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Education unchained?

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Some time ago, I blogged about my idea of an education system that separated exams from learning and thereby allowed students to have more liberty in choosing how to get the classroom component of their education while earning their desired qualification. Today I learnt of MIT’s new fully automated course on circuits and electronics. MIT have run the open courseware project for a while now, but it was more of a reference point, where people could sample the lecture notes that MIT uses, but do not get credit for reading the notes or completing the exercises. This course however, offers a certificate for completion, which means that any person, anywhere in the world can now gain an MIT recognition of his/her skills from the comfort of their home.

Arguably, if this course gets a large enough market, someone may start a coaching class to help students understand the material. That would in essence be the separation of the classroom teaching component of education from the exam component, akin to what my old post suggested. Maybe those bright sparks at MIT were reading my blog, though I have my doubts about that.

A fully automated course is nevertheless something noteworthy. I am especially interested in how they handled the lab component. Do they purely use circuit simulators? do they plan to extend the idea in the future where there are accredited venues where students can go to complete the labs? Will the exams be purely multiple choice questions or have they devised a way to have computers grade exam papers? I have enrolled for it, so hopefully sometime in June (when the course ends), I will be able to proudly claim to have a certificate from MIT and also be able to report on my experiences.

While this new development has me excited about the direction education can take in this century,  I can think of a few undesirable implications of rolling out multiple courses or entire degrees through this avenue. Someday soon, I will put those thoughts down too.

Written by clueso

February 14, 2012 at 8:15 am

Privatised education vs. Mobile Telephony

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Proponents of the free market and private profit driven schools and universities often cite mobile telephony as an example of how markets cost effectively produce high quality service. While the success of private enterprise is undeniably true for mobile telephony, I am a bit sceptical about how well it will translate to a market of privatised education.

My first doubt emerges after considering the components required to service these two markets. Mobile telephony is extremely automated. When someone makes a call or sends a text message, the next human contact in that transaction will probably be the recipient. Everything in between is done by computers/electronics, with no qualms about working 24/7, no need of pay or vacations and who can be replaced, with no serious financial or legal consequences, in 5 minutes if things go wrong. Education on the other hand, relies primarily on smart, driven human beings to perform the role of good teachers. While technology is making inroads, the primary drivers are still humans who are disproportionately responsible (compared to technology) for the success or failure of the system. Juxtaposed with computers, humans are poor workers. They have to be paid, become less productive with long hours, tend to be on the lookout for better career options, demand vacations etc. Consequently it is more expensive and risky to hire and retain them and no amount of privatisation of education will be able to match the success of mobile telephony in lowering costs while maintaining standards.

A second doubt arises from what economists call the price elasticity of demand (PED) which is simply the change in demand of a particular product/service per unit change in its price. Many factors affect PED but a crucial one is the availability of substitutes. In this light, as long as schools remain tied to physical infrastucture, a school building for instance, mobile telephony will always have a higher PED than education. Being in direct competition with other communication methods such as fixed line telephony, instant messaging and email, mobile companies are aware that if prices go up beyond a certain threshold, customers can and will shift to other communication technologies without batting an eyelid. It would take extraordinary cartel building skills to raise prices of ALL forms of communication and hence this will probably never happen.

On the other hand, it is extremely difficult to switch schools. The children attending school will not like to leave old friends behind. The new school may not have the sports/music facilities the child enjoys using. It may be inconvenient to travel to. The school timings may not match work schedules very well. Parents may find part of the curriculum distasteful. The ties to physical infrastructure and the presence of human relationships result in a significantly lower PED for schools and parents may be willing to put up with higher prices/poor service just to avoid these complications. The inability or lack of desire to change will mean that the market will never be as efficient as that for mobile telephony.

The barrier to entry for education is also significantly higher than mobile telephony, again due its physical nature. A “good” school needs a building, maybe some sports fields, possibly computers and science labs. Some music and arts facilities will be nice. “Good” teachers have to be found and recruited. Mobile operators may have to bid for air spectrum and put up some mobile towers and control centres, which is the only physical infrastructure. In today’s world, where the trend is towards separate infrastructure management and service provision, mobile operators may be able to lease air spectrum and physical assets from an infrastructure provider, while schools cannot really share classrooms very efficiently. It is therefore much easier for a new mobile operator to enter an inefficient market than it is for a new school to do so. Obviously this results in a more efficient mobile telephony market.

While I think the example of mobile telephony to promote the virtues of a free market in education is unsuitable, it is hard to debate that a shift to privately run, profit driven schools will not lead to an improvement in standards compared to schools under government control with tightly prescribed rules. Profit driven schools will accomplish what most profit driven frameworks do; high inequality with an average level better than the idealistic scenarios. It would be good to have schools run as charities or non profit organisations, so that they can maintain comparatively lower running costs and maybe allocate more funds for deserving and needy students. Tight government control with rules trickling down from some education minister to a classroom hundreds of miles away does not inspire confidence at all.

Written by clueso

March 19, 2011 at 1:14 am

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Is greed good?

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Here is an NY Times article that describes the change in India since the liberalisation in the 1990s.

