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Posts Tagged ‘TEDxSPSU’

At TEDxSPSU – Part Six

TEDxSPSU was held on March 12, 2011 at Sir Padampat Singhania University, Udaipur, India, with the theme Order from Chaos. This series of posts are what my TEDx presentation was based on. This is the last part – Part Six.


Meeting scale with scale means leveraging the diversity, passion and insights of a very large number of people to solve a very large problem.

This means we need to move some of our focus from hierarchies and ordered structures to open and distributed networks.

My concept of learning would be analogous to drinking at a giant watering hole. It’s having all sorts of people and resources coming together to spark off conversations, not unlike this TED conference, united around a common theme. Except that there is no single watering hole or TED conference that I could point to as being the site for learning.

It’s chaotic, it’s messy and it requires an altogether different set of skills to navigate – skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, reflection, communication and adaptability, rather than rote learning and subservience to the exam. Sort of like the real world.

We think personalizing the learning experience is tough, if not impossible. We think scale is impossible to solve without orderly structures. But perhaps it is possible to leverage both personal learning experiences and the enormous scale itself to find someone who teaches or learns the way you do or aspire to do.

I call this, not un-ambiguously but rather simply, Network Based Training or NBT. My belief is that we are moving to a new evolution in online learning just like we moved from a CBT to a WBT with the advent of the world wide web.

The NBT is a way to network people and resources around a learning topic. No one theme or person or resource or process of learning is supreme. Unlike a WBT, which is individual and generic, the NBT operates in a networked and personalized context. Unlike a WBT which is visually and instructionally programmed for an assumed closed context, the NBT is open, distributed and rich in diversity. Unlike a WBT which is built for predictability, the NBT is built for encouraging complex behaviors required for learning.

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

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

We need to build multiple paths to specializations allowing our children to learn at their pace and for the needs of their communities and disciplines.

And really importantly, we need to reduce the amount of content we use in our classrooms drastically – shift focus a bit to the experience from just the knowledge – a state of learning to be rather than learning to know.

This is a model that will truly democratize education – make it by the people, for the people and of the people.

The model will scale. It will recognize local constraints, indigenous capability and meet the aspirations of local communities. It will be sustainable since it is bottom up instead of top down. It will adapt faster to national planning needs. It will create opportunities for innovation and growth.

And in doing so we will move from a conception of Education as a process to create the learned to a conception of education as a system that fosters learners.

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

Maybe we could evaluate how education could be made a social business.

We need to explore the chaos that can continuously upset the existing desire for order. Hopefully I will be able to see my son, Sambhav, who is 5, taste a bit of this change before it is too late.

I would like to end with a visual that I have come to love. It’s symbolic of many of the things I have talked about today.

The right and the wrong answer

I rest my case.

<< Part 5

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Another example of how we want more order. Apparently, there are 47 different Boards of Education in India and COBSE (Council of Boards of Education, India) is a body that:

…provides academic support to its member Boards on:

1.     Setting and maintenance of educational standards.
2.     Curriculum planning
3.     Preparation of Curriculum materials and transaction
4.     Evaluation in Schools
5.     Public examinations

COBSE has 3 office bearers, six Vice Presidents, 17 consultants, 2 nominated members and a 15 member Executive Committee! It also has 9 associate members spanning worldwide bodies like the World Bank (?) and Education boards from countries like Mauritius and Nepal. According to the website, its major functions are:

(i) Provide a forum to its members to discuss issues of mutual interest and to learn form each other for improving quality of education
(ii) Curriculum reform and improvement in evaluation systems.
(iii)Respond to national concerns like Population Education and Disaster Management.
(iv) Professional Development of officers of the Members-boards.
(v) Interactions with NCERT / NUEPA on Professional issues.

Interesting…they have been around since 1979 and have just 12 publications (none of which are online). Do check out their news page.

