Saturday, May 30, 2009

Coupling Education to the Institutions of Modern Society

In my previous post I launched a polemic against the 'corporatization' of education: by this I mean an education system whose primary goal is to supply corporations with skilled, trained employees. I am not at all against corporations, or even capitalism -- corporations are a means of pursuing the goals of a capitalist society. Capitalism, in turn, is expected (or believed) by many to be the most effective means of building and maintaining a just society that satisfies the needs of the largest proportion of the people. The jury is out on this one, but that is not the focus of this post (or even this blog). While I no quarrel with corporations per se, I am rather leery of having corporations call the shots on most or all that happens in society. If a society, culture, or nation stands or fall on primarily on the strength and stability of its corporations, that society dwells on rather shaky ground -- and we see this happening in the United States as we speak. In the US, the health of corporations has an direct, immediate, and massive bearing on all that happens in the nation.

A nation, society and culture has to be much more than one of its institutions, however large and significant it might be. I am as much against the control of a society by corporations as I am opposed to its control by the State, by Organized, Controlled Relgion, or by a Monarch or Dictator. Regardless of the nature of the institution, human will, human desires, and individual passion must reign supreme; all other institutions must be subservient to the human spirit. Institutions are tools, machines that ought to aid the Journey of Humanity rather than subvert it.

Since human tribes began to agglomerate into larger social groups, human society has experimented with despots, supreme religious heads, faceless states/communism, and with corporatism. All of them have been fraught with significant problems the moment they begin dictating terms to other social institutions and to the individual. When corporations began to design and sell music, quality suffered.

The process of 'secularizing' institutions, including education, results in removing from those institutions a sense of larger purpose. Ultimately, every individual needs to confront the question of his or her purpose in this universe. And that purpose ought to be more than merely 'flipping burgers', 'building bridges', 'increasing sales', 'reducing costs', 'introducing new products' and so on. When academic institutions strip away everything other than the mechanics of work, then the soul of education disappears. Business education was 'secularized' -- the only things that are taught in class have to do with sales, profits, operations and so on. Matters of purpose are banished from discussion because they raise uncomfortable issues that are often unanswerable in value-neutral terms. The recent meltdown and the backlash against MBAs has caused at least a few business schools to wake up. Harvard Business School is at the forefront of this new movement, if for no other reason than self preservation. Here's what the New York Times has to say:
When a new crop of future business leaders graduates from the Harvard Business School next week, many of them will be taking a new oath that says, in effect, greed is not good.

Nearly 20 percent of the graduating class have signed “The M.B.A. Oath,” a voluntary student-led pledge that the goal of a business manager is to “serve the greater good.” It promises that Harvard M.B.A.’s will act responsibly, ethically and refrain from advancing their “own narrow ambitions” at the expense of others.

What happened to making money?

That, of course, is still at the heart of the Harvard curriculum. But at Harvard and other top business schools, there has been an explosion of interest in ethics courses and in student activities — clubs, lectures, conferences — about personal and corporate responsibility and on how to view business as more than a money-making enterprise, but part of a large social community.

“We want to stand up and recite something out loud with our class,” said Teal Carlock, who is graduating from Harvard and has accepted a job at Genentech. “Fingers are now pointed at M.B.A.’s and we, as a class, have a real opportunity to come together and set a standard as business leaders.”

At Columbia Business School, all students must pledge to an honor code: “As a lifelong member of the Columbia Business School community, I adhere to the principles of truth, integrity, and respect. I will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.” The code has been in place for about three years and came about after discussions between students and faculty.

In the post-Enron and post-Madoff era, the issue of ethics and corporate social responsibility has taken on greater urgency among students about to graduate. While this might easily be dismissed as a passing fancy — or simply a defensive reaction to the current business environment — business school professors say that is not the case. Rather, they say, they are seeing a generational shift away from viewing an M.B.A. as simply an on-ramp to the road to riches.

Those graduating today, they say, are far more concerned about how corporations affect the community, the lives of its workers and the environment. And business schools are responding with more courses, new centers specializing in business ethics and, in the case of Harvard, student-lead efforts to bring about a professional code of conduct for M.B.A.’s, not unlike oaths that are taken by lawyers and doctors.
“There is the feeling that we want our lives to mean something more and to run organizations for the greater good,” said Max Anderson, one of the pledge’s organizers who is about to leave Harvard and take a job at Bridgewater Associates, a money management firm.

“No one wants to have their future criticized as a place filled with unethical behaviors,” he added. “We want to learn from those mistakes, do things differently and accept our duty to lead responsibly. Realistically, we have tremendous potential to affect society for better or worse. Let’s humbly step up. We are looking out for our own interest, but also for the interest of our employees and the broader public.”
Nature has a way of reminding us that none of our institutions is greater than the fundamental purpose of our existence, the quest to discover and fulfill which must be front-and-center on every individual's agenda. And the institution of education, while providing individuals the means to earn a living, develop their skills, and realize their potentials, must not be kept from also investing in those students the motivation to find and fulfill their purpose. Those institutions and curricula that eliminate from their portfolios all those educational opportunities that are seeming unrelated to specific work skills are robbing students blind of the chance of accelerating the process of becoming human.

Friday, May 29, 2009

It's good to have bright, young friends ...

... it's true ... they are alive and alert and bring all sorts of wonderful gifts whose full worth even they may not be aware of. I have at least one such young friend, Janardhan Rajan, who alerted me to the existence of this cool book called Brain Rules (Amazon, another) by John Medina. I love books about the brain, cognition, mind, intelligence and so on, and I am now compelled by forces beyond my control to acquire aforesaid book. Anyway, here's one quote that is totally, totally germane to this blog that I picked off of this cool presentation by Garr "Presentation Zen" Reynolds. (It's got 131 slides, but you'll love it!)
There is no greater anti-brain environment than the classroom and the cubicle.
I didn't say it -- Medina did. And the guy knows how the brain works: at the molecular level, too. Anyway, classrooms killed me when I was a student, and I have presided over the cerebral deaths of thousands of students as someone compelled by circumstances to confine my students to a classroom (a stricture I violated from time to time). I've railed against lectures and classrooms for years, and now comes a book that confirms what I have long believed.

So what is it about our society that keeps us from doing any better? Why has "education" remained one of the great con jobs of modern times, a con job so perfect that the "most successful" of the victims will swear by it and do everything in their might to defend it? I think the analogy of the frog in a pot that is slowly brought to boil and hence fails to jump out and save itself may be apt. We had a system in place to handle a small number of students selected for a lecture type of environment. And the we decided to scale up the model to handle tens of thousands of students in lecture halls. Didn't work. And yet we persist with it.

Modern educational methods compete with astrology, medical quackery and cosmetics for promising far, far more than the actually deliver. The sad thing is that since education is so greatly valued that people engage in wishful thinking and buy into the whole scam. There has been the occasional child that has exclaimed that the king wore no clothes, but few are listening. The lucky ones are those who are both talented and also so unfit for formal education that they choose to drop out and rely on their native abilities to achieve their goals. In a sense those who are not brilliant but are in fact suited for formal education -- a big chunk of the population -- work their way through the system because they seem to be succeeding in it even though it is, in fact, not giving them as much as it promises. But they care little, because they 'know' that they need it in order to 'succeed'.

This brings me to Ivan Illich's classic critique of modern education, Deschooling Society. I've got to take a look at that book again, but now from the perspective of a wizened old educator.

Formal education used to be a means for the small fraction of people of a reflective bent of mind to gather the means by which they could explore life's purpose and perhaps try to answer the great questions that faced mankind. From that noble purpose, formal education has been coopted and debased by a corporatized society that has transformed education into a machine that churns out cookie-cutter drones who will staff their factories and offices and produce standardized goods and services, punctually, and with a smile. Sadly, neither the so-called education, nor the decades of work under the corporate roof help the individual confront the fundamental existential questions that have always been at the back of his mind but which he never had time to think about, so engrossed was he in his work, and distracted at other times by the corporate entertainment firehosed through the media.

