Open Education – Free Content for All

Mindshift Article

The link above is to a superb collection of the best that’s currently available when it comes to ‘free’ online material for learning. It includes a number of links to other webpages that compile details of free content ‘out there’. Beyond the obvious, MIT, Khan Academy or Curriki there were many here that I wasn’t aware of.

It also seemed clear to me reading this article and others recently that this is an area that’s really heating up with many start-up internet companies also getting in to the realm of free content for education (their business models look at various other ways to make their money rather than charging for the content).

If I was in the business of publishing text books or paid online content this wealth of material being made free of charge would have me decidedly uncomfortable. However, sitting on the other side of the fence I am filled with optimism to see what’s transpiring. Not only does it offer so much scope for learners to take ownership of their own lifelong learning without being held back as much by financial limitations (getting online still costs, of course!), but also, as I’ve written in a couple of articles recently I see it changing the perspectives fundamentally about how teachers perceive themselves, their roles and how they best add value to students as learners. This could lead to enormous positive strides in education.

Become a Microlender

I came across this website by chance – an imaginative and unique idea that enables a new kind of charitable giving that is creative, empowering and meaningful.

Check it out:

Kiva – Loans That Change Lives

Why Blog?

I came across this great, short piece of writing from Mindshift that perfectly summed up, for me, why this blog is now approaching 500 pieces of writing.

There is something about the written medium. It challenges you, it tests the depth and relevance of your thinking. As you write you know that what you put ‘out there’ can be dissected, analysed and judged in a way the spoken word rarely is.

Once in a while I speak at a conference and a video turns up later on youtube. This is a new phenomenon, but in India and ‘around here’ the likelihood that anyone will wait long enough for the full video to download is very limited (I know my limitations!). However, I know that what I write will stay ‘out there’ for ever (I have never gone back and deleted anything after publication). That sense of permanence (I recently saw an article about someone famous and high profile who deleted a tweat after 30 seconds, but already enough people had re-tweeted it so it could not be erased!) gives an added sense of meaningfulness to writing.

Mindshift Piece on Writing

There is something so fulfilling and rewarding about writing, that I wish every one of our students should experience it.

Cause for Concern on the Roads

Over the last 3-4 months I’ve started noticing something very worrying on the roads of Delhi and NCR.

This is that more and more vehicles, especially taxis, are sporting new ‘hardware’ on front and back – I’m referring to what is known in England as ‘cattle bars’, elsewhere as ‘bull bars’ (and in Australia as ‘Roo bars’. These have their origins in rural and countryside areas of those countries where the risk of a collision with a large wild animal is a real, dangerous possibility.

However, there’s the problem. In an urban environment where vehicles keep coming in contact with each other on a regular basis they are being used to serve a different purpose. Just last week my right front bumper acquired a new scar with an auto rickshaw nipping through a gap that didn’t exist at a roundabout. As metal scraped metal I screamed, but was just met with a shrug as he whizzed away.

Now, these taxi owners think they’re very clever. They know they employ people who essentially cannot drive and have no sense of ‘road etiquette’. Now, in future, when a taxi’s cattle bar comes in contact with my car it will be a completely one-sided battle. His steel bar will perforate and smash my car, while the taxi’s bodywork will remain untouched. Now, expect taxi drivers to drive even more irresponsibly.

However, it’s not my bodywork that I fear for – it’s pedestrians.

Wikipedia – Bullbars with Links

When a sedan car hits a pedestrian in urban conditions at modest speed, the pedestrian usually rolls on to the bonnet of the car, sometimes over the roof. The net effect is that the full impact of the collision is dissipated and the person suffers minimal or modest injuries. However, as soon as the car has one or more cattle bars the whole equation changes. The results will be that the person won’t ‘roll’, but instead will incur far worse injuries and far more often death.

The reality is that these bars are a menace. If the law in the country doesn’t already have provisions to protect pedestrians then this is a situation to be addressed urgently.

