Archive for the ‘Instructional Design’ Category

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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Speakers at the EDGEX Conference debated many tensions and challenges apparent in education today.

George Siemens evocatively questioned the use of the word “disruptive” and asserted that we should call for transformation instead. Given the broad societal transitions to a networked and complex ecology, he talked about how initiatives like Coursera, Udacity and the Khan Academy provided disruptions, but did not transform education.

Forces that are working to transform education have their drivers in economic change, changing perceptions of the university systems, changes in student expectations and needs, and demographic explosion in worldwide student population. In his opinion, there are some forces that may transform education – robots, new school models, cloud computing, new assessment models, new pedagogical models like the Massive Open Online Course and distributed research & discovery networks.

Putting the focus sharply on India, and its challenges of scale, equity and quality, he said that India has perhaps the chance to break from tradition and leapfrog over many of the milestones in the evolution of the traditional educational systems worldwide. That leverage of transformative educational research, was perhaps what excited many of the international and national speakers and delegates at EDGEX.

Bringing another tension to the fore, Stephen Downes talked about Education as a Platform. Instead of focusing on content, Stephen believes that the connections should be given primacy. Knowledge is something that is grown rather than acquired or ingested. Outlining some of the current challenges with MOOCs, such as the size vs. connectedness or the bootstrapping challenge, Stephen felt that their MOOCs were insufficiently focused on connectedness.

Education as a platform would encompass thinking on the personal learning environment and giving fresh meaning to assessments and learning analytics in a networked ecology. Dave Cormier brought a similar tension while talking on embracing uncertainty, using rhizomatic learning in formal education. Dave talked about the shift from content as curriculum to community as curriculum, and how the notion of rhizomatic networks could be brought to bear on the traditional learning mechanisms.

In the conference summary session, we wrestled with another important underlying tension – that of spaces between networks. Typically we build links between nodes in a network by the virtue of which spaces between the nodes get obliterated and become invisible. By argument then, the network should really be a continuum, rather than a set of discrete nodes.

Jay Cross had expounded on how we need to democratize learning. He talked about how the education behind the gates is finally starting to converge with real life in this network era. He bemoaned the state of training in corporate America, stating “training is dead”. He was tremendously excited about the prospects of informal learning to attack the problem of scale with quality in India. In fact, the same concept came up for debate in the conference summary session again – the fact that democratization, which is education by, for and of the people, was talked of more in terms of “for the people” rather than “by” and “of”.

Jay remarked that there is no one solution (and school is probably not the one, in fact schools can be at times non-democratic). Learning is seen as a key enabler for democratization. Stephen said that commercializing learning is antithetical to democracy. Les Foltos brought up affordability in both Indian and US contexts – are we as democracies making the commitment to make education affordable at high quality. The only recourse, then as Stephen remarked, is to rethink the concept of school.

An important tension was that between order and chaos. Do we want order from chaos or chaos from order? Stephen argued that the order exists in the eye of the perceiver and that order is not inherent in chaos itself. As Les Foltos put it, the tension is between the current traditional system that is extremely ordered and discourages risk taking and systems that encourage risk taking and are inherently chaotic. Clark Quinn argued that chaos could be imbued with values and purpose in terms of design and then one must expect movements to and from chaotic states. Dave Cormier highlighted the challenge of fostering creativity in students in chaotic systems and moving away from the tyranny of assessments. Rhizomatic networks are inherently both ordered and chaotic.

The next tension was around technology availability specifically around the requirements or conditions in which the theory of Connectivism could operate. The main challenge in a developing and less developed world context is the availability of technology – technology that allows networks to really exist on the digital scale. Both George and Stephen felt that technology was a sufficient condition, but in terms of theory, not a completely necessary condition.

There were tensions exposed in our thinking of design. Is design (as we know it) dead? The fundamental tension here was that design, as we know it, is focused on creating ordered and deterministic outcomes. Can there be design around complex, adaptive systems that can allow for environments that are emergent, self-organizing and adaptive? Grainne Conole discussed the conception of design, in particular leveraging the network construct, can design today prove useful in creation of open, participatory spaces for learning.

There was another tension in terms of design in the context of scalability. Inherent in traditional systems of design is standardization and bureaucratization of design processes. Dave Cormier raised the question of how we can distribute design expertise in a way that can scale. Grainne talked about more participative and innovative methods where teachers and experts are able to use design tools and processes based on networked collaboration techniques in a manner that is very different from business process like mechanisms that institutions typically follow.

Martin Weller, who had talked about digital scholarship in an open, networked and digital world, talked about his experiences in teacher education where he talked about yet another dimension – problems with using social media and innovative design. Les Foltos talked about physical challenges that teachers face in terms of the support they need to be innovative and risk taking. They also need to apply techniques and experience success in their contexts in order for them to believe the grand visions. Stephen brought in another tension – that of over design – and believed that design should be used as a syntax to be interpreted by individuals, in a minimally prescriptive manner.


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Over the next few weeks, as the countdown to the EDGEX Disruptive Educational Research conference to be held in New Delhi from March 12-14 begins, I hope to bring to you all news and updates about the conference and its themes.

The EDGEX 2012 Conference has been carefully and collaboratively constructed to bring cutting edge educational research to participants. There are two major themes – Learning X.O and Simulations & Serious Games. The Learning X.O theme essentially tries to synthesize the fairly amazing and disruptive research and experimentation around Connectivism, Informal Learning and Communities of Practice.

For something that I joined up in 2008 (with the Connectivism and Connective Knowledge [CCKO8] “course” led by George Siemens,Stephen Downes and Dave Cormier, featuring a unique open-ended format called the Massive Open Online Course – MOOC) to co-experiment with over 2000 people across the world, to have advanced so much and to have directly or indirectly inspired systems thinking on education (witness the Stanford AI “course” experiment and the recent announcement – MITx – by MIT) by traditional brick and mortar institutions, is no mean achievement over such a short period of time.

What makes Connectivism and all the associated themes so disruptive is just that – its potential to arm an entirely new generation of theorists, researchers and practitioners with the thought paradigm and tools to comprehend the impacts of disruptive technology, over abundant knowledge, demographic pressures and changing social relations among other important trends. Underlying it, in my own interpretation, is the tremendous principle of democratization – of education to be by, for and of the people. Though it is heavily steeped in technology, the essence of it is like “the principles behind the steam engine” as Stephen would say.

George and Stephen continue to raise the bar. Their continued work, and that of able partners and fellow researchers like Dave Cormier and Alec Couros, not only on the CCK MOOCs, but on various others, like the Critical Literacies MOOC, the EdFutures MOOC, Alec’s EC&I 831, the Change11 MOOC, the Learning Analytics and Knowledge Conference, Stephen’s technology development and many other initiatives, are inspiring thousands of educators worldwide.

Etienne Wenger, with his disruptive work on Communities of Practice, is one speaker who we shall miss terribly on this platform. We did not get his availability on the dates for the conference, and would have loved to have him, so as to, at least in my mind, complete the conversation. But I am fairly sure, his intellectual presence will be felt strongly through the themes of the conference.

Quick switch to Corporate Learning and the one name that immediately comes to mind is the person responsible for really starting it all – Jay Cross. In his work with the Internet Time Alliance, Jay, along with Clark Quinn (who we are honoured to host at the conference), Jane Hart, Harold Jarche, Charles Jennings and Paul Simbeck-Hampson, are redefining the boundaries of what learning can be. Their work on Learnscapes as learning ecosystems that promote complexity instead of eradicating it, is path breaking because it offers another way for us to think about how workplace learning can be transformed.

Even as this disruptive research and experimentation impacts our conception of how learning will be and how learning systems will be, the work of three of the expert researchers at EDGEX2012 – Grainne Conole, Jon Dron and Martin Weller – is of crucial significance. Grainne is researching ways in which new pedagogies and approaches to design can harness the potential of social and participatory media. Martin is investigating the implications of scholarship in a digital world. Jon is looking at learning environment design and investigating the “shapes of online socially enhanced dwellings that are most likely to lead to enhanced knowledge and, in the process, uncover some of the nature of technologies and our intimately connected cyborg relationships with them”.

