Archive for June, 2016

Microsoft may well have the last laugh in the struggle to build SWAYAM – the Indian government’s flagship initiative on MOOCs. The deal is priced at 38 cr INR or about USD 6 mn for a 3 year period post which the government will handle it. This is supported by changes in regulations which permit colleges and technical institutions to use SWAYAM courses for credit – see the UGC and the AICTE guidelines. It is supported by the NMEICT commitment for re-purposing of NPTEL content for MOOC-based consumption. It is supported by host institutions sharing infrastructure and other support for students taking a partner institution course.

This is indeed a positive development for online learning in India. For the first time, online learning will be an acceptable part of the learning curriculum, formally recognized for their credit power. This may enthuse students and teachers to accept the platform and courses, and give students a way to improve their scores and understanding of the subject.

Of course, this platform is not really as open in the sense that it is not open to all for free or to those outside the education system itself to accumulate credits for future sojourns in the academic system or otherwise. It resides as a component within an existing institutional framework with limitations on use. In its implementation, it is likely going to be in the nature of an elective course (at least that is how I think it will be implemented). Over time, whether these courses actually turn out to be massive, is also a question.

When I helped coin the full name of SWAYAM (Study Webs of Active Learning for Young Aspiring Minds), I had for inspiration Ivan Illich’s famous statement in Deschooling Society (1971):

The current search for new educational funnels must be reversed into the search for their institutional inverse: educational webs which heighten the opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing, and caring.

MOOC systems are intended to be webs, an institutional inverse and are new education funnels. Just like the Connectivists say that Learning is the process of making connections and that Knowledge is the network, the web-like nature of learning is its most powerful when actualized through technology and digital networks. They are not intended to be closed and institution specific. I hope some of that thinking permeates how the system is conceived of and implemented, else it will be no different from how online learning has happened all these years.

But in the more relaxed sense, even this is a valuable opening move. Perhaps our Open and Distance Learning system can migrate to SWAYAM as well (IGNOU, NIOS, SOUs) and bring with them learners who have by choice embraced the distance learning paradigm.

There are many important considerations for getting this to work for the long term for Microsoft and SWAYAM.

  1. Open Software, Cloud and API: Use of open software and non-proprietary cloud platforms and technologies: It is imperative, for long term sustainability, to ensure that software stacks are open and reusable in different scenarios. The system must be interfaced with using Open API based services and must exposes developer SDKs. Tie in to vendor specific platforms or application software on a general scale should be avoided.
  2. Design: It is super critical to bring some standardization into MOOC design and development processes while allowing for creativity. MOOCs are/should be designed differently from online learning courses. They become a continuous site of interaction, reflection and knowledge creation rather than episodic learner – course silos.
  3. Delivery: Support for MOOC learners (peer and institutional) needs thinking. The host institution may or may not be capable or able to support such myriad course choices. The partner institution, which creates the course, may need to think of how to certify (if there is a manual component involved in assessments).
  4. Data modeling and security: This is a really huge piece of the puzzle. While data should be available in anonymous forms to researchers, personally identifiable and behavior/performance data should be protected zealously. Data will have to be modeled too along standards that we have to evolve.
  5. Equal Opportunity: A crucial part of this platform’s success will be to allow multiple sources of MOOCs to be hosted on the platform. For example, publishers must be allowed to publish and advertise digital courses found to be at par with the government sponsored content. So too may external organizations, whether HE/SE/FE or not, should be allowed the opportunity to host their courses for fee or free. Otherwise this is akin to creating a government monopoly.
  6. Engagement: The single largest determinant of the platform success is going to be engagement of teachers, experts, administrators, students and parents.

Some additional notes from a previous conversation with a colleague:

Firstly, it makes sense to have many platforms if and only if we agree that a common API can be created by SWAYAM that saves everyone time in development and centralizes data. This common API can be loosely coupled with many content repositories. However a core part of the implementation of these APIs by any provider should be that they “talk” with centralized servers for taxonomies (curricular definitions), learner profile data, learning experience data, content and so on and so forth. This could be a middle of the road approach which shall also allow distributed centres of innovation. Do look at the Clever API way of doing this as an example (https://clever.com/). They centralize student information from 30,000 schools and then make them login to a single platform with hundreds of tools and resources – this saves time and brings forth continuous innovations in content, curricula and edTech.

The second part is that the money we are spending will yield very low return if content assets are not leveraged through a proper Content Management and Publishing platform which stores content in raw formats and is able to repurpose and publish to multiple platforms and devices. We are going to save atleast 30% in costs of new development, 100% of the cost in repurposing (or close to that) and countless hours of effort and money in publishing cycles and deployments. Plus we will enable an entire generation of teachers and experts (and even students) to contribute content pieces on a mass scale.

