A must watch - Sashi Tharoor talking about India's story.
Monday, November 30, 2009
It is fascinating to read about Claudette Colvin, who and not Rosa Parks, refused to give up her seat in a bus and started the fight for de-segregation.
I am fascinated because this is not just the lost hero stuff. This also tells us a lot about political communication. One feels almost offended, defrauded, for being told the wrong story for such a long time. One may somewhat understand the political expediency in choosing Rosa Parks ahead of her to do this - she was calmer, more sellable.
That's not the point. The point is that this story should have come out earlier. May be I am expecting Ms Parks to say, when she was interviewed and turned into a celebrity, 'but it was actually Claudette who started all this'.
No Longer a Civil Rights Footnote - Claudette Colvin - NYTimes.com: "From Footnote to Fame in Civil Rights History"
Sunday, November 29, 2009
Saturday, November 28, 2009
Social Learning is the current rage. That's the keyword the Learning Technology providers are clinging on to, the knight in the shining armour who would rescue the stricken companies in the middle of this unending downturn. Learning is invariably social, and even those theorists who would primarily look at the learner as the key driver for all learning activities, can not rule out the role the social context plays. Or, the shared context, as in a classroom, where lot of actual learning happens through interactions between learners or by absorbing another person's point of view of the same learning input. The technology-mediated learning is devoid of this, mostly, because, for all its advantages, e-Learning is mostly a solitary activity.
This leaves it with a crippling limitation. While the e-learning content can be quite engaging, without the social context, learning loses fun, inspiration and ability to inspire thoughts. This may be okay to impart instructions, areas where active thinking and participation by the learners is neither necessary nor expected. Somehow, it works well to impart training on how to perform a defined task, or to prepare for tests. But, this is no good when one is teaching, let's say, strategic thinking, which must start with learners bringing in their own experiences and perspectives on table, and listening to others reflect on those. Surely, a solitary learning experience is no good for these situations.
There are standard ways of creating a social environment of learning in e-learning context. Forum is one of the most used and also one of the most hated words in the discipline. Everyone seems to have a forum, and no one seems to use them. No presentation of an e-learning solution ever concludes without extolling the virtues of a forum, but hardly ever a forum is used. Even outside the e-learning arena, I have seen people getting excited about forums like Yahoo! groups and setting them up with great energy. However, I have hardly ever seen them being used extensively, and more often than not, the forum participation becomes painful with a string of meaningless emails showing up in the inbox all the time.
This is somewhat surprising, because we live in a highly social world. People spend hours cultivating their Linkedin, Facebook and MySpace contacts and lives. In comparison, the reluctance to use the social features of learning environments are surprising. But, one can possibly understand the phenomenon using a metaphor - community parks - why forums don't work.
All over the world, modern town planners set up community parks as the area where people will congregate and conduct their social lives. They set them up at the centre of the town, pedestrianized areas around them and created, mostly, easy 24x7 access. However, in most cases, the community parks became a magnet of drug abuse and prostitution, and drove families and people away from them. In fact, these planned communities had LESS social interaction than the previously unplanned communities, where social interactions happened on side streets rather than community parks. So, by destroying small, integrated neighbourhoods and bringing up planned cities, the urban planners missed the point: social interactions happen in course of normal life, and not outside it.
Same principle applies when one talks about social interaction in learning. It does not happen outside it. I am no believer of forums. I believe that the social features should be contained in the e-learning material itself, and should not reside outside it. I should be able to share my views while in the content, tag it with my favourite YouTube video or bring a friend to chat over it. Besides, people love sharing what they learn, and how they learn, and this must happen not as a separate activity but in the course of learning activity itself. We are already moving from books to e-books, and in no time, we shall arrive at interactive textbooks, with its own dedicated multimedia readers.
Besides, as people learn differently, people participate in the web differently too. The forums, as it exist today, allow only a limited choice of participation. I find it useful to refer to the Social Technographics profile devised by Forrester Research: the six categories of Creators, Critics, Collectors, Joiners, Spectators and Inactives. I do find this relevant to design social learning activities on the web, as it defines how people will prefer to interact and participate. In the context of this discussion, it is actually useful to share the tool here, so that one can build a social technographics of one's learning audience.
So, in summary, bring out Social Learning is more than just adding a forum on the learning environment. It is a whole gamut of tools and activities, available ideally inside the learning content itself. This is indeed the future space for e-learning, but getting there will take more than just tweaking what we have today. In fact, this will need a paradigm shift and a break with the present, which may mean emergence of new players and undermining of some of the current leaders in the industry, who just do not seem to get the concept.
Friday, November 27, 2009
Thursday, November 26, 2009
Growing up in Pre-liberalization India, I spent my school days with a set of rather simple goals: A job in the Government. A marriage, arranged, with a girl from a suitable family. And, bringing up kids to do exactly the same. In fact, these goals were so simple and obvious that it was stupid not to go for it. The recipe was very straightforward too: Study hard. Which meant following the teachers and memorizing the books, and write predictable answers to predictable questions.
