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Archive for the ‘Indian Education’ Category

A group of academics hailing from top universities have decided to create the world’s first ever blockchain university called the Woolf University. They have released a rather illuminating whitepaper on the concept.

Essentially, the University will disintermediate the traditional university structure and leverage ‘trust’ through an alternate federated structure powered by a non-profit trust and democratic principles. All financial and student-teacher transactions in this structure shall be governed using the blockchain, and the currency will be called the ‘Woolf’.

We believe that Woolf University, as the first blockchain university, will increase the efficiency of student-teacher coordination by removing intermediaries, thereby narrowing spreads between hourly tuition costs and academic wages, thus distributing money more transparently, democratically, and justly.

This move will cut administrative overheads through the use of smart contracts. It will lower student tuition costs while at the same time increase the salaries academics are paid. Learning will be high quality because the delivery model will be based on one on one & one-to-two, direct and personal interactions between student and teachers, with the best teachers.

They place this move in context of the current situation in Higher Education. High overheads, lack of tenured jobs, uncertainty of work opportunities & underemployment, high cost of tuition and lack of access to high quality education for all (who can afford it). They draw parallels with Airbnb, seeking to make better use of our academic resources the same way as Airbnb made better use of real estate. They hope that traditional universities will also adopt Woolf, and reduce their administrative overheads.

Credentials will be sought to be legitimized using the traditional legal methods at first (and associated with mainstream options like student financial aid), but ultimately would want to set up a global standard in degree credentials, powered by the best academics in the world.

Academics can, provided they meet the guidelines of a certain common framework of the University, start their own colleges and offer differentiated offerings directly to students. By doing so, they can gain more control over their own futures, rather than remain subservient to the system for their needs. They can be true to their profession, rather than subjugate their beliefs and practices to the pecuniary and administrative goals of the universities.

Woolf University does not compete with for-profits like Udacity and Udemy. They don’t claim to be an online university at all – just a medium that is agnostic, democratic and decentralized. Woolf is also distinguished from enterprise level software like Airbnb or Uber by their claim:

Woolf creates new economic and social relations within the framework of a blockchain. We believe this is essential because we believe that the values to be encoded in the Woolf blockchain – humane, democratic, and ultimately non-profit values – are crucial to the future of the university.

Woolf is not so very different in intent from teachers collectives and cooperatives, which have a fairly long tradition. Both respect autonomy of teachers & democracy in education, promote quality education, drive costs down and promise an alternate way to structure ‘school’. Research in new wave teaching and learning structures, cMOOCs and distributed educational systems are important tools to understand this development. I called these Distributed Educational systems.

By Distributed Educational Systems (DES), I mean the ability of the educational system to distribute itself over its elements – students, teachers, content, technology, certification and placement. Brown and Duguid discuss forces will enable DES. Their 6D notion has demassification, decentralization, denationalization, despacialization, disintermediation and disaggregation as forces that “will break society down into its fundamental constituents, principally individuals and information.” They suggest the formation of “degree granting bodies”, small administrative units with the autonomy to take on students and faculty, and performing the function of providing credentials (read “degrees”). They recommend that “[i]n this way, a distributed system might allow much greater flexibility for local sites of professional excellence.”

The concept is not new and disruptive, but it has always had the potential to be so. Woolf falls short of re-envisioning the formal system because of its dependence upon the same vocabularies as those used on formal education (degrees, tutorials and so on). Traditional online course providers like Coursera and Udacity have also been unable to make the break, but they have come up with options that suit professional learning more than higher education (although the online degree ‘market’ is still something they cherish).

Interestingly, there is already a multi-billion dollar worldwide coaching and tuition market that is largely unorganized and has been supporting the education systems of most countries for decades. India is itself a $40 bn market. I would argue that just that market serves affordably the needs of millions of students and augments the incomes of teachers as well. It is a parallel and incestuous education system that works at a mass scale, helping students achieve outcomes whilst at the same time bearing the sneer of the formalists. If we formally invested in this system, perhaps it would be a more useful non-profit approach?

At a time, when these MOOC providers provide real access to revenue-generating opportunities for good teachers, the problem shifts to how we can generate more academic opportunities for teaching as a profession – perhaps by diversifying teacher skills to suit new areas of techonology enabled learning or other specialist areas.