At the same time, I want to put in a plea to ban dangerous ornamentation on the hoods of cars, including flags, spikes etc. Let’s not treat this as something we don’t need to care about because pedestrians tend to be poorer people from lower social strata, while the rich don’t ever walk anywhere, cocooned within their killing machines. Are we that heartless?

The Knowing – Doing Gap

“Well, I taught them it – it’s not my fault if they don’t know it” is a phrase that many teachers have caught themselves expressing at some time or another, if they’re ready to admit it!

However, how often do the same teachers question themselves about the failure of so much of the learning they are exposed to as professional development to lead to actual behavioural changes and consistent new approaches to their teaching methodology. The reality is that, especially in a teacher centric, content heavy learning environment, it takes more than just exposure for a learner to make new knowledge their own and use it to manifest new bahaviours/ actions.

I’m not sure what the source was, but well remember a quote on the subject of professional training – “Training without coaching is just entertainment”. Here in India, the fact is that that top quality professional training is really quite costly. So, to see it lead to little or no real change is probably the best explanation we can find for why so many schools really train their professional educators so little. However, I think on both the teacher and management side there are some other reasons too;

  1. This person’s been a teacher for over 3 years – there’s little he/ she needs to know, so training would be a luxurious waste apart from a refresher from time to time,
  2. We’re really very busy right now, so don’t have time for training,
  3. This teacher’s got a masters degree in his/ her subject and his/ her students got good board results over the last 3 years, so training would be a waste of time.

Most of these reasons stem from a deep-seated paradigm that sees the body of content to be conveyed from teacher to student as the most important aspect of teaching. Therefore, many teachers and their leaders see training focused upon pedagogy, classroom methodology etc as peripheral.

If, as educational leaders, we are to get ‘more bang for our bucks’ when it comes to training and see the overall reform we want to see in education (coupled with consistent standards of excellence in every classroom), then we have to be willing to address the issues of how we facilitate the transfer of teachers’ learning in to the classroom.

I was therefore interested to see this article, the first of a series for ASCD by Dr Glenda Horner. It gives a nice idea for aiding learning transference in to the classroom:

ASCD Blog Post

I believe there are many other things we can and need to do. Here are just a few of my ideas, based on experience;

  1. Avoid recognition systems that reward teachers on the basis of qualifications obtained and/ or length of service alone,
  2. Don’t rush to give new teachers full tenure that implies their learning is ‘complete’ and that they are ‘the finished article’. Instead, there can be varying levels of mastery to be recognized, based upon actual performance and skill levels in the classroom, leading eventually to full tenure,
  3. When possible, training programmes built with projects etc. built in, held on dates spread over time with an expectation that participants will take learning back to their classrooms, do something with it, reflect and come back to share their reflections, learning and further plans,
  4. Embedded ‘trainers’ alongside teachers. These should ideally be very high caliber teachers, trustworthy, non-political and professional with high levels of teaching mastery who for a couple of years stop teaching or reduce teaching load significantly to work alongside teachers in their own classrooms to embed the learning from training programmes they have undergone. I see this being particularly useful where all staff have been or are going through a structured programme together to bring ‘whole school’ change.

If we are to have teachers who effectively address children’s knowing – doing gaps, then we have to create the right climate and environment to address these issues with teachers.

Seven Billion and Counting

My thanks to Jen Scarlott, the New York based writer for Sanctuary Asia for sharing this piece from the New Yorker about the new population growth landmark that will be hit at the end of this month:

New Yorker Article on Population Growth

As the article mentions, the declaration that the 7 billionth inhabitant on earth will appear on 31st October is somewhat arbitrary and the hype that will follow when this ‘honour’ is placed on a particular child somewhere will be even more so, nevertheless it is cause to stop and reflect. Malthus may have been ‘off’ on many of his projections, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a limit somewhere in the earth’s capacity to sustain human population. What’s worrying is that there’s a strong possibility that the optimum number will get exceeded before ‘nature’ brings about some counter-balancing.

