Sunday, August 30, 2009

Role of Teachers in Distance Education

The Social Science Discussion Forum (SSDF) of the School of Social Science, Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) organized a Panel Discussion on “Role of Teachers in Distance Education: Challenges and Prospects” on 26th August 2009. The Panelists were Prof. J.M. Parekh, Prof. P.R.Ramanujam, Prof. A.S. Narang, and Prof. Swaraj Basu. I attended the same and shared my observations and reflections on the presentations vis-à-vis the developments in the University. This is interesting to note that the topic of the discussion came out of the suggestion made by Prof. Basu to the Convener, Dr. Japgpal Singh on the basis of a University wide appeal sent by Dr. Ranjith of the School of Journalism and New Media Studies to discuss on the challenges before the University due to start of face-to-face classes. While all the Panelist and most of the speakers shared their views that the start of face-to-face is beyond the scope of IGNOU Act, I personally emphasized on the topic as I had written about dual-mode teaching at IGNOU previously in my blog, and the discussion was expected to be on role of teachers in distance education.

As a teacher of distance education as a discipline, I have always considered that teaching is teaching, irrespective of the mode, and urged the teaching community of the University not to consider themselves different as there has always been attempts to marginalize teachers as “academic managers”. The roles of teachers irrespective of the mode of teaching are: Curriculum design and development, Content presentation, Assessment of learner performance (continuous and term-end), Learner support, Research and publication (disciplinary and on learning technology), and Extension service and consultancy. So, it is only in the area of content presentation the method differs in distance education, as it uses media (print, audio, video, multimedia, web-based courses) to deliver teaching. These materials are designed with special care to facilitate learning, and are said to have the qualities of a teacher. In the face-to-face teaching, the teacher only delivers lectures and engage the class in various interactive methods. The other roles being same, there is on reason for always comparing distance education to face-to-face education system. Moreover, we do not compare oranges and apples!

The most important activity as such is preparation of learning materials. Interestingly, in order to quickly develop learning materials, the University adopted in the beginning a mode of taking help from teachers from the face-to-face colleges and universities to develop materials. Thus, without use of the term “Outsource”, it practiced outsourcing of the unit writing tasks. The teacher in the University writes only some units of a course that he/she teaches, and thus is labeled as “Course coordinator”. This is a serious issue, and teachers in the University need to assert themselves of their role as teachers, and develop courses without depending on external course writers. So, as we outsource unit writing, the University has taken it little further to outsource development of programmes to external agencies through MoUs and partnerships! This is marginalization of the teaching function, as there is a growing belief that courses and programmes can be developed elsewhere and can be delivered by an Institute/University without having faculty on its roll. In this connection, the role of Distance Education Council (DEC) needs to be re-looked. Interestingly the DEC is supposed to maintain quality and standards in the Distance Education System in the country; but it has failed to develop a credible system, and it is teachers of IGNOU who go in accreditation teams to different institutions in the country and approves them, without questioning the process adopted by the DEC.

There has been a serious degradation in professional ethics of teachers at IGNOU, as all the programmes and courses are approved by statutory bodies like the School Board, Academic Council, where there is sufficient representation of teachers. There is rarely any instance of dissent to any item in any of these statutory bodies. Thus, all the recent developments are proposed and approved by the teachers in the University. Once these items are approved, people talk about these issues outside in private (non-relevant platforms). It also seems that there is serious lack of integrity of teachers!

Many times, colleagues at IGNOU boast of their quality materials. It is time to have self-reflection. Who certified that our material is good? Even if, it is good, what is the “goodness of the good”? Are we aware of these? IGNOU is one kind of distance education system, and that can’t be a benchmark for others to follow. Most of the time, decisions are taken that are not in tune with distance education practices worldwide, making our system vulnerable to criticism and others looking at us as untouchables. If the recent developments in the University are not addressed seriously, there is every danger that the students of the distance education system shall be at a disadvantage!
I thank the convener of SSDF for organising a Panel discussion on such an important topic. The participation in the meeting was highly satisfactory as over 25 faculty members attended the same. Interestingly, non of the Directors of the 22 Schools of Studies of IGNOU attended the meeting!