Woolf’s strategy of taking only the top teachers (“The first 5 colleges of Woolf University require 80% of the faculty members to hold research doctorates issued by the top 200 universities in The Times Higher Education, ‘World University Rankings 2017’.”) will hardly address the claims of mass-scale underemployment of teachers worldwide, nor does it acknowledge the role of universities in providing credibility, infrastructure and research opportunities at an international scale to teachers.

Woolf looks more to be a new disruptive education startup story in search of a business model. They may be non-profit, but they are not free. They will charge for teaching, not offer models that espouse free content and paid assessments or certification. They seek to introduce economies of scale, increase choice and teacher self-reliance, rather than disrupting pedagogy. They emphasize the personal, as opposed to the robotic (which I take includes the whole AI revolution in one sweep).

I suspect that if a traditional university had taken this concept up as an innovation or as a way of generating more revenue, it would have been more successful. All a good university would need to do is establish an army of such virtual adjuncts and endorse them through university credibility, and in that manner acquire far larger customer (student) bases.

Still, the blockchain technology hype and the pedigree of great academics, combined with the fall of grace of MOOCs in the Higher Ed space, among other factors, might be what investors queue up for in this non-profit.I have always held, though, that technology is enabling, not core to an education proposition. Similarly, if only great ‘branded’ academics were the only cure to our problems at scale, then we would really have to reconcile to another elite system.

What is needed is not another populist solution for academics in penury, but strategies for solving global challenges of poverty, health, energy, environment and other crucial areas at an unprecedented scale for mankind. This can only be accomplished if we deeply reflect on our state of preparedness to build the human resources to address such challenges.

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The HRD Minister is advocating a syllabus haircut for India. Following on the heels of the initiative by the Delhi AAP government in 2015 (“Delhi’s Syllabus Haircut“), which apparently went nowhere, the BJP government has tried to give it a populist national character by inciting NCERT to trim the syllabus by 50%. Subsequently NCERT, the apex education council that designs and manages the curriculum for the nation, has issued a public appeal for suggestions. The tenor is the same as that espoused by the Delhi government – the move towards more sports, life and experience learning and away from “bookish learning and writing mugged up answers for the examination”. They want to remove the “curricular burden” and to encourage all-round development. They also make textbooks thinner, interpreting the “burden” very literally as the physical weight of the textbooks.

Obviously, there have been vociferous arguments on either side. Those supporting the change make arguments like:

  • Textbooks are heavy to carry
  • 100% syllabus is not really negotiated anyway
  • An overweight syllabus encourages rote learning
  • Most of the syllabus cannot be applied, will not be retained or isn’t going to be useful later in life
  • Rote precludes experiential learning and the building of 21st century skills in students
  • Supporting assessment systems are not geared to judge true abilities of children and place undue stress on them
  • Rote learning has a flip side – rote teaching – and that must also be transformed
  • Ethics, values and life skills are really important to emphasize

Those against worry that:

  • It will be pretty difficult to implement, at scale, and may end up diluting the academic rigor, setting us back in terms of national and international competitiveness even further. This, in a time when we have the largest young population, could have disastrous consequences on the well-being of future generations.
  • It may take too much time to roll out. Aren’t there here and now, simple measures we can take?
  • Are our teachers really equipped to handle this shift?
  • Do we have the necessary infrastructure?
  • How do we really decide what is “superfluous” and can be cut?
  • Conversely, how do we decide what is important to be included? Are we going to use this as a ideological weapon for mass education using non-secular and subjective interpretations of knowledge?
  • This initiative is populist – demagoguery has no role in education systems – and we should steer clear of it.
  • Is this an experiment? Like CCE or ABL and other initiatives, will this be conceived imperfectly, implemented even more badly and then removed from public consciousness one fine day?
  • How will this affect other downstream educational options – vocational, higher and further education? How will this affect competitive exams, admissions to foreign institutions, career choices, policies for standardized exam setting and result moderation and virtually every aspect of the system?
  • What is really the “burden”? Aren’t there other smarter ways to mitigate it, if it really exists?
  • Are we confusing “syllabus” with “curriculum”? The two are different things altogether.
  • How are we sure that making textbooks thinner, cutting syllabi and promoting experiential learning will really make a difference to learning outcomes and help children achieve grade level proficiency and our nation achieve leadership in research and development?
  • Aren’t there other models we could use? After all, it is a fairly non-unique problem and other countries have perhaps far more experience in these ideas and a closer look at their histories could reveal pitfalls.
  • Is this concept really very new? Even Indian curriculum designers, in the National Curriculum Framework (2005) document and earlier as well, recognize the “burden” and have been taking steps to resolve it.