Anyway, what sparked off my research was the following newspaper article (also covered here) which talks about a common national curriculum for science, maths and commerce:

In March, 2010, there was an article outlining some dissent by prominent people in the NCERT and NCTE stating there was a duplication of effort. Here is Kapil Sibal, Minister, HRD’s 2009 speech to COBSE in case you are interested.

I would love to see Kapil Sibal strike a similar vein as James Hacker trying to tackle the excessive British administration and Sir Humphrey. Of course, would like to see strikingly different results!

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At TEDxSPSU – Part Five

TEDxSPSU was held on March 12, 2011 at Sir Padampat Singhania University, Udaipur, India, with the theme Order from Chaos. This series of posts are what my TEDx presentation was based on. There are six parts that shall be published sequentially over the next few days. This is Part Five.


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

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

And my belief is that rather than wanting Order from Chaos, it’s time we started wanting more chaos from this order.

I am not saying we address deficiencies in the system we have conceived. Rather I am saying that we ought to question our conception of what our educational system is.

In fact, by the early 20th century, people started looking at phenomena that could not be described by this classical, ordered view of a system. There were many phenomena, they argued, that did not fit into this classical notion of order – there was an element of probability that threatened the concept of order and predictability. For example, weather is impossible to predict in detail, but general patterns can be observed and predicted.

This started work on what is called Systems Theory which focused on “arrangement and relations between parts which connect them into a whole”. Some of the earliest work in this area was from people like Alexander Bogdanov, Ludwig von Bertalanffy, Norbert Weiner (who founded Cybernetics in 1948) and von Neumann. Cybernetics concentrated on the interface between man and electronics particularly for mechanisms of feedback, complexity, self-organization and adaptation.

The basic ideas around systems theory was that all around us we have systems or models that are complex. They are complex because they are made up of elements that have strong relationships with each other and with the environment in which the system exists.

What is interesting is that none of these elements completely describe the system they are part of and looking at their behavior may not provide us a deterministic way of predicting the behavior of the system as a whole.

For example, a gas particle is defined by its position and velocity. However the gas has properties like temperature and pressure. Not just that, under different environmental conditions, the gas may exhibit entirely different sets of properties i.e. new behavior may emerge.

Or look at the behavior of a flock of birds. You must have noticed how beautifully they fly in a self-organized formation even though there is no one bird that acts as the head. They follow some simple rules such as:

  1. Follow a flight path that is aligned to your closest neighbor
  2. Keep a safe distance from your neighbors
  3. Avoid hitting obstacles

All the birds in the flock follow these simple rules, but as you may have seen, their collective behavior is unpredictable and does not repeat itself.

Or the music produced by a jazz band, in which members agree to obey some general rules but are free to create their own variations, producing impossible to predict music. What’s more, members of the band may be influenced by their environment (e.g. changing audience preferences) and adapt their music in unpredictable ways.

One of the most amazing phenomena to be studied is Chaos. Small changes in initial conditions could lead to very large differences in outcomes. This was first found when Edward Lorenz studied weather patterns.

Since the elements of a system are networked, there is a huge value in deciphering patterns of behaviours in a network. For example, organizations are built hierarchically. But the way work gets done in the organization resembles a network.

Stakeholders are connected to each other in multiple ways spanning across traditional silos in an attempt to get the job done. We observe that information has many cores of distribution, not just one. We observe that an individual when replaced in an organization changes the network structure and consequently some of the efficiencies in the system, especially if she is a link between multiple sub-networks.

It has become apparent that closed-loop predictable systems are just one form of a system that exists in real life. All around us we have systems or models that are complex, open and distributed.

 They are made up of networks of elements that have strong relationships with each other and with the environment in which the system exists. Like the educational system.

These systems exhibit very interesting behaviors. As the environment changes, these systems adapt. Small changes in initial conditions bring about large changes in outcomes. New behaviors emerge rather than being designed to occur. Not only that these systems do tend to self-organize and self-regulate.

