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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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Another edition of the fabulous “mostly run by” Dave Cormier, Rhizomatic Learning conversation Rhizo15 begins! The question of the week, with the usual deep subversive intent is:

Build learning subjectives: How do we design our own or others learning when we don’t know where we are going? How does that free us up? What can we get done with subjectives that can’t be done with objectives?

Are we thinking inside the box? Does changing around “objectives” to “subjectives” free us from tradition – the tradition that says that learning must be designed?

Simon Worren (Worried Teacher) points out a way of looking at it – emergent outcomes.

Intended learning outcomes (ILOs) are essential in module planning to indicate the direction of teaching, however, it must be recognised that ILOs represent the lecturer’s intentions for study, not the student’s.

Carl Gombrich makes the point that design based learning (in the instructional design sense) is often at odds with traditional university based education that is more “emergent” in nature – the former more equipped to deal with “skills” and the latter with “concepts”. While most of the university education we have seen (atleast in India) is hardly emergent, it is also true that much of design based learning is hardly “aesthetic” either, at least at scale. He makes the case for a merger – “design for concepts” rather than “design for skills”. By that he suggests that either we move to a higher level of abstraction in design (say, through more loosely defined learning outcomes) or that we recognize that certain areas of study are more suited to one versus the other approach.

Sarah Honeychurch challenges the notion that rhizomatic learning is at once personal and collaborative in nature. Perhaps that learning may be greatly enhanced if it was collaborative, and perhaps we are all missing out learning from her attempts. I think the point to be made is that you may not necessarily want your learning to be public or brought about by shared experiences, but the more we learn and share collaboratively, the more we help learning as a whole.

Simon makes the point that people and ideas (and beliefs) cannot really be separated and that the learner has her own agency in deciding how, when, why, whether and where to interact with others. Collaboration cannot really be mandated to be an essential condition for learning. Also he makes the point that embracing messiness and uncertainty in learning does not necessarily mean that education systems as such should embrace messiness and uncertainty or that knowledge is only  fuzzy and uncertain.

My sense is that we are not talking about the same thing here. I think the focus is not on defining a single way in which we learn. The focus is on one possible way to learn – a way that is intensely collaborative, yet personal – which some people may find to be extremely fulfilling, so much so that they would exercise their agency and choose it to be the way they would like to learn in the world. Many people would not find this way “super-fun” and they may simply not be comfortable negotiating the messiness, but that does not mean that way of learning is unreal or useless.

Rebecca asks the million dollar question – what feeds/constrains online collaborations? This is something that we need much more work on. There is much to learn from the cMOOCs since 2008 and many other experiments across the world. Perhaps we are hitting the problem with the same old approach – trying to “design it” – trying to change the way we learn and teach by employing new ideas.

My own belief is that when we engage with new forms of online, social collaboration, the only real outcome we should be concerned with how well learners and teachers are able to negotiate this medium with each instance of such emergent learning. It is a longer term process of realigning to or establishing a new way of learning, more than a way to establish a better design paradigm that generates better traditional outputs such as grades. Maha Bali makes the case for making the subjective obvious (critical pedagogy) and makes the case that the goal is “…not to filter better performance from worse; it’s to help students learn.”

Thinking of objectives and subjectives seems very much #insidethebox (in all its variants – as the starting point for learning subjectives on a continuum, as elements that can be designed, or as inversions). We need to perhaps focus ourselves more on asking what if there was no design, no objectives and subjectives that we could identify – what then would learning really look like?

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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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In a Big Think article, Why Technology Won’t Save an Inefficient Education System, with Dr. Madhav Chavan, and in several other similarly argued contributions, particularly like the ones from Sir Ken Robinson (read a critique here) or Sugata Mitra.

Education over that past 200 years has been fashioned like an assembly line. Children get placed on a conveyor belt that carries them from grade level to grade level. At each stop on the way they are receive the same knowledge as everyone else. Rather than become intuitive problem-solvers, students are expected to simply absorb the facts provided to them.

The argument that the educational system is a machine built for another age implies that the classroom is itself a machine and the teacher an automaton carrying out procedures that fill student brains with knowledge.

I had a group of educators look at me with alarm and disapproval the other day when I dared to suggest that the classroom was anything like a machine. For them, a classroom was an area where each student is different, has different learning styles and demands, and where they work hard to meet the demands of the curriculum (not enough time allocated to complete the syllabus). Challenges faced in each classroom were unique, although some best practices could be arrived at through experience. Similarly no classroom is the same as any other one in terms of its constituents, its infrastructure, its language and so on. The sheer diversity at the classroom level defies machinistic interpretations.

