Archive for the ‘open’ Category

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Today’s news article on the SWAYAM MOOCs and open-ness by Anil Sasi of the Indian Express raises some very important questions about the future of MOOCs in this country.

The facts of the matter are as follows. A proprietary rather than open source approach has been adopted because open source seems not be open after all. Choosing EdX, for example, they believe compromises intellectual property and requires a big fee to be paid to MIT (even after EdX, at the behest of IIT Mumbai and MHRD gave over the full source code and support to India in 2013 and assured that all IP will remain with India). Secondly, it seems they believe that open source systems do not have the depth of being able to handle enterprise grade learning environments. Third, this is the conclusion of expert committees of the government after in-depth deliberations, I assume, with a wide range of industry, technical and MOOC experts. Fourthly, the RFP itself built by PwC and the government, the basis of the INR 38 cr project award to Microsoft, is in itself plagiarized and deficient.

This defies logic. A really large part of the world runs on open source. The open source movement has shown that enterprise grade, mission critical applications can be made to work with community support. Total cost of development ownership is lower with use of open source. And open source, by definition, fosters collaboration and innovation.

At the risk of repetition, instead of manufacturing large systems, the government should invest in building API and making integration possible between systems. They should fund edTech startups to build MOOC based learning environments. They should enable an open architecture, not just in technological terms, but also in terms of an open architecture of participation.

How would that work?

On the technology front, let us assume we are API focused. Then we must openly build the following API sets (and more):

  1. User API – API that allows users of different types and institutions to be managed, for different stakeholders and their roles
  2. Identity API – that allows users to be uniquely and securely identified through the course of their life, with probable integrations with other systems like Aadhar
  3. Curriculum API – API that enables metadata and classification systems for content and pedagogy, that brings Corporate, VET, School and Higher education taxonomies together
  4. Assessment API – API that enables taking online assessments of different types, enables proctoring controls, provides secure test-taking and great analytics
  5. Certifications/Badging API – that allows certification/degree providers to create online badges and certificates that can be awarded; secure lifelong eportfolios and linked certificate depositories
  6. Authoring API – that allows quick and easy authoring, review and collaboration
  7. Content Delivery API – API that allows video streaming (live and VOD), CDN-grade access, shared folders and cloud distribution
  8. Network API – that enables social discovery, network and group formations, sharing and amplification and social profile aggregation; building both social and learning graphs
  9. Services API – that enables tutors to connect to students, mentors and coaches to their mentees, institutions to parents and so on, and provide services such as fee payments, digital and offline educational content, tutoring, adaptivity, virtual classrooms and so on.
  10. Andragogy/Heutagogy/Pedagogy API – that enables different techniques to teaching-learning to be used as desired by teachers and students, e.g. blended models or SPOCs.
  11. Learning Analytics API – that provides new ways of deciphering engagement, learning and interaction.
  12. Language API – that enables multi-lingual content and internationalization

(Remember that technology and all this talk about API is merely the greasing in the wheel. The real work is in exploring new paradigms of teaching and learning, especially online and blended. And this does not mean building online courses and calling them MOOCs.)

These API sets (and others I may have missed) would need to be supported by a strong developer program, funds allocated for several incubation initiatives with participation from private funds, R&D labs, education programs to build engineers and architects of future learning environments and many more. important aspects known to us from the experimentation & learning of the open community in discovering what works at scale.

Now imagine a time when these API are available (in fact a large number already are available in the open domain, they just need to be contextualized in some cases) for use by indigenous developers. They are not starting from scratch. They are not restricted by a monolithic RFP or scope. They are not constrained to be this one very large proprietary solution (although some may want to build such systems on top of the open stack, which is just fine). If things go well, a number of people will focus on developing alternative solutions to pieces of the puzzle, while others will integrate them into solutions that can be used in different contexts. No one size fits all.

This will give a boost to indigenous development, which at the current time is laboriously trying to build each component. It will bring about that strategic 10x inflection in edTech in India enabling thousands of providers, who are operating mostly in isolation, to get a framework around their efforts and build for scale. Strategic funding for R&D will help us achieve breakthrough innovations in teaching and learning at all scales. Private sector funding of edTech will find a purpose.

This is what the government should do. And only a government can achieve this at strategic scale, tying up all the piece of the supply and demand chains, particularly in a system so dominated by public education.

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I believe we have to seriously think about what open-ness means for Indian education.

There are many dimensions to being open that extend beyond merely making data available for public accountability and transparency. For example, if we do not provide appropriate redressal of grievances that emerge from an analysis of the data, we are not truly open.

The thing about being open is that it threatens to disrupt tightly closed systems. In our schools, for example, the dominant mindset seems to be to stifle and restrict the voice of students and parents; and in most cases even teachers. Free unrestricted communication aided by technology threatens the image of the school, it seems. This is because the school no longer has control over opinions being aired publicly or even within closed school networks. This is for fears that are sound (for example, obscenity), but even more deeply because it unites parents in opinion making and acts of dissent. However schools do not appreciate (or simply ignore) the virtual back channel of conversation and collaboration that open social tools have enabled. It is almost as if what they cannot see or control, does not exist. For schools to allow open communications is almost taboo. And this is not about Facebook pages either.

The other dimension is teacher-student interaction. So long as the school maintains secrecy about what transpires between a student and her teacher, it protects itself from scrutiny and accountability. For example, the open text-book assessments, which is a graded case study based approach for grades 9 and 11, mandates that there be proper reflection and discussion on the case study prior to the assessment – something that I have not witnessed happening. Perhaps schools may not like to expose shortcomings in their teaching learning processes or the abilities of their teachers to communicate effectively in open online environments. The latter is a particularly sad testament because what are teachers without effective communication skills whether online or offline.

Another dimension is the responsibility that students and parents have in an open environment. Each school may collaboratively build a culture and community that adopts its own model code of conduct. This is not easy so long as there is mistrust or irresponsible behaviour on the part of any stakeholder. Being a cultural shift, this is not going to be a one time activity, but there are responsible parents, teachers and administrators who can lead this on an ongoing basis – they just need empowerment. There are also issues that are specific to online networks that need attention in order to protect the interests of the community itself. Essentially, the community has to self-govern if it also wants to be open.

Yet another dimension transcends the individual institution to reflect in practices of school chains, consortia, unions and even organized governmental policy making. Is CABE or mygov.in truly open? Or is the CBSE, UGC or AICTE? Practices behind closed doors often mask incompetence and intention. In most part, attempts at open-ness are really half-hearted (at least at scale, in online collaborative environments). Perhaps it is policy that leads the way. But then perhaps it is better it does not – that the change happens in a more organically emergent manner, from local to global.

Will these challenges to open-ness (not merely restricted to India, not merely to schools and colleges) stifle the growth of social collaborative learning? Will they ultimately stifle India’s equity and growth aspirations?

I believe they absolutely will.

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