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Open Access and Open Educational Resources

On August 20-21, 2009 I attended a symposium organized by my University (IGNOU) on Open Education Resources (OER) for Network-Enabled Education. The meeting was attended by many educational leaders and technology experts who are engaged in developing educational materials using technology in Indian Universities, IITs and other civil society organizations. The meeting was facilitated by Dr. Vijay Kumar of MIT, USA and supported by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. The objective of the meeting was to take follow-up action on the recommendations of the National Knowledge Commission on OER and Distance Education, and prioritize action areas for India in the area of OER. The Experts in the meeting deliberated on various issues surrounding OER in both the days through group work, plenary sessions and listing of ideas and voting for prioritization. While, a large number of issues and solutions were highlighted, the group more or less agreed on the following:

  • There is a need to have a national level research and resource centre for Open Source Software in Education
  • Educational content created through public funds be available freely for adoption and adaptation
  • Metadata standards for OER be developed urgently
  • Certification policies using OER be developed
  • Join international movements on OER

That in a meeting on OER, the issue of certification became a major issue highlights the importance we place in degrees. While there are people who would like to de-link degrees from jobs, there are yet another section, who think that a framework should be in place to help institutions to provide certification to individuals who use OER and learn on their own. While, it would be a good idea to have a national certifying body for various levels and disciplines of education, based on national qualifications framework, the OERs are created for anyone to learn and promote self-learning and life long learning. Thus, it should be left to educational institutions to decide how they would certify individuals who learn on their own.

Moreover, the use of OER should not be tagged with qualifications, as we want OER to promote education, which is becoming costlier day by day due to raising costs of textbooks and other resources. Alongside this, there is a prevalent misconception about OER that it is equal to Open Access. While, Open Access is a necessary pre-condition for OER, it is not a sufficient condition. UNESCO in 2002 defined OER as “the provision of educational resources, enabled by information and communication technologies, for consultation, use and adaptation by a community of users for non-commercial purposes”. Thus, apart from free access the material should be free from Copyright to be adapted by another person of the community. This is also emphasized by the NKC, when it says that knowledge economy would progress through effective use of “quality Open Access (OA) materials and Open Educational Resources (OER) through broadband Internet connectivity”. However, many do not recognize this and consider the availability of video-based course of NPTEL as OER. It is possible to adopt the NPTEL courses by any institution for its academic programmes, but it is not possible to edit these videos and create something new out of existing materials. If the IITs and NPTEL would like to allow this, then probably they have to use something like Kaltura (a video wiki on the web).

The third aspect of OER, which is mis-understood by many, is quality. OER are created by the community and maintained by the community for the community. So, the quality is a concern of the community. But, Experts want to assure the quality of OERs or accredit the quality of OERs. This is not in the interest of OER development. The quality matrix should be developed by the community, and left to individual users (learners/institutions) to define their own quality in the context of the community matrix and use it for their specified purpose. After all quality is fitness for purpose. If we want to define quality upfront in a language developed by an agency or individual, then we are not going to support the development of the OER community. In the WikiEducator (in which I am involved), we make efforts to take decisions based on community consensus.

The technology platform for the OER should accommodate the quality matrix in its metadata scheme, and thus, make the OERs available, accessible and usable as per the user's choice. With Web 2.0 technologies, it is now possible to make OERs available in a variety of formats in an appropriate Creative Commons licensing. However, there is a need to provide incentive to the people engaged in OER creation and development. Those with substantial contribution to creation/authoring of OERs and/or community service as Editors may be credited for their work and due recognition given in terms of credit points in promotion and other forms of awards. This way, we can tap the large base of teachers in the Indian education system. However, I will again emphasize about the need of sustained training of teachers on OER (both concept and technology) to make the OER movement a reality. Let the OER movement grow in India, and national level institutions like IGNOU, NCERT and NIOS come out of the Copyright regime.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The World is Open

