Assocham Conference, New Delhi

The Associated Chambers of Commerce held a one day conference called the Assocham National Conference on E-Education & Distance Education – Innovative & Creative models in Higher Education on Dec 8, 2011. This conference was a small gathering of people from different parts of the education sector. I tweeted some of the proceedings with the hashtag #Assocham.

It was an interesting conference from many perspectives. Pavan Agarwal from the Planning Commission, which is in the final stages of formulating the strategy on Education in the 12th five year plan, made some important points. He talked about the need to align the economic structure and imperatives of the country with the educational strategy by putting focus on the main components – agriculture (which accounts for 50%), industry and the services sector. It is important because economic growth vision and educational strategy has to work hand in hand. The new figures for HE sector that are being finalized indicate that our GER is now close to 18% and total HE campus enrolment is set to reach 30 mn students by 2017 (with about 4 mn students currently in distance education over and above the campus estimates). It seems we now have 32,000 colleges and over 600 universities (200 of them in the private sector). While making the case that there can be alternative educational models and systems that will emerge (case in point is Sam Pitroda’s concept of a meta university which is really very close to what we have been discussing worldwide and especially in the MOOCs) in a pluralistic manner, his focus in the 12th plan was in the details. The principle thought was that while the 11th plan focus on strategy, the 12th plan will focus on the details.

Other interesting comments included revisiting the National Mission on Education using ICT which is being re-evaluated and re-budgeted in the 12th plan with many elements of focus – ensuring that the National Knowledge Network reaches even into private institutions, making sure that the 30% of the 32,000 colleges that do not even have a computer are equipped with the necessary infrastructure (Aakash tablets also to be provided), virtual LABs (as an offshoot of the NMEICT-IIT pilots over the last 2 years or so), the need to drum up inexpensive models for high quality content generation, leveraging technology to enhance instruction, creating our own variants of community colleges for short lifecycle education needs and establishing more communication channels including DTH (Direct to Home).

Of these, the most important in my mind was the thought, at least, that we need to attack scale with scale. Pavan talked about shorter lifecycle, affordable new generation colleges that go local – i.e. serve the needs of the local community, while hopefully being globally and nationally aligned. I think this is an encouraging shift to what I call as distributed educational systems that leverage scale to meet scale. The consensus is, however, echoed repeatedly through the conferences I have been to – it is alright to question the dominant paradigm, but don’t think it will be replaced.

There were many examples of best practices (and revolt against the ideas of best practices) bringing me to perceive a newer wave of more articulate ideation. The problems that exist in India are well known and poorly documented (also from lack of accurate data), but people have pieced together their interpretation through these debates and are proposing some interesting solutions There is definitely greater awareness, not only of what technology can do, but also of the options in educational systems that we can leverage. This is indeed heartening.

Of special interest was also Nandita Abraham (from Pearl Academy of Fashion, Delhi) who presented a working implementation of what technology can do (ePortfolio, wiki, blogs, collaborative projects/networks) in a nicely done presentation. When I questioned the scalability of the model, she was candid enough to admit there could be distortions at larger scales. Which is a problem we absolutely need to address, because traditional eLearning and non-eLearning systems have indeed suffered from lack of scalability and extensibility.

Another point. Existing assessment and training providers don’t seem to have envisioned an alternate future yet – it is more of the same focus on LMS, clickers in the classroom, smartboards and ICT. No one is yet talking about Learning Analytics, Semantic Web, virtual worlds, augmented reality, location awareness, connectivism and many of the things that are being discussed. There is very little thought about what happens when we start giving importance to the network beyond simply casting it as “leveraging technology/ICT” – alas, not a phenomenon restricted to the Indian mindset. There are no answers, for example, if one asks them “what’s next?”

What also emerges very clearly (and I will write my experience with the National Board of Accreditation shortly) is that these confabulations are personality driven, honours driven, position driven and not open and distributed. There are false calls to open-ness, but these are reactive rather than proactive.

It has become fashionable to say we want your opinion, but to either not respond to opinion or make summary judgements on opinions that emerge. There is almost a very visible effort to appear open, but no visible effort to create a network proactively. Education system confabulations happen behind closed opaque doors of bureaucracy and academia, both fairly well insulated from mere mortals like you and me.

Unless that changes, education in India will be undemocratic.


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