If the classroom is not a machine, the school as a factory analogy should break down here. Why? Because the classroom is the fundamental unit of the assembly process of schooling. And if that is not a machine, then school likely is not.

Similarly, if the counter to everyone being a dumb receptacle for knowledge, is that everyone becomes an “intuitive problem-solver”, we are talking about another kind of deterministic and linear process, another kind of factory that produces a different kind of student. This was exactly what 21st century skills framework in the USA or our Indian Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE) system has turned out to be – an addition to the curriculum that tries to generically create certain skills and orientation in students, commonly, across the board.

The point to be understood is that we are still thinking deterministically. In the article, Chavan talks about employing technology in an appropriate manner – not as subservient to the linearized school system, but as a tool to collaborate in order to solve problems. Technology enables a non-linear curriculum, emphasizing problem-solving over rote memorization, Chavan says, but impossible to implement under the traditional education system.

I think he has got it mixed up. Firstly, there is nothing intrinsic to technology that promotes any one way or form of learning over another. Secondly technology itself is not monolithic. Thirdly technology is not all pervasive enough to be a systemic component of learning. Fourthly, there is an implicit assumption that we want everyone to be great at problem solving and that there is this one giant universal conception of problem solving, irrespective of domain. Fifthly, non-linearity is a rich feature of existing classrooms, with or without the intervention of technology, in the sense that the classroom is a complex organism.

I think what they all mean to say, is that the traditional system suffers from certain constraints and obsolete practices that are making it very difficult to “enforce” alternate practices and conceptions. Let us look at some of the real constraints – the underlying causes.

Teachers are still learning the way they teach – To innovate the existing paradigm from the inside, teachers must start learning differently. If teachers start learning and using technology-enabled learning methods on their own, it will be a matter of culture for them to start using them in the classroom.

Teachers need to learn – Largely, teachers are like any other adult, and their motivation and ability to learn are immensely important to address. Mechanisms that reward professional and personal learning are largely absent in our system, and for the teachers in the public system, not integrated with career progression and salary increments.

Syllabi are too extensive – Syllabi are following their own inflationary trends. As the volume of knowledge has grown, topics that were earlier taught in higher classes, have been added to the load of the lower classes. The density and complexity of content to be taught/learned has increased significantly. The duration of time remaining the same, teachers have increasingly lesser time to focus on teaching core concepts. As one teacher explained in an alternate manner, “the syllabus is alright, it is just that the system that enforces an end date to the syllabus is wrong!”.

Technology is not ubiquitous – the availability of technology (and electrical power) itself is a core problem. Technology for computation, for storage, for protection against virus attacks, for connectivity and Internet access, for mobility – all these are real challenges in schools (and at home) today. Over time, these will hopefully get addressed by policy thrusts and reducing costs.

Constraints of the system – everything has to be taught in school, there are rigid enrolment schedules, each grade/class is divided into isolated and insular groups or sections in some arbitrary manner creating limitations on collaboration and sharing of knowledge – and many other structural components of the system. In fact, these constraints are the ones that are closer to the industrial age-factory analogy in the sense that they are the pillars of educational management in schools.

For example, putting children into groups and assigning them teachers is an operational decision – one that promotes manageability of the education process primarily. Many people say it is also logical to keep class sizes low to promote greater collaboration (and perhaps, control) and ability for teachers to address individual learning styles. But I believe that the two are different problems – there are many ways to adapt, blend or flip learning emerging now that need not necessarily force us to enforce these structures and ratios.

In summary, I think it is perhaps wrong and naive to treat classrooms as machines and teachers as automatons. Classrooms are complex organisms and don’t easily fall into the determinism of the factory analogy. However, classrooms and teachers operate under a system that tries to enforce determinism and linearity through some of the constraints discussed above.

If we want to change as a system, we need to extend, enhance and celebrate the complexity in education.

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There is a teacher in everyone of us. It is useful to acknowledge that a whole lot of things are learnt without someone actually teaching us, and that perhaps someone is right now learning from us without our even knowing it. On the Internet, this is possible at a very large scale. We learn from other people’s review of the computers we buy or the places we visit. We learn to dress by looking at what others wear and talk as we hear others speak. We learn from reading a blog post or the fact that a guru likes a particular URL or that an expert just followed an innovative startup’s twitter handle.

So when practicing teachers and real experts, who really do all of this teaching and coaching professionally, start making their actions, their learning, their idiosyncrasies public, a whole lot of people will end up learning even if they are not in their class. Perhaps their class will also learn much more if they share the guru’s network, the guru’s learning trails across the World Wide Web.

As teachers, it is really about how we learn and how we share how and what we learn. It is not learning how to use technology (which is an important enabler, but not an end in itself), but how to embrace a culture of open-ness, sharing and a much heightened consciousness that we are professional performers of a learning process; that as teachers we are actually enacting the role of expert learners.