Meanwhile, the other theme, Simulations and Serious Games, is really a veiled approach to unravelling how rich digital media and delivery platforms can combine to produce rich digital learning experiences. The work of Clark Quinn and Alicia Sanchez, and other speakers such as Sid Bannerjee and Jatinder Singh will lay the foundation for rethinking digital media. Clark, of course, brings in a much wider perspective – he is rethinking our conception of learning and systems for learning and is investigating models such as spaced practice, social learning, meta-learning, and distributed cognition.

Les Foltos brings in focus to teacher education and how educator communities can use peer coaching as a technique to continuously learn and evolve. Shanath Kumar, Satish Sukumar, Rajeev Menon, Manish Upadhyay and Amruth B R bring in yet more perspectives on design, content, new age assessments, semantic web, mobility and technology, thus rounding off this theme.

And this is not limited to Higher Education alone. The principles and precepts are fairly universal, although the practice and implementation will definitely vary between contexts. K12 educators will find a plethora of disruptive opportunities in the conference.

The conference has one other dimension worth noting. We are inviting startups and entrepreneurs who believe that they are contributing disruptive innovation to education. You will see some of these entrepreneurs showcase their ideas at the conference.

I am hoping this conference acts as the melting pot for disruptive research and practice and marks the start of new level of collaboration between participants.

In my mind, all this research is connected by one common theme – we are looking the ways to change the dominant paradigm, because the dominant paradigm will fail (and indeed, is failing) to achieve a vision of a meaningful and capable system of education in the face of the challenges we face today.

Particularly for countries like India, the timing of these disruptions could not be more apt. And this is where we hope your vision and expertise at the conference and around it, will pave the way for open and concerted dialogue on how we can embrace change in our society.

The website for the conference is up at http://www.edgex.in. The website features speaker bios and a set of resources to get started on the many topics that will be covered in this conference. You can also connect with us  prior to the conference through email or the links below.

Please do feel free to drop me a line at edgex2012@edgex.in if you are interested and I will get right back to you! We look forward to hearing from you!

Let’s disrupt!!

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I have had the opportunity to interact with some school textbooks and instructional designers in my lifetime (and I am rediscovering some now). I have also had occasion to browse through India’s National Curricular Framework, 2005.

The puzzle that has confronted me has been that although there seems to be no dearth of good thinking around how curriculum should be designed and textbooks created, why did I feel challenged by the material and techniques that I see around me.

Case in point. The Grade 6 Civics textbook (they now call the subject – Social and Political Life) has for each chapter the following instructional strategy:

  1. Start the chapter with an interesting question or activity. Pose some questions; investigate with the help of more activities. Build conjectures, advise on what is coming ahead, raise curiosity.
  2. Share a fictional story that brings out an aspect of the topic. Frame questions and discussions around it.
  3. Seed a discussion in the classroom with an interesting question or throw a question for self-reflection, use of creativity and imagination. They call it in-text questions and exercises aimed at assessing understanding as well as contextualization by the child to her own experiences
  4. Build real-life contextual examples to explain concepts
  5. Provide interesting additional information & photographs about people, places and things; provide tables and figures illustrating and comparing facts
  6. Pose questions and suggest activities at the end of the chapter – recall, compare and contrast, reflect, imagine, visually identify
  7. Provide external references that children can refer to

If you were to look at the Grade 6 Textbook (or from NCERT), it is a fact that it is really a lot to learn. There are just too many facts to recall, too many aspects to understand and too little time available to students in the course of the curriculum. It is almost as if, despite saying that they do not want to encourage rote learning, they are leaving our children with no real choice in the matter. I don’t feel too confident I would survive too well an annual exam on the subject! Most definitely not even 10 years down the line, when the Grade 7 course material will shift downwards in large chunks into the Grade 6 course book.

Given the gravity of what is being taught, the basis of good citizenship, this is way too much of a sacrifice. This is the same for the other subjects too.

The foreword for the textbook owe allegiance to the NCF 2005 and discourage rote learning. They raise the bar by stating that they want to discourage “maintenance of sharp boundaries between different subject areas” – in itself a fairly vast enterprise that seems to permeate the shop talk of curriculum designers and policy makers currently (let’s create new knowledge!).

But this puzzle, the fact that “design” seems to have captured the NCF brief reasonably well, but has resulted in something that still will not serve its spirit (or for that matter, serve mine), seems to clear, more than partially, when I read the foreword of the textbook. It states:

The success of this effort depends on the steps school principals and teachers will take to encourage children to reflect on their own learning and to pursue imaginative activities and questions. We must recognize that by giving space, time and freedom, children generate new knowledge by engaging with the information passed to them by adults. …. These aims imply considerable change in school routines and mode of functioning. Flexibility in the time-table is as necessary as rigour in implementing the annual calendar so that the required number of teaching days is actually devoted to teaching. The methods used for teaching and evaluation will also determine how effective this textbook proves for making children’s life at school a happy experience, rather than a source of stress or boredom.

This commentary, in my mind, presents many consequent thoughts:

  • There is a great chasm between what the curriculum designers design and what educational systems are. In fact, as the NCF Reviewer committee minutes show (an excellent set of critiques on the NCF which should have been made public in a big way), there is early debate on the framework’s implementability and whether it acts as a rule or merely as guidance. In my opinion, the designers passed the buck.
  • As the committee minutes show, there is no dearth of good thinking and good questioning. Is it then more a matter of coherence and further debate? Can these questions be thrown open to a wider audience, in a more participatory manner? After all, we don’t have many unique problems. The dialogue exists, but is invisible, private, exalted and non-participatory.
  • Did the NCF 2005, over the past 6 years, make a difference in teacher’s skills and attitudes, in functioning of schools and in reducing stress and boredom. If it did not, what did we achieve through it? If it did, what are the great examples and evidence?
  • Most of all, did the curriculum designer and developer even know of these discussions, were they trained on the NCF, do they understand that every word they write in a textbook potentially spells agony for our children?

What I see around me, every day, is this great sea of platitudes, lip service of a disaffected and disenchanted class of educators to technology, pedagogy, systems and our problems of inequality. It is a self-serving mission, beaten by the same system into submission and conformance to mediocrity. Unfortunate, but true. And it has to change.

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What happens to learning histories? Traditionally, in the school or college system, we treat textbooks and references built by experts as the starting point of our education. Students are encouraged to discover through the texts and teacher led activities. However, from one group of students to the other, from one year to the other, it is an ab-initio start. The only continuity is possibly provided by the teacher, who takes to her class the knowledge of any prior learning histories.

The traditional system has a short memory. Histories of student conversations, their trials and tribulations as they navigated unfamiliar terrain, are transmogrified into common mistakes pointed out by the teacher, FAQs built by experts and so on – themselves shortcuts to navigate the longer path taken by the experts to arrive at their conception of the domain. In the process, experts make some reasoned choices about what to leave out. It is important to learn and apply the Pythagorous theorem in a secular manner – never relating to Pythagorous himself or the cultural, social and political context in which he invented the theorem.

These choices are made for the learner. And in this manner, she is condemned to not “know” many learning histories. And therefore, not be able to construct many new forms of learning or adapt histories into new futures. This is typical of a system where temporality is key – competence is generated (or not) out of a structured time-space of an institution.

However, this is simply not the way competence is employed and grown at work or in life. Knowledge management is key to successful enterprises and initiatives, where processes become as important as competence. A hallmark of this competence is that it is based on non-linearity of paths taken to perform based on extensive networks of resources available for self-use.

The core issue is that our systems need several proofs of competence as entry criteria to a variety of different spaces. And they need these proofs to be socially acknowledged, presumably because they shift the burden of proving them to experts. As it happens, the provers and the system are often at odds with each other because they believe in different notions of competence and how to engender it.

Scale entrenches these vulnerable and shifting contracts deeper. With scale (numbers, diversity, globalization, technology), it becomes even more difficult to remember or place learning histories within the context of engendering competence. Someone I know told me about how one of his unofficial mentors spent forty years of his life sifting through Ramanujan’s discoveries, trying to decipher how exactly Ramanujan made his phenomenal discoveries – an anachronistic, obscure but inspiring endeavor in these times.

Learning histories are important. They are important for us to spark innovation, to facilitate the next Ramanujan in his discoveries, to place our learning in local and global contexts within which we exist today. And possibly the way we need to retain these learning histories to record the conversations, curate them, enable connections to them, and celebrate the paths that learners before us took to both fail and succeed. And hope that these inform and help develop new ways of addressing our problems today and for the future.


