treat this as any different from what they normally do. Even if they  were able and willing, they have little prior experience in negotiating loosely structured learning processes.

Then again, the beauty of any such technique lies in the open interpretation of the text in the context of all the learning that the child goes through. However text based assessments are divided subject wise, automatically constraining the extent of interpretation and analysis to the chapter of the subject being taught. So it is not even a true case based approach. If it were, it would place even a greater load on teachers who would be expected to have that holistic approach and knowledge.

The other important thing is the naming of the assessment itself. The use of “open” as a qualifier to “text based” is contradictory in terms because it restricts the learning context to the text itself (and some supplied references, many of which are dead-ends for discovery and exploration of the theme). The text could be one starting point, but not the only one. And it must be clear of political overtones (like the preoccupation with the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan).

In fact, if it was called open learning assessment, it would be much more appropriate. For these type of assessments, we cannot apply the same context as that for closed learning assessments. The concept is not new and even a cursory examination of the research on the web reveals practices, techniques and critical opinions (see also Can students also learn…) about open “authentic” assessments vs. traditional closed assessments. Of course, one cannot ignore other “get-around-it” methods such as plagiarization and cheating, which must be combated in these kind of assessments if they are truly open, but there are methods to handle these anomalies as well.

The question is how deeply are we thinking about these assessments and learning processes? Are we playing lip service or do we really think this can be a silver bullet? We need to think deeply about the ecosystem we want to foster for deep authentic learning – are our designs going to further learning or are they going to serve entrenched interests?

If we do really intend OTBA type assessments to result in something significant for our students and teachers, we need to address some deeper issues.

  1. How can we first engage our teachers (and teacher educators) in ways through which they truly begin to understand and appreciate “open-ness”? How do they start practicing open-ness? What practices and tools are they most comfortable with? How do we ensure that they are given a conducive environment to fill their own learning gaps?
  2. How can we start encouraging our students to learn new practices, especially the social and digital ones, to aid authentic learning?
  3. How can we plan this in a way that we have the ecosystem in place before we scale it to students and their parents? It is tiring to see students being guinea pigs of every new brainwave.
  4. What should the ecosystem contain? This should involve skills development in various areas (student, teacher, parent, school administration), community development for learning and practice, social online literacies, tools and platforms, audit and measurement leading to analytics and actionable insights, and other elements such as linkages with real-life scenarios, experts and data.
  5. Perhaps the greatest contribution in these can be made through cMOOCs, because they are truly fit for authentic learning. If platforms such as SWAYAM could be adapted to become the cornerstone of this approach, especially for technology enabled communities, this could really be the platform that would make this kind of learning and assessment possible. Why can’t every OTBA be a MOOC? For those who do not have access to technology or the Internet in a reliable fashion, what are the other ways of dissemination and collaboration (inter/intra-school debates, mock discussions, paper-writing and many other activities could be conducted)?

Is this plain lip service to open-ness and authentic learning? Or is it being thought of as this incredible silver bullet that at some point will transform Indian education. Either way, we need to think deeper urgently.

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