No one who remembers the India from the late 1980s will need the NY times or any other media to tell them that things have improved for a large section of society. This change is primarily driven by greed. Someone’s greed to have more money, more power, more fame or simply more contentment, which drives them to create companies, technologies, schools and charities that serve as conduits for benefits to trickle around to other people in society. Yet it is taken for granted and often, even vilified.

Michel Douglas is often quoted as saying “Greed is good” in the movie “Wall Street”. This quote has been used time and again to show the capitalist system to be made of immoral, money grabbing thugs. However, that quote is incomplete. The complete line is “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.”, and the additional words make all the difference.

The difference they make is that the “greed” is not material greed any more, but is whatever that makes the practitioner feel good about themselves. Someone like Patrick Awuah will be “greedy” to setup an first rate educational facility in Africa and produce as many good graduates as he can. This makes him feel good because he is contributing to his home nation’s development and ensuring his children don’t lose touch with their roots. To satisfy his “greed”, he enlists people in the USA for financial aid. The Americans involved are also “greedy”, because they can save on their tax, and they too get the feel-good factor of furthering a noble cause.

I use the word “greed” in quotation marks, because it shows that efforts are driven by people wanting more of something, even if that something may not be material gain. We would do good to create an environment where people are allowed to pursue their “greed” with minimum hindrance. It may be the most elegant solution to a lot of our problems.


Update: I had an opportunity to watch “Wall Street” again and realised that this post too missed out most of Gekko’s speech in the movie. A complete transcript can be found here. It is like a 3-5 minutes lesson in the fundamentals of economics.

Written by clueso

January 23, 2011 at 1:42 am

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Who should pay for my education?

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The Browne review has been drawing a lot of attention in the UK recently, with a lot of students protesting against fees that will burden them with debt. Having read the student funding section of the report, I disagree with the whole student-burdened-with-debt idea here is why.

As consumers, everyone would like a free education. Not to mention free health care. And while we are on the topic, maybe a free cleaner and cook as well.

There is only one problem with free stuff. In most cases, it does not exist. If not the consumer, then someone else, somewhere is paying for the free stuff. In turn this means that this particular consumer is paying for others consumption. The options are to fund services from taxes or prices. In my economically untrained opinion, prices are better, but that discussion is for some other time.

What should a good funding scheme for education encompass? There is quite a lot, but primarily it should allow any student, irrespective of circumstances, to study any course he like. Secondly, it should safeguard universities, preferably from the vagaries of government policies. Thirdly, the financial cost should have a low impact on the students’ career choice. Finally, if for some reason the student has had a limited income for most of his life, he should not have to scramble in his last few working years trying to earn enough to pay back any loans.

The recent Browne review, which put forth a new funding scheme for UK universities achieves all these objectives. The student chooses the course they would like to follow and the government pays their course fees upfront to the university. Once they graduate and get an income above £21000, they pay a fixed percentage (9%) of the income above £21000 every year towards repaying the government. If their income falls below the threshold, they stop paying and the remainder of the loan is written off after 30 years.

This system gives the universities the money they need. The student does not have to commit massive amounts of money upfront and does not really have to tailor their careers around the obligation of repaying their loans. If, due to circumstance or career choice, they cannot repay their debt, it is simply written off.

I cannot think how this system is different from the purportedly “free” education. In addition, it has the advantage of most people paying only for what they consume themselves without having to shoulder someone else’s bills. This scheme is a good idea, as long as the government keeps income taxes low. They should not accept this system and raise income taxes. That is plain sneaky.

Written by clueso

November 30, 2010 at 12:11 am

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Learning the difficult way.

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An ancient relic of the computing age, the BBC microcomputer is making a comeback in a retro programming class. The idea being that it will help students understand computers better.

I applaud this decision. Students who are preparing for a programming career must spend some time working with computers that are decidedly not user friendly. Let me rephrase that, they ought to spend some time in user friendless hell, where no GUI exists, all commands are a mile long and have to typed out from memory. Where the error messages are cryptic and you are held to account for the tiniest error.

User friendly operating systems become friendly by abstracting a lot of the processes required to get any task done. While this may be ok for anyone who uses the computer as a tool to get their job done, it may not be the best idea for those whose job it is to know how the things work inside out. Obviously, it will be regressive to say that all GUIs should be scrapped, but spending some time working on extremely constrained and unfriendly computer systems can only be a good thing. It is a bit like working out with weights, not really necessary and a quite a bit of trouble, but beneficial in the long run.

May this initiative last long and thrive

Written by clueso

August 25, 2010 at 10:46 pm

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Separating exams and learning.

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The UN has recently launched an online university named University of the people which aims to provide quality education at low (at least not too high) prices to anyone in the world who wishes to study. It is basically a university dealing with long distance education, with the difference being in the use of technology to make the learning completely internet based and more peer-to-peer rather than simply reading material based and completely internet based.

Such internet based universities are good news because they make access to education easier and cheaper, thereby increasing the number of people who can benefit from it. The structure of the university though prompts one to think that it is merely a translation of a bricks-and-mortar university into a virtual world and that maybe they could have done a tad bit more to improve their reach.

