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Indian edTech has always been a tough battleground. It is getting tougher and more inexplicable by the day, and unless we, in edTech, take a stand, it will get far worse.

Here are some of the major forces shaping the industry.

The government has always had the lion’s share. They maintain the right of exclusion and maintain the right to make frequently silly decisions for the sector. Policy makers have not exhibited much understanding of edTech either, but have spent huge taxpayer money and time in demonstrating their deficiencies.

For the remaining, the private players are organized in an oligopolistic manner  with the largest shares among private schools business being served by a handful of companies that are deeply entrenched. Large players have also indulged, in general, in several practices of corruption that accompany the oligopoly.

There are a large number of small players serving the market for a variety of needs. Very few of them have scaled. Those that have, are unable to scale further without knocking at the doors of the large traditional players.

There is also a pecking order in the schools themselves, starting with a small number of elite players and a vast majority of tier 2 and 3 schools. They have shown far greater acceptance and ability to experiment than the rest of the ecosystem, but large and prestigious schools are concerned more with their own progress than with developing the system itself.

For the longest time, control in the private school market has been wielded by regulatory bodies such as the educational boards. The direct control of the Central and State governments are always in evidence. There is a deep and abiding mistrust between public and private players, perhaps rightly so, because they have mostly conflicting ideals.

Whereas the B2B (and B2B2C) route is mostly preferred, the B2C market has not really taken off in a sustained manner. This is because those that could afford have already been sucked to the bone by the existing school system itself by way of fees and other allied expenses.

Venture capital in this scenario is weak, chasing exits with little domain expertise – at least in general. Everybody is floored by the prospect of scale, and very few understand that what the sector needs is sustained investment. A look at 2016 investments tell the story with one investment in an outdated model and very uncertain future getting the most traction.

And then government signals are very conflicting. The movement to common core type of curriculum, proposals for a single national board of education, quasi mandates on public textbooks, reversing the most important curricular innovation of this century and the last, cultural re-invention through books & media, focus on assessments across the grades in the name of minimum levels of learning, mandating SWAYAM as the learning exchange and the latest, setting up of a national teachers portal – all colored by a lens that can best be described as “nationalization” of education. The new buzzword seems to be to treat the education system as a nationalized public enterprise supported by well meaning technocrats.

But little do we realize that Indian edTech industry is now on the verge of extinction through these measures. Rather than building a pluralized & balanced ecosystem in which public and private initiatives are aligned, the government is over-reaching its role by imposing its own brands of content, pedagogy and technology. Even if it was to focus this only on it’s own schools and colleges, it will fail in its arrogance as the only thought leader in these areas – the only ones who really know how to create high quality digital content, innovate on pedagogical techniques and deliver technology for the millions.

Not having a diverse ecosystem with checks and balances will result in the death of innovation and creativity. Education will truly become a government department supported by large enterprises.

That is not who we are, the folks in edTech. We have an undying passion and commitment to education and yes, sustainable business practices – with complete integrity. We are people who have dedicated their lives to the mission of improving edTech in this country and continue to cherish the dream of a developed ecosystem for education where our children, teachers and administrators reap the rewards of edTech at scale. We are people not afraid to fail, to make mistakes – all to make sure we live in a better country. Our efforts are no less than that of the other stakeholders in the system.

And if certain myopic policies and biases serve against these goals, we have to speak out and be heard. Ours is not to remain silent. Not now.

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What is National Education?

Following a session of the Indian National Congress, H V Dugvekar, in 1917, came out with a compilation of essays by prominent freedom movement leaders including Bipin Chandra Pal, Gopal Krishan Gokhale, Annie Besant and Lala Lajpat Rai. A speech from Bipin Chandra Pal, founder of the Brahmo Samaj and part of the triumvirate Lal-Bal-Pal (for Lala Lajpat Rai, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Bipin himself), grabbed my attention.

National Education has been defined by a resolution of the last National Indian Congress as education conducted along national lines and under national control. I would, however, amend this definition a little by adding a clause towards the end. Education may be conducted along more or less national lines and may be more or less under national control and yet it may not be National Education.

He suggests that we may adopt practices on a large scale in pedagogy, set the medium of instruction and establish a public mode of ownership, but this

may not be National Education, because the object of this education, though conducted to a certain extent along national lines and though worked practically under national control, may not aim at the realisation of the destiny of the nation, and an education that does not direct its efforts towards the realisation of the national destiny, even if it be conducted along national lines, more or less, and even if it be ‘under national control’, apparently, to some extent, yet it would not be national education in the fullest and truest sense of the term…A nation is not a mere collection of individuals, it is an organism…The nationality that constitutes a nation is the individuality of a nation.

