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Archive for the ‘Innovations’ Category

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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I had an occassion to present a session on MOOCs to some really bright people a few days ago. My thesis was that MOOCs (cMOOCs) represent an invention (they add vocabulary), while other models (xMOOCs, Flipped Classroom etc.) represent innovation that is more inside the box than outside it.

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The discussion on what is a MOOC or how do we classify MOOCs is gaining momentum. First we had George explaining the difference by saying that there are xMOOCs and cMOOCs. Now Lisa Lane has come with a different taxonomy (network/task/content based) with some interesting distinctions. Dominic came up his own understanding of the “features” of a MOOC. See also Gordon Lockhart’s Super-MOOCA MOOC by Another Name and a brilliant post by Doug Holton, where he makes many insightful remarks including what could be necessary and sufficient conditions for learning to occur or to be “caused” (don’t particularly like that last word).

Taking Doug’s cue, we should perhaps be talking of massive in the sense of the quantum of connected-ness or connection-richness, or in terms of the widespread nature of the learning need or motivation, rather than looking at it from the point of view of number of learner enrolments.

That said, I would reiterate that we are comparing apples with oranges, and despite the “mania”, there is no reason why we should be forced to compare these different initiatives in the first place. MOOCs (cMOOCs) will have a plethora of possible implementation strategies and techniques. For example, I love what the folks at the Mechanical MOOC are doing (Audrey covered them here).

In my opinion, it makes more sense to focus on the platform rather than the tool, the rubric rather than the assessment and the DNA rather than the you or me.

A video, by Prof. John Holland (University of Michigan) speaking on Modelling Complex Adaptive Systems, is a must view (rather long, but worth it) for a large number of reasons. I find this CAS video (and generally the complex systems area) appealing because it makes more sense to me than engineered closed systems like we have in education today.

I am intrigued by the emphasis in the talk of building blocks, signals, interactions and boundaries within an overall approach of risk taking innovation. I think that fundamentally describes the platform I am referring to. Let us look at that process.

When a learner first starts out, certain pre-conditions exist. These pre-conditions are what makes a person a learner – whether it be out of curiosity, awareness, context, a need and/or some other kind of motivation trigger. At this point, the learner understands little of the network of knowledge, and perhaps may also have a sense or purpose or general idea of outcomes from the forthcoming experience. The platform will have to recognize this initial state.

Next comes a series of interactions in and with the network. This is where the accessibility, quality and depth of the network (in terms of coverage, accuracy, engagement, open-ness) and the contained boundaries play a big role in facilitating or obstructing discovery, experimentation and conjecture – viz. sense-making.

The network really is two things – one, an explicitly curated or visible set of people, content and tools, and two, a vast hidden implicit network intimately connected with the first but not explicitly visible at first.

Interaction in the network will be governed by signals – actions by the learner, actions by others and changes in the network itself as it evolves and adapts. The learner will interact to implicitly or explicitly “produce” or “engineer” make visible or personal, a set of connected nodes in the network (which shall be her curation arising out of her discovery, experimentation and conjecture).

The visible and invisble impact of her sense-making and of others will generate fresh signals in a non-linear manner. Over time, some of the network constellations will get broken to form new bonds (or connections) as the process will be usually far from equilibrium. Visible parts will become a part of the network thus changing the network maps of sense-making of others and in turn generating new innovations and experimentation.

Again over time, feedback from these interactions or signals will reinforce collections or patterns of these nodes of sense-making and new building blocks of comprehension and sense making will emerge. This is turn will affect boundaries of interaction and reduce impedance caused by them, so that new constellations are created.

The platform will have to recognize this elaborate dance of sense-making, the signals, interactions, boundaries and complex adaptation. It will have to provide for this complexity and it will need to allow for contextual influence to align towards certain constellations (and it will do so in many ways, giving us the agency). 

The platform will have to recognize and help resolve multiple trails that coalesce into a conception, parallelisms or multiple patterns of building blocks that converge into a model (a thought, an idea). And the system will have to recognize transition or inflection points, when existing models are questioned and new trains of thoughts emerge, just like in this post.

The platform has to provide for this emergence, chaos, self-organization and adaptation. Something that is spectacularly different from what Khan Academy or Coursera or other non-MOOCs are attempting to do. And in doing so, it will forge a new understanding of what an educational system ought to be.