Whether one likes it or not, it is a fact of the world that in education, exams are more valued than the actual learning process. Consider a highly reputed university which we will call “A”. A student who gets admitted into university “A”, he really benefits from that attendance only if he manages to pass the exams and get the piece of paper that is his degree. If he had not passed the exams, then he might as well not have got admitted in the first place. For an external observer judging the student’s capabilities, it does not matter whether the student attended classes or completed assignments as long as he cleared the exams necessary for the degree. Therefore the exams are valued more than the learning process.

Similarly, for an external observer, there is no difference between a student who actually attended university “A” and got a degree and another who did not attend university “A” but nevertheless has the ability to pass the exams involved (maybe with a reasonable score). Restricting the exams to only those students admitted to Univ. “A” therefore forces some people to take great pains to attend that university or forces others to forego that opportunity and lose out on a great qualification just because circumstances do not permit them to attend.

That may be OK for traditional universities since their priority is to educate people from a certain country/state/region first and do it well. A university aimed at a global audience, with the aim of making access to education more democratic can benefit from a slightly different game plan, namely that of separating the teaching and the exams.

Consider University “A” again. If the people in charge of University “A” syllabus and exams sit down and think about it, they will probably be able to quantify some skills that each exams will test, such as “the student will be able to add two numbers” or “the student will be able to calculate permitted energy levels in a quantum well”. Suppose they released this information to the world and decided that for a fee, they will allow anyone who thinks they are capable to take the exams for that particular course/degree. The student can choose to attend “A”, or pay for long distance study material from University “A”, or decide to study at their local university and then answer the exams with the knowledge/skills gained.

There are many advantages of decoupling the learning and exams in this way. Firstly the financial commitment is reduced from having to pay for the whole course to just paying for the exams. Secondly, there is no need for anyone to immigrate to a new country/city/region as they can just as well study close to home and maybe travel simply to give the exams. Finally, it allows people to translate non-classroom based knowledge to a qualification which could benefit their careers.

The teaching part can easily be taken care of public/private institutions who will give it all they have to improve the quality of their lessons and exercises because their survival depends on it. The actual university on the other hand will be freed of some of its teaching load which would allow it to focus on designing good quality exams/assignments and syllabi.

This model is not really a new invention and has been running quite successfully in the arena of computer software certifications. The method works, so anybody interested in democratising education should not ignore it.

Written by clueso

June 17, 2009 at 11:43 pm

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Free textbooks for all!

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It was an annual routine when I was in school. At the beginning of school term, all children and parents would go on a high alert and stake out the nearest shops that sold the school textbooks. There were some who were fortunate enough to get some off people they knew in the classes above them, but the rest had to go stalking like a lion does a deer and for quite a while we all the same share of unsuccessful hunts. If someone got a textbook in any shop, news spread like wildfire and probably half an hour later, the status quo of everyone being out of stock was restored.

Obviously this was happening because the government had the bright idea of monitoring the number of students enrolled in different classes across the state and then ordering the exact number of textbooks so that everyone can get one for a decent price. Noble intentions, I concede, but a project of such huge magnitude that there were great chances of failure, which usually materialised.

The first signs of things improving when the internet came along was when the NCERT textbooks appeared online for people to download and use. This was a wise move by the NCERT but the state boards(except maybe the Tamil Nadu and Karnataka boards), which still set the curriculum for a majority of children in the country are lagging behind. Also, while the availability of the textbooks online may ease the burden for those who have access to the internet, those without access to a computer still have to stalk the local booksellers and hope to get lucky. I am also not sure if NCERT is willing to allow local businesses to print and sell their books, something which will not only create a faster response to the local shortages but will create more local jobs, eliminate the need to transport and in general help the environment and the local economy.

The next step in the right comes from an organisation which calls itself the FHSST or the “Free high school science texts”. I read about this movement and went exploring their website. These guys are like the linux of textbooks. they create science textbooks through a large collaborative approach. These texts are then made available in the digital format to whoever that wants to use them. It could be students who use it for classwork, local businesses who decide to print copies to fill the shortage in the market or teachers from a different place who tailor it to their own syllabus.

The FHSST movement is currently tailored to the South African syllabus, but it could be easily duplicated for the Indian education scene, as the whole effort in setting up the collaborative infrastructure has already been done and tested. It would be a good idea to make sections of the textbook as school projects, with the students in the senior classes writing for the textbooks of the junior classes. I am sure there will be students who will react with great enthusiasm, especially if they are granted some sort of recognition in terms of their names mentioned in the credits or something. It will serve the purpose of creating the textbooks as well as giving the students some experience in formal textbook writing, a skill which will be useful in their future careers. When the books are made easily available for people to freely examine, use, print and sell, they will go down the same kind of route that all the Linux has, with quality improving steadily and whole load of businesses spawning from the growing body of knowledge.

Wouldn’t that movement be a worthy accompaniment to the open source software one?

Written by clueso

October 6, 2008 at 11:48 pm

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