Some of this work also inspired the thinking around the early web. Joseph Licklider wrote about man-computer symbiosis in 1960, extending from Norbert Weiner’s work on Cybernetics. Licklider wrote on the Computer as a communication device in 1968, where he saw the universal network as a network of people, connected to each other, and producing something that no one person in the network could ever hope to produce. Lick’s efforts led to the creation of the first Internet.

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

By 2005, Tim O’Reilly had marked another phase of the evolution of the Web and called it Web 2.0. While the earlier web was about connecting people to resources, this web was about people being able to create their own content, search it, share it and digitally collaborate. It was about harnessing collective intelligence ushered in by Amazon and its recommendation service. The last 5 years or so have seen tumultuous development on the Internet.

Neuroscientific advancements are also pointing to a different conception of the brain – not as an information processing unit, but as a system of massively parallel and networked connections. Symbolic language is being considered to be at a level higher that what occurs in the brain and that has important consequences for the way we treat the written or spoken word.

Analytics have changed in turn – there is a move from analyzing relationships to analyzing underlying patterns in a huge and growing, now digitally available, data, also called BIG data.

There is an even greater change that is looming on the horizon – that of the Semantic Web. Web 2.0 is collapsing under its own weight. The gigantic amount of information that is being created everyday is burying search. This is a really important development. So instead, we are moving towards Web 3.0 – the promise of a ubiquitous, semantic, location aware and contextual web – that Tim Berners-Lee originally envisaged.

But in our quest for ORDER, we have consciously excluded precisely this kind of emergent, self-organizing, chaotic, adaptive behavior.

And I believe we need to correct this. Once we shift that perspective, powerful alternatives emerge. And one of them could be to challenge scale with scale itself.

<< Part Four >> Part Six

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At TEDxSPSU – Part Four

TEDxSPSU was held on March 12, 2011 at Sir Padampat Singhania University, Udaipur, India, with the theme Order from Chaos. This series of posts are what my TEDx presentation was based on. There are six parts that shall be published sequentially over the next few days. This is Part Four.


What doesn’t help is that we live in one of the most diverse nations in the world. We have 200 million school going children, over 16 mn higher education students (expected to touch 40 mn in 2020), 35 geographical and ethnic units, 22 official languages, 1.25 mn schools, about 500 universities, over 26,000 colleges and over 6 million teachers in an area spanning over 3 million square kilometres.

We have a huge scale with no one unique approach or one size fits all solution possible.

But what we are really saying is that we want ORDER.

Order implies design and organization of systems and structures with predictable outputs.

We have created boards of education, district, state & national level hierarchies, and many other superstructures that include accreditation and degree granting bodies. On top of that we have unifying national policies and curricular frameworks. All working on the principle of centralized direction.

And when this order fails, we add even more Order. And at any cost.

It’s a pity that the largest education companies are built on standardizing content and assessments not enriching experience. It’s a pity that education technology today means Learning or Assessment Management Systems and page turning multimedia content in classrooms. It’s a pity that we are increasing the power and quantity of superstructures to govern education.

Not surprisingly, our conception of educational systems as being orderly embraces some vast over-simplifications.

We conceive of stereotypes of students, teachers, educational environments, learning processes and hammer out a unifying certification and assessment system that actually drives all learning and teaching.

These oversimplifications, on a lighter note, result in some fantastic vision statements. Here is one that envisions the Engineer of 2020 crafted by the National Academy of Engineering in the US.

“What attributes will the engineer of 2020 have? He or she will aspire to have the ingenuity of Lillian Gilbreth [The first Lady of Engineering], the problem-solving capabilities of Gordon Moore [the co-founder of Intel], the scientific insight of Albert Einstein, the creativity of Pablo Picasso, the determination of the Wright brothers, the leadership abilities of Bill Gates, the conscience of Eleanor Roosevelt, the vision of Martin Luther King, and the curiosity and wonder of our grandchildren.”