Thirdly our strategy for compute and storage should be to enable the fabric upon which all systems work – so rather than providing a scaled up portal, if we provide enough power to serve applications, services, content and data to downstream MOOC or online/blended learning environments and store learner & teacher experience data and performance on the shared cloud, we shall end up truly leveraging the massive scale that we have. Just as an example, let us assume that for the same topic in an engineering course, all institutions with lakhs of students taking the course, we are able to amass and match student profiles with course performance data (content viewed, apps used, forum activity, test results etc.), then we will have an unprecedented scale to build adaptive learning algorithms and recommender systems. Plus we shall be able to, on a mass scale, exchange taxonomies with available international content repositories in a meaningful manner. This also sets the ground for continuous improvements.

The fourth is our ability to take this to low cost devices, phones and even standalone centers with little or no connectivity. It should be possible to use our CMS and build delivery mechanisms to sync data and content between the remote center and the central computing resources.

The fifth is our ability to build a community that can create and localize content, and evolve to support each other. No government can physically build a national community that is to be so large and connected. Using central services APIs, we can soft-connect every individual in the learning system and allow distributed sites of development.

The sixth is that it gives the chance to practice good governance, since all activity can be monitored/reviewed/analysed centrally alleviating the pains that exist today in manual data collection and analytics. One has only to see the Sathyam committee report to understand the scale of the problems we face in educational data mining in India.


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The Report of the Committee for Evolution of the New Education Policy 2016 is now available.

The report is a scathing indictment of political interference and corruption in the Indian education system. It is unrelenting in stressing lack of political will to make education a priority. It strongly condemns the corruption and malpractice in India’s education system. It castigates the custodians of educational research and delivery. Overall, the recommendations can be summarized as follows:

  1. Our structures are not working. Let us delete some, add some more new structures and revamp the rest. These structures have to be accompanied by more transparency, decentralization, autonomy and accountability – and there should be a structure for that too. The Higher Education Management Act, for example, should allow an overarching HE regulator to emerge. Centralize high stakes testing by consolidating entrance tests for each discipline. Basically, the order has failed, so let us have more order.
  2. We have met capacity. Now let us focus on capability. The solution is to build military style and bureaucratic cadres that bring in professionalism and expertise into the system. It is on automation and use of ICT (and Big Data with the proposal of a Central Bureau of Educational Intelligence to be set up). It is on efficient management techniques, and coaching and remediation within the system. We need to lower the bar on who can become a teacher, increase tenured positions and promote merit.
  3. The education system is unfocused on education. Teacher unions, strikes, student political activism on campus – these distract from the core aim of education – and unions and students need to refocus.
  4. Existing policies explicit promote a favour taking-giving culture and exploitative black market fee regimes – remove that control on fees and influence. Regulate the market flexibly, but do allow it.
  5. If folks have a problem with what is to change, they can go to education tribunals that will sort out their grievances. The law should support enforcement of a new order with clear mandates. The rest need to fall in line.
  6. Measure, rank and accredit institutional outcomes. Link them to student outcomes and a Gross Employability Ratio. The API system has resulted in a deterioration of research. We need a new all-encompassing framework for Quality Assurance mandatory for all institutions to conform to. Hark back to NARA in Sibal’s time for a national body for accreditation and regulation.
  7. Indian students are spending more on studying and researching abroad than what our universities are spending on their research. So create niche centres of excellence here instead to promote research – and give them full autonomy. Again, allow foreign institutions to give degrees here, but they should be in the top 200 (which is what Coursera thinks too, by the way).
  8. Rapping the NCERT for failing to execute on the NCF 2005 (now itself stale and in need of revision), the recommendations are for NCERT to redesign textbooks. Similarly, IGNOU seems to never have been reviewed for its quality and credibility since its inception! But it should be made a national university so long as it acts as its own regulator. NIOS must emerge as a credible player in vocational education and must also move from a departmental management mode to something more full-blown, like IGNOU. NUEPA comes under fire for not critically reviewing what it is doing and for not undertaking much serious research on the problems of the Indian education system.

