The production of learning

I came across a recent article in Forbes titled What Educators are Learning from Money Managers. The article is rife with purported linkages between how corporations work and how education could be if it learnt its lessons from the “money makers”. The point made is that if public money (and private funding in public education through donations) in education has poured in, it is not seeing the results it should because the approach may well be wrong.

And the approach by companies such as Wireless Generation, is to infuse assessment and monitoring of student and teacher performance with the help of technology combined with professional practices. Larry Berger, the founder and CEO of Wireless Generations says that Education is in a revolution of sophisticated analysis of the data set. Essentially he is talking about software that lets teachers evaluate their students better and take corrective action very rapidly (“every two weeks”) and the availability of cloud-computing and portability/ubiquity as technology innovations that can support this revolution.

So this is about Charter school operators such as Achievement First, who bring in a professional management and execution of performance based processes (for the student, teacher and school). Joel Klein, chancellor of the 1.1 million student New York City Department of Education, is taking a portfolio-theory approach to education reform, meaning that he wants a selection of large, professional organizations to choose from when he sets up a new charter school. He has learnt, through his experience as an Assistant Attorney General under the Clinton administration, two things – “competition and accountability“.

Chief among strategies are:

  1. Expand the good schools and close down the bad ones
  2. Rely on young teachers coming out of training programs like Teach for America and University of Chicago’s Urban Teacher Education Program
  3. Pay teachers higher, but expect longer days and hours; enforce performance based indicators
  4. Employ technology to bring about rapid personalized response
  5. Focus on curriculum and leadership, rather than on bureaucratic roles
  6. Focus on lagging students first
  7. Replicate and scale these best practices

Some of this is kind of an approach is already incubating in India as I have referred to in my other posts. There are professional school operators bringing in technology and best practices, higher accountability and competitiveness, funding is on the increase, teachers do get paid higher, curriculum development is an exciting place to be and there are movements afoot to enhance the quality of teacher training programs and professionalization through movements similar to Teach for America. In fact, I believe, that 6000 high quality model schools, are being set up in India.

There is also, of course, student education loans (given the extremely low fee structures in public institutions) and heavy advertising by private education that is accompanying these trends (and many more market phenomena expected soon).

I am inherently uncomfortable in this notion of productionizing (if there is such a word) education. The problem is that in India the scale is many many times higher (and the infrastructure – physical and human – is many many times lower) that these models instantly would appeal to planners. There is no doubt that we need systems that ensure that a well-qualified and satisfied workforce comes into place sooner than later, that curriculum would benefit from ICT and advances in pedagogy, that teachers also need better working conditions and incentives, that there should be ways to monitor quality etc.

But education as the systematic production of learning, inherently a concept fraught with dangers that theories such as Connectivism identify, by whatever technique or best practice, seems to me the wrong abstraction. I think there are alternate ways that must be tried and tested at the point where we are at in India, rather than playing copycat to the ideas like the ones in the Forbes article.

Why – because what works elsewhere (if it does) may not be the best or viable methodology for us here – our scale, diversity, history, culture, geo-politics, economics and legacy are all different and unique; because Western systems of education and educational technology are under terrible critique at the moment, which means there are important lessons they are learning post implementation that we must take note of; because there is a lack of organized debate on what else could be; because we have a tendency to be motivated by hype more than substance; and because there is serious research happening worldwide that can change the way we think about education and educational technology.

Concretely, WBTs have failed to live up to expectations in terms of quality and effectiveness, but we embrace them as the mode of national level content development; Virtual Classrooms have ended up being more or less meeting rooms with facilitation tools, but we are investing in national level classrooms; Learning Management Systems are changing the world over to include AI, Web 2.0 and social learning, but we are stuck in the bureaucratic management of learning processes; Gaming and Simulations, as also Virtual World technology, are recognized as game changers, but we would rather not go there; and many other examples. I think we are so preoccupied with reach/access that we have not thought hard enough of the what after reach/access? question, assuming it is all there and is the best that can be.

As a consequence, we will go the way the market predicates, and that market will be large with plenty of innovation. But it may not be a market, in my humble opinion, that will provide the largest social benefit.

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