If he is lucky, he falls dead while still on the job, engrossed in his meaningless work. The unlucky ones are finally ejected by the corporate system and at a late stage in life find themselves face-to-face with Life's Ultimate Questions: questions they ought to have tried to answer early in their lives, but which they deferred to a phase in their lives when they can could do little about their situation. And preoccupied with that sad thought, they fall over and die.

The tragedy, again, is that the average person believes that the purpose of education is to provide him with skills that will enable him to become a 'successful' cog in the corporate wheel. Any real education that might help him confront the reality of his existence and enable him to ask questions about his role in life is dismissed as so much fluff. The stranglehold of the corporation on formal education is almost complete. Sadder yet are the institutions and educational frameworks that neither educate nor prepare the student for becoming a productive cog in the wheel. In fact, this category of institutions dominate the 'educational' landscape. They are worse than useless. Not only do they not educate, they 'uneducate' their students using the worst possible methods. Talk about a perfect storm.

What we need today are major revolutions both in curricula as well as pedagogies and androgogies; both are badly broken, and this brokenness is reflected in the nature of our world, best expressed by the Hopi Indian word, koyaanisqatsi -- life out of balance.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Singularity: The end of all formal education?

No self-respecting blog -- and this is one, trust me -- purporting to be about education in the 21st century (and beyond) could be complete without at least some discussion about Singularity. After I planned to write this post, I realized I had actually mentioned it once before, but that doesn't really count because it merited no more than a mention in that post. So, let's talk about Singularity.

Well, there's a whole lot to talk about, and there are several books on the subject. Unfortunately, the word has several connotations that are only loosely-related; and besides, being a buzzword, it's now cool to pepper conversations and blogs (like this one) with the term. [Try it yourself: slowly, and in a hushed voice, like in those previews for sci-fi movies, say the word 'singularity', letting each syllable roll off you tongue and vanish into the abyss like the astronaut in the movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Now didn't that feel so cool?]

So let me narrow down this discussion to just one type of singularity, the one to which Ray Kurzweil has devoted his book on the subject and also a website. The one of interest to us is technological singularity. Kurzweil extrapolates Moore's Law which models the exponentially accelerating pace of technological progress in the field of semiconductors to all advanced technologies, and projects the curve forward and backward in time.The singularity postulate predicts that technological breakthroughs and paradigm shifts will occur at an increasing rate and a point will be reached when it will outstrip the ability of human beings to comprehend it. From that point on, machines will emerge that exceed human intelligence and will be capable of evolving on their own. Combining these artificial intelligences with human beings will give rise to what Kurzweil calls transhumans. The book's blurb on Kurzweil's Singularity website says:
The Singularity is an era in which our intelligence will become increasingly nonbiological and trillions of times more powerful than it is today—the dawning of a new civilization that will enable us to transcend our biological limitations and amplify our creativity.
And it will happen in 2045. Note that down in your Google Calendar and set it up with an email or pop-up alert.

Just in time for the party to begin comes the New York Times with an article, grandiosely titled --- in the fashion of the Breathless Journalism fraternity -- "The Coming Superbrain". Let's see what John Markoff has to say.
Artificial intelligence is already used to automate and replace some human functions with computer-driven machines. These machines can see and hear, respond to questions, learn, draw inferences and solve problems. But for the Singulatarians, A.I. refers to machines that will be both self-aware and superhuman in their intelligence, and capable of designing better computers and robots faster than humans can today. Such a shift, they say, would lead to a vast acceleration in technological improvements of all kinds.
According to Kurzweil, things will be even more fun:
Not content with the development of superhuman machines, Dr. Kurzweil envisions “uploading,” or the idea that the contents of our brain and thought processes can somehow be translated into a computing environment, making a form of immortality possible — within his lifetime.
Now, how cool is that? While the above may seem far-fetched, Wired Magazine editor Kevin Kelley paints a somewhat more believable scenario:
He is at work on his own book, “The Technium,” forecasting the emergence of a global brain — the idea that the planet’s interconnected computers might someday act in a coordinated fashion and perhaps exhibit intelligence. He just isn’t certain about how soon an intelligent global brain will arrive.
I'll leave out the article's discussion of B-movie type doomsday scenarios meant to bring out of their caves the same folks who raised a hue-and-cry about the Large Hadron Collider letting Black Hole-lets escape and swallow the universe; the New York Times has to cater to all of their constituencies, especially at a time when circulation is plummeting.

Just for fun, let's pretend Singularity is going to happen, okay? Now let's just talk about the consequences of Singularity for education. Imagine that we will be able to UPLOAD the contents of our brains to a computer's storage device. Even better, what if the reverse is also possible -- DOWNLOADING information, and just maybe, knowledge, to one's brain? Will this result in instant learning? No more sitting in a classroom listening to lectures, or reading books, or logging on and taking tests, working on assignments and so on. After all, the entire edifice of education is constructed on the premise that acquiring information -- and knowledge -- is a long, painstaking process which requires a variety of means in which information is attempted to be transferred to an individual and varied methods of testing whether learning actually has occurred.

But what, exactly, is learning? Is learning merely the transfer of information in a manner that it persists in memory? Is there more to learning than this? What is needed to insure that an individual is able to associate those fragments of information with relevant situations and questions? What sort of processing occurs in the brain to transform information received by our senses into knowledge that we can both experience within and which we can employ in appropriate contexts?

Or maybe Singularity implies that we don't need to learn anything at all, since there are intelligent machines who do all the learning for us and act as needed on the world around. So, does that mean that all we need to do is live a life of leisure, the Holy Grail of so many science fiction novels and particularly the sort of future envisioned by many so-called Futurists? From observing my own behavior and that of many others in this world, it is quite clear that these 'futurists' were hallucinating when they wrote of an era of Endless Leisure. A significant fraction of humanity is not comfortable with leisure for very long. They get bored and want to go and do something. Being engaged in activity -- not just leisure activity -- appears to be wired into our DNA. The majority of people would like to engage in at least some activity they feel to be productive rather than recreational as a means of providing their lives with a sense of purpose.

The need for purpose is a very strong force motivating human action. Most people, it appears, might go insane if their lives were devoid of perceived purpose. Having machines doing all one's thinking and acting doesn't seem to be a scenario that most would prefer for a period any longer than a vacation.

So, even if the Singularity does arrive -- and I wouldn't count it out -- it likely would only lead us to another significant paradigm shift where we search for new frontiers of thinking, knowing and acting: perhaps beyond the bounds of this planet.

I don't think the Singularity will end formal education, although it very likely will transform it.

I hope the Singularity arrives in my lifetime -- I'm a geek and I love fancy stuff like this. I love excitement, newness, technology, and change -- and a chance to explore other corners of the universe.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Traditional universities clueless about online ed

Delivering education online has been the Holy Grail of the New Academia -- Holy Grail, because, nobody seems to have found the right formula yet. The Chronicle of Higher Education, a US publication avidly followed by universities brings two troubling reports: two major university systems -- the University of Illinois and the University of Texas are scaling back their once ambitious online ed plans. Illinois originally had planned to enroll 70,000 students as part of its Global Campus initiative. Nowhere near as many students have signed up, and the recession too has played a heavy hand. Why has student response been weak when, as one commenter states:
I don’t live anywhere near UI so what am I supposed to do now? Has anyone thought about the students that are in the GC programs? We aren’t all 20 yr.olds living off our parents and taking classes in the basement. We’re adult professionals that prefer the flexibility of online learning and the curriculum and programs offered through Global Campus.
It doesn't take a wild imagination to extend the above sentiment to a significantly large population. The same commenter adds:
Online education is growing at a faster rate than higher education as a whole. Online education fills a great need for those wishing to pursue an education and can’t or don’t want to attend face-to-face classes.
A part of the problem seems to be that traditional faculty are not accustomed to the very different androgogies that are appropriate for online and other 'distance' education formats. There exists a perception -- frequently matched by reality -- that distance education is a poor cousin of 'real' classroom style education. A big part of this perception is that the majority of the brightest students as well as those who show early promise follow the route of traditional education. Online education is largely the preserve of those who couldn't make it through the traditional route, either because they could not compete or because of financial and other constraints. There is certainly a discriminatory aspect to traditional education vis-a-vis distance education. On average, those who follow the traditional route have better access to financial resources during the period when students typical attend college than those who are compelled by circumstances to pursue distance education instead. A significant fraction, perhaps the majority, of distance education students are also working full-time, earning incomes to support a family.