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Unflipping the flip

I have been really curious and a little wary of the “flip” (flipped classroom, flipping the classroom) kind of frenzy recently. Basically, it seems to mean that we flip:

  • Students into teachers
  • Homework into Classwork
  • Classwork into learning by self or network, guided or unguided
  • Hallways and Social spaces into Classrooms
  • Closed curriculum to open
  • Degrees to badges
  • Fixed learning periods to flexible learning time, anywhere
  • Fellow students into collaborators

Doubtless, there will be more interpretations, each taking a part of the fabric of conventional education system and creating delightful flip variations. Perhaps one day, there will even be a few frameworks and associated evangelists that will claim to be the experts on flipping the classroom, and people who will ask “How do I flip the lesson on Newton’s First Law”.

There are also valid voices that question the flip. I would add that a whole lot of teachers may just not be able to deal with the flip – it places a great pressure on teachers to…actually teach. Jay is right in worrying about the flip faring the same way as eLearning did. The fact is, like anything, we will do well to ignore the hype and concentrate on the core learning from these flips.

The core learning is not that we have a found a presumably efficient way of utilizing classroom time, or that we have found a great way to bypass degrees as credentials for jobs we aspire for, or even that we have just realized how good it is to have high quality online material and great classroom engagement.

The core learning, at least for me, at a systemic level, is that we have relaxed the boundaries of the conventional system without breaking them. We are still inside the box. This is not a disruption (or transformation George would say), it’s  a distortion of the contours of the educational system – an internal shift or re-arrangement of factors, perhaps even an innovation.

The clearest evidence of this is that the flip is not able to do away with the vocabulary of conventional systems, nor is it adding any new vocabularies that did not exist earlier. A test is a test. A group project is a group project. Hallways are still in a school. Content is online or mobile instead of in a book or through a projection device. Competencies are still defined and used the same way. Badges are mini-degrees (if backed by MIT and Stanford?).  As George says, “the difficulty is that you can’t have structure leading.”

Furthermore, it would do well for someone to ask whether the conception or the implementation failed of the traditional system. After all India flipped from an ancient gurukul system to a British system not too long back. It would make sense to delve into the flip and see whether it will share the same fate.

But then, perhaps, it will be enough to just distort and not transform.

The MOOCs that I have attended aren’t anything like these flips. They add vocabulary. They do not take an existing model and rearrange it or make it more efficient. They are not definitive recipes for change-mongers. They are complex, adaptive, emergent, chaotic systems. As Dave Snowden wrote to us during EDGEX, “you can design something that will manage process, can’t define outcome”. That approach is transformative, because then you are looking at the core issues that an educational system is expected to address – not outcomes, but process.

George provides a set of 8 distinctions between the MOOC model and the model that is being implemented by initiatives such as EdX and startups like Coursera. The vocabulary of the MOOC really emerges in these distinctions. The belief that these initiatives follow a MOOC model are misplaced (perhaps because the phrase Massive Open Online Course has been literally implemented by a few).

At present, these initiatives are nothing more than extensions/combinations of the self paced elearning and instructor led virtual models, automated assessments in some cases, with the added spice of learners being able to collaborate online and being promoted by individual and institutional brands (acceptance) – hardly a disruption. In fact, the reason such flips will continue to attract students (even though a meagre percentage would actually certify), is because a brand pull exists or marketing dollars will be spent.

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(Following is a paper I wrote a few months ago. The conference where I submitted it perhaps did not think much of it, but I hope you will!)

Introduction

Worldwide, there is immense concern on how we will meet the educational needs of a rapidly growing young population. The challenge is compounded by many other trends – growth of infrastructure, gender disparities, growing inequality, changing student needs, rapid technological change and the challenges of economic globalization. Current educational systems are based on an imposition of structure and the belief that scale challenges can be efficiently be met by imposing more order and structure, rather than a realization that a shift to more self-organized and adaptive systems may be more desirable. This paper argues that we must leverage scale to meet the challenges of scale.

The Challenges

There are some important challenges that need to be studied in order to understand the contours of the problems we are presented with.

Demographic challenges

Reports show that the young populations (5-24) are expanding rapidly in developing and less developed countries. Not only that, the base of the pyramid (primary school enrolment) is expanding very fast and Gross Enrolment Ratios (GER) at each stage up the pyramid are also increasing rapidly.