That should make us think – what is the National Destiny that is sought to be realized through our system of national education? What is the individuality of our nation that we should strive on creating?

In the sense that the education system is fundamentally, or should be, a reflection of the needs of the nation, this question is closely linked to how we define the education system itself. That definition is usually  some expansion of the idea of a holistic development of the individual, with the hope that the mature, intellectually developed, disciplined and enculturated citizens that are produced/engendered by the education system, will in some way be able to shape the national destiny. But how do schools respond to alternate and changing national destinies? Can they articulate them effectively and adapt? Can they create national destinies?

Or is Indian Education karmic and we are not to think of our destinies because they are already pre-decided; we can but only perform our duties honorably without worrying about the fruits?

“कर्मणये वाधिकारस्ते मां फलेषु कदाचन । मां कर्मफलहेतुर्भू: मांते संङगोस्त्वकर्मणि” ।।
(Bhagwat Gita: Chapter Two verse 47)

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In education systems that have an oligarchic organization, with a small number of large private and/or public players, educracies acquire a kind of totalitarian rather than an egalitarian expression.

From a current example in India, the government is flexing educratic muscles on a set of private affiliated (to a national education board) schools that comprise around 1% of  all schools in India, but a much larger segment and visible segment within all private schools (about 25% of the total, as of 2014). These schools are affiliated to the CBSE and in fact gain their credibility itself from the affiliation, and are large autonomous in their practices and governance. Some of these schools have gained tremendous national and international visibility for their alumni, quality and hard work. However, the extent of profiteering has been largely governed by the extent of their own missions and conscience.

So it does happen that when excessive profiteering occurs (and what is excessive is largely subjective), the school becomes a place for commercial exploitation of parents. Often times, the exploitation increases without any corresponding increase in quality or outcomes. In fact, it becomes a rule that the more you have, the more you get. Monies appropriated within one school foundation cycle (average breakeven is 5-7 years), provide room for expansion and often viral growth of branches and franchisees.

At some point, some governments feel compelled to reign in these practices – when it becomes politically expedient or populist, or when other twisted motives of control and cultural or ideological influence emerge – not necessarily at the point that systems need change, but even after years of ignoring these problems.

When this happens, as it is happening in this instance in India, questions of quality and growth are rarely asked or answered. It is fairly easy to regulate, but difficult to state that it will solve the core problems of quality. By fixing fees, removing profiteering at schools, abolishing black money, increasing control over school affairs to extend from mere affiliation to more control and regulation over school internal and hitherto autonomous ways of working, the system of control and coordination is being extended.

This will have many benefits, predominantly in the region of reducing exploitation by private schools. In that respect, no parent will find fault with the inherent populist and necessary nature of the regulation. Some things do need to be kept in mind though, particularly from an edTech ecosystem perspective.

  1. The fledgling ecosystem of edTech companies  are already battling problems of customer acquisition and scale. With pressure on fees, most schools will not be able to pass on marked up edTech costs (like of smartclasses) to students and will therefore have no incentives to deploy the additional services (except to do a me-too marketing spiel).
  2. Existing service providers or digital and allied forms of courseware will be under increased stress to operate in uncertain investment environments and venture capital will cease and desist until the situation improves. This will impact growth of the sector negatively.
  3. The government ecosystem for edTech is very primitive yet and there are few capabilities within the system to create and employ edTech. This constraint is not going away anywhere soon. There must be a solution to this for the long term, with a key component being research.

The next questions that need to be answered with equal vigor are around quality, not  just of these 1% schools, but of all the school system itself.

Will mandating courseware developed by a state sponsored institution necessarily improve quality and do we need such uniformity in materials?

Will elimination of or deep negative impact on edTech procurement by these schools be desirable and can the gap be filled?

Does this still allow high quality schools to operate with the flexibility they need and maintain their ability to hire more expensive teachers and infrastructure?

Do we need uniform learning indicators for all our schools?

Do we need differentiated and pluralistic strategies towards edTech?

Do we need to foster an edTech sector at all or can government take that responsibility?

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Recently at a conference, someone asked me about the future of publishing. Remarking that it was a interesting question the answer to which I really did not know, which evoked much mirth, I ventured further to assert that the publishing and edTech are both a product and a function of the underlying system of education (and research). Viewed in such a manner, the future of publishing and edTech then naturally becomes a question of the future of the system of education itself. And that was something that was really complex to venture an opinion on.