It’s a nuanced and detailed report. The authors should be complimented for their method and commitment. They must be especially thanked for their outspoken criticism. However, I must comment on two things:

  1. The report seems to be guided by a dominant political and market narrative. The existing system is broken, fix it by more structure and regulation balanced by accountability. Make the market more open and simplify/deregulate to make entry barriers go down. Make the education intelligentsia more accountable. Make the campus less political. Increase the level of emphasis on culture and values. Make the law more powerful. Create cadres. Leverage Digital India.
  2. There is no underlying framework of thought on the education policy itself or a high level vision. There are no principles explicitly enunciated which act as a basis for the recommendations. There is a great deal of uncovering what is wrong and a greatly detailed empirically grounded prescription for what should be done. But there is no guiding vision or framework. There is no prescription for policy makers nor is there any comment on competence of the policy making process and its agents themselves. There is no mention of entrepreneurship in education, no focus on edTech as a separate area of investigation, no mention of empowerment of students, parents and teachers, no thoughts on open-ness in education etc. This makes it uninspiring, factual and unconvincing (at least to me).

There can be a framework guided not by political or market narratives, and one that can guide policy. An example framework could be along (say) 5 pillars:

  1. Democratization
  2. Leveraging Scale to meet scale
  3. Dis-aggregation and decentralization
  4. Capability not just capacity
  5. Glocalization

The problem with not having a framework is that you have no way of knowing if your recommendations are aligned. Not just that, you have no way of presenting a cohesive model and plan of action. You have no way of pacing the developments or setting targets. You have no way of understanding what the outcome of the policy could be in the short, medium and long-term. You have no mechanism to address conflicting policy directives or recommendations. And you have no way to broker consensus on what is really important and why.

It’s a long report. Some details below.

They recommend a new bureaucratic cadre called the Indian Education Service, earlier mooted by Anil Bordia, as a mechanism to improve governance and quality. In fact, the use of the word cadre throughout the policy indicates their thrust towards more bureaucratic structural changes in the education system with attendant autonomy and accountability narratives.

They are concerned that universities are sites of political organization. That interferes with education. Nothing new there too, considering the recent fracas at JNU.

They invoke Kapil Sibal (although not by name) who suggested a judicial autonomous system of tribunals to handle litigation. And also hark to his work on Foreign Universities and the National Accreditation Regulatory Authority – but fail to explicitly mention those schemes.

They recommend that 6% of the GDP should be spent on Education, a demand that started from the 1968 policy.

They are very conscious of students from socially disadvantaged or economically backward backgrounds who require extra mentoring/enculturation (hark the recent IIT expulsion of such students).

They advocate a one class – one teacher norm, suggesting that it is a period of consolidation for the school sector.

Very interestingly, and this may pinch, they recommend teaching to be converted into a ‘licensed practitioner’ model for both government and private teachers, who would have to undergo ‘independent external testing’ every 10 years to continue as teachers.

Another ‘cadre’ for teacher educators is desired. Teacher unions are encouraged to focus on curriculum development. Teacher mobility (equitable postings across the state) is encouraged. Strong political and administrative will would bend teachers to become more disciplined and accountable, with SMCs and Headmasters given control to take disciplinary action against truant teachers. teacher absenteeism, teacher vacancies and lack of teacher accountability has “destroyed the credibility of our school education system”.

Decentralization to empower local level governance and decision making by school management is also encouraged, provided they are held accountable for results. Student outcomes linked to teacher accountability is the magic wand for improving quality. There is to be a separate cadre for principals too.

The school is now a management unit which ought to function “efficiently”. IT is expected to usher in enhanced school governance and accountability.

The committee also felt that the RTE (Right to Education) “is designed to conform to the spirit of common school system and common curricula.” It feels that increased diversity in the classroom benefits all students, and this should extend to minority institutions equally. In fact, the RTE should be expanded to focus on learning outcomes (basically the law should also step in, apart from political and administrative will).

On no-detention, this should apply only to Class 1-5 and the laws should be suitably amended to scrap this post that. Kids upto 11 years need not be burdened by the shame of repeating a class, whether they learn or not. But later on, it sort of gets more serious. And, of course, focused remediation by the teacher or by technological methods could work to improve the situation.

On vocational education, the report reiterates the existing government policy, structures and direction. Better connects between VET and the school and university systems (“bridge”), NSQF, SSCs and NSDC and the like.

The sector to be hit by regulation is the pre-school market with the additional recommendation that children get the Right to ECCE from age 4 to 5. NCERT would develop the curriculum and Aanganwadis would take the execution up.

And then there is the discussion around languages and how Sanskrit should be introduced at primary and upper primary stages as well. Similarly, in sports, Yoga emerges as a recommendation, that should be encouraged in every school.

Many recommendations on Higher education too – from changing how VCs are appointed, to setting up a new Act under which HE will be governed, to accreditation agencies and structural accountabilities. On MOOCs, they are circumspect and brief, not wishing to commit until they get more evidence. But they are indeed scathing on the NCERT, NIOS, IGNOU, NUEPA and other organizations for the quality and speed of their work.









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