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Archive for July, 2015

Imagine a future is here

Let us for a moment imagine a specific future. Let us also imagine that future is upon us now.

In this future, pedagogy and technology have advanced so much that students are being taught by intelligent virtual learning environments. Students learn is small cohorts entirely through these machine authored and directed experiences.

This future has been long accepted by all, even the greatest cynics of the system and the greatest proponents of the personal touch.

The dwindling supplies of funding and qualified teachers among other factors such as technological advances and exploding young populations has also played its role in this transformation. What was routine for humans in the teaching learning process is now a monolith buried in time.

How do teachers or schools as we know them face this future where their tradition is expunged from practice, when the routine becomes an exception, when human touch is no longer needed, schools disappear and teaching is replaced by humane, intelligent systems and networks?

It helps to step outside the frame to consider such a possibility. It suddenly gives agency to each and every player to consider a future and determine their response.

The black swan flies, and brings great possibilities for change in its wake.

Are we, though, prepared for such a swan, knowing that this future is greatly possible, perhaps that we are inexorably moving towards it?

We are caught in other tensions.

Atleast in India I can see the tensions between public and private, entrepreneurs and incumbents, administrators and policy makers, teachers and technology. It seems everyone is trying to make impacts but, like a rubber band, each end is ending up pulling the other, keeping the constellation in place to perpetuate the system, to keep order.

When something like this slices through, the order will collapse, hurting everyone in the process. I believe it is incumbent upon us to see and seek such futures, if only to question how resilient or adaptive we are to a specific future.

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Hacking the Indian MOOCs

The game is afoot. There seems to be some signs of a resurgence in xMOOCs in India.

The government, it seems, is asking folks at CDAC to put together an indigenous platform within 3 months and asking both school and higher education institutions to contribute by January 2016. This is SWAYAM 2.0 it seems, an aggressive roadmap to put MOOCs (alas, xMOOCs) in the hands of our children. Pity that we still do not know or appreciate the difference between a MOOC and an online course. Skill development folks also seem to be riding on this path.

Meanwhile Amity University has placed an actual undergraduate degree on its MOOC platform. The degree is being provided from Amity University and the website is silent on the exam fees it hopes to generate. Is the degree something that has the endorsement of the doyens in the government?

Incredibly the government has also created a veritable marketplace for digital content with ebasta.in. The ostensible aim being to do away with the heavy school bag. I don’t know if it will also shift the heavy load that we call our education from the students’ shoulders.

Somehow we are stuck in the ICT age and mould. Provisioning network, hardware and now Apps seems to be the secret sauce behind making learning and teaching better when what is needed are the skills to learn online, to teach online and to administer online.  That perhaps will see the light only organically, if at all.

What we need is to first understand the cultural gaps in online education and then devise our strategies for technology enabled learning. Unless this gap is addressed by making the academic workflow online seamless, there will be no significant progress made. Practice, not provision, will make us perfect.

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Most of our education system is geared towards a particular conception of a student and her specific way of learning. Let’s face it. We give our children the same amount of time to learn every day. It is the same time in the day for learning. It is mostly the same cohort with which you learn. The same methods applied to each student. The same subjects to learn. The same textbooks to read. The same boundaries of what you can or cannot do. The same metrics to judge performance. The same number of years to study. The same choices each year until they leave, and then precious little choice of what to learn afterwards. Day after day. Year after year.

On the other hand, we struggle with this sameness. No two students are the same, we say. Learning should occur outside too, through real life applications and experience. It should probably also be flipped. We should use digital content and technology to give students more choice and exposure. We strive to be different each day, try to negotiate their individual complexity within these constraints.

It is almost as if these are two different things – schooling and learning. The end results are fairly predictable. Our children learn to cope with the system. Some manage to master it. And some give up.

Does each student take away enough to be all that we desire them to? Are they really equipped to be responsible citizens and family?

The sameness of our system is a dramatic simplification of teaching and learning. Our struggle against it, a Sisyphean challenge. Our success, partial at best. Thousands learn , but millions don’t quite get there. A scorecard we would not and should not find acceptable.

Do we know any better? Perhaps we do know a bit more than we did. We know it is far more important to push and extend the limits of what our childen can do, like athletes preparing for long hard days on tracks they aspire to reach. We know of more ways to reform or beat the system.

But the system stays, inertial and unyielding,  perhaps we collectively do not believe in our own hearts that the any struggle against it can possibly succeed. Perhaps we believe that it is our fault that the system does not work. Perhaps there is a hope that it can still overcome the contradiction between the simple and the complex, the sameness and the diversity.

We can change it if we really want to, if we really care. We can start by making a commitment to all our children that we will help them learn – that we will not have them bear what we had to.

How can we change?

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Update (Aug 6): IIT Roorkee has decided to re-admit the expelled students, on certain conditions.They have taken a lenient view, considered the situation again and accounted for the impact of the expulsion on the students’ future. #inanity-of-it-all


IIT Roorkee, a premier engineering institute of India, recently expelled several first year students for not meeting the requisite grades. Predictably, there is a backlash both outside and from within the IIT communities themselves, although there are more examples in the past of such incidents in the IITs. There are also insinuations that the decision, by affecting mostly students from disadvantaged backgrounds, is discriminatory in nature.

Many important issues in our education system are laid bare by this unfortunate event. As the author of one of the articles asked, why is the teaching not being questioned? Or the academic practices? Or counseling and remediation? Where are the voices of students in decision making? What legal and educational recourse do students have in the face of such orders? Why is the evaluation and grading system designed in the way it is? Why expel at all, anyways?

It makes me question why we take our education system so seriously. It also proves a thesis I have evolved. For generations we have believed that the education system transforms students, with each class level and exam signifying one step in that direction. But if that were really true, in general, then we would be living in a far equitable, happier, sustainable and prosperous world.

Instead, I have come to believe that the student, far from being transformed, represents a form of organized labour, who along with the academic and administrative labour, and the capital inputs of buildings & infrastructure, actually manufactures certain outputs – the outputs being marks and degrees. These marks and degrees then become commodities used to transact production downstream – either more degrees or formal employment. All funding, policy, standards, school practices and the like are subservient to this production process.

This is not learning. This is production. And production by any means possible – even those that cannot ever pass for anything close to academic excellence, far less to the delight and joy of learning. So we see ministers with fake degrees, grace marks in standardized exams, teachers or school leaders with zero qualification, schools with no infrastructure and research that is non-existent – but still reports that our children have completed school levels or have got into the IITs in droves – as evidence that the system really, really works.

The system works, but it is not learning, it is production of a different kind altogether. And this system of production, at scale, can have no other ways to work – it knows nothing about people and learning, but a lot about numbers and certificates.

People, though, are another thing. People are resilient. They understand the value of the system in transacting the business of living, and accept it as yet another fact they have to deal with, and carry on. That single fact pushes the system through, from generation to generation, from shocking fact to abysmal deception. And people do succeed, some due to and some despite the system.

But it does not need to be this way. There is great joy and reward in learning and sharing. The potential benefits of a well thought out educational system can really result in social outcomes of equity with growth. Such a system would have none of the trappings of the production organization that education is today.

The countless folks who have been rejected or denied education, both outside and inside the current system – there is hope that things will change. Or else they shall have to be made to.

In solidarity, then!

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