However, I feel I must give it a shot. Our system of education is an educracy. Not that there is such a word yet to describe the bureaucratic system of education that we have (though there is the combination of education and bureaucrat – educrat – that merits an entry into the Oxford dictionary). The educracy is inspired by similar applications of bureaucratic models in organization theory in other fields. It is today the only way that we understand how to govern education.

Max Weber, a German sociologist, studied bureaucracy closely. He believed that conditions for its emergence included scale, complexity and the existence of a monetary system. For him, bureaucracy meant:

  • a hierarchical organization
  • delineated lines of authority with fixed areas of activity
  • action taken on the basis of, and recorded in, written rules
  • bureaucratic officials with expert training
  • rules implemented by neutral officials
  • and career advancement depending on technical qualifications judged by organization, not individuals

Source: Boundless. “Weber’s Model for Bureaucracy.” Boundless Sociology Boundless, 20 Dec. 2016. Retrieved 25 Feb. 2017 from https://www.boundless.com/sociology/textbooks/boundless-sociology-textbook/social-groups-and-organization-6/bureaucracy-56/weber-s-model-for-bureaucracy-352-10202/

Weber believed that bureaucracies are most efficient and effective mechanisms for the public governance. There is a clear administrative class hired to maintain the system and perform managerial roles, a hierarchy of information dissemination & control, a clear division of labour, processes & rules, clear record of activities and a fair degree of rationality & impersonal behaviour through the system.

While this was an “ideal type”, Weber believed that democracy and bureaucracy (read “large scale organization”) were incompatible. Weber’s friend, George Michels, called this the Iron Law of Oligarchy –  “effective functioning of an organization therefore requires the concentration of much power in the hands of a few people”. As John Dalberg-Acton famously said, ” “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

As the Wiki article puts succinctly,

Bureaucracy by design leads to centralization of power by the leaders. Leaders also have control over sanctions and rewards. They tend to promote those who share their opinions, which inevitably leads to self-perpetuating oligarchy. People achieve leadership positions because they have above-average political skill (see charismatic authority). As they advance in their careers, their power and prestige increases. Leaders control the information that flows down the channels of communication, censoring what they do not want the rank-and-file to know. Leaders will also dedicate significant resources to persuade the rank-and-file of the rightness of their views. This is compatible with most societies: people are taught to obey those in positions of authority. Therefore, the rank and file show little initiative, and wait for the leaders to exercise their judgment and issue directives to follow.

Systemically, therefore, the bureaucratic mode of organization that is in evidence in our education system, is really an oligarchy. And therefore, a change in the education system really involves a change in the power relations within the educracy itself.

Unless the order is changed, the system will not change, and neither will ancillaries like publishing and edTech. In fact, the order will keep consuming new innovation, especially those that, though revolutionary, do not gain critical mass.

The old order will view innovation from the old order’s lens. For example, someone else asked me about the huge dropout phenomenon in MOOCs. That was from an old order lens which assumed that if it was a course, then it must be completed and certified.

Instead, I asked, why don’t you consider that such a huge number actually “dropped IN” to learn something, to take away something without being directed to, to explore new knowledge and modes of learning, and the ones that actually completed these “courses” took responsibility to convert those learning experiences into something more formal probably just because the old order wouldn’t recognize anything alternative.

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In the traditional system of education, there are many fundamental incongruities. For example, let us take certification of progress or advancement.

The output of an academic level (degree, year) is a certification of progression. This certification, awarded by the institution, indicates the achieved levels of learning and performance. The value perception of that certification is either implicitly understood through common sense or popular conception of what that level should be (“She is an engineer!”), or explicated through rubrics codified in standards or through formalized benchmark tests (“She max-ed the SAT!”). This certification is agreed and generally understood to signify a common understanding about the underlying competency.

As a consequence, what is also assumed is that the education system is organized (within the constraints of policy) such that the general meaning of the certification remains the same. That is, it self-organizes in a way as to promote a fixed correlation between certification of progress and competence.

On closer scrutiny, this can hardly be an exact or specific relationship. No two institutions may share the same everything. It is a really complex environment. There are many moving parts that contribute to the perception of competence or academic achievement, such as the specific curriculum, the quality of teaching or infrastructure, institutional brand, the ability of students and the level of rigor of assessments. An MBA program from Wharton could be very different from an MBA program offered by a local college in India. Treatment of a subject like school Science could vary between the common core in the US and the CBSE in India. Even two neighboring schools may be altogether different in how they conduct and certify the progression, even within a shared bureaucratic practice.