Traditional faculty are typically not sympathetic to and prepared to accommodate and adapt to the very different sort of challenges faced by those who pursue distance education. The educational experience suffers and only the most motivated among distance education students who take full personal responsibility for their education are able to make the best of the available resources. The vast majority indeed acquire an inferior education -- or what passes for one. Faculty who understand both the medium and the audience cause some students to exult asin the comment below:
One of the main differences is EVERY Global Campus student participates each week in class discussions and we work in groups to promote the social cognition of learning. Does every student participate in each face-to-face class? No. Do we only look at Power Point presentations created by our instructor and listen to a lecture and take notes? No. We get to experience a multitude of media-enhanced technologies in addition to the required readings and writing assignments each week. We use technology as a vehicle to enhance our learning experience. The Global Campus courses engage students in the learning process and I applaud the professors that have taken the leap and veered away from the “sage on the stage” environment because that is NOT a learning experience for students.
Another telling comment:
Whatever you think of on-line and distance education, pro or con, remember that the medium always affects and sometimes shapes the content (yes, nod to McLuhan). Every technology has virtues and drawbacks, and the more complex the activity into which it’s drawn, the more unpredictable these are. The default position of faculty concerned about the integrity of education has to be first what might be lost, and only second what might be gained (this is not to ignore possible gains, but to recall the responsibility of faculty).
I just finished teaching a seminar for junior philosophy majors on Kant. Student presentations with discussion would simply not work online (though they would have greater successl with advanced graduate students). Rather than give a lengthy explanation, I’ll say just this: these juniors are often not confident enough to write what they think, but in the rapidfire give-and-take of classroom discussion they are willing to speak their minds. I also used a mix of on-line and on-paper commenting on successive drafts of their papers. If I really want them to take account of my remarks there is nothing like red-pen markings scrawled all over the page, as opposed to the neat “Track Changes” and “Comments” of MS Word. When they are far enough along in the project to be solidly oriented, however, it is easier and faster for me to use the on-line methods, and in fact, it seems to encourage the impression that I am taking their arguments seriously.
To be at least as effective as traditional education distance education needs to be carefully thought through. From reading the article, and more importantly, the comments, I come away with the impression that the University's attempt was a combination of ham-handedness and half-heartedness. An initiative of this kind requires committed efforts over a long period of time, imaginative leaders, a sizable budget, an acceptance of risk and failure and ongoing efforts at learning and evolution of the whole system. The University perhaps didn't have the stomach for that. Another comment from a different article about this issue:
The real problem is its time this entire campus, online and off, started thinking about LEARNING and the best way to facilitate it. Recording video of talking head lectures isn’t going to cut it for either the real or virtual campuses. We do need non-faculty learning facilitators (come up with your own titles). I think it would be great of the faulty got together, chose a new paradigm (or a small number of new paradigms) and get behind them for EVERYTHING we do. We are saddled with a huge physical campus – that can only seat so many students.
I especially like the term 'learning facilitator' because that's how I view teaching, in general, and especially teaching mature adults in 'distant' configuration. Once this sort of thing becomes established, the whole approach of professors and lecturers and educators will change -- I hope.

We see University of Texas pulling out of the marathon too, after having blown $22 million over a decade.

So why are online-education efforts suffering? First, a reality check: Pure-play for-profit online-education ventures like the so-called University of Phoenix have turned a profit for decades, else they would have shut down long ago. On the other hand, large, successful traditional universities have been struggling to make a mark with online education. What do Phoenix and their ilk know that traditonal universities don't?
  • For-profit education outfits focus on the bottom-line -- they run mainly those programs that attract enrollments and therefore turn a profit. They don't have any social agenda to satisfy, even if there is no return on their investment. Pretty soon, low-profit programs are weeded out and high-profit ones enhanced.
  • Traditional universities --especially the large ones that actually have the means to explore online education, such as Illinois and Texas -- hire traditional faculty who are recruited and rewarded principally on their capacity for research, rather than their talent for teaching or ability to experiment with alternative instruction methods. At such institutions, there is usually a disconnect between the staff that develop the distance education infrastructure (and often are not well-versed in either the subject or in androgogy and pedagogy) and the faculty that deliver courses (who frequently are all at sea with technology).
  • For-profit organizations live or die by the success of their online programs -- they have no alternative to fall back on -- and are compelled by circumstances to constantly innovate and evolve their systems and methodologies to meet the needs of their client base
  • Traditional universities tend not to view their students as 'clients' to be served -- indeed, such a term (and the mindset associated with it) is typically considered distasteful in the groves of academe: professors are scholars engaged in research and imparting knowledge and education the old-fashioned way in order to build thinking citizenry rather rather than equipping trainee-customers with skills which they could immediately apply to earning a living.
  • The core competency of traditional universities -- representing the collective competencies of its faculty -- lies in imparting education the traditional way; online education is usually an afterthought, an irritant, a requirement usually thrust by them by politicians who would like to be seen as implementing a social agenda.
  • Traditional universities are excel at educating the traditional student in the traditional manner; do a passable job of educating the non-traditional student; and know little or nothing about educating the non-traditional student in a non-traditional manner.
Little wonder, then, that traditional universities such as Texas and Illinois are struggling to justify their online efforts -- despite strong demand for such education -- even while private, for-profit outfits are laughing all the way to the bank.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A free, online university from Israel

My friend Pavan Soni who, like me, is into innovation in a big way, is an Innovation Evangelist at Wipro. Pavan is an enthusiastic and gung-ho soul and sends out interesting snippets about innovative initiatives around the world. I just received this one about University of the People -- a new online university that intends to provide tuition-free education to less fortunate and indigent people around the world. Currently, 150 students have enrolled and the founder, Israeli entrepreneur Shai Reshef, has the ambitious goal of signing on 15,000 students in four years.

On the face of it, this is a wonderful development. The intent to provide educational materials -- if not an education -- and that too, for free, deserves fulsome praise. I'm still not clear about how this system of online education will work. Will they handle it like traditional universities -- and flub it (like Texas and Illinois) or will they succeed, like the University of Phoenix?

Having done online (and satellite TV) education myself at a traditional mid-sized university, I am not too excited by how they do it. But for those who, for various reasons, cannot make it to a physical classroom of a university, the opportunity seems like a godsend -- but only if it is structured properly. Now, there are many -- almost always, adult learners -- who have benefited from receiving a diploma (and possibly an education, in the process) via correspondence (by mail) or over the internet. And then there is the price: free.

I would like UoP to succeed and large numbers of persons around the world to benefit. If UoP succeeds, then they may help define a model for providing education to billions of people who might otherwise never be able to afford it, and thereby make for a better world.

Podcasts creep into my life

I've taken to podcasts in a big way, but only for one reason. Back in the US, I never felt any need to get into podcasts because whatever I wanted to listen to, I heard directly from people, the radio, or on TV (on the few occasions I chose to turn it on). The only time I listened to the radio was when I when I was in my car, or when I wanted to listen to a favorite program of mine aired on National Public Radio. Well, I might as well tell you my favorites: This American Life, hosted by Ira Glass; Le Show, hosted by Harry Shearer; and Car Talk, hosted by the pair of brothers, Tom and Ray Magliozzi; and Fresh Air, hosted by Terry Gross.

When I moved to India, I did not miss them - at least initially. After a while, withdrawal symptoms began to set in, and so I proceeded to subscribe to the podcasts of my shows through Apple's iTunes program -- using this program makes podcast downloading (and playback) a no-brainer. I tried listening to the programs on my laptop, but that's not the most convenient of things to do. Mostly because I am not used to sitting down and listening to the radio -- not since the 1970s when I used to listen to cricket commentaries or the Binaca Geetmala radio program.