If you are thinking, yeah right, what could they be influenced by when they wrote this, consider what the National Council on Teacher Education has assessed what our system wants its teachers to be:

“The teacher must be equipped not only to teach but also to understand the students and the community of parents so that children are regular in schools and learn. The Act [Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act] mandates that the teacher should refrain from inflicting corporal punishment, complete the entire curriculum within the given time, assess students, hold parent’s meetings and apprise them and as part of the school management committee, organise the overall running of the schools. In addition, the NCF requires a teacher to be a facilitator of children’s learning in a manner that helps children to construct knowledge and meaning. The teacher in this process is a co-constructor of knowledge.”

Why do we make such assumptions and over-simplifications? Perhaps the most important reason is scale. We feel we can hammer predictability in the face of scale by making orderly processes and structures. And order is our typical solution.

<< Part Three >> Part Five

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At TEDxSPSU – Part Three

TEDxSPSU was held on March 12, 2011 at Sir Padampat Singhania University, Udaipur, India, with the theme Order from Chaos. This series of posts are what my TEDx presentation was based on. There are six parts that shall be published sequentially over the next few days. This is Part Three.


On the other side, in teacher education, there is a really funny contradiction that I recently came across in teacher education. The MHRD talks about in its annual reports setting up of about 600 District Institutes of Educational Technology covering the whole of India, one for each district.

The DIETs, as they are unfortunately abbreviated, are responsible for improving the quality of basic education and increasing enrolment as well as retention. They are supposed to mentor teachers in the District and supervise educational schemes.

However the National Commission for Teacher Education on the other hand bemoans the fact that they do not have enough qualified teacher trainers to staff these DIETs!

National Curriculum Framework for Teacher Education, 2009, NCTE, India

They go so far as to state – “Teacher education programmes provide little scope for student teachers to reflect on their experiences.

National Curriculum Framework for Teacher Education, 2009, NCTE, India

Not only are we burning our children at the altar of this education, but our teachers-to-be are going through no different a process!

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At TEDxSPSU – Part Two

TEDxSPSU was held on March 12, 2011 at Sir Padampat Singhania University, Udaipur, India, with theme Order from Chaos. This series of posts are what my TEDx presentation was based on. There are six parts that shall be published sequentially over the next few days. This is Part Two.


Why is it that our children are trained to lose every shred of empathy, curiosity, interest and creativity?

It’s all very good to have a national policy on education that promotes critical and creative thinking and all that great stuff.  It’s great to recognize the impact of technology in education. But on the ground, this translates into the ability to orient and train teachers to bring in these skills, to build the infrastructure to support the development of these skills and attitudes in students and to align these developments to what we need as a society, as a culture and as an economy.

Curriculum designers could tell you that if they were to put every little bit of detail in the textbook, it would grow too large to handle in the time they had to teach the children about Gandhiji and the Dandi March.  As it is, there is so much to cover and such little time.

If you were to look at the curriculum, you would find that the average topic of instruction does not allow for more than an hour or so of average classroom time per topic. And this includes reading the book, explaining segments, answering questions, giving homework etc.

Consider the learning objective:

“Discuss the critical significance of Nazism in shaping the politics of the modern world”

In case you are wondering if I have made the transition to an under-graduate class in Political Science that would be slightly incorrect. This is part of the Central Board of Secondary Education (India) curriculum on Social Science for Class IX

For some people, this would perhaps take a lifetime to discuss. So one would say, we don’t want a PhD thesis in class IX, just want the salient/critical points for them to learn about.

What in effect we are saying then is that we do not want understanding, but an ability to repeat the writer’s belief in specifically those words that the writer has penned down. Not only that we will assess how closely the answers match with these words because our teacher may not know how to handle a perspective not expressly recorded in the book.