All we can say, and say in general, is that we could generally expect some competencies to be demonstrable at a specific level, and that that set of competencies would also vary by the observer’s own frame of reference. But we cannot specifically and objectively prove that there is a causality between the design of the education system and it’s putative outcomes.

This is what is predicated by design of our education systems today. Whether it is a higher level of education or a professional entry level certification, the system connives a certain trust, within and across institutions, and with external stakeholders, a system based literally on bias and subjective interpretation of competency or progress, an almost incestual behavior that feeds and reproduces from within.

This is achieved because of the nature of the system itself. Rules are codified in order to set the parameters of behavior and performance at institutional levels, and all stakeholders follow this way of being.

Similarly, the bureaucratic form of organization is followed to address scale.But scale destroys the ability of a bureaucracy to focus on what is being organized.

By expecting self-replication of practices at all levels, policies and processes get constrained by the needs and abilities of the lowest common denominators. In fact, the popular approach to change initiatives is through the language of the system itself, to create more institutions (and thereby more bureaucracy) to address those aspects. When these institutions are created, they inherit the same shortcomings thereby reducing their ability to apply innovation, however brilliant, at scale. Order begets more Order.

This is an untenable system of education, because it is by design reductionist and deeply hypocritical. It tries to eliminate complexity, and in the process gives rise to incongruous and undesirable outcomes.

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Shaken, not stirred

The events of the past few years following the National Curriculum Framework (2005) creation have culminated.

In my reading, the constructivist efforts to systemically shake up the system in its aftermath, through the Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE) scheme, the Open Text based Assessments (OTBA) and the Problem Solving Assessment (that was scrapped earlier), have been altogether stopped and we have returned to a pre-NCF era. The final scorecard looks like NCF:0 and System:1.

The CCE now seems defunct, Class X board exams are back, OTBA has gone away, and even CBSE-i has now breathed its last, changing the lives for about 18,000 affiliated schools. What is also very disturbing is that schools are no longer required to, formally, hold physical evidence of data or learning artifacts for more than a few months, unless questioned. For most schools, that will mean throwing away insights across years and destroying the student portfolios collected over the past few years, in the absence of an e-portfolio and (in many cases) performance record-keeping software.

And the culmination hasn’t stopped at the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE), it has also permeated the Council for the Indian School Certificate Exam (CISCE) which runs the ISC and ICSE curriculum. The CISCE just announced a curriculum revision that is more in line with preparing students for competitive exams, so far dominated by the CBSE’s hegemony, and affecting its 2157 schools who have been reeling under declining student numbers and slow growth in affiliated schools.

Nor has it stopped only at starting to implement the Right to Education, enacted unto law a few years back, or other state schemes that have rigorously attempted to raise the GER (like the SSA and RMSA), but whose impact has not been adequately backed by improvements in effective demand or in supply conditions or by changes downstream into the HE system.

Shaken, but not stirred. It will be many years before the Boards are again induced to change their practices. One can hope for a new NCF, that can be more acceptable and still carries some of the new ideas, but the system has won, today.

This is really a story worth learning from. IMHO, although the change itself was perhaps in the right direction, the educators miscalculated the extent of resistance and inertia to change. They perhaps also did not quite understand the mindset of the students, parents and teachers, and that of school owners and heads of the Boards. It was a case of policy trying to drive change, a top down effort, which did not reflect the realities of the system and ironically, exposed the deficit of planning itself.

One could argue that change must start somewhere and this was a useful experiment that shall enable us to plan more realistic experiences for our students and teachers further on. This may just be true and it is good to hope for a better future. But a few considerations may really help take the next version forward.

