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Posts Tagged ‘change’

My presentation at the Technology in Higher Education at the edTechNext conference today.

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In a Big Think article, Why Technology Won’t Save an Inefficient Education System, with Dr. Madhav Chavan, and in several other similarly argued contributions, particularly like the ones from Sir Ken Robinson (read a critique here) or Sugata Mitra.

Education over that past 200 years has been fashioned like an assembly line. Children get placed on a conveyor belt that carries them from grade level to grade level. At each stop on the way they are receive the same knowledge as everyone else. Rather than become intuitive problem-solvers, students are expected to simply absorb the facts provided to them.

The argument that the educational system is a machine built for another age implies that the classroom is itself a machine and the teacher an automaton carrying out procedures that fill student brains with knowledge.

I had a group of educators look at me with alarm and disapproval the other day when I dared to suggest that the classroom was anything like a machine. For them, a classroom was an area where each student is different, has different learning styles and demands, and where they work hard to meet the demands of the curriculum (not enough time allocated to complete the syllabus). Challenges faced in each classroom were unique, although some best practices could be arrived at through experience. Similarly no classroom is the same as any other one in terms of its constituents, its infrastructure, its language and so on. The sheer diversity at the classroom level defies machinistic interpretations.

If the classroom is not a machine, the school as a factory analogy should break down here. Why? Because the classroom is the fundamental unit of the assembly process of schooling. And if that is not a machine, then school likely is not.

Similarly, if the counter to everyone being a dumb receptacle for knowledge, is that everyone becomes an “intuitive problem-solver”, we are talking about another kind of deterministic and linear process, another kind of factory that produces a different kind of student. This was exactly what 21st century skills framework in the USA or our Indian Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE) system has turned out to be – an addition to the curriculum that tries to generically create certain skills and orientation in students, commonly, across the board.

The point to be understood is that we are still thinking deterministically. In the article, Chavan talks about employing technology in an appropriate manner – not as subservient to the linearized school system, but as a tool to collaborate in order to solve problems. Technology enables a non-linear curriculum, emphasizing problem-solving over rote memorization, Chavan says, but impossible to implement under the traditional education system.

I think he has got it mixed up. Firstly, there is nothing intrinsic to technology that promotes any one way or form of learning over another. Secondly technology itself is not monolithic. Thirdly technology is not all pervasive enough to be a systemic component of learning. Fourthly, there is an implicit assumption that we want everyone to be great at problem solving and that there is this one giant universal conception of problem solving, irrespective of domain. Fifthly, non-linearity is a rich feature of existing classrooms, with or without the intervention of technology, in the sense that the classroom is a complex organism.

I think what they all mean to say, is that the traditional system suffers from certain constraints and obsolete practices that are making it very difficult to “enforce” alternate practices and conceptions. Let us look at some of the real constraints – the underlying causes.

Teachers are still learning the way they teach – To innovate the existing paradigm from the inside, teachers must start learning differently. If teachers start learning and using technology-enabled learning methods on their own, it will be a matter of culture for them to start using them in the classroom.

Teachers need to learn – Largely, teachers are like any other adult, and their motivation and ability to learn are immensely important to address. Mechanisms that reward professional and personal learning are largely absent in our system, and for the teachers in the public system, not integrated with career progression and salary increments.

Syllabi are too extensive – Syllabi are following their own inflationary trends. As the volume of knowledge has grown, topics that were earlier taught in higher classes, have been added to the load of the lower classes. The density and complexity of content to be taught/learned has increased significantly. The duration of time remaining the same, teachers have increasingly lesser time to focus on teaching core concepts. As one teacher explained in an alternate manner, “the syllabus is alright, it is just that the system that enforces an end date to the syllabus is wrong!”.

Technology is not ubiquitous – the availability of technology (and electrical power) itself is a core problem. Technology for computation, for storage, for protection against virus attacks, for connectivity and Internet access, for mobility – all these are real challenges in schools (and at home) today. Over time, these will hopefully get addressed by policy thrusts and reducing costs.

Constraints of the system – everything has to be taught in school, there are rigid enrolment schedules, each grade/class is divided into isolated and insular groups or sections in some arbitrary manner creating limitations on collaboration and sharing of knowledge – and many other structural components of the system. In fact, these constraints are the ones that are closer to the industrial age-factory analogy in the sense that they are the pillars of educational management in schools.

For example, putting children into groups and assigning them teachers is an operational decision – one that promotes manageability of the education process primarily. Many people say it is also logical to keep class sizes low to promote greater collaboration (and perhaps, control) and ability for teachers to address individual learning styles. But I believe that the two are different problems – there are many ways to adapt, blend or flip learning emerging now that need not necessarily force us to enforce these structures and ratios.

In summary, I think it is perhaps wrong and naive to treat classrooms as machines and teachers as automatons. Classrooms are complex organisms and don’t easily fall into the determinism of the factory analogy. However, classrooms and teachers operate under a system that tries to enforce determinism and linearity through some of the constraints discussed above.

If we want to change as a system, we need to extend, enhance and celebrate the complexity in education.

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In the Oscar-winning movie, Slumdog Millionaire, the main protagonist manages to answer very difficult (to the common person) questions to win a jackpot. People are quite unsure how he did it and he becomes the object of an intense investigation. While providing explanations for how he answered each question, it was found he could answer it because he experienced it in some way. He had never gone to school, where presumably you learn the answers to difficult questions, and therefore his feat was questioned all the more. His experiences (and luck that each of the questions aroused a connected memory deep inside him) enabled him to answer the questions.