The 2009 figure for the number of students pursuing tertiary education was 165 mn, up from 28.6 mn in 1970. Sub-saharan Africa has the highest average regional growth rate. But their numbers are still behind the rates of growth experienced in China and India. [1]

In India, the Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) is extremely low (12%), even as compared with other BRIC countries (Brazil is at 34% and China at 23%), despite having the third highest number of students in the world. In the last 25 years, Higher Education enrolments have been growing at a CAGR of 6% with the current tally of 16 mn students expected to be 40 mn by 2020. [2]

In more developed countries like the USA, GER is high (82% in 2007) and the number of students in higher education reached around 19 mn in 2009. So these countries are reaching their upper limit in terms of GER for tertiary education. They also have a much smaller young population (30%). In contrast, the population in the developing and less developed countries is very young. For developing countries, this figure stands at 48% (0-24 years) and for the less developed countries, this stands at 60% [3-4].

This poses severe stress of traditional investment driven educational systems – both from funding infrastructure and from the challenge of recruiting skilled teachers. In particular, as infrastructural and social conditions worsen going down the scale, the problems are exacerbated.

Gender and Income Inequalities

Gender disparities have also played a major role. In North America and Europe, the balance has shifted towards females whereas in sub-Saharan Africa, South and West Asia, the balance goes the other way. One of the factors is definitely the pressure to earn a livelihood which is perhaps greater for males than for females in these regions [4].

Economic disparities are known to be wide between the developed countries and the developing and less developed countries. What is worse is that models that have created havoc in developed countries such as student debt programs (the next bubble) and ad-hoc privatization, seem to be making their steady way into the much larger scale of developing and less developed countries.

Changing Student needs

The needs in developed countries have changed towards greater use of technology [5]. Learners are changing from passive receptors of information and training to active participants in their own learning. This is a viral change, so it is really fast. Today’s digital learners are part of communities. They share their interests with members of their community. They twitter. They blog. They rake in RSS feeds and bookmark their favorities on de.li.ci.ou.s. They share photos on Flickr and videos on YouTube. They share knowledge on Slideshare and Learnhub or Ning. They share ideas. They grow by meeting and engaging peers and gurus alike using the LinkedIn or Facebook. The collaborate using their laptops and on their mobile phones.

This change is sweeping across to the developing and less developed world depending on what kind of information, network and other resources they have access to. For these regions, the pressure is on being able to earn a livelihood and to do it from an institution that is of value when seeking employment.

Rapid technological change

Technology is proceeding at a rapid pace too. Joseph Licklider wrote about man-computer symbiosis in 1960 [6], extending from Norbert Weiner’s work on Cybernetics. Licklider wrote on the Computer as a communication device in 1968 [7] where he saw the universal network as a network of people, connected to each other, and producing something that no one person in the network could ever hope to produce. Lick’s efforts led to the creation of the first Internet.

The rest is history. The ARPANET emerged in 1969. By 1990, Tim Berners-Lee had created the hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP) which marked the birth of the web, and the internet started growing exponentially.

By 2005, Tim O’Reilly had marked another phase of the evolution of the Web and called it Web 2.0 [8]. While the earlier web was about connecting people to resources, this web was about people being able to create their own content, search it, share it and digitally collaborate around it. It was about harnessing collective intelligence ushered in by services such as Amazon and its recommendation service, and the rise of social networks such as Facebook.

There is an even greater change that is looming on the horizon – that of the Semantic Web. Web 2.0 is collapsing under its own weight. The gigantic amount of information that is being created every day is burying search. So instead, we are moving towards Web 3.0 – the promise of a ubiquitous, semantic, location aware and contextual web – one that Tim Berners-Lee originally envisaged and is working towards with his concept of Linked Data [9].

The implications for education are enormous. John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid, opine that institutions need to reinvent themselves stating that these technologies “offer new ways to think of producing, distributing and consuming academic material” [10].

Order vs. Chaos

We all like order. We love order. Order means getting dinner on time, flights without delays,  people not jumping the queue, police to keep criminals in check, doctors to give the right medicine, politicians to govern responsibly, teachers to teach well….the list is endless.

On the other hand, we all hate chaos. Chaos is messy. It is unpredictable. It cannot be controlled. It creates confusion.

In the face of scale constraints, there are some vast over-simplifications that are made during the entire design process. We conceive of a “design” process that has the stereotype of a student, teacher, educational environment and process. We then proceed to hammer out a unifying certification and assessment system that actually drives all learning.

Why do we make such assumptions and over-simplifications? And, incidentally, these are not only found in education, these are everywhere.

My belief is that rather than wanting order from chaos, it’s time we started wanting more chaos from this order. I am not saying we address deficiencies in the system we have conceived. Rather I am saying that we ought to question our conception of what our educational system is and investigate alternate educational futures.