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Right off the bat, if you have not seen it yet, check out Building a New Culture of Teaching and Learning by Dr. Tae.

The movement started with the Dandi March in March 1930. The British had a monopoly or complete control over the manufacture of salt. Indians were not allowed to collect salt from the sea. Instead they were forced to buy it from the British at high prices. Gandhiji decided to defy this law and he along with 78 followers marched the over 300 kilometre distance from Sabarmati to Dandi on the Gujarat Coast. On the coast he picked up a handful of salt breaking the Salt Law. This was an open defiance of the British.

This excerpt from an Oxford School Education Primary Social Studies book (Book 5), for children of Grade 5, authored by Vibha Roy and Reena Jain, provides an introduction to the Dandi March. Just like this excerpt, the book is made up of many others on many different phases of our History.  Typical questions asked of the reader are factual, concerned with date, place, names and events.

And just like the excerpt above, those paragraphs introduce many complicated terms – “monopoly”, “manufacture of salt”, “price”, “law” etc. – that if the reader does not understand, will make it difficult to fully understand the story being told.

The Instructional Designer would hopefully find faults – the mention of the Salt Law is left to the end while it is being described at the beginning; there are assumptions about prior knowledge not substantiated here or anywhere else in the curriculum in Grade 5, how does one pick up a handful of salt on a coast?; why is it important to know the number 78? and so on. The Visual Designer would want a map from Sabarmati to Dandi or an early photograph or clip (if it was a WBT) from Attenborough’s film on Gandhi, to help the reader visualize the context.

Children also learn how October 2, his birthday, is celebrated through a UN resolution, as the International Day of Non-violence. A quick search on the web does reveal that world leaders are inspired by Gandhi’s strategy of non-violence and civil disobedience.

Irrespective of whatever else, the excerpt would need to be backed by an array of explanations for an inquisitive child. Personally for me, these few lines took over 30 minutes to build context for and introduce. There was a lot of passion too that I have about how Gandhi did all this and that needed to be translated.

Building on another fact, that Gandhi was born in 1869, I asked two uncomfortable questions which I had never asked before:

  1. What was Gandhi’s age when he embarked on the Dandi March?
  2. Why did he walk all the way when he was so old and alternative means of transportation were available for a man of his age and national importance?

If you do not know the answer, Gandhi was 61 and frail. And he walked all that way to do a few very strategic things:

  1. He started with 78 followers but many hundreds joined him from villages and towns on the way to Dandi when they understood what he was up to.
  2. These followers went through the hardship of walking with Gandhi (and he was a fast tireless walker), spent days and nights together, perhaps chanting national revolutionary songs and having heated debates on the British.
  3. Several leaders must have emerged who handled administrative and other tasks as well as showed resilience, courage and ability to manage other people
  4. Put a slow pressure on the British government. It was like a slow boiling kettle of water that threatened the defences of the British system and introduced uncertainty within their system of how to handle this.
  5. Gave Gandhi a chance to take multiple opinions on what exactly to do when they reached Dandi. If Attenborough’s film is to be believed, Gandhi’s people had it organized very well. The British had barricaded the entrance to that particular beach. The people organized themselves in rows of 5-6 people each and approached the entrance while the women went about frantically arranging makeshift beds and medical supplies. When they were ready to start, they simply disobeyed the waiting police phalanx and walked into blows on the head and body by heavy police lathis (sticks) which left them injured and bleeding. The injured were ferried to medical care and the next batch of 5-6 people stepped forward to receive their reward. This kept on happening minute after minute, hour after hour.
  6. He also achieved multiple objectives here, not the most unimportant of those was highlighting the hapless atrocity of the British colonial mindset.
  7. Very importantly, the March exemplified how a strategy can be supported implementationally by tactics. For example, look for a similar strain of thought in the Swadeshi (indigenous) movement, which exhorted people, in a non-violent manner, to stop buying British goods.

Most of these ideas can be connected to many other parts of the History book’s description of the Struggle for Independence in India. Those parts that explain why Gandhi was really a great leader.

However, for most children, these are a group of paragraphs and a set of factual questions waiting to be memorized for the Unit test around the corner.

What are we doing to our children?

The brilliant teacher can not spend too much time on these lines, bound by the pressure of introducing 5000 years of history books paragraphs in a single academic year. No amount of out of class activities and building posters on India’s Independence Movement can recreate the passion or understanding. The less brilliant teacher would perhaps not even know the meaning of “strategic”. 

Certainly, most of them would not have a degree in Instructional and Visual Design or even group collaborative methods. Perhaps one of the most painful things, by way of acknowledging the presence of the Internet, are a few long web links “printed” at the end of the chapter, which the student has to type in to a browser, if she ever has time left over.

I am treating this in agonizing detail because the Grade 5 student studies such books across language, maths, science and social studies as part of their ever expanding curriculum.

Frankly, I think I am missing the point here. Either we should be exposing to children the passions, experiences, concepts and people around us in a way that both informs and generates reflection, or we should stop this waste of precious time – maybe focus on core skills – communication, team work, critical thinking, problem solving etc. – building in them the capability to comprehend more advanced topics later in life.

Maybe the way to teach history is to take a few case studies or topics indicative of the phase or area and let children build the skills to explore and comprehend different aspects in an academic year. They will learn more and retain much more.

Same for curriculum design. If one area cannot build up on another in a mutually reinforcing manner, we are actually enforcing an unnatural specialization upon children. Why, at least in the initial formative years should there be so many different subjects – silos artificially created that compartmentalize and constrain knowledge and learning?

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The epiphany is that what I have been thinking around native collaboration and what Stephen and participants of the Critical Literacies open course (which I regret not being actively part of) have been discussing have a great deal of resonance. Like in CCK08, I was approaching the topic more from the tools and implementation perspective while the CritLit group focused on what builds the capacity of the learner to perform as a learner in a networked learning environment.

What the learner would actually use was where I proposed newer collaboration techniques leveraging the networked learning environment, but the term “native” meant a certain capacity on the part of the learner to be able to operate in a networked learning environment. What the CritLit discussion has done, therefore, is lay out a framework and taxonomy through which tools and techniques for collaboration can be imagined and created, much more rigorous than the regular 21st century skills discussions we have been reading about.

Stephen lays out a framework for Pedagogical Foundations for Personal Learning and Steve has an excellent post and a compilation on his wiki of a Critical Literacies Taxonomy.

The Critical Literacies discussion contributes a lot more. It builds on Stephen’s framework for literacies deemed to be “critical” in a networked learning environment. Steve puts a taxonomy together for Critical Literacies and more – he connects the understanding of these literacies to George’s original attempt to put together a taxonomy for Connectivism.

If I may articulate the impact this can have, I think it will significantly impact a whole set of design and development techniques and directly address, in ways other existing theories have in their own beliefs addressed, problems of personalization, assessments and collaborative learning. I think it will pave the way for a structured understanding of how to meaningfully use or engage with digital networks for the purpose of learning.

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I know this must be on the face of it a rather impertinent question. But I am not talking just the about the “e” in eLearning (of course bits and bytes can float to almost anywhere now), but I am talking of eLearning as a whole concept.

So what am I saying? Let me focus on the WBT (Web Based Training) which is clearly the one invention in eLearning that has arguably made the most significant impact. Has that scaled? In my experience, it has not scaled well. And the reason has been simple – cost of creating highly effective, engaging and interactive WBTs in large quantities is overwhelming.

This is true of companies that I have worked with over the past 10 years. At the scale at which they operate, with pressures of time and budgets, they are simply unable to invest in building good quality WBTs as a general practice. What ends up hitting the learner PC or mobile device are page turners (probably the best page turners there could ever be, but page turners all the same).

Closer home. The Indian government has sponsored the creation of eLearning for ALL higher education. This process is already underway under the National Mission for Education using ICT. As a project that dovetailed into the National Mission initiative, NPTEL (National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning) has created 125 courses using WBTs and 129 videocasts covering over 10,000 hours of engineering education learning.

In the next phase, the Mission plans to extend this to more than 32,000 additional hours just in Engineering and Sciences. Meanwhile, the Institute of Lifelong Learning (ILLL) at Delhi University has taken the lead in Under-graduate and post-graduate non-engineering courses aiming to completely cover all under-graduate subjects across arts, commerce, management and humanities over a period of time. The medical education initiatives are perhaps not far away or already underway.