As modern 21st century people we’re not very comfortable with Mother Earth’s ‘counter-balancing’ inclinations. In fact, mankind almost sees it as an essential battle to defy such natural and ecological balancing. What also concerns me is that as people, we each play our individual part in contributing to the issues and problems – excessive waste, failure to conserve water, climate changing destructive behaviours etc. However, the solutions cannot lie individually, but collectively.

I am increasingly coming to the view that the focus for ‘solutions’ has to be as much about creative, ingenious ‘new’ inventions and methods, rather than the traditional strong focus in the last 20-30 years on what must be prevented, limited or confined. There will never really be a great inspiration for society in stopping or limiting something.

Living here in a developing country it is worrying at times to see the speed with which people consciously and unconsciously rush towards mimicking and repeating the faulty consumption habits and patterns of the existing developed countries, rather than finding new more productive ways to be. If even a significant minority of the upwardly mobile Indian and Chinese populations were to consume and live in the ways that seem to appeal most to them then the environmental negative impact is going to be vast (and enormous in its destructive capacity). Just by way of example – I get disturbed to see the ways in which ‘new’ architecture pays such little regard to environmental and climatic conditions – instead figuring that high energy use solutions will be used to compensate (architects tend to get held more responsible for the one-off capital expenditure costs, reducing their incentive to bring in measures that reduce longer term ongoing running costs).

My gut instinct tells me that 7 billion and even maybe 8 billion humans don’t have to be a problem. However, I’m certain that it will be a problem if it continues to be based upon lives lived and aspirations based upon existing faulty models. We need to collectively work on creative, sustainable and high quality living models that are in harmony with local environments. This requires levels of public discourse, debate and collaboration that can’t be left to politicians (their perspectives cannot stretch beyond re-election for their next term).

For those of us in education it requires that we set examples through our own practices, open children’s minds to the issues and arm them with the skills to unleash their creativity, imagination and collaborative skills to play their part in creating a world that can accommodate all these people with justice.

Innovative Focus on Environmental Impact of Packaging

I love the levels of ingenuity and creativity that are brought to bear to bring about paradigm shifts in areas where environmental damage is happening at unacceptable levels.

Fast Company Article – Ken Dumps Barbie

The amount of packaging used for children’s toys has long appeared unacceptable to me. That got me thinking about other products and areas where there is waste. One area that troubles me is when I buy books and other goods from Now, don’t get me wrong. I love this company for their slick professionalism, speed of execution and efficient delivery within an Indian delivery environment that can be very challenging. However, if I’ve ordered 12 books, do I always need each and every one of them to be delivered individually, each wrapped in a thin coat of plastic, surrounded in bubble wrap and then encased in cardboard and half a mile of sticky backed tape? When you factor in the transportation of each of those books as well, I hate to think what the final carbon footprint of my consignment of 12 books amounts to.

Shouldn’t it be possible to offer me a variety of delivery options at the time when I place my order? Could it even be that in my ‘settings’ on the site I could choose a more environmentally friendly ‘consolidation’ delivery schedule where large consignments wouldn’t be sent out unless at least 4 books at a time were there to make up the package? In that way my 12 books consignment would see transportation impacts reduced by around 65% (each package will be bigger) and packaging materials likewise similarly reduced.

Until that happens, I’m inclined to pick up more popular, regular books on ‘large’ runs to Om Books or Landmark, using Flipkart just for the more difficult to find books, which is a pity when I feel positive about their service levels overall.

If we are to be responsible consumers there are many such debates we need to weigh up. Somewhere, my own personal debate on books will hit a further conundrum – at what point should I stop or reduce purchasing of paper books in favour of acquiring an ebook reader/ tablet computer and then buying ebooks. Until then, I’ll continue to search for a good carpenter to build me another set of bookshelves for my study!

Never Enough Time

Before thinking about how little time we have to do all the things we should/ want to do, it’s vitally important to build some understanding of where our time is going right now.