In fact, by the early 20th century, people started looking at phenomena that could not be described by this classical, ordered view of a system. There were many phenomena, they argued, that did not fit into this classical notion of order – there was an element of probability that threatened the concept of order and predictability.

It has become apparent that closed-loop systems like we have in education are just one form a system that exists in real life. All around us we have systems or models that are complex, open and distributed. They are made up of networks of elements that have strong relationships with each other and with the environment in which the system exists. Like the weather.

Fritjof Capra writes that “[T]he emergence of systems thinking was a profound revolution in the history of Western scientific thought…The great shock of twentieth century science has been that systems cannot be understood by analysis [11]. The properties of parts are not intrinsic properties, but can be understood only within the context of the larger whole.” This kind of thinking has caused a shift from analysing “basic building blocks” to understanding “basic principles of organization.”

These behaviors are in evidence when we think of education. As knowledge expands, as technology improves, as data becomes bigger, as problems become more complex, the system needs to adapt. Initial conditions have changed. For example, the number of students that the traditional systems need to “process” has increased exponentially. When we give our children the right to participate on discussions on what they want to learn and how, new behaviors do emerge. Not only that, based on events in the environment, for example the need to speak a particular type of English with the BPO boom, systems do tend to self-organize.

These systems exhibit certain very interesting phenomena. It is not possible to look at any one element in the system and make assumptions about the behavior of the system itself. For example, a gas particle is defined by its position and velocity. However the gas has properties like temperature and pressure. Not just that, under different environmental conditions, the gas may exhibit entirely different sets of properties i.e. new behavior may emerge.

Secondly they exhibit self-organization or the spontaneous emergence of order – “new structures and forms in open systems far from equilibrium, characterized by internal feedback loops and described mathematically by nonlinear equations.”[11] Look at the behavior of a flock of birds. You must have noticed how beautifully they fly in a self-organized formation even though there is no one bird that acts as the head.

Thirdly, scientists also found that very small changes in initial conditions for these systems could lead to very large differences in outcomes. This was first found when Edward Lorenz studied weather patterns and gave this phenomenon a new name – Chaos.

Fourthly, these complex systems are also adaptive. They change and are in turn changed by the environment they belong to.

Capra points out his synthesis of the three essential characteristics of a living system – pattern of organization (Maturana, Varela), dissipative structure (Prigogine) and cognition (Gregory Bateson, Maturana and Varela) as the process of life. In my opinion, education is just that – a living system.

Since the elements of a system are networked, there is a huge value in deciphering patterns of behaviours in a network. For example, organizations are built hierarchically. But the way work gets done in the organization resembles a network. Stakeholders are connected to each other in multiple ways spanning across traditional silos in an attempt to get the job done. We observe that information has many cores of distribution, not just one. We observe that an individual when replaced in an organization changes the network structure and consequently some of the efficiencies in the system, especially if she is a link between multiple sub-networks.

Research into these patterns of relationships between elements in a network has also covered significant ground. Stanley Milgram, in 1967, undertook a project to research the quaint expression “it’s a small world”. His research proved that it was possible for one individual to connect to anyone else in the world in an average of only a few steps – popularised as the six degrees of separation [12].

Sociologist Mark Granovetter introduced the concept of weak ties – the conclusion that occasional interactions and loose connections between individuals are sufficient to generate strong social outcomes [12]. Social network theorists and analysts have extensively researched the form, structure and cognition (or dynamics) of networked structures. Not surprisingly, they have found a great deal in common with the work done in systems thinking.

But in our quest for order, we have consciously excluded precisely this kind of emergent, self-organizing, chaotic, adaptive behaviour. In principle, therefore, and we see enough evidence of this, we have managed to limit creativity and innovation and perhaps the birth of new knowledge.

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.

Traditional educational systems have a tight integration of the components. Education policy sets down a certain set of powers and constraints for each and for the collective as a whole. When expansion is considered, these elements must move as a whole to a new setting. This is costly and time consuming.

Instead, what if these components were individually empowered? For example, could teachers also certify, like in the old gurukul system in India. The challenge would then shift to enabling teachers and providing shared infrastructure.

This poses grand challenges to policy makers because they would lose control, often couching arguments against such a system on grounds of quality and standardization. DES are anarchic in that respect.

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.”

Ivan Illich, forty years ago, stated “The current search for new educational funnels must be reversed into the search for their institutional inverse: educational webs which heighten the opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing, and caring.”[13]

A significant development is the development of the theory of Connectivism as a new theory of learning for the digital age.  Propounded by George Siemens (2004) with its epistemological roots in the theory of Connective Knowledge postulated by Stephen Downes [14-15], Connectivism stands contrasted to major existing theories of learning and knowledge by its emphasis on learning as the ability to make connections in a network of resources, both human and device and by the amalgamation of theories of self-organization, complexity and chaos as applied the process of learning.