I think we are about to create a mass national disaster – not because the intent of promoting experiential learning is bad – but because we are really ill-equipped to deal with changes of this sort – both from a design and implementation perspective. There aren’t enough experiments on the ground that have scaled well (look at Activity based learning methods) and there is too much diversity to flatten with one-size-fits-all solutions. My worry is that we are clueless as to the real implications of what our demagoguery or abject opposition to this change can be. There are core systemic improvements, committed to in a stage-wise manner, that shall radically transform the country’s education system. If I were to choose the top 3 pillars of that transformation, they would be:

  1. Infrastructure & education Technology: At the very basic level, required equipment and resources need to be made available. This means that the resources necessary for transforming the classroom have to be somehow made available. I suggested local and rural entrepreneurship, aside from state provision of these materials and the encouragement to use locally available indigenous materials, as a possible solution. An important component is going to be basic electricity provision to classrooms and technology enablement.
  2. Empowering Teacher and Education Leaders: Side by side with infrastructure, the greatest asset we have is our teachers and the administrators of the institutions. We have to purposely design a system that incentivizes change to new methods (and I am not talking salary increases). New certifications and links to career progression, tracing a more direct link between new teaching & administration methods and outcomes  and systematic changes in curricula at all levels, are really important to institute.
  3. Community participation: The weight of nation-building by education, similar to other areas like health, cannot be borne or be the prerogative of a handful of agencies. Rather a more democratic and concerted effort by citizens has to underpin the transformation.

The great news is that India is a treasure trove of great ideas, gifted educationists and concerned citizens. We have diversity at a rich scale that leaves the world gasping. But we are choking on our own potential.

Perhaps we will leverage this opportunity to arise, awake and stop not!

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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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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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The Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE) meets on October 25, 2016 to discuss many important issues. The apex education advisory organization features education ministers, HRD officials, key institutional heads and key influencers from outside government. The CABE takes the important decisions about education in our country.

This time around, on the tentative agenda are a spate of important things. Such as:

  1. The scrapping of the no-detention policy
  2. The extension of RTE (the Right to Education) Act to span pre-school and secondary education
  3. The re-institution of a Class X board exam

The Class X Board Exam

It was found that only 4% of the students went through the school-based Summative Assessment 2 exam as prescribed by Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE) (on an average in the past three years). They found that not only were the school based exams considered medium standard, but also that the huge psychological stress barrier of a boards based exam, when removed, actually resulted in a lax attitude by students and a decline in quality of education itself. Students ended up losing the habit of regular studies given a virtual no-detention on the basis of the large proportion of co-scholastic evaluation counting in the final exam. They also found that the majority of parents, teachers and principals (the latter overwhelmingly so) wanted a board mandated exam instead.

In summary, they feel that the CCE scheme was unwarranted, misinformed and counter-productive, which is why board exams need to come back carrying 80% weightage and school assessment carrying 20% weightage, with a minimum passing score of 33% in each.

Perhaps the answer does not lie in standardizing exams, as most of the world is finding out (look at the gaokao noose in China and the resistance to standardized testing in the USA). The core system behind continuous, rather than one-shot assessments with a weightage to co-scholastic performance is most definitely a better system for learning than a rote-based, performance only driven system. The fact that neither could the board do away completely with board exams (by merely making it optional, there was no compulsion to change over for most schools, thereby keeping 96% of the students at a conventional advantage as compared with the 4% who did take the option), nor could it also not drive the program effectively as a change agent. They took a quick dip, found it is not working (across two ‘sarkars’) and decided to abandon it, in effect throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

The CABE could take the view that CCE was improperly implemented, not uniformly adopted, and ineffectively communicated as a transformative change. It could argue that change in the education system is gradual and generational, needs emphasis and change management. It could state that the CCE was placed in a system that basically had the power to shape it in its own mould, in much the same way as it conducted the regular pre-CCE scheme of studies, and in essence defeating its very objective. Perhaps the CCE could have evolved in the face of this emergent response of a system under threat, but it did not, and that is where its demise may begin.