This would, if successful, perhaps make this Indian higher education resource base the largest open courseware initiative in the entire world and the largest repository of video courses in the world. MIT OpenCourseWare initiative has 2,000 courses as of date. OCW has 3,867.

But are these courses worth it? Do they scale for different learning topographies and cultures? Do they scale between slow and fast learners (or other distinctions)? Is there any study on their effectiveness (The MIT OCW 2009 Program Evaluation Findings Summary states that 92% of the site visitors are satisfied with the quality of the courses)? Are they really courses or just supplementary material, like an eTextBook or an eSlideBook or an eLectureNotesBook?

Just looking at the work under NPTEL WBTs alone makes me shut my eyes and wince (ILLL does measurably better) – forget about the quality of what’s written (that may be great), but the presentation and format is just as interactive as a book. Actually, let us not forget about the quality of what’s written down as well, because I can only repeat what a teacher in a State University said to me about some of the content – “My students can’t understand it because it has been made for the best students in India, taught by the IITs”.

Well, why don’t we just run some automated processes and convert the great textbooks we have from authors worldwide, well researched and non-plagiarized content, complete with effective graphics and other perks, into “eLearning open courseware”? Go the Nook way and explode the billion-dollar market for eTextbooks?

I don’t also understand a few things about the “course” in open courseware. Look under the hood and you will find many different meanings of the word “course”. For example, this course, MAS.962, The Nature of Constructionist Learning, is a supporting website for a group of students listing readings and class methodology & calendar.

The “course” actually has to run parallel to a physical/virtual live course – in fact, not even virtual, most readings are from books that would need to be sourced from a physical library – perhaps only within a university or college environment where someone made sure these were accessible in enough numbers.

NPTEL spent about 5 mn USD to create its Phase 1 courses, that is less than 500 USD or so per learning hour on average for an effort of perhaps one man week or two per learning hour (I don’t know how much the SME [read IIT Professor] got paid).

Worse, I think they are about to perpetuate their mistakes by using the same model to create three times or more of content. Perhaps we have 50-100 mn USD in loose change at the moment?

If you count additional complementary efforts like putting the national knowledge network up – upwards of 1.3 billion USD I am guessing, you have one large commitment there that you are not going to be able to leverage.

So it seems that I can’t get any clarity about whether eLearning can scale enough to even qualify to be really called eLearning. It is like that image captured at low resolutions that disfigures when you stretch it.

So if it can’t scale – and is restricted to small footprints at high quality and deep pockets – is it really worth pursuing it?

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I was reading with interest Will Richardson’s Motivating DIY Learners and his links to Alan Levine’s The Gaping M Shaped Void for DY Education and then following up on Anya Kamenetz who has written a new book called DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education which I have to read, and I couldn’t stop getting into an uncontrolled bout of expression, perhaps more an unsubstantiated vent.


Do we have a reason to learn? Sure. Depending upon the context, which could range from generating income to enabling ourselves to perform a task to whatever. 

Who benefits when we learn? We should (and perhaps mostly do), but our employer, collaborator or the society at large, directly or indirectly, benefits from our actions that result from our learning.

How are the choices made? Of course, we may exhibit individual agency and demonstrate our choice over what we learn, but that in turn is partly conditioned by our constraints and the expectations we have about the results from learning, material or not. In part it is conditioned or influenced by what is expected of us.

When Alan Levine asks “What is going to motivate the large swath of a society to become educated or to learn something in a self-directed fashion?”, in the context of Anya’s new DIY U concept (and book), I am reminded of the question that was posed in CCK08 – “What do you think it will take for this change to happen?” (in the context of Connectivism and its potential impact). Both questions are about change, and the change being discussed is as much about the “why” of our learning as about the “how we are learning”. Both questions focus on the traditional systems of education as the reference point.

And this leads to a chain of things – the way the curriculum is designed, the certification process, linkages to placements when we finish a program of study etc. Not that this chain is always something that is well applauded for its outcomes, in fact in India we see a flurry of activity under names such as “Industry readiness programs” which seek to “bridge the gap” between academia and industry. These programmes demonstrate that there is a gap and academia/policy is not moving fast enough to bridge that.

Even when we pass through this chain, it is difficult to estimate what amount of knowhow we are made to pickup, that we would actually be able to push into the field when employment starts. I scratch my head sometimes and ask myself if it was really worth spending time learning about the Gangetic plains in India when today it is a click away, in resplendent glory, on the web. Alternately, if I had chosen to major in Geography, and didn’t know about the Gangetic Plains, that would be a distinct shame, wouldn’t it (actually most of us do forget by the time we get to that stage anyways). This is indeed a personal reflection, by definition not generalizable.

But educators can’t foresee where we will eventually land up, right? So their job is to prepare us for anything – build the foundations. And they are not depressed if we end up turning everything upside down and do something they did not think of preparing us for. In fact I believe that most schools, through their emphasis on discipline and values, try and engineer a well-rounded personality more than just a score-making machine.

Actually speaking then, there is no determinism then in what happens as we progress through the cycle. What does definitely determine where we ultimately land up are the opportunities we get and the choices we make. The opportunities are a function of competition too. And good scores are the embedded rules for smooth propagation in the system (now even those are being supplemented by an additional screening layer of entry assessments).

What equally stands out in my mind is the fact that every passing day, I am able to make better sense of the opportunities or appreciate why I need to learn something. If today, I decided to study as an engineer, I would perhaps do much better than I would have if I had taken an engineering course right after school.

Wait a minute. That doesn’t sound right, does it. What would schools do then? The one question I have never asked is why do we require 12 years of schooling; why not 5 years of primary education and then increasing specialization for the next 10 years; or for that matter, any other logical breakup? Like in Japan, education is compulsory from 6-15 years. Finland starts its students at the age of 7! I believe, in countries like Japan and Finland, post 15 years of age students can branch off to either an academic stream or a vocational stream. Finland, Denmark, Australia and New Zealand are ranked jointly the highest in the UN’s Education Index. The vocational and academic streams have started allowing some cross-credit exchanges as well (RPL in Australia).

But the fact is, that school starts a year or so later and ends in about 9 years, by the time the child is 15 or so. Then it is time to make decisions to go one way or the other with opportunities to merge at some point.

I like the concept better than what we have here. I would prefer that schools actually cut down on curriculum, maybe by 50% (borne out of experience with my daughter completing 5 years of primary school in 2011 – please don’t teach her India’s 5000 year history in a 4 page chapter). The time “allowed” to learn versus the time actually required to “learn” is probably the best indicator of what we are putting our young minds through.

We did not learn anything from Pink Floyd when they sang “we don’t need no education, we don’t need no thought control” – instead, we are overloading our curriculum, overburdening our young minds (now President Obama has initiated “adding” 21st century skills curriculum to STEM!) and generally not aligning with what the economy and society require. 

I somehow think we are really putting the burden of growth on our children rather than dealing with it ourselves. 

So if someone is listening, please do give some more thought to this meandering:

cut down school content, start school later, end it earlier, focus on growing the mind, building teamwork and other “21st century” skills, enabling our children to become responsible and knowledgeable citizens with a global perspective, reshape the assessment tools and frameworks that we have today to evaluate richness and variety of expression in our young minds, build new avenues and focussed curricula to strategically align with what we really need, get industry to recognize vocational education on par with regular degrees – basically – give our children a break, they don’t need this education.

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We have often, actually most of the time, decided to focus on teachers, teaching methods, institutional structures, assessments and certifications, but what is the responsibility of the learner herself in this experience? I am not talking about defining learners by the characteristics (autonomous, takes responsibility for her own learning…) under the category of responsibility, but trying to pinpoint a share of the responsibility in the current scenario.

In scenarios with multiple available educational options, one of the ways learners demonstrate responsible behavior is through making explicit their choice and preference among alternate options. This choice may not be voluntary (viz. parental pressure, social influences) and is influenced heavily by media advertisements, the tell-tale sign of private participation in education. Of course, in scenarios where there are no real options (either due to availability or other socio-economic factors), choice is non-existent too.