Connectivism embraces and extends the following principles:

  • Learning is the process of making new connections
  • Connections are a primary point of focus and could be to people or devices
  • Connections expose patterns of information and knowledge that we use (recognize, adapt to) to further our learning
  • Networked learning occurs at neural, conceptual and social levels
  • Types of connections define certain types of learning
  • Strength and nature of connections define how we learn
  • Networks are differentiated from Groups (by factors such as openness, autonomy, diversity, leadership and nature of knowledge)
  • Knowledge is the network, learning is to be in a certain state of connectedness
  • Chaos, complexity theory, theories of self-organization and developments in neurosciences are all extremely important contributors for us to understand how we learn in a volatile, constantly evolving landscape

Connectivism focuses on the distributed nature of learning and knowledge, the explicit focus on networks as the primary means of learning. As George Siemens states, “connectivism, as a networked theory of learning, draws on and informs emerging pedagogical views such as informal, social, and community learning.”

Over the past 4 years, efforts to test this theory has led to the emergence of the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) format. These are environments which are open, autonomous, self-regulated and adaptive. There are now multiple MOOC instances led by different communities (e.g. CCK, Critical Literacies, Educational Futures, LAK, eduMOOC and MobiMOOC). Thousands of people from across the world have joined these “courses”.

Other theories and frameworks such as Jay Cross’s Informal Learning, Lave and Wenger’s Communities of Practice (CoP) and Brown and Duguid’s Network of Practice build upon the networked and distributed nature of learning.

For example, defined by knowledge rather than the task, CoPs are different from social networks or teams because they are not only about relationships or tasks. Rather they are about the shared learning and interest of its members [16].

In Connectivism, learning becomes the process of making connections and knowledge is the network. As Stephen explains “Just as the activation of the pixels on a television screen form an image of a person, so also the bits of information we create and we consume form patterns constituting the basis of our knowledge, and learning is consequently the training our own individualized neural networks – our brains – to recognize these patterns.”[17]

Connectivism applied to contemporary challenges facing educators creates nothing short of an inflection point. In an appeal to end course-o-centrism, Siemens writes “What is really needed is a complete letting go of our organization schemes and open concepts up to the self/participatory/chaotic sensemaking processes that flourish in online environments.”[18]

In this context, let us identify what DES would have as essential components.

Dis-aggregation

The first attribute of a DES would be its disaggregated nature. In the traditional system, we are used to the concept of courses – a slow evolving, closely bounded collection of resources, with a temporal performance monitoring and assessment mechanism built in. This format requires that there be a design process and the presence of experts who would provide authenticity. Courses are a hegemonistic element of the traditional system – the raw elemental form of structure upon which institutions are based. Associated with these courses are certifications or degrees – proof that students are performing or have performed. DES would move from courses to un-courses – loosely defined collections of content brought together and grown through participant activity to answer a competency need. This is not reusability redefined because the premise of design itself needs to be deconstructed in this new context.

Decentralization

The second attribute is decentralization – but not in the sense of delegation of a control structure – but in sense of agency to the decentralized entities. DES would empower and support agents of the system – teachers, students, experts and employers – to impart high quality learning at local and global scales. What DES will do is to allow units lesser than the institution, howsoever organized, to engage in educational activities. In this sense, DES could represent local networks of practice. Closely linked to decentralization is also the concept of disintermediation – the removal of administrative and legal/policy barriers in the operation and powers of such local networks.

The state’s role (or that of private education providers) would then be to provide these networks or clusters with adequate access to technology and shared infrastructure. It would also be to bring about cohesion in the interests of regional and national vision and goals.

Open-ness and Autonomy

The third attribute of DES would be its open-ness. The term open can have many connotations. It could mean transparency and accountability. It could mean adaptive to change and open to critique. It could mean barrier-less to different genders or income parameters. It could mean autonomous in the sense that they would be self-organized and self-regulated. Open-ness and autonomy are two crucial factors in enabling local networks to become self-sustaining and valuable.

For example, a local carpenter’s guild could potentially serve the learning and livelihood needs of the young to engender competencies enough to meet local needs and challenges, without having to go through legal structures of legislation or even the attitude of privatization.  Similarly, information systems could record and share learning activity and resources globally across similar such guilds across the world. Units of the DES, howsoever defined, could act as curators of this information for their audience.