Perhaps we do have spine still in the education system. But then perhaps, we don’t. How can we argue that 4% of the students virtually lost interest in studying because they no longer were faced with the stress and indiscriminate rigor of a rote based system? It is like saying we would all end up committing heinous crimes if we did not have a mandate to the electric chair waiting for us if we did.

The scrapping of the No-detention policy

My perspective on this policy is that it basically helped get the gross enrolment ratio up. With no threat of ‘failure’, there was an easy progression on the way up and therefore also incentivized retention. A perfect fit to the Right to Education Act. It allowed people to take advantage of the system while unknowingly serving the political goals of getting every child to school. Teachers got the short end of the stick here, with no way to enforce discipline. No one really wanted to come to school to learn, they just wanted a certificate they could get a job with.

Different stakeholders are blamed, rightfully or wrongfully, on either side of the fence, for the failure of our aspiration to do things differently. Many states have blamed the policy for a downfall in educational outcomes and quality.

Five states out of 23 have asked to stay with No-detention. Different states and committees have given different suggestions on how to implement this policy – like the New Education Policy recommended we have no detention only up to age 11/grade V; some have suggested external (ostensibly ‘board’) exams at class III/V/VIII levels; and so on.

A series of important perspectives on these two issues are available here, for and against:

No respite for edTech

The complete absence of attention to Educational Technologies (edTech) in the CABE agenda is striking. Not even one small part of the agenda is focused on how we can truly leverage edTech to act as an agent for scale or performance. This, at a time when edTech is perhaps at par with other burning issues such as teacher education, curricular reform and inclusive education. Does this mean that the highest body in Education in India today does not regard edTech as a real force and change agent? Or will there be lip service to this domain?

What is the point in all this?

What we are doing successfully is that we are missing the point. We are trying to deal with two different themes altogether. One, which emphasizes learning and creativity and technology, and the other which emphasizes rote and certificatory cultures.

The twain shall not meet in ordinary circumstances, but our uncommon wisdom seems to guide us towards mixing the two up upfront. You cannot expect to twist the dominant paradigm into an aspirational one and then expect it to remain significantly unchanged at every level of exit. More often than not, and clearly visible in this case, the dominant paradigm has dwarfed, sabotaged and mutated the aspirational one.

What this means is that if we truly want to be inclusive about alternate systems of education, we have to stop trying to channel their outcomes into the singular dominant paradigm. And if you really wanted to change the dominant paradigm itself, you would need to deal with supporting the change and its agents fully, over a period of time, in smaller incremental steps. You cannot hope to make big bang changes which you easily discard when you fail.

What if we really wanted to make our aspiration more mainstream? Were there any other ways to make this work?

Possible Solutions

Perhaps yes. If the right incentivization was put into effect for each stakeholder so that they knew it was alright to experiment, without any terminal concerns, it may just work. For example, if schools were given extra autonomy, reduced curricular load, better pay & progression structures for teachers, necessary infrastructure, and allowed to build a different structure for performance evaluation & excellence which extended right to college and thereon to job opportunities, it may just work.

If the CABE decides to do this as a parallel system, it will perhaps be able to leverage the right resources to scale at the right time. Rightsizing the aspirations will mean that we recognize the aspirations for better educational opportunities at every stage and then credibility for performance and excellence in those opportunities when students compete for employment.

One of the ways that we could do this is to set up a separate Board altogether. Let us call it the National Progressive Board (NPB). The NPB would receive the same level of stature and credibility as the CBSE or State Boards for all practical purposes. The NPB would conduct its own performance evaluation and its evaluation would be normalized for entry to higher education with respect to other Boards. Rather than melting into one common examination for entry to (say) engineering and management institutions, this Board would get weightage basis its own evaluation structure. It would be subject to the same level of scrutiny as other boards are with respect to their performance.

