Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Social Impact of Open Education

The Internet opened up knowledge like no other medium had ever done before. And if knowledge did open up, education as an organised discipline had no other choice but to follow suit. After all, organised education or academia used to have a dominant control over the dissemination of knowledge. However, the role of education is not just about the dissemination of knowledge. In its most radical form, education is about inviting local communities from across the globe to participate in challenging established knowledge, creating new knowledge and interacting with diverse groups of learners.

Education is essentially dialogic in nature, a constant engagement with general and specialised disciplines and with researchers, practitioners and amateurs. That said, open education as we know it today is still largely about access to quality resources, which is only the first step but a crucial first step in reaching these resources to millions in underdeveloped parts of the world.

Today, we are witnessing a further opening up of open education itself. For example, the massive open online courses (MOOCs) offered by prestigious universities like Stanford, MIT and the University of Edinburgh on platforms such as Coursera, EdX and Future Learn are distinctly different from our own certified open courses offered by the National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS) and Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU). MOOCs allow anyone from any part of the world to register for any course free of charge. These are undergraduate level short modular courses, typically in the range of six to twelve weeks. Although there is a paid option for those who are interested in certification through a closely monitored process, what makes these courses different is their invitation to anyone who is passionate about learning anything—no prior qualification, no age barrier, no geographical barrier, no class barrier.

But what is so radical about open education if the Internet had already managed to reach quality content across the world? Well, because a chaotic world of multiple knowledge resources is not the same as knowledge organised by subject experts and educationists. Where you start from the simple and move towards the complex. Where you break down complex information into logical chunks, with examples, stories and multimedia representations. Where you pose a question and allow learners to reflect on what they learned. Where you relate what you learn to how they matter in life, practically or aesthetically.

So, as learners, we now have the opportunity to engage with real experts and multicultural peer groups as opposed to interacting with static unverified content—an opportunity that is open to both the privileged and the less privileged. Not just that. It allows us to bring in more questions to the table, challenge assumptions about geographical or cultural stereotypes and provide feedback to the course designers and experts to further sharpen their perspectives. In this sense, open education is a great equaliser. It stands in opposition to the idea of charity in education, which reinforces the perception of free education as an act of benevolence. Open education reaffirms the universal right to education regardless of one’s status based on the accident of one’s birth.

The other advantage of modular open courses (that do not demand any prior qualifications from learners) is that they help break the barriers between academic silos. They allow us to move from an eight-week course in programming to a six-week course in poetry appreciation. This is not to denigrate depth and specialisation that demand rigorous study in a certain discipline but is about promoting breadth of understanding. It is about encouraging amateur enquiries into diverse fields of knowledge— especially the humanities (philosophy, literature, history, anthropology, etc.), which are generally considered non-utilitarian. However, in our obsession with relating education to creating skilled employees for the job market, we need to bear in mind that without a proper understanding of the humanities, there can be no engaged citizenry. It is the values that we derive from humanities that compel us to become involved participants in a democracy, critically examine the hierarchies of society and humanise the dehumanised.    

The opening up of quality education certainly has the potential to raise the critical consciousness of people at large—a critical consciousness that helps us see that the poor are not destined to be poor and that one of the sharpest weapons for eradicating poverty is the power of literacy.

However, there are several barriers that stand in the way of widening access to open education. The first of course is inadequate access to technology devices (such as laptops, tablets and smart phones) for those who can’t afford them. Then there is lack of quality courses in local languages and a certain American and Euro-centric slant in course design. Also, since participating in open learning is highly dependent on self-motivation, learners, especially first generation learners, need lots of encouragement from their family and peer groups to actively participate in these courses till the very end. In fact, shorter duration courses might work well for such learners and increase completion rates, provided there is a certain balance in the complexity of content and the evaluation framework. Perhaps, the courses should focus more on demanding meaningful discussions and the creation of digital artefacts from the learner community than on traditional quizzes and assessments. The idea is to treat curriculum content as a stimulus and real learning as active engagement around it.

Open courses today are mostly limited to higher education content. So is it time to shift its focus to school curriculum and vocational courses? Or is there a contradiction in making a demand to classify open learning into school, vocational and higher education curricula? Maybe we should start perceiving open education as critical dialogues around multiple fields of academic disciplines. And governments, employers and the public need to start recognising those who engage with open learning and provide them the right opportunities to become active social and economic agents.

This article was originally published in the Financial Express on July 28, 2014

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The MOOCs Are Rising

Unlike other forms of e-learning, MOOCs have brought the faculty back at the center of instruction. The content is not impersonal anymore. There is a human face, a voice that brings out a certain passion for the subject, and a mind that understands the subtle nuances of the content. The better the faculty, the higher the student participation. But as Allison Morris sums up in The Minds Behind MOOCs, an excellent infographic: MOOCs have certainly caught the eye of the academia, but they still need to prove their worth and credibility. 

Friday, April 05, 2013

A Lecture as Tentative

"The best lectures have always been those that deal with "tentative materials" that result from the professor's research. If they cease to be tentative, don't include them in the lecture; print them. The main teaching function has to be interactive." Martin Meyerson 

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Coursera: E-learning That Works

"Committed to making the best education in the world freely available to any person who seeks it", Coursera is bringing quality teachers from elite universities right onto our laptops and tabs. As of today, there are 116 courses from multiple disciplines -- courses that typically last from 5 to 10 weeks. 
The format is simple: Video lectures followed by weekly assignments and a final assessment at the end of the course. The assignments mostly constitute objective-type questions, but cracking them is no easy task.
I've taken a couple of courses (Model Thinking and Introduction to Finance) and have come to realize that when it comes to explaining concepts with clarity and perspective, there is no substitute for a good teacher. No fake scenarios, no "trying to be cool" or stilted writing (the kind you see in conventional self-paced e-learning) -- just reasonably good teaching using "technology-enabled chalk and talk", healthy discussions and some amount of retrieval practice. And unlike in a real classroom, you have the freedom to pause the video at any time, replay it any number of times, and take notes at your pace without having to worry about what you missed.
Does this mean the trivialization of education, with access thrown open to the "masses"? Or is this some kind of commercial stunt? Or is it the death knell for that holy cow called institutional education? Only time will tell.
Listen to Daphne Koller, one of the founders of Coursera, discussing the vision behind this venture.