So those podcasts sat accumulating on my laptop until it came time to give our Maruti 800 car of 20 years a decent funeral and get a new one. This time, I had the dealers install a stereo with a USB port. And then life as I knew it changed forever.

Driving in Bangalore is perhaps not the most unpleasant undertaking in the world -- I imagine life would be lot harder cleaning the city's sewers. Nevertheless, it's tough to get used to, and moreover, gets worse everyday with the rapidly rising population of vehicles. The noise, the pollution, and most of all the never-a-dull-minute weaving around leave me drained at the end of even a typical 10 km drive -- which could take anything up to an hour, or even more, depending on the time of the day. I need something to take my mind off of this.

USB port to the rescue! Now I download a mix of my podcasts onto a flash drive and I am on my way. So now, there is very little that happens on the streets of Bangalore that can stress me out. I am instantly transported to the streets of Boise, Idaho and am entertained, informed, and often even educated along the way. When I step out of the car, I am smiling. In fact, on many an occasion, I sit in the car waiting for a particularly interesting podcast segment to be over before I get out.

Which brings me to the reason why this post appears in this particular blog: man, what a way to disseminate knowledge! Now how might we incorporate podcasting into formal (and even informal) educational programs so that busy commuters may learn while they are on the move? It doesn't have to be only while driving -- one could be riding a bus and listening to a podcast on an MP3 audio player. It would be a useful way to catch up on a missed lecture or review on that was hard to follow the first time.

So, maybe Tegrity is indeed onto something here. In an earlier post I had called Tegrity a 'BandAid for a broken format'. But that was primarily because I don't believe that lectures are a particularly effective means of imparting education. I haven't changed my stand on lectures, but podcasts may be useful for disseminating useful information anyway, even if the efficiency of transmission might be low. I use podcasts mainly to occupy my mind, keep me entertained, and as a source of intellectual stimulation. I often get good ideas that are only tangentially related to the theme of a podcast simply by listening to it while trying to maneuver my car around town.

At any rate, I highly recommend podcasts - at least interesting and at least moderately informative ones - as a supplement to the traditional educational methods.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Crowdsourcing Peer Review in the Age of Blogging

That the internet is causing paradigm shifts in a number of areas, not the least of which is news publishing is beyond dispute. Much less has been said about its effect, if any, on the hallowed and time-worn process of academic peer review.

One of the cornerstones of modern scholarship, whether it be in the sciences, humanities or the arts -- or anywhere else -- is the peer-review process. Peer review is a filtering step in the process of scholarly research generation and dissemination. It is intended to ensure that the work that is finally published meets certain minimum standards and thereby does not take up valuable journal space, waste the reader's time and until and unless refuted appears to contribute to a corpus of research in some specific field. It is also intended to ensure that a researcher gets a fair hearing and is not prevented from disseminating research because of some gatekeeper's idiosyncratic beliefs. Typically, a scholar sends in a manuscript for review to a journal's editor who in turn sends them on to other scholars who are familiar with the specific area of scholarship addressed in the manuscript. The reviewers read the article, write up their reviews, including comments, suggestions and recommendations and send them on to the editor, who in turn passes them on to the manuscript's author. The author then chooses to address the comments and incorporate suggestions and sends them back to the editor. This process may involve several rounds before a submission is accepted or rejected for publication. Of note is the fact that both author and reviewers are anonymous with respect to each other, in the interest of ensuring some degree of neutrality.

Peer review has many critics -- and valid criticisms -- but it has worked reasonably well, and there haven't been any alternatives that can be deployed more conveniently, and so it lives on. One major problem with peer review is the large amount of time that elapses between the time a manuscript is submitted for review and is accepted for publication. Even more time elapses before it actually appears in print -- especially in the most prestigious journals -- given the large number of article submissions and the limited size of each issue. The situation was much worse before the widespread availability of email, but there yet remains much dissatisfaction with the process among researchers; like a bad marriage, it's a nuisance they have felt compelled to live with for all the benefits it offers.

One step in the article publication process is beginning to be sped up by the appearance of electronic or online journals. Online journals have at least three advantages over their 'dead tree' counterparts made from wood pulp: there is no practical limit to the size of each 'issue'; the step involved in typesetting an issue is eliminated; and most importantly, there is no need to wait for each issue 'cycle' -- an article may be 'published' on the internet the day it is accepted and proofed.

None of this has reduced the time taken up by the traditional peer review process or in any way eliminated or reduced its shortcomings.

Now comes an experiment to test the efficacies (and limitations) of having a scholarly book 'peer-reviewed' by anonymous blog comments. Noah Wardrip-Fruin, an assistant professor of communication at the University of California at San Diego, decided to test the efficacy of having a scholarly work 'peer-reviewed' through anonymous blog comments. Wardrip-Fruin was either a fool or a brave man, for leaving a blog wide open to the world is inviting a veritable deluge into your life. Anyway, the experiment is done and the results are out. The results are mixed but interesting. Blog-based review can in fact add in valuable ways to the peer-review process.

I am a little rushed for time right now, so will continue this discussion a bit later. Stay tuned. (to be continued)


Blogging had already changed how I worked as a scholar and creator of digital media. Reading blogs started out as a way to keep up with the field between conferences, and I soon realized that blogs also contain raw research, early results, and other useful information that never gets presented at conferences. (emphasis mine)
So one significant gain from using the internet -- blogs, specifically -- for the early dissemination of raw, unreviewed result is a speeding up of research because scientific research is not a solitary pursuit (as is often imagined) but occurs in a social context. Many researchers are comfortable with reading unreviewed research, because as responsible and knowledgeable scientists, they know enough to tell good science from bad. Integrating blogs into research is particularly useful in academic disciplines where significant work is done outside of academia:
Given that ours is a field in which major expertise is located outside the academy (like many other fields, from 1950s cinema to Civil War history) the Grand Text Auto community has been invaluable for my work.
Compared to traditional peer review,
... the blog-based review form not only brings in more voices (which may identify more potential issues), and not only provides some “review of the reviews” (with reviewers weighing in on the issues raised by others), but is also, crucially, a conversation (my proposals for a quick fix to the discussion of one example helped unearth the breadth and seriousness of the larger issues with the section).
In traditional peer review, on reviewer might make a point, but the author may not understand how widely such a view is shared. Blogs, however, allow other reviewers to refute or extend an observation made by one poster, thereby giving weight and adding substance to an opinion. On the down side,
... the flow of blog conversation is mercilessly driven by time. While it is possible to try to pick up threads of conversation after they have been quiet for a few days, the results are generally much less successful than when one responds within a day or, better yet, an hour. I hadn’t anticipated or planned for this.
Turning on a blog-review will have the author on a treadmill that never stops running, a firehouse that ceases to spew forth torrents of commentary, many of which she may never be able to read at all, leave alone respond to. There is another, perhaps more troubling problem with online reviews:
One concern expressed repeatedly about the blog-based review form — by blog commenters, outside observers, and myself — is that its organization around individual sections might contribute to a “forest for the trees” phenomenon. While individual sections and their topics are important to a book, it is really by the wider argument and project that most books are judged.
This is in contrast to traditional anonymous, double-blind review where reviewers tend to provide 'big picture' commentary regarding an entire manuscript rather than mere sections, or chapters. The positive aspect of this 'problem', however, is:
The blog-based reviewers offered almost no remarks comparing chapters to one another — perhaps because they experienced the manuscript more as sections than chapters. Still, as I will discuss below, they also offered much more detailed section-specific commentary, much of it quite useful, than it would be possible to expect from press-solicited anonymous reviews.
The most significant benefit of online-reviews is the diversity of perspectives that it is possible to collect from a wide readership. In the traditional review process, it is not feasible to send out a manuscript for review to more than a few reviewers due to large number of manuscripts that need review.
When only a few reviewers look at each manuscript, each will have some areas of relevant expertise. But for many manuscripts, especially interdisciplinary ones, there will be many topics discussed for which none of the reviewers possess particular expertise. There’s no real way around this.
This happened repeatedly, with humanities and social science scholars, digital media designers, computer science researchers, game players, and others offering helpful thoughts and information about everything from dialogue system interface specifics to statistical AI models.
Crowdsourcing "peer-reviews" through blogs certainly has a future. Work is needed to make the task manageable, and even if a 'lite' version were made possible, then it would make an excellent augmentation to the traditional peer-review process -- not eliminating it, but making it much more useful and usable.

