Archive for the ‘Innovations’ Category

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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This past year has been very eventful. Here are some of my impressions of 2015.

xMOOCs have strengthened this year. The major players have received lots of new funding, added 1800 new courses, 100 new credentials, doubled enrollments to 35 mn students and co-opted many new partners from academia (over 550 universities in all) and industry.  Class-Central’s report talks about 5 emerging trends.

  • Rise of self-paced courses (20% of the course listings on Class-central are self-paced)
  • Death of the free certificate (average per course costs are USD 50+ for providers such as Coursera and edX)
  • MOOCs for High schoolers (to bridge the college readiness gap)
  • Sharper business model (with paid credentials) – also aligning to the for-credit model, which has the required scale if endorsed by university partners, althoughJust one specialization from Coursera makes 10x the revenue, in ten months, that the entire university of Harvard makes with 60+ courses. The numbers tell a clear story: students don’t care if the certificate is id-verified or not.“. There is also a revenue model in tying financial aid/loans for these courses.
  • Huge funding (nearly USD 200 mn between just Coursera, Udacity and FutureLearn)

All in all, xMOOCs have started looking rather like Lynda (which LinkedIn, very sensibly, acquired) and so many other online course providers who have established business models in traditional online learning. What is different is scale and hype, but the rest remains essentially the same. In fact, it is a well rehearsed strategy to grow the numbers using a free approach and segue into a paid marketplace, the runway being the patience and appetites of investors.

India, too, has joined the bandwagon. With early experiments by the IITs and other institutions, now the focus is on converting existing content into ‘MOOC-compliant’ (whatever that means) offerings from existing content and the building of an indigenous platform called SWAYAM. SWAYAM is supposed to be a “Single Window, centralized, integrated, multi-lingual, user-friendly platform enabling module based efficient learning” and will integrate central and state universities, training providers, educators, students, examination partners, internal platforms etc. and will feature Enterprise CMS, CRM, Analytics and eCommerce and other supporting modules; available in offline modes and on any device (Volume 2).

Meanwhile, policy changes are towards more open-ness in sharing resources and textbooks for free/paid online access. There are several new initiatives like ePathshala and eBasta (which I never really could get my arms around; in any case it has no more that about 6,500 downloads in the past 6 months) that aim to bring free and paid digital versions of textbooks and learning materials to the mobile devices in online and offline modes. Government continues to exercise muscle power in online learning, being the main funder and the largest scale provider, probably to the angst of private players. A realization also seems to be seeping in that offline versions are key (look at what Khan Academy Lite is trying to do) and so is multi-lingual content (Khan Academy Hindi). Be that as it may, these are moves that utilize technology for some kind of dissemination, hardly moves that are going to improve education. Elsewhere, government is also waking up to the fact that it needs to put information systems online, such as Saransh.

The unregulated Indian PreK12 market seems to be consolidating. Zee Learn and Treehouse have merged to create the largest player with over 2000 pre-schools, with Eurokids (884 centres) and Shemrock (425 centres) following behind.

EdTech funding this year has touched a new high. Over USD 3bn was invested worldwide with nearly half that in education finance companies Social Finance and Earnest.The rest mainly in online edTech providers, xMOOCs and tutoring. In India, edSurge reports, there were 27 deals valued at about USD 60 mn. Audrey Watters is doing a great job at putting some of this information together.Top areas of investor happiness? Test prep. Tutoring. Private student loans. Learning management systems. Online “skills training.”

More detailed figures on Indian edTech reveal a total investment of USD 66 mn in India. This is compared to USD 60 mn in just one of many edTech investment in China. Indian investment looks to follow a similar pattern – Test Prep. Online skills/training/curriculum. Tutoring. And this is less than 1% of total private investment deals in India in 2015.

I can’t recall, sadly, innovative ed-tech in 2015, perhaps apart from some work in adaptive learning by companies such as Knewton. Perhaps it is just that I have not kept up, but nothing stood out really.

Atleast I had fun being part of Dave Cormier’s Rhizo15. The great part of a cMOOC is that you get to meet some incredible people who expose you to some really mind-blowing thinking around learning and education. You learn to renew yourself through the experience of being connected with others and discussing new ideas. I hope that good sense will prevail in India and we will start experimenting with some of these models instead of aping the xMOOCs and building learning management systems.

And I cannot but mention the most impressive post of 2015 for me. Audrey Watters wrote The Invented History of ‘The Factory Model of Education’ and questioned popular rhetoric. Not merely is the analogy anachronistic, but it is also not very relevant. However, the big revelation to me this year, is that there is an organized system out there whose outcomes are not very educational after all! More on that later.

Inexorably though, in 2016, the online courses and tutoring juggernaut will keep progressing and the space is going to be of the more of the same variety. Hopefully India will see increased traction – it is just a matter of time.

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Do you go to the football field to learn music? Or to the art gallery to learn fencing? Or to a library to learn oratory? You don’t. However, irrespective of whether you are studying history, economics, physics, languages or architecture, you go to that one singular invention – the classroom.

In the age of networks, this notion of a classroom perhaps needs a serious rethink.

What should a modern day learning environment look like? Should it extend the notion of the classroom (and the class) in the belief that this notion is capable of handling the new digital and social learning environment? Or should it be disrupted by something entirely new?

Extensions of the notion of classroom have been notable. The Flipped Classroom has caught the imagination of the world as a way to use digital technology to invert/optimize the use of learning events/activities inside and outside class. There have been many developments in the physical design of learning spaces that promise enhancements in in-class collaboration and learning by doing. Peer instruction has been found to be another way of extending the notion.

Christensen thinks disruption is the best way to go. Many other folks believe that online education using MOOCs and technology such as adaptive learning is that panacea – a panacea that can personalize learning and address individualized issues of knowledge and motivation.