Recently Curtis J. Bonk (picture in right), Professor of Instructional Systems Technology at the School of Education at Indiana University sent a copy of his new book entitled “The World is Open: How Web Technology is Revolutionizing Education” (TWiO) to me (as luckily I was interviewed as part of the research work on the theme of the book). I came in contact with this highly inspiring Professor and Thinker personally at the E-Learn 2008 at Las Vegas. On his invitation, I was there to talk about e-Learning in India in the E-Learn Asia day organized during the conference. Prof. Bonk, is Founder and President of SurveyShare and CourseShare. He is also a former educational psychologist and before that a CPA and corporate controller. His master's and doctoral degrees in educational psychology are from the University of Wisconsin. Though I knew about him from his earlier books, I was pleasantly surprised to know that he is alumnus of University of Wisconsin Extension and studied education initially as a distance learner. His new book is a must read for all who believe in the power of technology and open access to education and open learning. I asked him 10 questions about his book to get some more insights, and despite his busy schedule obliged me. I present the interview to the world, here:

Q.1. How did you get the idea for TWiO?
I read Thomas Friedman’s book, the World is Flat, in May 2005, or I should say, I listened to it as an audiobook. A freer and more open education was emerging as a hot topic just as Friedman’s book was swiftly moving to the top of various bestseller lists. When I was asked to keynote the International E-Learning in Vancouver that October, I was trying to make sense of these trends for myself.

I realized that Friedman was informing the world about 10 key forces that had leveled the world from an economic standpoint. He had documented an interesting and quite powerful triple convergence that had never previously been witnessed on this planet. First, there were new economic players competing with the United States and other dominant economic powers. Friedman forced us to consider the global impact of the billions of new economic participants from India, China, and Eastern Bloc countries. This mass of people would stick more than a dent into the American economic engine.

Second, he asked us to consider why these individuals could not do this in the past but could with relatively ease today. Among the obvious answers was the wealth of collaborative technologies that were free or inexpensively found in Web-based environments. With such technologies fostering instantaneous business collaborations across regions of the world, individuals formerly left out of most economic deals could compete with firms in North America. In effect, collaborative technologies had reduced the entry fee to participation and in effect equalized the economic playing field.

The third factor in all this flattening was the increased reliance on horizontal management processes. Traditional multi-level hierarchies had been condensed or flattened entirely. People normally considered to be at the bottom rung of the decision-making chain now had a voice, and, in effect, some sense of power and identity. And workflow patterns were becoming much more collegial and personal than they been decades earlier when I was a corporate controller working in a cube farm.

These were the critical “p” words of business—new players, playing fields, and management processes. In training and education, however, the three “p” words related to piping or technological infrastructure, pages of content or resources found online, and a participatory culture wherein learners contribute to the process and not simply receive information from a teacher or trainer. While the increased bandwidth or infrastructure and trillions of pages of content of the first two ideas is fairly obvious to anyone who has journeyed online, the latter idea is a new learning theory focusing on learner participation and contributions brought about by the Web 2.0. As such, it is still evolving.

Q.2. Tell/Describe in brief the central theme of TWiO.

With initial ideas about this triple convergence of the educational world in place, I went to the conference in Vancouver. When there, as with Friedman’s ten flatteners, I proposed a set of 10 emerging technology trends. At the time, I really did not understand the link to open education; all I saw were 10 cool technologies that fostered learning. Little did I know that the topic of my keynote would intrigue a Microsoft official in the audience to invite me back to the west coast two weeks later to discuss the free and open learning world to a room filled with corporate executives from around their planet. A discussion of free and open software at Microsoft? Yes it happened.

When that was over, I kept presenting on this topic. It was highly popular with all sectors of education from preschools and K-12 schools to government and military settings to corporate training environments to more informal or casual learning situations. In the summer of 2007, I began to write about these trends. And I continued to write for months without much of a break. Gradually ten trends or “openers” coalesced into an easy to recall acronym or first letter mnemonic, WE-ALL-LEARN. These ten openers are noted below.

Ten Openers: (WE-ALL-LEARN)
1.Web Searching in the World of e-Books
2.E-Learning and Blended Learning
3.Availability of Open Source and Free Software
4.Leveraged Resources and OpenCourseWare
5.Learning Object Repositories and Portals
6.Learner Participation in Open Information Communities
7.Electronic Collaboration
8.Alternate Reality Learning
9.Real-Time Mobility and Portability
10.Networks of Personalized Learning

These ten trends formed the basis for my new book, The World Is Open: How Web Technology Is Revolutionizing Education, published in July 2009 by Jossey-Bass, an imprint of Wiley ( Each trend is a chapter. If any one of these had emerged in the 1950s or 1960s, it would been deemed a revolution. With all ten coalescing at the same time, there are monumental shifts occurring before our eyes.