This is at the point of entry into the organized educational structures. But there is also learner responsibility that is demonstrated at the point of exit (at the award of a degree) which relates directly to employability and any possible threat to it. This was exemplified by the massive upheaval witnessed all over India (with perhaps the first instances of suicides related to education, linked directly to livelihood) in the wake of the Mandal Commission of 1990 in India which proposed strong affirmative action (through 27% reservations) for the underprivileged backward classes in central government jobs, universities and affiliated colleges and recruitment to public sector undertakings and government aided private institutions. There are more examples of student activism influencing their wider ecologies.

An interesting example happened in 2009 in Germany as a consequence of the Bologna process calling for all educational systems in Europe to be integrated. Examples of student activism from India also exist, primarily as polarized “youth” vehicles for the larger political parties/parents from which they obviously derive.

And I came across the International Students Movement as well which is a platform for “groups and activists around the world struggling against the commercialisation and privatisation of public education and for free and emancipatory education to network, share information and co-ordinate protests together”.

In between entry and exit, there is mandated responsibility (by the institution) with norms related to attendance, conduct and grades.

However, when, where and how does the learner have any control or choice of redress over the quality of the learning experience? And as a corollary to this question, what should be the responsibility of the learner in  the system – really what should the duties be – and how do they change or adapt to new influences such as privatization?

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I was discussing the formation of a specialized cadre, perhaps on the lines of the Indian Administrative Services, for providing a set of well trained educators and educational administrators that have a pan Indian impact. I was told that former Education Secretary, Anil Bordia, has been empowered to investigate this. Subsequently, I found a recent news report talking about just that and a rather old reference here.

We have to conceptualize the IES in a way that it does not become bureaucratic and rigid. It needs to be the main driver of educational reform with all the regulatory infrastructure at its disposal, aligned to its mission. I think it is being thought as an adjunct of the Ministry of HRD, just like the IAS serves the government. That may kill it from two perspectives – from the point of view of conflict with the existing bureaucracy and from the point of view of yet creating another rigid, subservient structure.

An interesting part of the news report was the focus on helping universities train their own future staff. I think this would be a great thing if it can happen. There needs to be proper focus at the university level, to build up an infrastructure that meets national and local teacher needs.

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I have started research on alternative education systems. Right off the bat I found a website that summarizes some of these initiatives in the Indian context – Alternative Education in India. Two really interesting categories were Alternative Schools and Learning Cooperatives. I like the fact that the latter prefer not to be called “schools” at all.

Among the Alternative schools is the Atma Vidya Educational Foundation in southern India. If  you look at the KPM approach (they started in Kerala and now have an extension in Austin, Texas), the focus is heavily on guidance, teacher involvement, learning freedom and experiential learning. I am impressed by the examples – but still need to research on how they really accomplish their goals. I next looked at a cooperative, Bhavya, which also looks like an interesting approach, particularly as it attempts to merge with the mainstream systems at a particular age.  Mirambika is an example of a K8 school with an alternative approach too. I particularly liked the idea that there is a community out there that encourages and provides support for home education. Wonder how that works!

In the US, the trend in public education around Charter Schools is also encouraging. These schools are set up to innovate within the public school system as this report shows.

More on these systems as I move ahead. Would love to hear from you if you know an educational system or movement that is an alternate.

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For my hundredth post, I would like to focus on a few key questions that attack various aspects of what I have experienced and learnt in the past two years. These questions are extremely important for me to attempt to answer and I hopefully will, atleast in part, as I go on. The questions may seem disjointed, but perhaps have a common set of answers.

The first, and overarching, question is:

Are there (or what could be) education systems that have (or would) worked outside the box (in contrast to what exists today) and have proved their reliability and validity in the context of today’s and future needs?

This is important to me because I need to understand if we can really envisage an alternate system of education – one more geared towards achieving a vision of a just, inclusive and humane society – than the one we have now. Not that an educational system is solely responsible for all that is wrong today, but in the sense that the educational system is an important enough component of achieving that vision.

There are many strands of thought that connect to this question, not the least being whether this disruptive change is at all required, but it is a question worthy of building an informed belief around. I would further acknowledge that perhaps this change could happen in a way that replaces a portion of the existing system.

The second question relates to the qualifications of a teacher in higher education in India. 

Do undergraduate and post-graduate teachers need a qualifying degree/diploma in educational theory, instructional design/methods and learning technology with a model of internship before they start teaching?

As I have noted before, this question puzzles me no end. I can’t understand why this is not a pre-requisite already (rather than a possible refresher down the line). School teachers require certification, but others do not? It is a different matter that existing certifications in India may perhaps need to be effectively revamped to meet today’s and future requirements.

But I think the answer to this question may have huge implications for achieving the overall vision of any educational system. In particular, it may help bring disruptive change that partially replaces the dominant paradigm.

The third question relates to the role of assessments in an increasingly collaborative world.

How does one assess learning based on principles of collaboration, free thinking and reflection?

What happens when we remove the boundaries of formal curricula, competency models and organizational metrics? This is an important gap, I believe, in connectivist thinking. I am particularly interested in this because the traditional model has an answer that can be tied directly to economic models, social aspirations, development and growth paradigms.

To build an alternative, intelligible and acceptable bridge to other parts/components of our world, we will need to answer this question. Lots of these other systems depend upon the ability of an educational system to provide these assessments to be efficient and effective.

And finally, the question:

What will it take for the change to happen?

I believe that a change is needed and that it should be disruptive change. The change has to be wrenched out and has to stand tall. What will  the drivers be? I think we need to look outside the educational system in order to assess these drivers. 

Perhaps we need to ask ourselves what the political system needs, what the justice system needs, what the economic system needs, as inputs that will help reshape their own destinies in the quest for a just, inclusive and humane society.

These are all overall questions that impact my thinking at this point. As is the fact with questions, I am sure many would share them with me. If anyone has what they think could be answers, I would greatly appreciate your stopping by!

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When I think of the term under siege, it reminds me of Steven Seagal, a master chef, on board a US Navy battleship taken over by terrorists in the 1992 movie by the same name. Of course, he fights back and defeats the terrorists. Doubtless somewhat of a stretch of imagination here and completely unrelated, but I think that Instructional Design as we know of it traditionally, is under siege.

I wrote a post on eCube on Indian Education, contrasting the challenges in developing countries such as India with the remarkable developments in social learning worldwide. In that I refer to George Siemens’ article where he refers to the changing role of the instructional designer in the new milieu. From being an expert in applying design techniques on a body of content for a specific kind of learning experience and target audience, the designer is seen more as a guide and facilitator in bring animate (human) and inanimate (computer, device) networked knowledge closer to the learner and fostering learning through active reflection and search, more so than just (and in addition to) relying on traditional design activities such as content sequencing.

What becomes of the carefully and painstakingly created user learning experiences with emphasis on language, defined control imposed by corporate styles & standards, exclusion of irrelevant content, step-by-step elaboration, elaborate understanding of the target audience, pilot evaluations, focused group feedback et al?

How does the social learning experience address these aspects of design? By its very definition, the network is autonomously constituted, with no formal controls, with little or no accountability to ensure adequate coverage (or quality at this point) of any piece of the curriculum, but one where potentially the benefits of active reflection, learning engagement, expediency of learning and scale of community participation may far outweigh the traditional system. A designer who can simply point or piece together these resources, may be compelled to discard entirely useful contributions to knowledge just because the form is not conducive for presentation or there is too much redundancy between two critical but related articles. Obviously, without these interventions, research and reflection may take on too much time to prove useful in situations of learning immediacy (read workflow learning). One of the things that may work, perhaps, and that is that the designer provides the tools and frameworks to allow for an ever growing landscape of content in ways that she can make intelligible for her learners in a participative manner.

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There have been some huge developments in information and communication technologies (ICTs), especially those around the internet and the way we learn. The “X” in “X.O” represents “fault lines” or tensions between local and global, groups and networks, structure and chaos, homogeneity and diversity, teacher-led vs facilitated and simple vs complex. With each tension comes a lot of hard work and experimentation, sometimes building on existing paradigms, sometimes with novel approaches. This post tries to summarize the different X.Os in one place.


