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Archive for the ‘Complexity’ Category

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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Very recently, the Indian government announced a demonetization measure by removing 500 and 1000 rupee notes as legal tender, ostensibly to combat cash hoarding (black money) and counterfeiting (which was helping fund terror). Of course, we have seen the impact of fiscal demonetization on the economy in the short term, though the long term prognosis is yet to emerge.

The immediate impacts that I see on the system of education in our country are as follows (not an exhaustive list):

  • Slowdown in the rate of growth of private schools. Slowdown in money chasing real estate, regulatory clearances, investments and siphoning of money in Education, at least in the short to medium term. This may be accompanied by a corresponding growth/investment in the public system.
  • The push to online payments at school. I believe more schools will now start accepting money in non-cash forms. This means a fillip to existing fee payment, school uniform and bookstore platforms.
  • The increased visibility of the coaching institution and the individual tutor. More and more tuition teachers and coaching schools (at one point claimed to be a USD 23 bn parallel system expected to be about 40 bn USD in 2015) will move to online payments.
  • Lowered spends on research. Research shall be impacted, with owners who are already handicapped by ‘marketing spends’ kind of vision on research, holding back on new projects. In fact, all facile investment will reduce.
  • Higher international collaboration. Cleaner international money will flow and it is time to leverage that for maximal impact.

On another note. What would be the equivalent of currency in education? Is there a parallel with the black money and counterfeiting that is happening with regular currency, but in the educational market? Is there a ‘currency’ of the educational market? And therefore, if a demonetization of that ‘currency’ has to happen for similar reasons, what would that look like?

If we look at ‘currency’ in the educational context, it would be most likely be constituted by marks or scores (more literally marksheets) and certificates (such as degree certificates and work certificates).

A quick look around clearly shows the menace of fake certificates. The screening firm, First Advantage, found that 51% of the prior experience certificates were fake globally, India being a notorious example. Then there are websites advertising fake education certificates, sometimes in connivance with officials in the system, it seems, all over the world. Many instances abound in India as well.

What would be the equivalent of educational black money? Little harder to trace an equivalent there if one is not probing the real currency angle. But let us look at it from the lens of employability, the argument being that the degrees or certificates that provide a social and economic return to the economy are ‘white’ educational currency, while the rest are ‘black’ educational currency.

Less than 20% of our graduates are employable. In that sense, the rest are unwittingly just hoarding ‘black’ degrees and certificates. Institutions are hoarding degree certificates, sitting on a stock of certificates for the foreseeable future depending upon their capacity and their authorization by the government.

There may be more interpretations, for example, extending to institutions who are building capacity they cannot fill or usefully utilize.

So what would happen if we made a move to demonetize this education currency?

For example, de-recognize all degrees for a year and make it mandatory for anyone holding a degree to prove its authenticity? Or for all institutions to be stripped of its ability to provide a degree certificate till they can prove that they have a structure in place and systems to ensure employable graduates and provide real data on their current state of being able to generate ’employability’? Or breakup degrees into smaller chunks that have to be individually certified? Or for government to stop mandating this educational currency, in all or part, for their own recruitment?

A move like that would be inconvenient for most, but may have similar (to fiscal demonetization) longer term effects. It may push a greater academia-industry interaction, move us to digital certificates and transparent scoring mechanisms, bring more professionals into the running of institutions and set up fences against black marketeers entering the education space – all of which sound like the right things to do, whatever the process.

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Our classrooms are digitally isolated by their very design. It is a distortion of our bureaucratic education systems wherein, on the one hand, grade levels are broken down into separate groups/classrooms, insulated from each other, while each group is encouraged (or mostly not) to independently interact with the outside world.

As a result, students learning the same concepts (from perhaps the same teachers), cannot break the confines of their own classroom group, to celebrate their own local diversity, far less the diversity offered by classrooms worldwide doing almost exactly the same thing, separated by time and space.

This distortion is brought upon us by our approach to managing scale in the education system. Although at one end, developing nations like India still see a significant number of one-room schools (multi-grade single teacher classrooms; in India the figure is around 10%), the vast majority of our classrooms at any level of education stand singularly insulated.

Is this distortion healthy? It is not. In an inter-connected world, fast augmented by accessible technology, our research shows us that increased diversity in the classroom leads to more tolerance, better thinkers, stronger communities, more successful employees and happier lives. It improves the self-efficacy of learners so they become exponentially better performers for the long-term and not just at a particular grade level or assessment. By also co-operating and sharing, they increase their own capacity to learn – a skill that is severely under-rated by bureaucratic systems of education, leading to reflections such as Do Schools Kill Creativity. Clearly, group wise insulation implies a loss of shared experience, so vital for individual sense-making.

This distortion permeates other aspects as well – for example, teacher performance is measured group-wise and in isolation from teacher performance elsewhere. Even for teachers, there is this near-complete isolation between the classrooms she teaches and what others teach, in the same location or worldwide. Thus this impacts teacher self-efficacy as well – her ability to evolve and grow. The same could be said for school leaders.