But instead of using one single yardstick to view their output, different (not inferior) yardsticks could be equally applied for this board – sort of leveling the playing field. It does not make sense to align all competitive exams to the curriculum followed by the dominant board only – it marginalizes other boards and makes it difficult for them to sustain their identity.

Therein also lies a challenge. Boards often end up competing, directly or indirectly, for reach, student numbers and visibility. It is often noted that some Boards are not perceived nearly as good as others, and sometimes entry level criteria in (say) colleges are mutated to fit those discrepancies. Sometimes location-based or reservation-based policies for entry also mitigate the discrepancies. So a system exists that is inclusive and understands that there is no one-size-fits-all criteria for excellence, but it needs tweaking to ensure parity.

So if it was possible to incentivize interested stakeholder to adopt the NPB, and as a systemic intervention, the performance objectives of the NPB could be aligned with downstream educational and work opportunities for students coming from other boards, we would have a solution that could scale when we need it to.

Over time, if the NPB performs and its students and teachers can demonstrate that results are comparable (or better, hopefully, than systems following rote and certificatory rigor), it can start scaling up to larger audiences. This is perhaps how the Charter Schools in the USA started, and perhaps many more such initiatives across the world. If the NPB does not perform, there are systemic corrections that will happen precisely because stakeholders are unable to extract value. Over a period of time, expectations and alignment to the bigger vision will happen, if done correctly.

A Resurgence

The NPB could be charged with taking edTech seriously. It could evolve its own curriculum and train its teachers differently. They would have the time and space to do so, taking the best practices from all around the world and localizing them to our unique context.

The structure could also vary significantly. Rather than having age determined grade levels, the NPB could look at competency driven structures which are leveled progressions. Mobility from one certifying level to another would then perhaps even imply mobility from one type of institution to another within the NPB – schools that are meant to deal with different competency structures within a single Board, perhaps.

Teachers could then be specifically targeted for different certifying levels, with a minimum target level being assured by legislative acts like the RTE (instead of years of schooling). More specifically, teachers could be tasked very differently compared to the existing system – perhaps on the number of students they were successfully able to move from one certifying level to another rather than having to focus on completing an year of mandatory curriculum.

We talked about the NPB in context of school education, but what is to stop us from moving further to skills and Higher Ed with similar structures? They are faced with similar systemic issues and it does not make sense to stop the innovation at the end of school. I am guessing the premier institutions also could benefit from a healthy dose of progressive thinking in a similar vein.

Having a well defined competency based progression to higher and tertiary education may make for a more integrated and credible system.

At each level, the focus will be on outcomes, the same as any other board. But not every student will have to be judged the same way and exposed to unified age-based curricula. This will make the system flexible to meet various different needs and aspirations, while giving credibility to each structure.

Employability also needs to be addressed in a similar manner. The fact is that the current systems are not really producing enough employable people, as has been witnessed by many a study and bemoaned by both academia and industry. In that sense, even if we were to remove no-detention and even reintroduce board driven external examinations at every level, it still would not improve the terminal employability outcomes. It is chimerical to assume that detention or external board driven exam will improve the quality of the education system – we have not witnessed adequate terminal efficiencies in that legacy approach either. It’s like saying let us fix the ship so that it sails, even if it is in the wrong direction.

We have achieved this in some way in our diverse education system already, so it may not be an altogether novel approach. Our ability to split streams from core to vocational is one such example. Our distinction of ITI vs. IIT is another example of meeting different needs and aspirations. However, most of these initiatives stem from a singular approach to structuring education – age driven curricula, uniform one-size-fits-all approach to curricula, year based exit criteria, subject silos and so on. Perhaps it is time to innovate within the structure effectively and introduce greater structural flexibility, choice and focus.

Perhaps there is an opportunity for CABE to set things right this time, to get to root causes instead of just agreeing to the incidental and expected symptoms. I hope in my heart they will democratically evaluate alternate initiatives on merit, initiatives that are capable of systemic transformation, not demagoguery, myopia or bias.

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There are three things I believe are necessary for success in product development, and perhaps in other endeavors in Life as well.

Courage. You need the courage to dream on a very wide canvas, the courage to fail and make mistakes, the courage to acknowledge what can defeat you and persist in your efforts to resolve it. You need the courage of commitment to stay the course despite what others may have to say or how detractors may perform their dance of distractions. You need the courage to be able to listen, shed your prior biases and conviction. You need the courage to trust your team and play an important part in keeping them challenged, ever growing as people.