The X in X.O represents versions or generations of thinking and capacity. Not unlike versions in software or documents, X.Os represent change and a philosophy of transformation. While Generation 1.0 showed us the power of visualization, of search over aggregated knowledge, of 3D immersion, of multimedia based learning, Generation 2.0 has facilitated for us the power to network and to leverage collective insight through social networks, learning 2.0 styles, collaboration and ever growing news forms of media. Generation 3.O is still very nascent and further improves on Generation 2.O by adding ubiquity and context to the teaching-learning process.

The caveat, and there is always one, is that the internet is a powerful medium, but only to those for whom it is accessible. We must leverage alternate forms for audiences that are either not empowered or not influenced by these technologies. In the end, technology is an enabler – not the knowledge itself, not our relationships with others in a network and not our own little hype that we believe is the only solution. We have to learn how to use these effectively and judiciously and it equally behoves those that have this access to disseminate it to others who do not.

Generation 1.O

Gen 1.O has shown us the power of Web and computer based learning. This generation of learning has become popular and has an established art, craft, business and science. What is this generation? It started with small computer programs that were used by teachers to explain and simulate educational problems. These evolved into computer based training or CBT modules that became richer and more appealing with the advent of multimedia and the evolution of the personal computer. But an inflection point emerged with the birth of the Internet towards the end of the last century. Suddenly a new accessible medium and a common presentation language  enabled us to create web based training – training that could be placed (hosted) on a server on the Internet and be used across the world. This shift enabled immense economies of scale to corporations that were able to save costs of training logistics and precious travel time. As bandwidth improved, video conferencing evolved to provide immersive situations for collaboration and communication.

For teachers and students, all this marked the beginning of a change in the way instruction was designed and delivered. No longer did we have the flexibility of a classroom, board and chalk. We did not even have the chance to know a student by name and look her in the eye. We lost conversational ability and had to strive to ingenuously incorporate that ability within WBTs using third person role-plays and scenarios. We also tried to reinforce and replicate the same fundamental ways of teaching – only magnified the scale through a global platform – and kept the expert, now a mix of multiple more rigorously defined skills such as instructional and graphics design, at the centre, rather than the learner. The limitations of the WBT were sought to be overcome in part by virtual classrooms and satellite based video conferencing. Te teacher could at once scale to multiple locations via a global classroom with the help of technology using simple, rapid elearning tools such as Powerpoint (somewhat misplaced, no learning is that rapid to create, deliver or experience). They also brought with them the reinforcement and perpetuation of systems that promoted the teacher at the core of the learning experience.

Even bigger innovations brought together learning theory and technology to create real-life immersive simulations and a high level of engage through gaming and virtual reality. Parallely, systems for managing learners and administering learning programs and content (LMS/LCMS) – also evolved to manage the huge amount of training content and delivery that was created. Industry, government and academia got together to build standards such as SCORM.

The benefits were enormous. There were huge improvements in terms of standardization and quality of presentation of content. The space became more specialized and verticalized in terms of both skills and solutions.

Improvements were largely innovation-led through advances in pedagogy and technology. Elements such as 3D graphics, simulations and gaming are still high-cost, esoteric and time intensive to create.

But still, such a lot of effort, suffering from tensions of art vs science, autonomous vs teacher led, local vs global, has still left an entire generation dissatisfied!

And the main reasons for this dissatisfaction are not hard to find! Cost is one factor. Learner engagement is another. Lack of personalization is yet another key cause. Teacher awareness and skill and sharing of best practices have been challenges. Key challenges such as learner retention, visualization and real-life immersion are the learning domain’s own unique and continual challenges.

Generation 2.O

Then the internet changed. Fundamentally. The next generation is radically different, both in core technology and it’s application in learning. The next generation of the Web was christened Web 2.0. The most fundamental elements of this new generation are user-generated content, social networking, mashups and remixable data sources. Let us examine these elements in greater detail.

User generated content

The web was deemed “read-only” for the vast majority of users. This meant that you needed specialized expertise to author and publish content on the web. This is different from e-mail that is used to communicate one on one or one t o group easily. It was the process of being able to create something to share with the global community that was esoteric. Some of us embraced that technology readily while a lot of us struggled with using even the most basic tools, let alone be capable to generating highly sophisticated elearning.

With Web 2.0, these barriers to creation and sharing of content have been significantly reduced. Anybody can contribute – all it requires is web browser, an internet connection and lots of ideas and experiences. Blogs provide, for example, a channel through which anyone could share content with the global community. The web has become writeable. Not only could you write textual content, but could also author and share other forms of content such as pictures, audio, pictures with audio and many other continuously emerging new forms of media. As a result, the amount of content generated over the past 2-3 years has been many thousands of times the amount in physical form ever created by man. This sudden explosion has been facilitated by advances in software, hardware and networking, very specifically, by advances in storage, processing power, improving network technology and virtualization.

Social Networking

But being able to author content on the web is not enough. The real power lies in being able to share it. As humans, we have an innate need and desire to communicate with each other. We build relationships, we create networks, whether they be friends, family, colleagues or just about anyone else. We learn through these networks by sharing and communicating thoughts, ideas and experiences. Web 2.0 enables us to create digital social networks, virtual communities of people irrespective of who and where they are. These networks have the potential to grow virally and have sen tremendous growth in the past few years.

What does that do for us? It enables us to draw upon the shared thoughts, ideas and experiences of people globally. The internet is now suddenly not a website anymore. Rather it is an open space for dialogue, debate or collection of information and critical thinking. It is a space that can help us leverage collective insight. It can help and grow relationships and reduce the asymmetries of knowledge and information. Correspondingly, it provides tools to search and source knowledge from millions of different sources.

An element of this generation is the ability to create one’s own classification or interpretations of knowledge. A name or place or visual could mean or evolve associations differently for different people. Which means that if it is classified using a particular standard taxonomy like in libraries or directories, it may never be found by someone who associates a different taxonomy or interpretation to it. This new way of classifying information, the personalized or group taxonomy, is called Folksonomy (more popularly known as social bookmarking or tagging). A fundamental change brought about in this generation is not only the ability to tag but also to be able to share these tags with your communities.


The third most fundamental element of this new generation are mashups. Prior to the introduction of this element, software applications such as an order and pay ecommerce application were standalone islands that architecturally, were not built to inter-operate (thence standards such as X.12 and EDIFACT) and share their data with other software applications (at least not easily). Today it has become easy for even novice users to create more complex views of information (e.g. Dapper), e.g. combining pollution indices with geo-spatial maps. Web services now provide the glue through which these can happen. It has become very easy to “plug-in” and integrate functionality pieces from multiple sources into your own application or portal – skills that were uptil now, the domain of skilled programmers. For example, Yahoo! Pipes and RSS combined can place the knowledge of your interest area at your disposal.

Remixable data sources

The power of this fourth fundamental element lies in the ability to look at the internet as a large database system.  The world’s data, in this view, becomes a set of inter-related structure (not unlike an RDBMS), with elements semantically related with each other through defined and dynamic associations. As Sir Tim Berners Lee believes, the semantic web is something that we can use very intelligently to perform a lot of tasks triggered by these associations. Over time, these tasks could be handled by agents without the need for human intervention prompting futurists like Ray Kurzweil to talk about the future half machine half human social form.

Learning 2.0

Consequent to this fundamental transformation and aided by continued frustrations with the existing teaching-learning process and the evolving behaviour of digital social networks constituted by new age digital learners, is the push towards the next generation of learning. Founded on an epistemological framework that defines knowledge as being emergent, adaptive and composed of connections and networked entities (Stephen Downes, 2006), George Siemens posits connectivism  as a learning theory that suggests that the act of learning is largely one of forming  a diverse network of connections and recognizing attendant patterns (Siemens, 2006).

Stephen Downes is widely credited with the term Learning 2.O. According to him learning is not negotiating an organized repository of knowledge, but like electricity or water – available through networks like on tap. This is a fundamentally new view representing an entirely new way of learning steeped in the belief that networks can produce reliable gains in knowledge more effectively than traditional systems. Learning 2.O enables a digital generation to connect, collaborate and co-create knowledge and collective insight through relationships and identity in a network.

Changing Roles of learners, teachers and learning managers

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. On their laptops and on their mobile phones.

Traditional instructors are now moving from being trainers to being facilitators, guides and coaches in a collaborative teaching-learning space. The instructors need not treat their learners as passive receptors, rather they can actively shape, by dialogue and discovery, the nature of their learning.