This is really a democratization of the process of and the systems for education by individuals and small glocalized networks [19].

Distributed Networks

This fourth attribute of a DES is its distributed networked nature. While going local, it is necessary to connect globally. Information access is the first enabler; infrastructure and resource availability comes second. When information flows seamlessly and without constraints, when networks become open to connections and collaboration, innovation allows indigenization and assimilation of knowledge. The challenge of DES will be one of discoverability – how does information travel to those who need it? – a reverse search of sorts.

These networks of education could be local, seeded by local communities, their skills and needs, at the same time could be federated to align with regional and national goals and connected with a global environment. We need to allow these networks to self-organize and self-regulate. Instead of funding centralized initiatives, we need to fund and empower local initiatives.

Instead of building cadres of educational bureaucrats and technocrats to staff superstructures, we need to invest in building an architecture of participation across these networks so that they are equipped to take decisions about how education should be.

The Road Ahead

What will this take? Firstly it will take awareness building. Secondly, it will take capability building (not only leadership for the community, but also the vital skills deemed fit to make education a high quality practice). Thirdly, it will take creation of formal structures or spaces where communities can be seeded and supported. Fourthly, it will take a shift of control and a corresponding alteration of the power structures. Fifthly, it will take the loosening of barriers – legal or procedural – to promote freer flow of resources through the local systems.

This would be a strategic shift in policy. From being responsible for implementation, to being responsible for coordinating, supporting and training local communities to support the national needs and vision.

And, of course, it will not happen overnight.

Conclusions

Change is inevitable. One possible alternative education future is described in this paper and many more need to be researched and evaluated contextually. It is my hope, that through the thoughts in this paper and worldwide research in alternate educational futures, policy makers, educationists, designers and entrepreneurs alike, will embrace change.

Acknowledgments

This paper would not have been possible without the insights of great thinkers referenced in this article and the support of the worldwide MOOC and informal communities from whom I learn every moment.  In particular, I would like to profusely thank George Siemens and Stephen Downes for their support and continued inspiration.

References

[1]        OECD (2011). Education at a Glance 2011: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing, 2011

[2]        Ernst & Young. Making Indian Higher Education Future Ready, E&Y-FICCI, http://education.usibc.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/EY-FICCI-report09-Making-Indian-Higher-Education-Future-Ready.pdf, 2009

[3]        Press Release. World Population to exceed 9 billion by 2050, UN Population Division/DESA, 2009

[4]        UNESCO Institute for Statistics. Global Education Digest 2009, UNESCO, 2009

[5]        Lenhart, Amanda, Madden Mary, Macgill Alexandra R. and Smith Aaron. Teens and Social Media, Pew / Internet, http://www.pewinternet.org/PPF/r/230/report_display.asp, 2007

[6]        Licklider, J.C.R.. Man-computer symbiosis, 1960

[7]        Licklider, J.C.R. and Taylor, R.,The Computer as a Communication Device, 1968

[8]        O’Reilly, Tim. What is Web 2.0, 2005

[9]        Berners-Lee, Tim. Linked Data, http://www.w3.org/DesignIssues/LinkedData.html, July, 2006

[10]     Brown, John S. and Duguid, Paul. The Social Life of Information, Harvard Business School Press, http://www.amazon.co.uk/Social-Life-Information-Seely-Brown/dp/0875847625/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1229549494&sr=8-1, 2000

[11]     Capra, Fritjof. The Web of Life – A New Synthesis of Mind and Matter, Harper Collins, 1996

[12]     Watts, Duncan. Six Degrees – The Science of a Connected Age, Norton, 2004

[13]     Illich, Ivan. Deschooling Society, Harper and Row, 1976

[14]     Siemens, George. Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age, elearnspace, http://www.elearnspace.org/Articles/connectivism.htm, December 12, 2004

[15]     Downes, Stephen. An Introduction to Connective Knowledge, Hug, Theo (ed.) (2007): Media, Knowledge & Education – Exploring new Spaces, Relations and Dynamics in Digital Media Ecologies. Proceedings of the International Conference held on June 25-26, 2007, November 27, 2007

[16]     Wenger, Etienne. CoP: Best Practices, Systems Thinker, http://www.co-i-l.com/coil/knowledge-garden/cop/lss.shtml, June, 1998

[17]     Downes, Stephen. The Future of Online Learning: Ten Years On , Half an Hour, http://halfanhour.blogspot.com/2008/11/future-of-online-learning-ten-years-on_16.html, November, 2008