Craft. Your craft – the skills you bring to meet the challenge – is really critical. It is not all about what you know already. It is more about what you can learn and teach and share. It is about how open you can be to ideas and thoughts – and how respectful you can be towards the contributions of others, small or large. It is the craft that distinguishes the weak from the strong, the doers from the doomsayers. If you don’t grow while making your product, it is never going to grow either.

Character. A product without character and a team without a conscience are bound to fail. It is the moral intent behind the product that helps it transcend the domains of the merely useful. To be transformational, there must be a soul to the product and its own consciousness and integrity. This is very important to realize and practice – which aspect of your product promotes or has the potential to promote greater social good, and which part is only purely parochial and transient, driven by greed rather than compassion or ingenuity.

Courage. Craft. Character. Three things that are perhaps extremely relevant in many areas – including edTech. Education, though, needs much more emphasis on Character than before. Large players with the ability to disseminate and scale the product, need to shoulder the responsibility for operating with professional, social and financial integrity. And if this happens, the sky is indeed no limit.

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It seems the SWAYAM RFP dated 21st November, 2015 is actually inspired from previous RFPs made for other contexts. You have to only compare the SWAYAM RFP with two earlier RFPs:

  1. National Career Services Portal RFP dated  13th August 2014
  2. A JNU RFP on eLearning Development dated 5th February 2015

 

To give a sense of the malaise, here are indicative architecture diagrams from the NCSP and SWAYAM RFPs. Try and spot the differences.

ncsp_architecture swayam_architecture

sllcs

sllcs-swayam

You don’t have to be an expert to recognize copy/paste. A simple Google search is enough to lay bare the blatant plagiarism. The consultants for this RFP in turn may have been inspired by others across ministries and their appointed consultants.

But there are deeper issues here.

Firstly, the very respected Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC) has been hired as the consultant to draft the RFP, select the vendor and monitor the implementation. It is possible they acted in similar capacities for one or more RFP consultations. To find PwC indulging in cheap copy and paste goes against the very reason they were selected.

Second. PWC is not doing this free of cost. The entire exercise is expected to cost MHRD about 30 lakhs with NICSI also getting a slice. With the efficiency that comes from copy and paste, one would think the effort would be far below proposed.

pab

Third. It may also be okay, to copy and paste certain generic specifications. But would you propose the same technical architecture for two very different contexts? Worse, would you ignore the advances in technology over the past two (or more) years and be content with copying older ideas?

Fourth. Even while doing a copy and paste job, would you at least take care not to repeat earlier mistakes made by the earlier authors. The mere act of a copy and paste indicates an intellectual vacuum. When done improperly, it indicates the complete absence of intellect and intention. Take for example the following diagram (look at the circled phrase). Laughably, see how Sentiment Analytics, the subject of much excitement in the recent past has now become Sentimental Analytics!

sentimental

Fifth. It is not very clear if PWC was the perpetrator of the earlier RFP or other similar ones in the past. And whether they were paid similar astronomical sums for their obvious consulting expertise to copy and paste.

Sixth. While the government can take a hands off position and blame PWC for these acts of omission, there is no way be not held accountable for their choice of consultant, for their inadequate review process and for other errors of their act of commission. The MHRD must explain how this travesty has occurred with full internal and vendor accountability. It is scary that we are going to invest so much public money and effort in an initiative which seems so flawed from the word go.

Seventh. I have not yet even talked about the actual content of the RFP itself. It is so obviously incompetent that I can only sigh with frustration at this phenomenal display of MOOC and technology expertise. And I am not talking about the Microservices vs. SoA kind of higher level technological debates either – just very simple things that I daresay most MOOC technology people would be happy to point out are missing, erroneous or irrelevant. It would be superb to place the panel of experts who edited or wrote the original version of the RFPs in a public debate, asking them to substantiate their proposals.

More galling than any other thing is the obviously brazen attitude that anything they do will pass public scrutiny. There is perhaps a babu-consultant-OEM racket in here which I hope someone takes the pain to uncover. Perhaps they genuinely believe we are idiots who will not really care.

I sure hope we are not.

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