Learning Managers, though, have perhaps the biggest challenge. Undisputedly, an organization that has both the vision and a demonstrable culture of continuous learning, collaboration and improvement, will benefit natively from the formalization of this style and the adoption of the available tools. This kind of an organization worries about functional excellence and the ability to transform the domain in which they operate through leveraging individual and collective insight.

Several metaphors of the educator have emerged. John Seely Brown posits the notion of studio or atelier learning portraying the educator as a master artist in an art studio who observes student activities, points out innovation and uses the activities of all users to guide, direct and influence the work of each individual. Clarence Fisher talks about the teacher as a network administrator who help students construct personal networks for learning. Curtis Bonk talks about the educator as a concierge who directs learners to appropriate resources that they may not be aware of. George Siemens suggests educators must behave both as curators – experts and guides who encourage exploration and create learning spaces or ecologies. And this participative pedagogy is what is a dramatic change or reform for the existing system.

Emergence of new media forms and collaborative learning

Learning 2.0 has spurred interest in collaborative learning and new forms of media. Immersive collaborative learning, which is really an immersion of self within a networked learning ecology, has been very evocatively been drawn out by solutions such as SecondLife. The practice of teaching and learning can now benefit greatly from these and structured techniques for collaborative learning suc as collaborative online brainstorming, voice and video blogs, voicethread type learning triggers, life threads (that follow an individual online) etc. Communities of Practice, I believe will be an important source of new media forms. CoPs provide an open space for collaboration around a specific interest area and because of that new types of collaboration artefacts stand a good chance of getting created that become a knowledge point in the learning experience.

Generation 3.0

The latest X.O is the third generation of web and learning. What seems to be emerging as unique characteristics of this web generation are ubiquity, context awareness, location awareness and mobility.

By ubiquity we mean an omnipresent network, connecting devices and humans alike to each other blurring the man-machine interface.

By context and location awareness, we mean that our networks will increasing be ware of not only what we need but also where we need it. For example, teaching in class is a context and location combination that should trigger off a lot of relevance to a teachers activity within the classroom.

If we add the temporal aspect, technology could become even more useful in channelling the right knowledge to us and in the right form. This might become a very useful thing because for example, a teacher’s timetable could be synchronised with the frequency of her RSS feed from Yahoo! Pipes or become a trigger for analytics to be fed in from the world on the common problem areas on the topic she is teaching.

Mobility is the other key aspect of the 3.O Web. By this we imply devices that are geared towards specific types of work or as generic tools, that can be added-on to the learner wherever she goes. Examples include some ongoing research on wearable headsets that provide the power of your PC, social network and the internet wherever you go.

It is then not inconceivable to think of the next generation of learning – Learning 3.O. This generation of learning is considered to be ambient – residing in our environment and ready for us to access when we need to. Pundits for this learning technology futurecast it to do to our world what electricity did for the industrial world.

In summary

And there will be more X.Os to come as we grapple with the fundamental transformation of our digital lives. There will always be competing approaches. The challenge for all of us is to be open & receptive to this change, critical in what we accept and be ready to experiment.

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I am at the 20th ICCE at Mauritius and am getting a chance to interact with Chemistry educators and researchers from all over the world on their thoughts and approaches to using ICT in Science education. A very interesting and interactive session by Prof. Peter Mahaffy around climate change and the role of chemistry was the first plenary session. Prof. Mahaffy emphasized the responsibility for chemistry educators to understand the link between human activity and chemical reactivity. He believes we may be at the tipping point for earth’s climate and invoked Faraday when he said we must inquire “What is the cause?” and “Why does it occur?”. He went on to show Flash based animations and simulations that are aimed at removing misconceptions for secondary school and first year undergraduate students and demonstrate the use of visualizations as a key element in bringing about greater awareness in this area.He envisages an entire curriculum built in this fashion around climate change. (Read more at http://www.kvsa.ca)

Prof. Loretta Jones’ presentation on helping students understand better through technology and visualization was also very impressive. Her presentation started with the ways in which we can visualize knowledge (colors, charts, topographical views, animations, 3D etc). And she went on to discuss how we can show that which is not visible – the challenge that chemistry education shares. As part of their research, Prof. Jones looked at how visualization can improve learning. The research carried out was based on pre-tests and post-tests applied to a group of instructors and novices. They researched use of static graphics, use of animations at different levels and use of models and found that visualization, in general, improves learning. However, animations can often be distracting, inaccurate or too fast to be of any great use. Rather, these are contributing factors in creating misconceptions in the mind of the learner. The model that they worked with was a four stage one for a student exposed to an animation – sensory, attention, working model and long term memory – showing that we perceive a lot of things, pay attention to only a few, process even a more limited set and transfer them to long term memory once understanding sets in. One of the other interesting things they did was to ask students to actually build visualizations of their understanding of the topic prior to showing them the animation and then to redo them after they saw the animation and this also provided clues to the effectiveness of visualization as a tool. Prof. Hoffman’s comments on alternate realities (no one “right” way to visualize something) and the importance of tactile learning were important critiques in what, perhaps, looked to him possibly an over simplified approach. But Prof. Jones’ presentation had one approach in a sea of approaches required to actually bring about breakthrough and innovative ideas in education.

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In one of my conversations with a reputed customer, we had an interesting discussion around a theme for our project. Essentially a gaming project as conceived initially, both teams got together to thrash out the underlying model – the processes, variables and algorithms that would constitute this project. As the teams got a better understanding of the project (and they separated out learning objectives from what they call gaming or simulation objectives), they began to present their case as to why it should be a simulation augmented by a fantasy experience rather than the other way around.

Their basic arguments were around the following factors:

  1. Level of real-life immersion required – the team felt that real-life decision making in this case was a little too complex to be fantasized in an abstract manner
  2. Complexity of algorithms and interactions between system variables – many different indicators exist for each state of the game and these were not only inter-related but also derived by decision making sets that the learner would have to make
  3. Learner motivation triggers – the team felt that fantasy could be placed to augment learner motivation (!) rather than as the basis for the central theme
  4. Extent of lateral transfer between a fantasy situation and real life skills – the team believed that lateral transfer of skills between a fantasy situation (such as fighting aliens) and the actual business skills that were to be practiced and concepts reinforced, was a bit of a stretch. In fact, the fantasy could serve to well distract the learner from achieving learning objectives.

It was an interesting debate and the team finally decided on a unifying theme with a blend of fantasy-game and real-life-simulation which seems to be ideal (at least at this point).

According to Dumlekar (2004) in the context of “Management simulations”: “ A simulation is a replica of reality. As a training program, it enables adult participants to learn through interactive experiences. Simulations contain elements of experiential learning and adult learning […] Simulations would therefore be useful to learn about complex situations (where data is incomplete, unreliable or unavailable), where the problems are unfamiliar, and where the cost of errors in making decisions is likely to be high. Therefore, simulations offer many benefits. They accelerate and compress time to offer a foresight of a hazy future. They are experimental, experiential, and rigorous. They promote creativity amongst the participants, who develop a shared view of their learning and behaviors. Above all, making decisions have no real-life cost implications.”

Simulation and gaming – EduTech Wiki (emphasis added)

Marc Prensky in Digital Game based Learning (McGraw-Hill 2001) attempts to map games and simulations to various learning types. This is an interesting classification and needs some serious thought. For example, he suggests that theories and systems types of learning are better handled through simulation based environments while a host of other learning types such as skills, procedures and communication can be handled well by game based learning. His chart is reproduced below.

As I write this, I am beset by another rambling thought. How do games and simulations, as we traditionally think of them, change or are impacted by the new 2.0/3.0/4.0 paradigms? For example, can we orchestrate role-playing for learning within a social community in an effective collaborative manner (what would be required to do that), or, can we harness the power of each community member’s PC to run a complex market simulation or collaborative team simulation? I think this merits some serious thought as well.

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I thought that this was an interesting attempt, even if I would not subscribe to it wholeheartedly. The author takes the formal dimensions of traditional learning – objectives, time, measurement, improvement and content or knowledge – and maps them to Learning 2.0, defined loosely as a combination of social networks, collaboration, and the rest. I think that the main problem is that there isn’t going to be a simply mapping like that. It’s like when people ask, “how do i use blogs to teach English?” Blogs aren’t a teaching tool, and you shouldn’t just expect to use Web 2.0 tools to do Learning 1.0 tasks.