Is this the future of education?

I kinda hope so, for it looks so much fun. Here's Richard Stallman of GNU fame - the fearless and untiring slayer of windmills and champion of FREE (as in freedom, not beer) software, hamming it with a laptop and a bunch of graduate students at MIT.
If learning can be so much fun even as a grown up, heck, who wouldn't want to sign up?

No, learning ought to be fun. For what is fun but the lighting up of one's spirit? Learning -- in my humble opinion -- ought to be a process that in fact lights up one's spirit. Isn't that what the term 'enlightenment' is all about, to the point that it is no longer just a metaphor, it is taken to be literally what the term suggests.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

NEJM sets up shop on Facebook

The rush to set up shop on Facebook continues with the New England Journal of Medicine being the latest entrant. Facebook has become a sort of Second Life for many organizations and institutions, the idea being to go where people are. Second Life, Facebook and other such 'social apps' are the beach, the city square, the village commons, and the mall of the World Wide Web; it's where people hang out to engage, explore, build relationships. The terms Web 1.0, Web 2.0 and now, even Web 3.0 are defined quite arbitrarily and idiosyncratically. Nevertheless, Web 1.0 was largely about placing information out there on the web, Web 2.0 about dynamic information and having a two-way conversation with visitors to a website while Web 3.0 seems to be about building communities and having ubiquitous web access from all sorts of mobile and other devices. So while people now wish to be connected to the web -- and hence to each other -- at all times and from all places, organizations now wish to engage them wherever they are and follow them wherever they go.

It's funny how things go around only to return to the place they started. Sort of. America Online was known in its early days for setting up a 'walled garden' with content exclusively available to its members in easily digestible form, thereby protecting them from the uncharted and potentially dangerous wilderness of the web. The web proved to be far richer and dynamic in its content, and so the walls finally crumbled and the garden itself was swallowed up by the wilderness. Facebook -- and the land rush to this frontier -- seems like a return to a walled garden; except, the garden offers memberships to all for no fee, although you need to play by the rules of the garden.

The formal entrance of Stanford University and now the NEJM into Facebook heralds a new era for institutional education and learning where they interact with students and scholars (not necessarily paying ones) using alternative methods. It's an acknowledgement that not only is the traditional classroom of limited effectiveness but also that there is much opportunity in discovering the benefits of social applications for providing a suitable ambience for an ongoing, socially-embedded learning process.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Weapons of Class Instruction

My first opportunity to teach came in the fall of 1988 at the University of Texas at Austin. My students were almost entirely undergraduate business majors and I was assigned to teach them an introductory course in Management Information. I was excited to be given this opportunity although this was part and parcel of my Assistantship responsibilities. I had previously spent five years in industry as an MIS professional and was also involved with a software startup, and so I believed I knew a lot about the field. I took it as my responsibility to tell the students everything I knew and interpret for them all the information that was contained in the hefty (and colourful and expensive) textbook prescribed. I was proud that I understood pretty much everything between the covers of the book and a whole lot else too. I was a one-stop teaching shop, at least for the course. Or so I believed.

But I had never taught before in my life. How was I to get through all the material? Well, technology made the task easier. This was a time before Microsoft Powerpoint became the de facto standard for beating massed audiences over the head with information. There was another product out at the time, if I recall, Aldus (later, Adobe) Persuasion which ran on the Mac, my favorite computer. But those machines were not available in our classrooms. In fact, we had no computers in our classrooms then, only in the computer lab. There were whiteboards and we could use overhead transparencies. So I spent days and nights vomiting all my knowledge on to transparencies; I made scores, perhaps hundreds of them, with bullet points, drawings and all, and in color. My students were very pleased, or so I trusted.

When computers began to be available in the classroom, I switched over to using Powerpoint slides and spent long hours building them up. Well, a couple of decades have passed, and I don't rely on overheads or slides very much anymore. I apologize to all my early students for inflicting information on them. I was so utterly mistaken about the goals of education. I understand very well now that education is not about shoving information into people's heads. Unfortunately, academic institutions continue to believe that that is indeed what they are supposed to do. And with each passing year, they increasing quantity of information they seek to funnel into the heads of students, employing the latest technologies to increase -- in their warped perception -- the efficiencies of such transfer. I wonder when the singularity (also here) will occur in education. At that point, students would have reached their limit and technology wouldn't be effective any more in the achievement of this narrow objective.

I have now learned to carefully pick occasions where I believe props such as Powerpoint slides might add something useful to the process. I avoid slides of bulleted lists of points wherever I can.

More often than not technologies and other props are used as crutches by those who cannot teach. Learning certainly involves the transfer of information, but that's like saying life involves the beating of a heart -- yeah, sure, but there's a whole lot more going on, and the beating heart is but only a start.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Latin diplomas: Form over Function

If there were any doubt that prestige and appearance are as much the currency of formal institutional education as the quality of knowledge they dispense to their students, this New York Times article will likely dispel it. The author, a professor of classical studies at a small American liberal arts college, rails against the use of Latin in college diplomas, stating:
Latin is a beautiful language and a relief from the incessant novelty and informality of the modern age. But when it’s used on diplomas, the effect is to obfuscate, not edify; its function is to overawe, not delight. The goal of education is the creation and transmission of knowledge — not the creation and transmission of prestige. Why, then, celebrate that education with a document that prizes grandiosity over communication?
Much time, money and effort has been invested in infusing prestige into the public image of elite academic institutions. The idea, perhaps, is that if it looks prestigious, then it must be prestigious. Thus universities knock on the doors of wealthy potential donors to pay for the construction of swank, impressive buildings and expensive infrastructure. All this is very good as long as it contributes significantly to the institution's primary goal of 'creation and transmission of knowledge'. But we all know that the greatest of ideas -- even scientific ones -- can emerge from amidst the most humble and even chaotic of physical environments, for it is the great minds and their ideas that matter far more than awe-inspiring campuses. Latin diplomas and fancy campuses are designed to persuade graduates, their parents and the rest of the world that the degrees granted were actually worth the money and time spent, and thus the graduates deserve not only respect but also lofty and well-paying positions in business, government and elsewhere. Purpose is often sacrificed for form, because it is so much easier to overwhelm people with visible form than with invisible, if substantial, content.

This is not an argument for creating dingy, cramped and underprovided educational campuses -- that would be an atrocity worse than the one described above. This is a plea for devoting the most attention to the purpose for which academic institutions exist in the first place.

When I was at the University of Texas at Austin I knew of at least one professor -- very popular among students for his commitment to teaching and his excellence at his work -- who was fired for not having a stellar research and publication record. I have observed a similar occurrence first hand at another American university. Research is the benchmark used for the selection and retention of faculty at top institutions in the US and there is no reason to fault such a criterion by itself. But for a public institution which came into existence (and continues to exist) principally to educate students, it is a travesty that it rids itself of an individual who excels at this task. In the United States, a university's prestige is linked to the research record of its faculty far more than the effectiveness with which it educates its students.

Prestige is important for the varied benefits it brings; but it is important not to lose sight of purpose.


Here's a public confession I have been waiting for years to make, with a view to cleansing myself: During my final year of undergraduate engineering education, more than three decades ago, I attended less than a week of class. Well, it's worse than that: I attended a sum total of three days of class, and even worse, I was proud of it. Used to be that one wore such feats like a badge of honor to be shown off in the company of one's peers. This is akin to potential gang members committing violent acts in order to be admitted into one's favorite gang.

