Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Sharpening Lines of Division

Let’s face it: there are no equal opportunities in this world order. (In fact, there’s something wrong with the phrase “equal opportunities’; it should have been “equal access to opportunities.” But changing the phrase doesn’t solve the problem because there is no equal access either.) This is especially true when it comes to education. Opportunities are defined mostly by the fortunes or misfortunes of one’s birth. In India, it means that a poor child gets to go to a municipal school (regional language medium) with a high probability of an early dropout whereas a richer child gets to join a premium international school and from there goes on to study in any of the top Indian professional colleges or universities abroad. The middle classes, depending on where they are in the middle, choose between a government-aided English-medium private school and a private CBSE or ICSE school.

In the last 15 to 20 years, these lines of division have only become sharper (with a steady increase in the number of private schools) and no governmental policy has had any impact on bridging the divide. (The current Right to Education Bill has included 25% reservation in private schools for children from low income households; the bill has not yet been implemented.) As a result, the richer schools have managed to make poverty invisible inside school campuses. This is not just about reinforcing the class divide; it has more to do with shutting out the physical presence of poverty and replacing it with the glorification of charity. (Writing cheques for charity is a way of avoiding living in the presence of the “objects of charity”.)

A decade ago, state-funded schools, despite their deficiencies, enabled different economic and social classes to mix and learn from each other. These schools also placed more or less equal privilege on regional language—the language of local people and literature—and English—the language of commerce in today’s world order. However, today it is exclusive education (a stiff fee, posh infrastructure, teachers trained in the UK or the US, and little stress on regional language literature) that appeals more to the middle class parents, who as children most probably attended state-funded schools. Naturally, mainstream films, TV and the press are so interested in playing up these middle class aspirations that constructive debates around the growing divide are looked down up on as old fashioned debates of the 1970s.

Even the so called alternative schools that pride themselves on innovative curriculum and teaching methods have priced themselves so high that they too ensure that the vast majority of children from low income households are kept out of their premises.

Basic education is a right and not a commodity to be purchased. It’s not about making education accessible to all—it’s about ensuring access to well-trained teachers (who are capable of not only transmitting knowledge but who can also enable students to question what they learn), sound educational curriculum and content (which includes technology-supported learning), a decent infrastructure (clean toilets, working libraries, well-maintained playgrounds, and easy access to the Internet among others), a sensible student-teacher ratio, and access to a social network (school mates) that cuts across different economic classes. I’m not advocating the nationalization of all schools—variety in curriculum and teaching methods can make the field of education richer. However, providing variety in educational experiences is not an excuse to strengthen class divisions (the fee structure of elite schools automatically excludes the poorer sections of society).

Implementing 25% reservation in private schools for economically disadvantaged children will be a good start. However, all schools—be they private or government funded—need to address the issue of bridging the class divide and ensure that the field of education remains a level playing field. I know this sounds naïve in the absence of workable alternatives, but I believe that alternatives can only emerge if we start seeing education as part of the collective, public space and not just as a means for individual success stories.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Corporate E-learning Rules for 2009

1. Don’t bring down your prices; rather, strip down your solutions.

2. Think about how stripped-down solutions can produce the right outcomes. (Therefore, innovation in 2009 will be about coming up with price-sensitive solutions that produce results.)

3. Focus on outcomes before thinking about formats (a multimedia game is only a format—the outcome is performance).

4. When you select formats and develop methodologies, focus more on workability than on packaging. (Packaging is a kind of mask. In times like these, we need more honesty and fewer masks. In fact, one of the reasons for the current crisis is the use of too many masks. Remember collateralized debt obligations (CDO)?)

5. Test your solutions and see if they work. What doesn’t work doesn’t have the right to exist. We have a collective responsibility to ensure that the money spent on learning produces the results that it is supposed to produce. If everyone in the learning profession had insisted on this aspect at all times, we wouldn’t have witnessed learning budgets being cut drastically even during lean times.

Computer Penetration in Schools in India

“Despite India being an IT superpower, barely 14.25% schools have computers, with a huge gap between states. In Karnataka and Andhra—seats of big IT companies—only 11.44% and 13.46% schools, respectively, have computers. In Delhi, Chandigarh, Kerala and Puducherry, computers are available in 60%-70% schools. In Bihar, the figure is less than 1%, West Bengal 1.79% and UP 3.3%.”

As reported in The Times of India on Jan 16.

Shouldn’t educational technology professionals in India be talking something more fundamental than games and gadgets?

Monday, January 05, 2009

Plans, Challenges, Predictions

Response to LCB's Big Question for the Month


Avoid going with the flow of trends. When a new trend or a new tool is being announced almost everyday, it is something to be skeptical about. So much has been written about the changing use of media and millennial preferences that we have probably failed to see what was really changing. Web 2.0 cannot wish away formal learning in the foreseeable future—the idea is to make learning richer using technology, not poorer. (It’s a poor strategy to play the wisdom of crowd against the wisdom of specialists—both have their place).

A question to think about: Why do people leave corporate jobs to join graduate programs when they could have just picked up those skills informally at the workplace?


Finding answers to the following questions:

1. What are we in this profession for? Are we genuinely interested in helping people learn or are we just peddling our beliefs and pet fads as what constitute good learning? Or, is it just about sticking to the client brief even when we instinctively know it's an ineffective solution? If we are genuinely interested, how much do we push our clients to figure out whether people really learn from our solutions, how significant those learnings are for them, and whether they get to apply that learning at work?
2. Do we really matter as a profession? What happens if our kind disappears and we are not replaced?
3. At a very practical level, what impact will the R word have on us?


Opportunities to sell learning will reduce. However, opportunities for learning will increase.
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