Learning 2.0 Formal Methodologies? ~ Stephen’s Web ~ by Stephen Downes

Thanks, Stephen for your review. It has spurred on a few more thoughts.

So what happens if we step away from the technology itself for a bit (blogs, wikis etc) and look at the five basic components of learning – goals, time, measurement, improvement and content/knowledge.

My main assumption was these are generic to learning – whether traditional learning or learning 2.0 – and I want to test that assumption.

To start off, Goals. Are there learning activities that do not have a goal? Certainly in the mind of the teacher, the goal is well-defined. If I want to teach someone how to install a particular software application, I would sequence a set of activities for the learner that I think would enable her to meet that learning goal. If the learner was to try and think what those activities would be at the outset, these activities may not be apparent. Rather these activities would be “discovered” as the learner collaborates and gains more knowledge.

For example, when I started out trying to understand learning 2.0, my starting point was Stephen’s article. As I moved through the article, clicked through on links, researched terms on Google, saw related presentations on Slideshare, videos on YouTube and joined blogs relevant to the domain, I began to piece together an understanding of the space that is continuously validated and critiqued by the community that views my posts. Along the way, I learnt many things incidentally which are now “filed away” in my repository and may come in use in another context for another learning goal. Were blogs a source of learning for me? Certainly. Would I use blogs or voicethread to teach? In certain types of activities, why not?

What is interesting is that I am limited by what I can access and experience. Even with all the tools, such as being able to ask the community for an answer, social bookmarking and those around folksonomies, there are limits to what I can access (what I find) and experience (what all do I really get my community to respond and mentor me on). Kind of reminds me of when I created a content management system for egurucool, tags were a window or a view of a cross-section of the huge content repository that we had.

In the entire process, the learner may achieve “discovered” goals, but not till the end of this achievement be potentially able to really demonstrate how the learning goals should have been met.

This also takes me to Time. Any learning activity, depending upon context, will either be or not be constrained by time. These constraints may be internal or external to the learner, such as the need to learn something so as to solve an immediate problem or the need to demonstrate proficiency in a given learning context. The ability of the learner to meet a learning goal in a constrained period of time is a function of the path that she has to take to meet those goals and how easy or difficult it is to achieve that. Lots of learners would perhaps say, “just tell me how it is done”.

Measurement.  There is a measure attached to everything we learn, whether by ourselves (self-assessment), by our community (peer reviews) or by our performance (external assessments, certifications and scores) stakeholders. The measure could be satisfaction levels (I got that argument right!) or could be a high SAT score (I topped the rankings!) or any other measure. How we measure it in the workplace or at school has been the subject of many discussions? How we measure it effectively has been the subject of countless others. However, there is a measure.

Improvement. Is this a generic factor too? I believe that it is fundamental. I can’t think of a learning situation that does not have scope for improvements in learning. In fact, we continuously improve all the time. Here is where I feel 2.0 has a distinct edge though.

Content/Knowledge. Can any learning context not be associated with a structured base of knowledge. Yes, it can. Can any learning context not have an informal base of knowledge? Yes, it can. Can both be true? No.

I feel fairly comfortable that my assumptions hold and as I wrote, are applicable in different ways to both 1.0 and 2.0 modes. So lets get the technology into the picture.

Why cannot we use a 2.0 technology in a 1.0 world to accomplish “1.0 tasks”? Is there something about 2.0 technology that restricts it’s use there? Or is it simply that it is inappropriate to use for a 1.0 task? For example, would I use SAP to store kitchen recipes (perhaps it would be inappropriate :), and SAP may not be able to do it anyways).

Certainly some types of technology are better suited for a specific context than others. But the goal should be to harness the right technology for the right learning context as far as possible. Technology is an enabler and not the end point.

If a teacher were to use a blog to teach English and asked an expert for that, the expert may find the right way to construct such a blog. However, it may not be the best way to teach English and the teacher should be encouraged to understand why and when to use a particular technology (or not at all).

I completely agree that the “keeping up with the Joneses” is detrimental. Just because a technology or tool is gaining hype and currency does not mean that it is the best use in your scenario and Stephen does well to remind us of that!

More to follow in my next post. I am particularly intrigued by a presentation that George made and believe it ties in to this discussion very well too. Thanks for your interest!

Sequel: Part 3: Learning 2.0 Formal Methodologies

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Learnlets » Learning Management Colloquium: Day 1

I think this is a really important chart from Clark. The first striking thing about it is the start point – elearning. We are, today, at the low point of design depth and technical elegance and need to move to “intelligent systems” towards the top right. Running backwards, the precursor to intelligent systems is a Performance ecosystem. This concept is intriguing because it implies that at some point we will have learning designed so deep and so elegant in technological terms that performance (tracking, measurement) will become part of the learning environment itself. This is a precursor to intelligent systems because once we are able to get an integrated view of learning and performance, we shall be able to design systems that can implement the “business rules” of performance management and learning progressions. Thanks, Clark for the chart!

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Jane Hart, in response to my comment on Manish’s blog post, was wondering what I meant by structured construction and tracking models for teaching-learning in a Learning 2.0 world. I guess this is as good a time as any to start throwing some ideas around for discussion. Thanks Jane, for forcing me to think harder!


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Deep Think

When we look at the three pillars of learning design – learner, pedagogy (I will include learning theory, content and instructional design in this) and technology – we have been talking a lot about pedagogy and technology. I would like to start a discussion around the learner and how we can synthesize what we know about the other two pillars into this discussion.

The focus points of the discussion are:

  1. What is the value in trying to build a model of a learner?
  2. What would be components of the model?
  3. How would these components be combined with pedagogy and technology to create more effective (personalized/adaptive) learning?

I would love to hear views around these. Here are some references that could serve as a starting point.

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I read about soft peer reviews on George Siemens’ blog and immediately went on to read more about the concept. I am very intrigued because of a discussion I had not long ago with an academician at a prominent university in India about the feasibility of starting an online journal based on intellectual property originating from within India. He was of the opinion that expert quality hard reviews are mandatory for the journal to become widely accepted.

So on the one hand we have a non-scalable, “final”, low volume nature of the traditional journal/learning places, while on the other we have the latest modes of collaborative learning 2.0 experiences.


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A lot of good thinking has been provoked by Tony Karrer’s provocative questions. Manish and Geetha have also been responding to these thoughts. Here are my 2 cents.


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Organizations and institutions that follow the traditional system of knowledge sharing and instruction understand the limitations of this system in terms of building effective resource pools and leveraging organizational knowledge and skills. A system driven in majority by rote learning, page turners and curriculum-centricity rather than focusing on the learner and growth through harnessing collective insights, is destined to be less effective as an organizational tool.


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Only the paranoid survive. Andrew Grove’s 2003 book by the same name reflects on the strategic inflection point when something in the environment changes in a fundamental way that is not so apparent in our daily chaos of survival.


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Lev Vygotsky, a Soviet developmental psychologist (1896-1934), also known as the founder of cultural historical psychology, believed that our learning depends heavily on the social and cultural context within which we exist and the role of interpersonal communication. Theories such as cognitive apprenticeship, activity theory, situated learning and distributed cognition have been reportedly influenced by Vygotsky’s thinking.


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I found some great stuff on Pervasive Learning at the KnowledgeLab site. I would think there are strong parallels with Personal Learning and collaborative learning in that we talk about the sources of knowledge and the processes by which learning takes place. However, there is one additional key differentiator which is that pervasive or ubiquitous learning needs not only knowledge to be codified but also that the context in which learning is made possible also is codified. By that I mean that context is key.


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I came across some very interesting articles around collaboration and cooperation in learning. Formally defined, cooperative learning is defined by a set of processes which help people interact together in order to accomplish a specific goal or develop an end product which is usually content specific while (Panitz, 1996). Collaborative learning is defined as a personal philosophy where learners take shared responsibility for their learning goals. In the former, the instructor is at the centre of the learning process, driving the outcomes by a series of structured steps, while in the latter, the learner is at the centre and the instructor guides and facilitates.


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So everything that we formalize needs a frame of reference. The design of these frameworks and models typically defines the boundaries of what can be achieved. Take for example, ADL’s SCORM. Written by experts across industry and standards organizations, SCORM defines a methodology to design and serve learning content.


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