[18]     Siemens, George. Time to end “courseocentricism”, elearnspace, http://www.elearnspace.org/blog/2009/01/14/time-to-end-courseocentricism/, January 14, 2009

[19]     Wellman, Barry. Little Boxes, Glocalization and Networked Individualism, http://www.chass.utoronto.ca/~wellman/publications/littleboxes/littlebox.PDF

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I read with interest Audrey Watters’ commentary on Scaling College Composition. Some of the work I did in this area (I call it Connectivist Metrics) and the recent discussions I had with Stephen Downes in New Delhi during the EDGEX conference around intelligent environments for assessment, as well as all the great work that is happening in Learning Analytics by George Siemens and others, leads me to a few key thoughts and ideas.

It seems like the right time to take a critical look at the notion of assessment. The context of the traditional education system, and of most new age systems that leverage the online medium, suggests a dominant way of thinking about assessments.

Assessments are performed by somebody (the instructor, board, the learner or system) on someone (the learner). The purpose of the assessment depends upon the intended use of the assessment (the why) while the subject of the assessment (the what) defines the boundaries of what may be assessed. The where, when and the how questions demand answers for the modality of the assessment and the which question demands answers on aspects such as the level or complexity of the assessment.

The order that permeates the thinking on assessment precludes emergence and chaos. What would emergent assessments look like? They would be assessments that are not pre-designed, but may result in the some of the same competencies being demonstrated as in the traditional “designed” assessments or in outcomes that provide alternate manifestations of competencies. They would be governed more by the same principles that underly complex systems design.

My favorite example from school is of a fellow student who had enough time in his exams to provide three different ways of solving the same math problem, one of which was really the “expected” method. For those of us who have had fun in marking automagically some of the open ended assessments types (like essays and multi-step tasks based items), this chaos is challenging – and this is at a micro scale – at the scale of the individual learner.

The corresponding thought around content runs deeper into curricula and how they are planned. In my estimates, school students spend less than an hour each year on a single topic of instruction on average (or something close). There is simply no way in which there can be any learning chaos at a systemic level within the traditional system.

So systems that want to assess at scale range from the adaptive testing systems at the single learner level, to systems that utilize the power of the network (peer reviews, ratings), automated graders and of learning analytics (dashboards, mining).

But I am not sure the scaling of assessments reduces to development of systems for authoring items & exams, compiling and evaluating scores. Somehow, we must put the focus on systems, particularly in the MOOC, that recognize evidence of competency. To do this, we must allow an educator to define what is meant by that competency in a manner that is open and expressive.

Can we look at defining a language of assessments like that which goes beyond the traditional elements of measurement (the multiple choice, the essay) and allows educators to pick on a constellation of recognizable evidences sequenced and stitched together in a particular way? Systems could then be based on more objectively mark-able and error-free mechanisms.

Such a language would have interesting implications. Just like we would build software to do tasks, we could engage with a community of developers to solve smaller problems – like figuring out if the student interacted with the community or if she used a specific technique to solve a problem. Each smaller problem would then be associated with competencies and evaluation would be a mix of possibilities (yes/no, subrange, enumeration types).

Over time, and with an engaged community, there could be thousands of competencies that could be assessed in this manner and thousands of patterns of assessments that could be created and shared. These patterns could include an ever-expanding list of criteria/behaviors. Perhaps these assessment patterns could themselves be aggregated meaningfully to derive more complex patterns and intelligence.

This would also solve a critical need for the assessment types and tools to evolve. In effect, this could pave the way for unifying learning and assessment. It would allow us to scale downwards to the individual learner and upwards to a MOOC environment. It would focus attention on what constitutes competence or proficiency by analysis of patterns that educators use for assessments (and in that sense, open up hitherto esoteric assessment mechanisms). Perhaps it could also work well with learners who want to express competence in a manner that others understand.

It would then be the task of systems to understand and react to such assessment patterns. That itself, would be the basis for understanding how MOOCs could be responsive to learning needs.

When such systems, based on open thinking, languages and architecture, permeate education, will there be transformation. Perhaps until then, we would mutter under our breath, like George Siemens did:

The concepts that I use to orient myself and validate my actions were non-existent on summit panels: research, learner-focus, teacher skills, social pedagogy, learner-autonomy, creativity, integration of social and technical system, and complexity and network theory. Summit attendees are building something that will impact education. I’m worried that this something may be damaging to learners and society while rewarding for investors and entrepreneurs.