In a system so shorn of collaboration, we cannot celebrate the benefits of diversity and connected-ness. The distortion in the system ensures greater isolation, thereby lower levels of efficiency for all stakeholders. So far, this distortion is likened to commonsense, with increased diversity desirable but deemed impractical at scale. As a result, very little, if at all, of our education system is geared towards connection-making (in the Connectivist sense) for teaching and learning.

It behoves us to step outside the frame. By looking at increasing connected-ness and diversity in and across our classrooms, we can generate more opportunities for achieving high levels of quality in our systems of education.

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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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A brief introduction

Rhizomatic Learning is an important way to think about learning and teaching. It describes a learning experience where learning itself is organic and emergent, deeply driven by personal context, flexible boundaries and multiple pathways. It describes a teaching experience that sets the context, facilitates the inter-connections of ideas through conversations, and empowers the community to engineer their own curriculum.

Rhizomatic Learning builds up the core capability to learn in a distributed learning environment. It leverages all the attendant benefits of network-led and community-based learning, but distinguishes itself by describing a personal “self-reproducing” capability to learn.

The agency to learn rests with the learner and the learning community she is part of. The agency to teach is distributed among all the learners, who really establish the curriculum. The resultant is messy and complex, with individual outcomes possibly far in deviation to any expected outcomes from the community.

In Rhizomatic Learning, the definition of a “course” veers away from the traditional. It is a sense of time-bound evented-ness, a shared context which aggregates a community. It’s curriculum is formed by the community, that evolves and extends it continuously through prior knowledge and emergent opinions. It may engender several artistic and creative forms of expression, not necessarily formal artifacts associated with traditional courses.

Rhizomatic Learning is characterized by learning freedom. It draws heavily upon open-ness, lack of centralized control, autonomy, diversity and interaction. Freedom in learning drives most of the interactions, liberating the learning experience.

In contrast, Connectivist models uphold “connection-making”  as the primary source of learning and knowledge. There is connection-making in Rhizomatic learning, but that is merely a medium. The focus is on free, unrestricted sharing and unpredictable pathways in learning. In that sense, the afterthought focus on Critical Literacies in the cMOOCs, becomes the starting point for Rhizomatic Learning. What is “tidy” in  the network model, becomes messy in the rhizomatic one. The replication of learning capability in distributed environments is key – “more of how you can learn, is learning” of rhizomatic learning overwhelms the “those that have, get” rules of networks. In  that sense, rhizomatic learning is deliberately empowering personalized learning.

The Practical Guide

So what would a practical guide to Rhizomatic Learning contain for the learner? Having gone through so many years of learning in all modes – traditional, online, MOOC, rhizomatic – here is a summary of how I learn best. Perhaps there are learners like me who will resonate with my approach.

Liberate yourself

The first important thing to realize is that you are in control. You control what you write, how you perform, who you choose to interact with, the level of effort you put in, how you handle critique – in short, your behavior, goals, motivations, discipline and ethics play an important role in Rhizomatic Learning.

Express yourself regularly

If the community is the curriculum, each one has the capability to contribute, in whatever form of expression. In fact, try out new forms of expression, artistic or otherwise, to experiment with ways to put your point forward. You don’t know which part or form of your expression may inspire several others or motivate them to contribute. The point is to verbalize or demonstrate your participation in some way or the other. It is really important to be regular. Make it a point to express yourself at least once a topic or theme.

Keep Track

We will continuously get better at handling conversation technologies, but it is important to keep up with what others are expressing. Understand that other people will also use a variety of channels and techniques to communicate, and that conversation will sometimes get too unwieldy to keep track of. Navigating and coalescing your spaces into some form of organization convenient for you is important.

Small is better

Pick out threads that pique your interest, focus on a small idea at a time and track its development. These small ideas will eventually bubble up into larger perspectives. Interact in smaller groups, one idea at a time. Don’t “spray and pray” and always watch your stats (such as how many views, likes), because the act of expressing an opinion is itself a work of art – your art – which contributes to your own rhizomic development immeasurably. It helps to get and give concise feedback on small focused ideas. It also helps to give some time for the idea to develop, in your mind and through the interactions. So perhaps it is better to culminate a theme/week with your informed perspective.

Be responsive

It is incredibly important to be responsive to people and events, both in instances where you are explicitly part of the conversation and where you are not. Being responsive helps other people with feedback and a motivation to continue their rhizomatic learning. Respond to comments, like posts and comments where you agree, drop a line or two in response to a new contribution – there are many ways to be a proactive part of the community learning experience. I would include empathy and humor as two very important tools in rhizomatic learning.

Be rhizomatic

Above all, reflect on how you are learning. Use each interaction as an opportunity to build your capability to learn. Find what helped, explore a new direction of thought, make a friend, challenge an argument.

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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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