Spread around us are slumdog graduates going to the slumdog university that is our combined living experience. Rather than being handcrafted by some elaborate educational system designed to produce certain deterministic outcomes, these graduates are a product of their own epiphanies and will and courage and perseverance. While we spend a good part of our lives imagining change that can be structured through formal education, many of these graduates are continuously shaping and reshaping the world around us.

To call them “graduates” of a “university” is to succumb to tradition, though. And calling them “slumdogs” is itself not free of a certain bias. Let us call them “makers” and “thinkers” of a new world, unfettered by the trappings of our formal conception of education. They do not require the education we “provide” to them or the elaborate restrictions we build around who is learned and who is not. They are not guinea pigs of theory that serves capitalist and edu-casteist practice.

For we keep beating into submission every new innovation and change agent. MOOCs become xMOOCs, monologous extensions of traditional lectures, with the hilarious debate being just exactly how long should each video be (hey, statistically the eDX folks proved that it should be closer to 8 minutes and hey, look again, there is a growing cult that likes the Green Tick Mark that signifies they got something right).

But I am not laughing. There is something very wrong with a system of thinking that precludes change, that feeds carnivorously upon itself only to continuously grow new offspring. Don’t like the UGC, create a super commission. Don’t like the DIETs, reform them and add BITEs. Cry about inadequate teachers, but continue to train teachers the same way our students learn. Feast on your self and cry wolf. Centralize everything and create new systems of governance, but never realize that the world is now distributed.

What we need is to build alternate capacity to think and innovate. Like get a separate booster shot or something, right away.

Immediately, we should design and implement an ecosystem where innovators, educators, edu-leaders should be able to learn and craft distributed systems of learning that empower a whole new generation of makers and thinkers. They should permeate not just the formal regulated sectors of learning, but also address the much larger segment outside this sphere, making it possible to truly reshape the human potential of this country. More on this soon…

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Over the past few months, I have seen the signs of what could be the next generation of teaching – learning experiences, the signs that show how traditionally accepted models and conceptions of tools are being superseded and are gaining focus and importance from education companies, vendors and users, not just innovator-entrepreneurs who have a good idea. It seems that the hype is over and there is serious enough interest to put money and focus into production from large players.

Let us look at the top challenges/needs that are being addressed by this serious interest.

Technology

Web 2.0/Web 3.0, Cloud computing, HTML5, Tablets and Smartphones have really evolved during the past year or so, with a lot of new products and platforms emerging that have a direct relevance to how content and collaboration can happen in the education context. Even as the world over people are predicting the death of the LMS as we have known it, the major objections to the shortcomings have been addressed by the LMS vendors.

Features such as the ability to integrate with social networks and media, the ability to use informal learning pedagogy within the structured confines of the traditional environment, the ability to apply traditional business analytics to the learning process, the ability to work with mobile devices for content delivery and interaction and the ability to be open and adaptive to learning needs, are now surfacing in products. One needs only to look at the change in platforms and products for companies such as Blackboard, SABA and Mzinga to witness the transition. Somewhere education companies are signalling their intent to provide, as George Siemens says, platforms for education.

Pedagogy

While net pedagogy has made a tremendous mark with the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), there are other initiatives like the Khan Academy (which perhaps does demonstrate the power of a good instructional technique, but that is about as far as it goes), traditional open universities and the OER movement seem still to be lagging behind the change.

The struggle within traditional systems to embrace the newer and perhaps more relevant pedagogical modes will be shaped by the availability of tools and techniques that are simple to adopt and implement. That is, one of the important factors will be the availability of an institution-mindset compliant technology replacement for the LMS.

Assessments

Assessment remains a sticking point – particularly for informal network based modes – that has not been fully resolved. Part of the reason why it is (and promises to remain) an unsolved challenge is the contradiction in terms with an entire process of accreditation and certification that is the foundation of the traditional system. Network based assessment places far greater responsibility of demonstrating and assessing competencies on the main protagonists – the learner and the employer (/task).

In the traditional scheme of things, however, I do see some interesting moves towards new assessment techniques. One is the evolution of standard forms to more complex forms of assessment – task based and even collaborative. The other is the use of immersive simulation platforms  and serious games, not just for learning but also for assessments.

Standards

There has been sufficient movement around standards as well. With TinCan and LETSI, there are some interesting ways of looking at the learning experience. IMS is also evolving new specifications that accommodate the newer realities (Learning Tools Interoperability, Learning Information Services and Common Cartridge). There is hope that standards will support a shift to easier and more efficient creation of new learning experiences, assessment modes and administration support.

Scale/Reach/Economics

There is also the realization that costs must be contained/reduced (especially in developed countries) and this is placing great pressure on the traditional players in businesses such as educational publishing. And we see them responding to the challenge in a variety of ways – all digital. I think people do realize that these solutions may perhaps be one set of the solutions for the developing countries (over the next 10-20 years) and perhaps the only solutions for the countries that are going to contribute the bulk of our learners worldwide by 2050 – the less developed countries of today. But somewhere, I have felt that policy has been too slow to respond to these change trends and this is a missed opportunity.

In Summary

I believe that we have crossed an inflection point over the past year and now it is a period of growth and consolidation. The contours of the next generation learning experiences are clear in intent, although there will be numerous successes and failures on the way. It is going to be an interesting time for entrepreneurs, because new ideas will find a playing ground.

 

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