I believe that class needs to be disrupted. And I believe networks are the key to disrupting the classroom. What if you could learn from someone who could teach the way you learn? What if you learned with people and things that directly reinforced what you were learning? What if you did not just learn to do, but also learned to be – to be a practitioner in networks of practice?

One of the interesting observations seems to be that in  the traditional educational system there is invariance to scale or scale-free behaviour. Scale free behaviour is exhibited by some very interesting networks like the Internet in which a few of the participants make the majority of interactions, and a long tail of participants exist with little or no engagement or levels of activity. Perhaps a disruption will truly arrive if we invert these scale free networks or even if we flatten out the interactions (raise the long tail). Perhaps we need to recast the classroom as the network itself?

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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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There are many positives happening in EdTech in India. A government led mission called the National Mission on Education using ICT (NMEICT) has created massive amounts of content for engineering, arts and humanities, social sciences and natural science. It has also delivered the under 50 USD tablet, Aakash and a slew of innovations including Virtual LABs and the A-View web conferencing tool (that seems to work better than Skype). The school sector is running alongside nicely with initiatives to build content (NROER, K-OER) and delivery systems (Virtual Open School, NIOS). Teacher Ed is also getting the necessary focus from a content perspective (though the technology pieces are still being conceptualized). The Vocational Ed sector is running behind yet (although I have word of some level of content development), but one hopes it will catch up sooner than later.

The writing on the wall is pretty clear – India seems to be moving quickly towards a blended learning strategy that relies on platforms such as edX, existing physical infrastructure & “facilitator” faculty, and video lectures. Learning Analytics and Badging seem to be getting a mention (only just).

It seems an obvious response to scarcity of quality teachers, also exacerbated by the remoteness of interior locations. But interestingly these seem to ignore some of the learnings of the past 20-30 years and even some current work such as Sugata Mitra’s SoLE research and pilots in government schools.

Carefully crafted models of blended teaching and learning can definitely impact the system. However, systems designed to “spray and pray” will cause more harm than good. The current approach to virtual schooling seems to be to provide technology to broadcast lectures by the expert teacher and leave the local facilitator to do the support job. Blends are far more involved than that simplistic view.

Blends place a larger demand on students capability to learn with the help of technology. Learners need to build the capability for self-discipline, self-motivation, self-organization, peer learning, higher levels of exploration & discovery and even how to overcome technical constraints of under-reliable hardware, software and connectivity. 

Blends also place a heavy demand on the local facilitators of such instruction. The “distance” between the teacher and student needs to be filled by the facilitator. This distance is on the emotional plane as well as on the planes of knowledge, coaching, mentoring. contextualization and organizing the process of learning. In that sense, the facilitator needs to work very closely with the remote teacher and needs to understand the very intent and idiosyncrasies of the remote expert.

On the other hand, the remote expert needs to understand the limitations imposed by “distance”, and work to the capabilities of the facilitator. The expert also needs to cope with diversity, since it is obviously a much larger class than before and very diverse. The expert needs to be able to design learning paths that the facilitator can effectively implement. Especially in cases where the facilitator is also a competent and experienced teacher, the expert must allow for some level of creativity & local insight to be exhibited by the facilitator. Additionally, the remote expert must learn how to leverage data – about classrooms, facilitators and learning patterns – to make the blends iteratively more effective.

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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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Democracy requires intellectually armed political activism to succeed. MOOCs (cMOOCs) provide an unprecedented occasion to demonstrate the power of connective learning for democracy, just as much as they demonstrate the democracy of connective learning.

The four letters that make up the MOOC abbreviation are as apt as a stage for political protest as for our education system. The Massive, Open and Online aspects of the MOOC lend themselves well to democratic deliberation. It is the “C” which provokes this post and fuels my hopes of leveraging MOOCs as instruments of democracy.

The C in MOOCs stands for “course”. It is rather loosely and controversially defined, because the MOOC looks nothing like its traditional namesake – the closely bounded, rigidly structured component of a curriculum. Perhaps that it why it requires the first three letters to qualify it. Of course, there was much deconstructive debate about this in 2008, particularly around the notion of the “un-course” which did gain some momentum.

What if democratic debates were structured as MOOCs? So far, most democratic conversations end up as inaccessible and lost footnotes to a blog post or a FaceBook like. Frequently they are tokenised into signature campaigns or opinion polls, as a measure of democratic discourse.

Most of the current instruments suffer from severe deficits. They do nothing to promote connectives of citizens who engage with vast linked networks of “knowledge”. They do not allow sustained, visible conversation. Nor do they allow citizens to build the necessary level of competence to understand the complexities of any issue being discussed. They do not scaffold citizen learners in ways that promotes their own learning. And they certainly do not reflect much more than the immediate, surface reactions in any debate.

MOOCs as political instruments would overcome deficits such as these and promote democracy. They would act as opinion-shapers, citizen-competency builders and massive hubs that collate the huge amount of information being generated today by individuals and the mass media.
The mechanisms of the MOOC will ensure that the networks these MOOCs create will result in credible outputs – something no xMOOC or traditional course can ever dream of achieving, placed as they are in the traditional system of education.

What will these credible outputs be? Firstly, any one passionate or interested in building an independent thought-competence over an issue will instantly be exposed to networks that has diversity of thought, opinion and conversation. Next, these networks will allow smaller networks of people to coalesce based on their thinking and capabilities, leading to  cohesive multi-faceted thinking and learning on various aspects of an issue. Thirdly, and most tangibly, these networks with their (ideally) open nature, will not sport specific political agendas, making them a strong force within democracy.

And why stop here? Why not consider MOOCs for health, poverty and many of the ills that surround us today, locally and globally? Thoughts?

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