I am no longer proud of what I did; indeed, I am rather ashamed: I wasted my parents' hard-earned savings for which they made innumerable personal sacrifices. And I wasted the opportunity to improve myself in significant ways. As one who has committed his life to education, I feel personally slighted when students skip my classes -- so I offer my sincerest apologies to all of my undergraduate professors whose faces I never saw that entire year. Perhaps I have atoned for my sins by returning to the scene of the crime so to speak and working to make amends.

That having been said, I had become terribly bored with class. It couldn't be the material itself, since it continues to fascinate me decades after I graduated. It probably is the context and manner in which the putative educational process occurred -- the How, the Where, and the When. For the person I was then, the process held no charm at all; and I wasn't the only one thus disaffected. Except for a few doggedly determined students, the majority had significantly slacked off by the final year. It was not only the backbenchers who stayed away from class -- there were many bright, even brilliant ones who didn't. Some, of course, were not suited for that particular program of education -- engineering -- but went through the motions anyway since the culture and economy offered few options in that era for personal advancement. But many of those who showed little interest in attending classes went on to become successful practicing engineers, even pursuing graduate studies in the subject, with a few obtaining doctorates and becoming distinguished researchers and professors.

The pedagogical process in place then (which is pretty much intact even now) involved placing rows upon rows of students in an enclosed space and inflicting structured information on them, mostly verbally but often with the accompaniment of visuals. Attendance (spotty) was taken, and used as a surrogate for Attention (which frequently drifted); and Attention was treated as a surrogate for Retention of knowledge (which decayed exponentially); and Retention in turn was considered as the key measure of Learning (which was marginal at best). This was further evaluated through examinations, which were mostly founded on Retention and some degree of Application -- although methods of Application were also learned by rote, and so the learning didn't go very deep. The fact that I -- and most other students -- graduated with a first division despite a Lack of Attendance suggests to me that the pedagogical and evaluative process is seriously broken. And most students who got away in this fashion have done fairly well for themselves in life. My conclusion is that their success is far more a consequence of the selection and admission process into the institution which admits students who were going to be quite successful regardless of their circumstances. The educational system itself -- apart from affixing on the graduate the label of a reputed institution -- contributed precious little. Now, it can, and should do better than this. And I believe that the entire existing pedagogical framework needs to be thrown away and entirely new ones constructed.

From Dozens of Millions to Millions of Dozens

I chanced upon this musty, old article (by internet standards) from the BBC about Joe Kraus, co-founder of Excite, a once promising internet search engine that peaked before Google even got going and later founded JotSpot, an application wiki company acquired in 2006 by Google and relaunched as Google Sites.

The key takeaway for me from the news story was this reflection by Joe Kraus on Google (and how it stole the market from the likes of Excite) and Amazon (and how it beat traditional brick-and-mortar book retailers Borders and Barnes and Noble). I quote from the article:
Only 40% of Amazon's revenue comes from the 125,000 books stocked in an average Barnes and Noble shopping mall store.

The other 60% of cashflow comes from the now famous "long tail" - hundreds of thousands more books that Amazon has found a way of distributing economically to customers who seek not the best sellers but a very precise title probably very obscure to most people and most shops.
And the second example:
Both Excite and Google are free to use; both business plans needed the support of advertisers.

But Excite took the conventional view that the ads would come from the top 100 companies in the USA, the people who buy huge amount of TV time and blanket the newspapers and the magazines.

Google did not go for the big spenders. Google's squads of PhDs wrote algorithms that would make it viable for the company to take hundreds of thousands of ads from hundreds of thousands of small (or big) companies, and pop the ads up in highly relevant spaces close to the search lists.
Then he concludes:
"The 20th Century mass production world was about dozens of markets of millions of people. The 21st Century is all about millions of markets of dozens of people."
I think we can apply this same insight to Technology Augmented Learning in the Age of the Internet (and beyond). Prior to the 20th century, formal knowledge- (vs. skill-) based education was typically imparted by wise and experienced scholars and teachers to a tiny group of pupils through intense and personal interaction. Education was inherently an elitist, cerebral pursuit demanding great sacrifices on the part of both teacher and student and only a few very highly gifted and talented individuals made it through the process. The industrial era provided a new metaphor for education (and just about any kind of human pursuit) and the principles of mass manufacturing were extended to education. Massive schools and universities were constructed. Knowledge was standardized and codified and disseminated by methodically-trained teachers employing seemingly efficient methods of instruction in large classrooms filled with dozens, scores, and even hundreds of students. For a while, things seemed to work. The experience was not very satisfying as hordes of students and thousands of teachers and professors will testify, but the process was seen as being good enough, under the circumstances.

In reality, excepting for the most elite institutions, most students graduated with not much more than barely functional skills which they then proceeded to acquire on the job, where the worked at the expense of their employers, or on their own, outside the walls of academia. What worked for automobiles, pencil sharpeners and bottle openers doesn't work quite as well for processes that are inherently cognitive, intellectual and knowledge-intensive. People have different knowledge acquisition styles, interests, cognitive abilities and need for knowledge. Perhaps what we need are the equivalent of a million academic institutions each serving mere dozens of students. Now that looks a lot like the traditional guru-shishya framework.

We cannot resurrect the ancient guru-shishya instruction process to meet the ongoing learning needs of a billion learners. But we may very well be able to exploit available to technologies to provide a learning structure that can approximate it in its effectiveness. The goal is not imitation of the process but investigating what made it work, and combine that with modern educational research and new technologies to achieve the same end result.

Whether good enough is all that is achievable with education is a subject meant for another discussion -- I will simply state here that I don't buy that argument. What I will assert is that Google and Amazon provide hope that with modern technology, we can develop a system that is NOT one size fits all (and hence fits none). We could fashion the technology and methods available to build systems to meet the needs of the Long Tail -- education to suit every learning style and every specific type of knowledge. Education is the most important structure for the creation and maintenance of vibrant democracies. We can make this democracy work only if we create an education system that actually does its job and isn't merely good enough.

Harvard wants to fix business education

In the wake of the numerous financial scandals that have beset the United States -- and Wall Street, in particular (as well as the world as large) -- the heads of Harvard and other business schools have been scrambling into damage control mode as well attempting to engage in a process of genuine introspection. Business schools have a lot at stake. Prominent among those being held responsible for the meltdown are graduates of elite business schools such as Harvard and there is a danger of public anger being directed at these schools for having ostensibly nurtured criminal tendencies among its students. While financial scandals are an ongoing sideshow in all nations and economies, this is the first time that such scandals have been explicitly linked to significant personal financial losses experienced by millions of ordinary people. If financial and other improprieties become permanently associated with very well-endowed institutions, then many powerful individuals in high places may have the reputations (unfairly) smeared and the institutions might begin to go downhill as a result.

Actually, there is a lot more at state than merely the fate of a few mighty institutions. An entire paradigm 0f education on which entire economies have been nurtured for over half a century is being questioned: Are we on the right track? Do we need to reboot? Should we scrap much of what we have taught all these decades and start from scratch?

It's unlikely, though, that graduate business education will be dramatically transformed in the short run. First, it's tough to turn a big ship going at full-tilt. Further, many fundamental concepts taught at business schools are based on solid evidence and impervious to scandal. More importantly, the current scandal is largely focused on ethics -- or a lack, thereof -- as practiced by captains of industry. But unethical behavior is only the tip of the iceberg. Perhaps unethical behavior was just one downstream link in chain of behaviors whose source was actions founded on flawed business principles. People sometimes do unethical things in order to compensate for failures that were the result of bad business decisions which founded on defective business principles. Perhaps the world has changed very significantly since the time the business ideas were first enunciated and tested and they are no longer applicable. The world of human beings, after all, is far more fluid than the inanimate universe that surrounds us, and is governed by laws that are much more complex and plastic.

Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto seems to be making a similar point. He says the typical MBA education is shallow, narrow and static, where it should be deep, broad and dynamic. He elaborates, stating that MBA students should not only acquire models and principles, but their underlying logic so that they can tear them apart to inspect them or to construct their own from scratch; they ought to appreciate that the world is a complex, messy place where business cannot be run merely on the back of rational-actor economics; and that innovation and design are key to moulding MBA graduates capable of dealing with change and variety. Martin does have an agenda here: the MBA program he runs at Rotman's differentiates itself from the rest on those very principles he presents as essential. Clearly, though, he believes that those ideas are significant enough that they can form the cornerstone of a whole new approach to business education. To be sure, the Rotman MBA is not radically different in every way from the Standard Model, if you well, developed by Harvard and imitated by thousands of others around the world. Martin himself was a Harvard MBA and the fruit is unlikely to travel too far from the might tree that is Harvard Business School. It is difficult both radically change an MBA program and gain credibility for a different paradigm in competitive market where the current way is well-entrenched.

But perhaps, this presents an opportunity for a disruptive model to emerge that initially does not serve the mainstream (or threaten the market leaders such a Harvard, Sloan and Northwestern) but eventually attains a strong enough position to threaten to topple the status quo.

We live in exciting times.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Stanford launches Open Office Hours on Facebook

Stanford U - like much of California - is known to push the envelope when it comes to technology (and culture). After all, Stanford was the pot in which Yahoo and Google - and a whole lot of other wonders of modern living - were stewed and brewed. Understanding that the traditional educational model isn't really working well (or perhaps just in a fit of whimsy), Stanford now has leading professorial lights holding office hours on Facebook -- not only for its own students, but for anyone in the world so inclined. If there are any more holdouts out there who have thus far resisted the inexorable forces that push us all into the vast Facebook ocean -- and who think that Facebook is meant only for kids sharing pictures of their drunken revelries -- there's goes their final excuse. I mean, who wouldn't delight in engaging in a conversation with, oh, I don't know, Donald Knuth, the living patron saint of all computer scientists? Or Phil Lombardo, infamous for conducting the famous prison experiment? I'm getting goosebumps already, just thinking about it.

Like all social experiments, this Facebook Open Office Hours (FOOH?) initiative is likely to have consequences way beyond and quite different from those that led to its lauching. People are going to pick it up and run with it. I am very excited to see how this might transform education and learning. FOOH not only breaks downs the walls of the classroom, it also removes the larger wall around the institution itself. Previously inaccessible and remote scholars of repute will now be seen as real human beings, inspiring a wider swath of young people to take to scholarship, now that they know that great people are fashioned out of ordinary - but enthusiastic - little people like themselves.

Facebook wasn't originally meant for such an application at all. It was meant for Harvard students to extend their exhibitionistic and voyeuristic proclivities into the virtual world -- and it has succeeded in this project well-beyond its creators wildest dreams. It's delightful to know that there are curious adult minds that have begun to experiment with applying the technology to other domains. Persons beyond a certain age tend to feel threatened by what feels like an uwelcome intrusion into their private spaces and time. But that is true only if one is still grounded in a way of life that is rapidly vanishing before our eyes. Members of the younger generation are able to seamlessly blend their real and virtual lives and thereby extend the relationships, influence and sources of knowledge into dimensions that didn't exist even one decade ago. This is the new reality that the world of education must come to terms with employ as the basis for the complete redesign of architectures of education.

What are some benefits of FOOH? To be sure, this is not just about Facebook, but any means of direct engagement between teacher and student by employing video, audio, rich media in general and conversational structure. Harrison Owen, the inventor of a now wildly successful and widely employed group process called Open Space Technology came up with the idea for his process at an academic conference. He found that the most interesting discussions and explorations occurred not during the scheduled sessions themselves but during the brief coffee and lunch breaks when attendees from various sessions jostled and mingled in a disorderly fashion. Why not, he thought, organize a conference which in its entirety was like a coffee break, where discussion groups self-organized and important issues emerged out of this social process, thus turning the concept of a conference on its head? The relevance of Owen's observation here is that the most significant components of the educational process occur not merely during the scheduled classes but in the breaks in between them, as students and teachers wander about and mingle, on and off campus. FOOH provides a framework for structuring, capturing and preserving those interactions for later review not only by the original participants, but by later visitors. Imagine what it would be like if one could eavesdrop on all sorts of conversations going on across a campus, and hang out in the presence of great scholars whenever they choose to emerge? FOOH then becomes a Knowledge Bank.

No doubt naysayers will abound, and disadvantages of FOOH will be discussed in depth across the internet. But all tools and technologies have their downside, it is how you choose to use them that brings benefits. Me, I'm all for extending this experiment around the world.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Of Lectures, Lamps and LEDs

This blog post began as a response to VS Baskar's comment/query in response to my previous post (Tegrity: BandAid for a broken format?). He asked:
The format which you are discussing as outdated, is it being followed in India ?
If not what format is followed in India and how many years we are lagging in keeping pace with the world standards. Can the western format be followed if the number of students are huge as in India?
The basic format of a classroom with rows of seated students, a black/white/chalk-board out front and other optional accessories such as a flipchart, overhead or LCD projector and a computer, perhaps hooked up to the internet is pretty much standard all over the world. Indeed, this is the Gold Standard, and has been in use (without the modern accessories, of course), for hundreds of years. The problem is that this format is familiar, looks good, but is rather inefficient. To draw an engineering analogy, its "knowledge transmission efficiency" is poor.

The incandescent lamp -- that thing we call a light bulb, immortalized as the symbol of bright ideas -- has been around since 1802: that's 80 years before Edison's mythic, Eureka-tinged invention of it. Edison got the credit because he made the whole system of illumination of which the bulb was but a part, work effectively. Effectively doesn't mean efficiently, of course -- over 90% of the electrical energy supplied to the lamp is wasted as heat. Now, that is pretty darned inefficient, if you would ask me. VS, a chemical engineer, would be horrified to hear this; even chemical engineers can do better than this. On the other hand, the up-front cost of light bulb is quite low, the result of over a century of refinement and increasing manufacturing efficiency. And consequently, the light bulb -- and its associated fittings -- are ubiquitous. And so we are stuck with it, much like with the inefficient QWERTY keyboard.

The parallels with the Gold Standard Lecture Format are quite interesting. The lecture format has been around for centuries, both teachers and students all over the world are familiar with it, and it is easy to find teachers who can do it. But what if there were alternatives?

The global energy crisis with demand outstripping supply as well as environmental concerns has provided impetus and urgency to the search for more efficient alternatives. The current candidate is the Compact Fluorescent Lamp (CFL) and an emerging, even better alternative is the LED lamp. Both are more expensive than the light bulb, and an infrastructure is yet to emerge to take advantage of network effects. Check out the following links:
Today's educational institutional framework is still stuck in the equivalent of the incandescent lamp age -- the world over, not just in India. All the technology that is increasingly used in the lecture hall is equivalent to paving the cowpaths -- an expression popularized by Business Process Reengineering guru Michael Hammer which means unthinkingly automating a process which is inherently inefficient rather than redesigning it entirely, from ground up. While we're at it, let me also fling the term putting lipstick on a pig into the mix.

We use the Gold Standard format because we don't know of any other -- well enough, anyway --and the pace of educational institutional growth over the past few decades has been so rapid that human society has been caught with its pants down. We are stuck with an obsolete paradigm. Winston Churchill once remarked that "... democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." Perhaps something similar is to be said about the Gold Standard.

Except, we now have the opportunity to innovate and develop one or more entirely new paradigms using the prodigious amount of knowledge about cognition and learning we have gathered over the past century as well as the variety of existing and emerging information and communication technologies. We must not tarry any further because the demands placed on the current paradigm are rapidly escalating and the paradigm itself does not have in it to survive the onslaught. We are facing a complete breakdown of the educational paradigm as it stands and need to quickly put our heads together and find a variety of alternatives to fit the varied needs of the diversity of cultures and requirements that abound in this modern world.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Tegrity: BandAid for a broken format?