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One of my favorite rants is that “you cannot educate teachers using the same methods you use to educate your students“. Teachers are going through no different a process than their students. The National Curriculum Framework for Teacher Education document states (quoting the National Curriculum Framework 2005 document):

Experiences in the practice of teacher education indicate that knowledge is treated as ‘given’, embedded in the curriculum and accepted without question; there is no engagement with the curriculum. Curriculum, syllabi and textbooks are never critically examined by the student teacher or the regular teacher.

The NCF 2005 document also calls for:

Reformulated teacher education programmes that place thrust on the active involvement of learners in the process of knowledge construction, shared context of learning, teacher as a facilitator of knowledge construction, multidisciplinary nature of knowledge of teacher education, integration theory and practice dimensions, and engagement with issues and concerns of contemporary Indian society from a critical perspective.

According to this press release, the NCF2005 document was built by the following process.

  • Prof. Yashpal managed a steering committee of 35 members “including scholars from different discipline, principals and teachers, CBSE Chairman, representatives of well known NGOs and members of the NCERT faculty”.
  • 21 National Focus Groups, chaired by renowned scholars and practitioners, built position papers on areas of curricular concern, areas for system reform, and national concerns. (Published here).
  • “Each National Focus Group has had several consultations in which they have interacted with other scholars and classroom practioners in different parts of the country. In addition to the above NCERT has had consultations with (a)  Rural Teachers, (b) Education Secretaries and Directors of NCERTs, (c) principals of Delhi-based private schools and KVS Schools. Regional Seminars were also held at NCERTs Regional Institutes of Education in Ajmer, Bhopal, Bhuvaneshwar, Mysore and Shillong.  Advertisements were placed in 28 national and regional dailies to invite suggestions from parents and other concerned members of the public. More than 1500 responses were received.”

Of special interest in the position paper of the National Focus Group on Educational Technology. Members of this focus group include Kiran Karnik, Prof. MM Pant, Ashok Jhunjhunwala, Vasudha Kamat among others and invitees included Sugata Mitra.

In reading this paper and correlating it with what finally transpired as the NCF 2005, it seems that a pattern was repeating itself – that committees have not done a good job of representing the work done by sub-committees and taking some major recommendations into the policy documents. Perhaps it is more driven by individual proclivities than the mission itself. For example, the word Internet is used superficially in the NCF 2005 (you may not find more than a few occurrences of the term itself in that document!).

This focus group looked at Educational Technology (and much has happened since 2005 in ET) and states:

The Internet can be a sound investment for continuous on-demand teacher training and support, research and content repositories, value-added distance education, and online campuses aimed at increasing the access, equity, and quality of education.

It came to some important conclusions.

  • Firstly, we must look at revitalizing what we already have. We should take our existing resources and network them into a potent driving force in education. This scale that we have can be brought to bear on the challenges that we have, if we have the intention to invest in capability building.
  • Secondly, the Focus Group exhorts us to encourage system reform. It asks us to “(C)ounter the tendency to centralise; promote plurality and diversity” and “Ensure opportunities for autonomous content generation by diverse communities.”
  • Thirdly, we must look at ways of creating a system of lifelong professional development and support, especially for education leaders, as a focus in in-service training.
  • Fourthly, for pre-service training, it demands that we “introduce teachers to flexible models of reaching curriculum goals”. It demands that we “(I)ntroduce use of media and technology-enabled methods of learning, making them inherent and embedded in the teaching-learning process of teachers.”
  • Fifthly, in K12, we must “(M)ove from a predetermined set of outcomes and skill sets to one that enables students to develop explanatory reasoning and other higher-order skills.” and “(P)romote flexible models of curriculum transaction.”
  • Sixthly, in research, focus on adaptive learning, mobile learning and building capabilities for core research.

The position paper is worth a read. And it is useful to see how much of it really translated into the NCF2005. My sense so far, and I could be inaccurate here, is that for the NCF2005 committee, the position paper could be summarized as an “appropriate use of ICT in education”. It would be useful to get inputs from the Focus Group members on how their recommendations were amalgamated into the NCF2005. Alas, there is no online forum where they are visibly present where I could raise this.

What would a position paper look like in 2012? And what would it look like if we future-casted it to 2020 and beyond? And is it at all useful to create such position papers if their recommendations do not see the light of day?

In my opinion, this should be an annual participatory affair. Each year, experts and interested stakeholders should come online and generate an open (un)consensus on what Educational Theory, Research and Technology augurs for our mission to democratize education. If not anything else, the network of interested people can be built, with potential future impacts on the way education systems progress. Interested?

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