But, then, the rules changed. I discovered computers when a few early enthusiasts brought an early PC, which only had a green flickering screen and text messages on its screen, for a day’s display in our college library. I was fascinated by how they could write a few lines of code to turn the screen into a digital clock. I must admit that since I had not seen a digital watch before, that seemed like a magic.
This, indeed, did the trick of breaking down my utterly predictable path of life. The layers of time-bound application procedure for a Government job, together with scores of multiple-choice laden competitive examinations, pointless group discussions and interviews seemed too daunting. Suddenly, there was this alternative possibility, exciting and full of adventure, of living a different life. To turn time digital, metaphorically speaking.
When I proposed to my father that I would devote a few extra hours every morning learning computers while doing day studies for a Masters in Economics, he was not exactly sure. But, he funded it regardless – this was the first time in my life I volunteered to take on any extra work.
It was a sense of purpose, after all, which kept me interested. The future, no longer predictable, seemed to be somewhat visible. Not that I learnt anything exciting: It was mostly business programming using COBOL. However, I enjoyed something on the side: Setting up computer networks and managing them using Unix. This did not matter for the exams we had to write, but this got me hooked. Most of my batchmates ended up in large companies doing data processing, and I ended up in a small, struggling, start-up as a result. One that designed and sold e-mail services to companies, and was the first one to do so in India. It was a world as far apart as possible from the predictability of a government job, or the money I could earn as a stockbroker [I flirted with that possibility too, briefly]; but it was more exciting than anything else I could imagine.
Like, countless hours of debating with senior executives why email could be better than fax. In one occasion, I was asked to draw a diagram comparing how email is sent vis-à-vis postal mail! The pace of technological change was hard to keep up with, and often, half of my working time used to go to learn new ways of doing things. It was exciting to see things change that fast. Until, one day, I had a second déjà vu moment – not unlike my first encounter with the Digital Clock – when, someone, in a seminar on Data Communication, dialled a number in Singapore and logged into a Bulletin Board, which he called the Internet.
Internet, then, was still like a Bulletin Board, where one needed to write commands to get things done. But, it had many things, including the email. Free. We were told that the government was planning to bring it to India. I almost instantly knew that my days of implementing email services were numbered.
When Internet eventually arrived in India, about 18 months later in 1995, I have already changed my job. Instead of competing with the Internet, which was a non-starter, I decided to join a training organization, which took the advantage of Internet boom and wanted to train Indian graduates to do programming. The job appealed to me for obvious reasons – I was supposed to preach to other people what I have already done in my own life. I brought a lot of passion to the job. My sales pitch was my autobiography. The connection was immediate, and I did very well.
In fact, too well, perhaps. I got carried away. I was arrogant to think I learnt it all. By 1998, I was dreaming of web-based classrooms. At work, where we only used trainer-led classes and some videos, things seemed backward. Money was plentiful then. I met an entrepreneur who recently returned from the States and was full of stories about the venture capital industry there. He liked my idea of web-based classrooms. I was full of confidence and bored with the day job. Again, I took a leap of faith, much to the disdain of my family, and walked out of the job just when I was looking, first time in my life, settled.
It ended badly. I was naïve commercially. While we got good clients and projects at hand, I did not fend off my rights with the right sort of contract. The financiers, looking at the crumbling share markets in the States, were getting nervous: They wanted to close in and sale the company before the Indian market crumbled too. I had very little to stop them from doing that. Worse, I did not even have the courage to fight. I meekly gave away all that I worked for, and left.
My decision to leave India was prompted by this failure. This is when the predictable world completely disappeared. I did not know what to do exactly. My ex-employers, a big training company, was generous: They made an offer to take me back and then allowed me to work more or less independently in extending their IT training business internationally. It seemed God-sent, as it allowed me to travel, earn good money as well as work on projects independently. So, I ended up doing this over next four years.
Starting 2000, as I left India, I was working a lot less with technology and more with commercial realities of International Business: regulatory environments, contracts, Export and Import, and nuances of cross-culture. As business expanded and I travelled to new countries, I was amazed to discover how people look differently at the same realities just because they come from different cultures. I started to believe that travel is the best form of education one can get. Every new day brought new learning, not unlike the very first days of my career and my initial fascination with TCP/IP.
So, by 2004, I wanted to see the world. When I left the job I was doing well in, no one was surprised. I was leaving for Britain as a High Skilled Migrant, which meant coming over without a job in hand. It was risky, and I was not that young anymore. My supervisor at work, who was a long-time mentor, wished me luck – said she hoped that I should find my purpose, finally. My best friend gave me a tube map, and a relative arranged a stay in a Sikh Gurudwara.
So, by July 2004, I had started living a different life. The transition from being a rich man in a poor country – I indeed enjoyed my expat life – to a poor man in a rich country was difficult. I was soon working in a warehouse, shifting materials, and queuing up for free food at the Gurudwara twice a day. It was difficult while it lasted. However, looking back, it seemed the best thing I had ever done. It took away the pretensions I grew up with, all the casteist disregard I had for manual work. If education needs to start with humility, this was my crash course in it.