I've been checking out Tegrity (or rather, its website), the 'lecture capture web service' I mentioned in an earlier post and have come away with mixed feelings. Tegrity captures audio and video lectures and presentations and stores them on a server. Lectures are delivered in a fairly ingenious way to students and there is some capability to search and drill down to specific bits of information. So far, so good.

Assuming the lecture format to be the Gold Standard for imparting knowledge, technologies like Tegrity and iTunes U serve primarily to fix deficiencies in it. The lecture format worked in an era of low mobility, small classes, few distractions. An instructor had all the time in the world to lecture, elaborate, explain, and answer all the questions of a small number of students who did not have to rush off to work, attend to families, deal with huge course load and indulge in entertainment and other distractions. A lot of things have changed since the lecture format was invented and refined. The nature and pace of life has changed dramatically, and so has the quantum of knowledge available and required to be ingested and digested. The lecture format does not work any more. Yes, the world cannot be changed in a hurry. Yes, the paradigm shift required is so huge that academic institutions and their associated structures as we know them may need to crumble and an entirely new way to educate developed. Are we ready for this? And if not, and if the existing format is so badly broken that it does little good, how long should we remain in a state of voluntary delusion?

Until we call it as we see it, repeatedly, at every forum, and through varied voices, the best we can hope for is series of BandAids of ever increasing complexity. And which will, in fact, lock us into a broken paradigm, eventually leaving us worse off than we already are.

I shudder to think of what is yet to come.

This is your education on iPods ...

“Lectures are the worst possible learning format,” says Brian Brooks, Associate Dean of the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

So there you have it. He adds,
“There’s been some research done that shows if a student can hear that lecture a second time, they retain three times as much of that lecture.”
With the goal of enabling students to hear that lecture as often as possible (and thereby shaking up the Billboard Hot 100, one presumes), aspiring journalists at the school will carry iPods or iPhones.

This is an experiment, following that of Stanford and other campuses, and lectures will be made available as podcasts from university servers using Tegrity, a lecture capture web service, and also via Apple's iTunes University. Students also have the alternative of downloading the podcasts to their PCs or laptops although the mobile option would be more convenient. The theory is,
“There’s a lot of theory out there that says what you want to do is engage students in realms where they are already comfortable, and we know a lot of students are already familiar with iPods and iTunes so we want to get into that space and take advantage of that,” he said.
So there's the meat of it. Many students these days seem to be quite disengaged from education. On the other hand, they are very engaged, but to matters other than education, and more often than not to popular culture. So why not try to reach them through the channels they are most wont to utilise: a behaviour-centred approach?

The great shapers of opinion and/or behaviour today -- at least among the young or the undereducated -- are no longer individuals with commanding personalities, or their surrogates in the form of religions and cults. The modern corporation has been very successful in its project of employing science and scholarship to unravel the secrets of influencing opinion and behaviour and developing systematic means of exploiting this knowledge. This is a force that can be used for good, but is not infrequently employed primarily to empty consumer pockets fill corporate coffers. Universities and other institutions with a social conscience, rather than (or in addition to) tilting at these forces, might do well to co-opt them for more benign purposes, as in this case.

Then again, this is an experiment in augmenting the existing format of large institution higher education with ubiquitously available and popular technology. Will it work?

Much depends on what metrics are to be used for determining success. Students are likely to be thrilled to have the iPods legitimised as an academic accessory. With that imprimatur in place, they might be persuaded to check in on some lecture, in between periods of soaking in the latest pop or rock sensations. But I don't know how many young people would have the patience to sit through just listening to a 50-minute long lecture, even assuming the sound is of acceptable quality. Further, there are few subjects taught in a modern university for which the format of a pure lecture, devoid of any visual aids or visual and spatial references and props, will work very well. Perhaps for poetry and literature. Even there, it's not just the information content of a lecture alone, but also other paralinguistic cues such as facial expressions, body posture, etc. which imbue a lecture with additional, often critical meaning.

Furthermore there is a certain irony in the Associate Dean declaring lectures to be the worst possible learning format, and then enabling students to learn in that format as many times as possible. Why would you want to inflict the worst format on someone repeatedly? Is the repetition of a bad format better than just doing it once?

Looking for positives, only on rare occasions -- perhaps one had to miss out on an entire lecture of scintillating quality -- would students choose to listen to a lecture in its entirety. More likely, one might wish to home in on specific snippets that had not been clear when heard the first time. To make this experiment really successful, the University ought to develop or find some technology that allows a student to quickly locate a specific segment of a lecture by searching for content, without having to listen to the lecture from start to finish. This lecture podcast service requires a voice-recognition and transcription engine for the purpose.

Here, folks, is an opportunity to advance the cause of education with more than just blindly flinging technology at it. What more can we add to this mix of iPod/iTunes/Tegrity?

Monday, May 11, 2009

The architecture of learning

I arrived on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin in late August, 1986 and was stunned by what I saw -- this was larger than anything I could have imagined. My baggage consisting of a couple of battered Indian suitcases had been misrouted by the airlines -- TWA, I think; they were still in existence then. And all I had was the clothes I wore and a small complimentary bag containing a toothbrush, toothpaste and some other stuff which I received by way of an apology from the airlines (after I had harangued them about my condition for a while). Still a thrifty Indian at heart, I took a bus to the university campus from the airport -- fortunately, Austin airport was not too far from downtown (they've moved it since, I believe, just like they have done in Bangalore).

Yes, the campus of UT Austin is massive, and chock-a-block with structures. It's practically an entire city unto itself. Back in the mid-1980's there were about 65,000 students on one single campus. Now that's huge. My own undergraduate institution, REC (now NIT) Tiruchirapalli had only about a thousand students in the 1970's (plus a lot of barren land). UT Austin and U-Michigan Ann Arbor are perhaps the two largest (in terms of student population) single campuses in the US (and possibly, the world). Scale, baby, scale.

So how did they manage to schedule classes for those vast hordes of students? Of course, the majority were undergraduates. So here's what they did -- they built huge, I mean huge, lecture theatres. Used to be, you -- and perhaps a dozen other select acolytes -- sat under a tree at the feet of your Master. He -- they're typically portrayed as a 'he', right? -- would speak, and you would listen, and on occasion, ask questions. Perhaps he had a lesson plan. He had no chalkboard, no slide presentations, and few props, if any. No Exhibit A, Exhibit B. In cold places like Europe, they built classrooms, mostly occupied by monks, and later, students of a more secular sort. They had chalkboards, and seats and lectures. Students mostly listened, and took notes. They worked on problems and assignments, quietly, mostly individually.

Then came the industrial age, Max Weber, and the birth of the modern bureaucracy. A new class of employees called 'white-collar workers' was invented. Their primary purpose was to work with information. This called for an educated workforce to serve which purpose many new universities were built and expanded. The number and variety of programs grew. Many new corporations were created and thrived. The economy exploded. There was a rapidly increasing demand for information workers. It was getting expensive to build new universities and there weren't enough teachers to go around. It was far more efficient to grow the size of existing universities and expand the number of students enrolled in each individual class. At UT Austin, a freshman Chemistry class (a required course) would have as many as 800 students. In a single section. Held in a massive lecture theatre the size of a concert hall. Now play with that image in your head. Me, my mind boggles.

What have we done to the Architecture of Learning: from under the Banyan Tree to the Monster Sized Lecture? As the number of learners grew, we just scaled up, using technology. We figured that the learning process is pretty much the same regardless of numbers -- all that's really needed is to accommodate those numbers, provide comfort and shield them from the elements, amplify the information generated at the front by the teacher so that it physically reaches everyone, and we're home free!

Guess that didn't work, but who cares -- we still 'graduate' so many students, don't we?

No, we have a big, big, problem here that those running modern institutions don't wish to address -- when you scale up the numbers, you simply cannot use the same process (even on steroids) any more. You have to develop entirely new processes. The system is broken, and very, very badly. Razing all the institutions to the ground and starting afresh would be a fine way to go. But that ain't gonna happen. Yet. So we'll need to innovate in other ways. We'll begin exploring some ways from the next post on.