By the same argument, our children make the case that they cannot answer questions “in their own language” – i.e. in a language that is not the language laid out in the book. In the epic movie 3 idiots, this contrast is sharply brought out. The informal, meaningful way of describing a machine is:

“A machine is anything that reduces human effort and saves time”

While the formal, a book centered exam-accepted definition is:

“Machines are any combination of bodies so connected that their relative motions are constrained. And by which means force and motion maybe transmitted and modified as the screw in its nut or a lever turned about a fulcrum or a pulley by its pivot etc. especially a construction more or less complex consisting of a combination of moving parts or simple mechanical elements as wheels, levers, cams etc”

No guesses on which answer will get you marks in the exam. 

<< Part One >> Part Three

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At TEDxSPSU – Part One

TEDxSPSU was held on March 12, 2011 at Sir Padampat Singhania University, Udaipur, India, with the theme Order from Chaos. This series of posts are what my TEDx presentation was based on. There are six parts that shall be published sequentially across the next few days. This is Part One.


Art Credit: C S Prasad

I would like to begin with a personal anecdote.

My daughter, Pari, is eleven and like other grade V children, she studies something called History. She is learning about the Indian Freedom struggle and the role Mohandas Gandhi and others played in it. Her book has some interesting facts, biographical and historical, about what Gandhi did and that his philosophy of non-violence is so important. We came to learn about the great Dandi March.

Gandhiji decided to walk from his Ashram in Sabarmati, near Ahmedabad in the western state of Gujarat to the shores of the Arabian Sea to a place called Dandi. He went there to produce salt from the sea. In doing so, he violated the law through which the colonial powers, who had the monopoly on salt, imposed taxes on the purchase of salt. The book tells us it was over 300 kilometers away.

While reading this, I was struck by a question I had never asked before. And perhaps many of you have not either. I wondered how old Gandhiji was at the time of this march. Well, the book tells us he was born in 1869, so that should make him over 60 at that time.

Why would a 60-year old frail man WALK all the way to Dandi, 300 kilometers away when there were easier modes of transport available?

The book talks factually about the march. The book states that he followed a philosophy of non-violence. But the book does not answer my question.

Here is the answer.

Gandhiji undertook to walk because, on his way he wanted to spread the messages of the freedom movement, enlist followers for the breaking of the Salt Law and put pressure on the British government. It took him about 25 days to reach Dandi and he personally addressed over 50,000 people across 40 towns and villages in that time. Gandhiji’s method sparked off a nationwide movement which extended to nearly 5 million people at over 5000 sites.

The Dandi March of 1930 was an act of defiance against the colonial powers. The Salt Tax contributed to over 8% of tax revenue. Gandhiji cleverly chose Salt because he realized how common and necessary it really was. Faced with Gandhiji’s announcement to produced salt from the sea, the Viceroy then, Lord Irwin, said “At present the prospect of a salt campaign does not keep me awake at night”.

As I researched it further, I found it was not an ad-hoc choice. It was a choice carefully deliberated from among competing options. A full strategy and the combined might of all the leaders was employed to galvanize the nation. Massive preparations were undertaken prior to the actual start of the March, designed for maximum impact. Nor was it the end of the road. There were carefully thought out actions at the end of the march – a lot of if-then scenario based planning.

But hold on. The textbook mentioned nothing of this passion, strategy, ingenuity and determination of Gandhi. It tells us nothing really to substantiate why Gandhiji was famous for his non-violent principles.

The questions at the end of the book don’t reflect this either. Instead, the curriculum designers faced the creative challenge of framing questions around these. For example:

Technique: Fill-in-the-blanks

Question: M K Gandhi was born in the year ______

Technique: Multiple Choice

Question: M K Gandhi was born in the year:

  1. 1876
  2. 1885
  3. 1869
  4. 1901

Technique: Match the Following

M K Gandhi                        1875

Nehru                                   1897

Subhash Bose                    1889

Sardar Patel                        1869

Technique: True or False

M K Gandhi was born in 1875? True or False

Technique: Inversion

Which famous architect of the Indian Freedom Struggle was born in 1869?

Why is it that our children are trained to lose every shred of empathy, curiosity, interest and creativity?

>> Part Two

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