Since then, I have built a career selling e-learning services to companies and public organizations. I wanted to learn the trade and studied marketing formally. My understanding of cultural differences developed – particularly from the numerous negotiations I had to engage into, with colleagues, customers and suppliers. When I was invited to join the board of my current employers, I took it as a learning opportunity: Sure enough, I was soon learning as much about myself as about others. I had a chance to observe different leadership styles, and contrast my mostly Asian clients and mostly European and North American colleagues. I felt I had a deeper, richer perspective on human behaviour and leadership, which would not have happened if I did not choose to travel.
So, that, in summary, is the story of my journey. One that was built around Globalisation in a sense. The computers wrecked my well-set future and the Internet built an alternative one. I chose to travel, taking advantage of the increasing business links among countries. And, since the, I have building a career on the platform of globalisation of knowledge and skills. This has been exciting so far. I am looking forward to the rest of it.
Monday, November 23, 2009
Sunday, November 22, 2009
Friday, November 20, 2009
For all the myths about mechanical industrial progress, the leadership that England attained in the Nineteenth century, or what United States achieved in the Twentieth, did not come about purely through the tweaks of the government policy. It was not even pure greed of the entrepreneurs, coupled with an advantageous Geo-political condition and military muscle, that brought about a sustained change in the society. The transformation needed intellectual leadership, experimentation and a commitment to better the lives of all countrymen by a few. India, while it is making great strides in creating wealth for those in the city, still lacks those leaders in its public life.
Most of all, Indian education needs to be transformed. This is a most urgent need, but so far the efforts are mostly misplaced. All the progress in education that has taken place in India over last two decades was about the government abdicating its responsibilities altogether, and the private sector, governed by pure profit motive, expanding the supply of education at all levels, using tried and tested money-spinning formula. The 'big' thing that the government may have done in education recently is to make tentative attempts to open doors for the foreign universities, which by itself is nothing and point to the collective dementia we are suffering from. 'Reforming Education' is not about getting foreign universities, which will end up being mostly middle tier colleges, open India campuses: This should be about rethinking about our future as a country and restarting our education system.
This is needed because our education system have not moved forward significantly since Macaulay's days, and we are still peddling the same, prescriptive, narrow formula of school education more than sixty years we have become independent. We have built a narrow tertiary education system and an education mindset garnered to get people a 'Job'. The whole system of thinking is very narrow, very colonial and completely out of sync with the modern world, which is all about creating all-round individual competencies and thriving as a free agent nation.
Besides, this leads to such terrible waste of our abilities as a nation. While the rest of the world has moved on, our policy-makers and education entrepreneurs somehow decided that most Indians are a somewhat inferior breed and all they can think about is a 'Job'. Hence, they are variably creating a narrow prescription about what can get them a degree/diploma through the shortest possible route, and the businessmen are skimming the market with various job-linked education offers. This leads to too many people pursuing studies on areas they neither love nor have a future in, ending up as a clerk/administrator of some sort. Besides, because investment in these kind of education businesses is so attractive, it takes away all the money and leaves little for any kind of education provision outside the obvious.
For example, one would expect a great deal of demand of environment related studies in India, given that we are a developing country and we must put an even greater premium on our fragile environment in order to keep the development momentum. However, education provisions in this area remains few and far between. Similarly, in education - don't we need a great number of teachers if we have to move forward - or in health care, the options are limited and often low quality. While every entrepreneur worth his salt opening management and engineering schools, all the other areas, including the lucrative ones like media studies, design and law have taken a backseat.
Indeed, the government regulation has a role to play. For a private school, the government decides the number of seats and how much one can charge - effectively limiting the revenue potential through a bureaucratic and cumbersome process. All the entrepreneur has to make do with is 25% of the allotted seats, which he can auction at any price. The system defies common sense and has permanently created a black market for education in India, often drawing black money, corruption and various other kinds of compromises. The system allows no way of making money straight - and only encourages men of property, who needs to find a respectable use of their property rather than leaving it fallow at times like this, to enter into the business of education. However, the government, as in any other country, is terrible bad at letting things go, and education is one area where they are messing up big time.
This is indeed not an environment where you can educate and bring up public intellectuals. In fact, it is a challenge to find a small slot in the schedule of an engineering and management school to be dedicated to community thinking. One of my ideas was to offer an International Internship to these students, the only twist being that I take them away to work in impoverished countries as volunteers. From the initial conversations I had with a few business schools, it does not seem to fly - everyone wants to come to Europe and work for big name brands.
I am still hopeful that I can create a leadership school, as a not-for-profit entity, with the objective of creating public leaders. I am at a stage when I need to think about how to structure this initiative and how to find money to set this up, but I am also worried whether there will be any takers for a programme of this kind. Because, leadership surely sounds great, but one may tend to equate the end of course outcome with becoming a CEO, at least a manager, and not with spending an year unpaid teaching small kids in Cambodia. This is indeed the challenge, but, as I said, more I think of it, I feel this is what I should spend time doing. This is a bit foolhardy and way out of line, but I have come to realize that I quite enjoy doing these foolish things.
Thursday, November 19, 2009
Wednesday, November 18, 2009
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