And do check out the catalog of courses on Coursera.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Purpose of Educational Institutions

At a time when utilitarian views dominate the sphere of education, Gary Gutting, a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, says a college is not just meant for the education of students. And I agree.

He says in an op-ed piece in the New York Times: “… the raison d’être of a college is to nourish a world of intellectual culture; that is, a world of ideas, dedicated to what we can know scientifically, understand humanistically, or express artistically. In our society, this world is mainly populated by members of college faculties: scientists, humanists, social scientists (who straddle the humanities and the sciences properly speaking), and those who study the fine arts. Law, medicine and engineering are included to the extent that they are still understood as “learned professions,” deploying practical skills that are nonetheless deeply rooted in scientific knowledge or humanistic understanding. When, as is often the case in business education and teacher training, practical skills far outweigh theoretical understanding, we are moving beyond the intellectual culture that defines higher education.”

“Teachers need to see themselves as, first of all, intellectuals, dedicated to understanding poetry, history, human psychology, physics, biology — or whatever is the focus of their discipline. But they also need to realize that this dedication expresses not just their idiosyncratic interest in certain questions but a conviction that those questions have general human significance, even apart from immediately practical applications. This is why a discipline requires not just research but also teaching. Non-experts need access to what experts have learned, and experts need to make sure that their research remains in contact with general human concerns. The classroom is the primary locus of such contact.”

But what is the reality?

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Banishing the Thinking, Questioning Mind from Classrooms

Information is static. It is thinking that transforms information into something worth pursuing. So in this information age, are we equipping our students to think or are we just directing them to more and more information? To more facts, more opinions, more nonsense.

And how about the need to understand questions. As R. G. Collingwood argued, we can understand a text only when we have understood the question to which it is an answer. In a sense, the text gives us "possible" answers to only those questions that have been asked. And the same text will vary based on the angles from which questions are posed.

However, a majority of our classrooms are not at all capable of infusing this spirit of enquiry. Despite all technological advances we still seem to be pathetically conservative in our understanding of education. It is still all about exams, professional courses, career and survival. Yes, survival. How to survive the competition and how to focus on self-centered growth. And for this we need measurable outcomes--outcomes that are already determined. And if outcomes are already determined and education is just about measuring where the student stands in relation to the expected outcomes, then what is the role of thinking and questioning (despite all this talk about higher-order thinking). If you already know what someone's higher order thinking will result in, it's not higher order thinking. Let's modestly call it problem-solving.

Education is not just about gathering knowledge. It is not even just about learning to apply this knowledge in some practical context. It is also about learning to question knowledge, methods and accepted wisdom. This sense of questioning and thinking is not to be mistaken with some corporate terms like "out-of-the-box" thinking--which is just another nicer term for problem-solving. Yes, education is not just about problem-solving. It's also about learning to pose new problems which may not have a neat solution. It's not just about learning to reason or accepting truth based on evidence. It's also about about being compassionate to fellow human beings and being open to other ways of thinking, other ways of living and other faiths and beliefs. It's about coming face to face with the ephemeral nature of human life. It's about asking stupid questions like "What is the meaning of life?"

Friday, January 21, 2011

Use of Multimedia in Indian Classrooms

Here is an ad that has been playing on TV for the last few months: The ad opens with a traditional classroom, with a teacher talking and students sitting looking bored out of their skull. Cut to an interactive whiteboard with multimedia visuals. Pan to students who are suddenly energised and eager to learn.

What does one read from this? That a teacher’s monotonous voice will put the class to sleep while a multimedia demonstration with its colourful illustrations, sound effects and voiceover will keep the students awake? However, both the lecture and the multimedia mode seem to share the same assumption—that education is nothing but the transfer of information. That it is a one-way traffic: it either flows from the teacher to the students or from the smart-board to the students. The student remains a passive body whose only responsibility is to assimilate information and answer questions during tests.

If this is the way ICT is going to be adopted in schools, then there is nothing much in it for students. Except that they now get to see a few concepts in visual form. First we used chalk and talk; now we move to observe and listen. Follow this up with drill and test, and we think we have done our duty. While it is a practical necessity for students to score good grades in exams, most of us would agree that it is not the only purpose of education. We still seem to be stuck in the old behaviourist approach of teaching to achieve predictable learning outcomes. If the aim of education is to equip students to set goals for themselves (not just to pursue given goals), then this approach to education is regressive.

Children are natural learners. They learn through experiences and by tinkering with things. They learn by observing things and asking questions. They learn in ways we can’t even imagine. Technology alone will be able to do precious little, if it is introduced without concern for the way children learn and make meanings. We need an adoption model that integrates technology with effective teaching-learning practices and provide scaffolding and space for students to learn on their own.

As a start, classrooms should promote an environment of inquiry, experimentation and dialogue. We should lay bare the porous borders that compartmentalise different subjects. We should acknowledge the differences in aptitude and provide room for each child to build on his or her strengths.
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