  1. For large scale strategies, special care must be given to ensure the appropriate conditions are created for viral growth and adoption. Here technology can act as a disruptor, both in terms of information dissemination, and in terms of tools and standards, and care must be taken to systemically enable its deployment. But there are equally important factors that must be addressed in parallel such as downstream impacts (viz. how the downstream systems of higher and further education need to adapt, starting from Entrance examinations which bridge school and higher education), teacher and leader education, ownership of parents as well as the school system, greater choice for students, and a re-look at existing bureaucratic practices.
  2. We must have more, not less, detail of how we do things – in the most appropriate directions. For example, if we had tied teacher career progression to implementation, we would have had to work on a scalable strategy for teacher education and not allow the NCTE to destabilize or for SWAYAM to take such a long while to get going, even as we leveraged national networks and infrastructure of our universities and distance education providers. For example, IGNOU did not launch a single course on the CCE which would give certification to teachers (to be fair, nor did the NCERT).
  3. There must be a way to measure key elements of the transformation and adapt on a continuous basis, led by an organization that is not invested from a Board or Standards perspective – but purely from planning and implementation perspective. We don’t have a structure in place to do this, except for NUEPA perhaps. Data-driven insights would have helped implement these changes in a much more objective and efficient manner.
  4. We must introspect further on where we want to really facilitate our students to be. In my (elearning) mindset, that has to do with paying attention to the finer details of the implementation and supporting it to the fullest extent. For example, our competency frameworks must evolve to a much finer level of detail and supporting materials and systems created to support those outcomes. It is not enough to state that debates could be a technique that promote critical thinking and communication skills without providing details on rubrics behind that instrument in the educational context.

I have no doubt that we have the intellectual bandwidth and the support of many interested and expert resources worldwide, nor do we have a paucity of funding. We are just not piecing it together. We need to stir the system continuously to provoke change, tweaking it to find those small changes that will have chaotic long term effect.

Above all, we must perhaps reconcile another world view when we conceptualize our system of education itself – that of complexity and complex adaptive systems.

 

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Anarchist Curricula

What if teachers treated teaching as an extension to research? What if teaching was really enculturation of students into a field of inquiry? What if teachers were to engage in discovering new insights with the help of their students, activity by activity, day by day? What if this co-research also included the additional studies of the meta-narratives of student progress and performance, as truly as of their own?

Curriculum, interaction and progress would take on very new meanings altogether in this paradigm. No longer would the syllabus be a linear, hierarchical assembly of reductive learning objectives. Nor would assessment itself be linear and deterministic. Knowledge would constantly be co-created and emergent. Feedback would be harnessed. It would become commonplace to publicize advancements, to celebrate opinion, to demonstrate the ascendance on forever new plateaus and to be reflexive, aware thinkers and do-ers.

So too would get removed the barriers between disciplines, the confines of grades and the tyranny of the score. And in their place, would flourish an emergent, self-organizing and complex adaptive system.

The complexity-based curriculum would be dynamic, emergent, rich, relational, autocatalytic, self-organized, open, existentially realized by the participants, connected and recursive (e.g. Doll, 1993), with the teacher moving from the role as an expert and transmitter to a facilitator, co-learner and co-constructer of meaning, enabling learners to connect new knowledge to existing knowledge. Learners, for their part, have to be prepared to exercise autonomy, responsibility, ownership, self-direction and reflection.

Learning is dynamic, active, experiential and participatory, open-ended, unpredictable and uncertain, and cognition requires interaction, decentralized control, diversity and redundancy (Davis & Sumara, 2005). Emergence and self-organization require room for development; tightly prescribed, programmed and controlled curricula and formats for teaching and learning, and standardised rates of progression are anathema to complexity theory. It breaks a lock-step curriculum.

Educational Philosophy and the Challenge of Complexity Theory, Keith Morrison, Macau Inter-University Institute, in Complexity Theory and the Philosophy of Education, ed. Mark Mason, Wiley-Blackwell, 2008.

For many generations now, the focus on reducing assessment to a set of verbs (started by Bloom et al in 1956), reducing learning to achievement of a set of outcomes contained within tight disciplinary boundaries and graded progression by age, as well as theories of learning that have framed and informed teaching and assessment, have led to a deeper focus on the what and how of content, assessment and teaching, rather than the why, where and who.

Education and educational research conceived in terms of expanding the space of the possible rather than perpetuating entrenched habits of interpretation, then, must be principally concerned with ensuring the conditions for the emergence of the as-yet unimagined. We would align these suggestions with Pinar and Grumet’s (1976) development of the notion of verb currere, root of curriculum (along with a host of other common terms in education, including course, current, and recursive), through which they refocused attentions away from the impersonal goals of mandated curriculum documents and onto the emergent and collective processes of moving though the melée of present events.

Complexity as a theory of education, Brent Davis and Dennis Sumara, University of British Columbia, Canada

There is now an anarchist epistemology available – that questions the relevance of the existing paradigm in a world that is increasingly being recognized as complex and adaptive.

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