Q.3. What are the significance of "WE-ALL-LEARN"?

The WE-ALL-LEARN framework provides several advantages for leaders. First, it offers them with a tool from which to understand new learning technologies and resources. This perspective can breed confidence as well as offer sanity in the midst of this confusing world we are in. An open world metaphor symbolizes that anyone can learn any from anyone else at any time. Now corporate executives have a tool from which to make long-range planning and forecasting reports. They can also make decisions about where to place valued resources. Training managers might use the stories, ideas, and examples embedded within each opener to justify their e-learning and related training initiatives or strategic plans.

As with Friedman’s The World Is Flat book, ideas from The World Is Open (TWIO) book might be used for retreats and departmental reflections. WE-ALL-LEARN can be a framework from which everyone can understand and discuss. Thoughtful planning takes place instead of more haphazard initiatives. Each of the ten openers make evident the options for learning that exist for everyone. There is no shortage of content or tools for learning. Not every idea, resource, or opener will excite all learners or organizations. Many will, however.

Q.4. How do you describe WE-ALL-LEARN? Is it a framework/ model/ approach/ theory?

It is a framework. Each part represents a different opener. There are ten openers. The acronym helps people remember all ten. As indicated above, these include e-books, open source software, e-learning, blended learning, virtual worlds, mobile learning, collaborative technology, and many other ways to learn. If you tried to remember every announcement about technology, you would go crazy. The WE-ALL-LEARN framework helps avoid insanity.

Q.5. Could you elaborate the concept "fee learning zones" predicted in the book?

I just point out that with all the Web 2.0 technology available today, many educational contents are now free. Some people will package these educational resources up into certificates and courses. Governments will designate free learning zones without advertisements. So much is possible.

Q.6. What according to you is the major challenge/barrier to see TWiO grow?

There are many. Doubt and naysayers is a big one. Many will not believe that the world is open now or at any moment in time in the future. But it is! It certainly is. Right here, right now! They instead see only the problems—issues of copyright, cheating, assessment dilemmas, quality concerns, and so on. I detail 12 key challenges at the end of the book. Some might say that I should have them front and center at the start of the book. I think at the end is fine.

Q.7. How do you see the role of 'teachers' in the new world, where OERs are available in abundant?

Many new roles. Some will be facilitators or course moderators. Some will be counselors. Some will be course or program developers. Others will remain as teachers. And still others will assume multiple roles. We will soon see the rise of the super e-mentor or super e-coach who understands human development or counseling as well as the multiple paths and resources to learn online and also have discipline expertise such as social work, engineering, or art. You need all three skills to be a super e-mentor.

Q.8. What are your message for the educational leaders in the book?

Many here too. Read or explore what is out there. Take some risks with your teaching. Reflect on what works and does not work. Share what you find out or discover. Join professional organizations related to teaching with technology. Much is possible for the informed.

Q.9. What institutional changes are required in the open world?

An institution must become global—its leaders, instructors, students, staff, and alumni, all must begin to think more globally. We have to move away from traditional classrooms to nontraditional. Nontraditional should be the norm. Lifelong learning in an open world means that in a few decades most of your learners will be over age 30 or 40. Many will be over 80 or 90 or even 100. And some teachers may only be 10 years old or less. We have to totally think differently about training and education. There are a million ways to learn and millions more resources to learn with. Why do we restrict students to just 1 or 2 possible paths?

Q.10. Who is the major gainer in the 'Web of Learning'?

The learner. The learner has more ways to learn. More times to learn. More people in which to learn as well as share the results with. The learner has a gigantic vault of learning available every day rain or shine. The world is as open to learn at 6 am as it is at 6 pm.

Of course, educators are freed up too. The life of an educator in an open learning world is more lively, richly creative, and personally satisfying. There is no better time to be a teacher or a learner.

Thank you Curt. I wish your book goes on to become a classic in Education and WE ALL LEARN from it.