The idea of keeping a time-use journal is one that I’ve used a couple of times over the years. It’s not an easy discipline to do and can often reveal some unpalatable realities about where our time is going. It can certainly shatter false illusions about our ‘efficiency’. There are many different views about how long one should gather data and what time intervals should be used. The times when I did it, I gathered data for a week at 15 minute intervals.

The key after collecting all that data is what we do with it. Sometimes the data can be a little uncomfortable if it is revealing that we are not as committed to certain goals or objectives that we might have espoused. Then, we’re faced with choices – let the goal go because it’s not as important to us as we might have been thinking, or find a way to renew our commitment to it and ensure it gets the legitimate amount of time it needs.

There are also issues that arise where the acts (or omissions) of others are revealed to be adversely affecting your effective time usage (I prefer to avoid the hackneyed clichΓ© “time management”). Decisions have to be made; how is the person likely to respond if you ask for changes? Are the potential gains worth pursuing? Do you need to acknowledge that you might be willing to sacrifice some efficiency for the sake of the relationship?

Even after we’ve given attention to how we use time, we have to build positive habits in its use. This doesn’t necessarily happen on its own, which was why the following short piece from Dan Pink really appealed to me:

Dan Pink Article

After reading the article, I went online and found a number of websites that offered free downloadable files with gongs etc. at various time intervals. I run the audio in the background at times when working. Not only does it enable me to realise when I’m wandering off from priorities, but also to ‘catch myself’ doing things right and renew my effort on those things from time to time.

I shall certainly carry this on. We only have a finite amount of time in our lives – no different between the most successful high achievers and the ‘also rans’. The key is how successful people use their time, so think striving to get better with time is worth the effort.

Food Colouring Harming Our Children

I have no wish to spoil anyone’s Diwali, but here’s a timely warning article from CSE’s latest newsletter with information from some research done in to the use of legal and illegal colours in foodstuffs, especially those most appealing to children.

CSE Down to Earth Article

Personally, I think the authorities should have named the brands. If food manufacturers are putting our children at risk by flouting the law – don’t we have a right to know?

The Science of How We Learn

I have been fascinated for a long time with the growing body of scientific knowledge about how we learn, mainly because I believe that in the coming years this knowledge has to fundamentally shape the way that we ‘do’ education. In recent years I’ve come across some fascinating books on the subject, so I was really pleased to see the attached article;

Time Magazine – Ideas Article on Science of Learning

The fundamentals of what neurology has established over the last few years about the process of how learning really works have to move beyond narrow interest specialist books and conferences in to the public domain. When the public realize the implications of this new awareness they will begin to demand changes in education practices and processes which have remained largely unchanged for decades. It would be lovely to believe that the education profession would come forward to make the changes without such prompting, but sadly the historical precedent on that is not good.

For example, the evidence that neither ability to learn or ‘intelligence’ are innate (as though at birth we all took part in a lottery to see how much ‘smarts’ each of us would be entitled to) is potentially massively liberating, but also comes with great responsibility for educators. To acknowledge that HOW we learn shapes both what we know and what we’re capable of means that attention to how learning happens for children (and therefore how teaching is done) is the critical skill area for teachers (not their own ‘cleverness’ in knowing so much!)

Also, incidentally, I understand that amongst the findings of such research are conclusions such as;

  1. That whole story about us using 10% of our brain power only was a piece of inspired nonsense – we use different parts when engaged in different mental processes, singly and in combinations, but there are few parts if any left completely unitilised,
  2. The quality of mind functioning is not linked to how much or which parts we use, so much as the optimizing of networks of connections so that different parts function together optimally – those connections come about as a result of activity – therefore, the more you use it, the more potential it has,
  3. The ideas about left and right brain division of labour were greatly over-simplistic and the actual position is a great deal more complex,
  4. There is no logical reason to justify loss of mind functioning or effectiveness in older age, provided that the network is kept active.

This Time Ideas article is the first of a series of weekly ones for those who want to know more. Also, over Diwali break I hope to have time to add here in the blog a bibliography of some of the best books I’ve read of late on the science of learning.

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