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The format which you are discussing as outdated, is it being followed in India ?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.

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