For that, we have to re-envision the way we learn. We are a product of much the same system that we subject our children to. We bind our students by its same constraints. We are steeped in the routines that we have perfected in years we have taught the same curriculum again, again and again. We cannot change ourselves by thinking in the same ways the system has taught us. We must re-envision our own futures, standing outside the systems of today.

Why it is so phenomenally important to re-learn how to learn in today’s networked environments? Its possible because, invariant to scale, the network has opened up hitherto unknown opportunities to teach and learn. Not that you can now learn something that was previously hidden from you, but that you can now learn and teach in ways that may be much more than the classroom we are so used to. In fact the classroom analogy does not even exist in the networked environment (the closest it gets is “clusters” or “swarms”) – the network is not a class.

Since networks are not classes, you cannot apply traditional teaching-learning techniques to it (or atleast not as-is). So an entire paradigm becomes near-obsolete when one thinks of networked learning. Which is not what the xMOOCs would have you to believe, but that is entirely their loss.

If you can think network, you can break away from the traditional mode. It is what we must do. Case in point. If there is no class, who are you teaching? Answer: You are teaching a cluster of nodes (students) bound to you in some manner (through your institution perhaps), but they are really part of many different networks as well. By connecting to those students and promoting transactions between them, helping them add new connections to their network, and leveraging their existing networks, you will build upon a fabric of learning, much like a weaver or an Atelier. You will help them break away from the monotone of traditional systems, help them celebrate chaos and let them build their capability to learn.

When you become that networked teacher, you will contribute to a scale of learning that will be unbelievable. What you will do within your own small networks, may become amplified or contribute to global knowledge about learning and teaching. Just the sheer scale of your teaching and learning, your networks, the types of interactions, will fast transcend the power of any certificate or degree the traditional system may have to offer.

The revolution is here. It is you. Seize the day.

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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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Does a particular type of education system tend to produce the same outcome irrespective of the underlying environment?

Or is it that the underlying social, economic and political environment will cause pretty much any educational system to tend to produce the same outcomes?

Or is it that the outcomes emerge as a result of the interplay between the educational system and the components of the ecosystem it lives in?

The reason I am asking is because everywhere I look (at least in democratic societies), the problems of education are pretty much the same, although the scale does vary. I hear people across school, university, professional and vocational education mulling over the same problems with as much inertia or angst, in India or in the UK or the USA or Australia or elsewhere. In the case of democratic, market driven countries, there may be a stronger set of patterns as well (as the case may be for authoritarian regimes or other sociopolitical structures).

Common refrains include ones such as teachers are not trained enough, children are not getting 21st century skills developed in them, employers don’t feel happy with the levels of employability of students that graduate, not enough e-Resources are available, there is an issue getting learning to remote and economically weaker sections of society, and policy makers are slow and bureaucratic. And then there are people who proclaim variously that the education system is broken, or that it is obsolete and cannot be “fixed”.

If it is indeed true that educational systems  are invariant to the underlying environment, then there are obvious design faults, that when rectified should cause the systems to improve dramatically. Perhaps the current educational systems may be replaced by new designs instead of being redesigned or “fixed”. The aim then becomes to understand the elements of design of the educational system and overlay them with the current and estimated future contexts, to arrive at new constellations of those design elements.

If the conclusion is the reverse, that educational systems don’t have much to do with outcomes, rather the outcomes are really driven by the underlying ecosystem, then perhaps the answer lies in reforming or redesigning other structures that provide inputs or receive outcomes and outputs from the educational system.

The possibility that outcomes are emergent (i.e. they emerge out of the interplay between the networks of our education system with the rest of the socioeconomic fabric) exists. People will say that the educational system shapes and is shaped by the underlying ecosystem in which it operates. But that does not explain commonality of outcomes observed globally.

I have also started feeling that traditional educational systems are far more chaotic than Connectivists would like to believe. As an example, a degree is given the same level of recognition in most countries, however the conditions of obtaining that degree, whether it is the curriculum, the quality of teachers, the infrastructure or any other design element, vary hugely from University to University. I did this exercise recently when I tried to compare the same named courses across multiple Indian and Foreign universities, and could not find more than a 20-30% similarity in most cases between the syllabus and teaching method of one university versus that of the other.I don’t think two universities would really agree on what (say) a Bachelor’s Degree in Economics should really contain, but they will still award the same degree! The traditional systems seem very chaotic, but are also very highly constrained (duration, method, engagement, assessment…) and designed towards very fixed goals – like closed loop systems – they do not present much opportunity for non-linearity.

So it is really an interesting question to try to answer, at least for those who are looking to engineer the next generation education system(s).

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