Pune-based Online Science/Maths Learning Platform Function Space gets funding

Pune-based Function Space, an online “social” platform for learning science and maths has recently raised seed funding from Nexus Venture Partners.

Function Space is trying to make STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education fun and engaging, something that is seriously been missing from our education system

Function Space, already offers a strong community consisting of users from over 190 countries, including students, professors and researchers from MIT, Stanford, University of California, Berkeley and Los Angeles campuses, Indian Institute of Technology campuses, Indian Institute of Science and other prestigious institutions.

The funding will be used for expansion: of their content, their tools, and their customer reach.

Function Space was founded in 2013 by Adit Gupta, Sakshi Majmudar and Sumit Maniyar.

Read the full article

India needs and education strategy by EduCable : Meeta Sengupta’s blog-The Times Of India

As we get ready for a new government, Meeta Sengupta has an interesting article where she acknowledges the achievements of our Education Policy so far, and charts out the way ahead

Here are some excerpts:

First, it would be graceful to acknowledge what went well, especially in the Education sector. Much was achieved including investments in infrastructure, near universal enrolment at the primary level, acknowledgement of the private sector contribution, the groundwork for the entry of foreign universities to India, the almost universal acceptance of the RTE Act (flawed as it is) and of course the slow but steady entry of technology in education.

and, as for the path forward:

The path forward is known and the structural gaps are identified. There can be nothing better to inherit for a team that knows that actions often speak larger than words. For example – it is acknowledged that Indian universities need to focus on research and international engagement to ride up the global rankings. (I of course advocate a diversified model for post secondary education that does not require all universities to fight for a spot on the same greasy pole). It is also clear that multiple accreditation bodies need to be set up with the blessings of the sector skills councils that represent the employer’s requirements  – these are to guide the content and certification of competencies to fill the skills gap. At the primary school level we know that qualified teacher gaps are a national emergency – this is already a national mission and must be executed well.

Read the full article

Google Debuts Classroom, An Education Platform For Teacher-Student Communication

Earlier this month, Google started beta-testing Classroom, an education platform for teacher-student communication.

Here are details of the program:

The Classroom app is part of Google’s Apps for Education lineup of products, and it uses Docs, Drive and Gmail to make assignment creation and tracking easier than when you’d do those things manually. Basically, Google has taken a process that many were already using and streamlined it to make it more useful. Google has a huge advantage over other startups trying to do the same as a result; there’s an immense built-in existing population of users to get onboard.

and:

It also incorporates class communication tools, letting teachers make announcements, ask questions and field student responses in real-time. Plus the whole thing’s free for schools

Who gets to use it?

So far, Google is keeping Classroom invite-only, with educators invited to apply to the preview program for access. They’ll open the gates to that first group of pilot testers in around a month’s time, and Google expects to release it widely by September – in time for the next school year.

Read the full article

At MIT, the humanities are just as important as STEM

The Boston Globe has an interesting opinion piece from Deborah K. Fitzgerald, dean of MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences where she argues that at MIT, the humanities are just as important as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics).

Why?

Because:

But the world’s problems are never tidily confined to the laboratory or spreadsheet. From climate change to poverty to disease, the challenges of our age are unwaveringly human in nature and scale, and engineering and science issues are always embedded in broader human realities, from deeply felt cultural traditions to building codes to political tensions. So our students also need an in-depth understanding of human complexities — the political, cultural, and economic realities that shape our existence — as well as fluency in the powerful forms of thinking and creativity cultivated by the humanities, arts, and social sciences.

And due to this, MIT insists that its engineering students spend a quarter of their time on the humanities:

MIT’s curriculum has evolved significantly over the past 50 years to require all undergraduates to spend substantial time on subjects like literature, languages, economics, music, and history. In fact, every MIT undergraduate takes a minimum of eight such classes — nearly 25 percent of their total class time.

Because, in today’s global, internetworked world, just knowing the science and the technology is never really enough to solve any important problem:

In these classes, our students learn how individuals, organizations, and nations act on their desires and concerns. They gain historical and cultural perspectives, and critical thinking skills that help them collaborate with people across the globe, as well as communication skills that enable them to listen, explain, and inspire. They learn that most human situations defy a single correct answer, that life itself is rarely, if ever, as precise as a math problem, as clear as an elegant equation.

In fact, I remember that as an undergraduate at IIT-Bombay, I was forced to take humanities courses, and I hated having to spend my time on those, instead of learning computer programming. However, in retrospect, I feel that the humanities courses (psychology, philosophy, economics) were probably the most important courses of my undergraduate education.

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Stanford President predicts Great Experimentation in the area of Online Learning

The Tomorrow’s Professor newsletter out of Stanford has an interesting article about comments made by Stanford President, John Hennessy, about the future of online learning

The main point he made was that this is a time of great experimentation in the area of online learning, and education departments around the world need to scientifically study online learning models and teach the rest of the faculty how to tame this beast. Specifically:

Hennessy said that colleges and universities will be taking a more scientific approach to online learning than in the past, relying on their schools of education to measure student learning and to provide feedback.

“I’m actually pretty confident that we’re going to come out with pedagogical approaches that are truly a step forward in terms of helping our students be better learners – and that will really be refreshing,” Hennessy said.

For example, this is an example of some interesting ways in which online courses are used by people around the world:

“Imagine that ‘Book of the Month Club’ becomes ‘Course of the Month Club’,” Hennessy said. “With a little bit of technology, a community of learners self-assembles around a course and forms a group. They do peer grading. They interchange. They exchange conversations and they learn the material together. I think we’ll see this happening. It would be a wonderful thing and great for the world.”

Another interesting aspect is that the difficulty level of exams probably needs to be adjusted:

At UC Berkeley and Stanford, he said, faculty members design exams to challenge students.”Now, take that exam to a school where perhaps the students are not quite as capable and give them that exam and you’re going to crush them,” he said.

In fact, the one of the most important areas in which online courses are being offered is education itself:

Hennessy said one thing that MOOCs do very well is “educate the educators” in other parts of the world, allowing them to use the material to prepare courses for their students.

And finally, this:

In response to a question from the audience, Hennessy said some faculty have reported that more students are attending classes when they have “flipped” the classroom – delivering lectures online and meeting in the classroom for one-on-one interaction and hands-on projects. While those early indicators are positive, he said, controlled experiments would be the key to understanding how well students are mastering the material in those settings.

Read the full article

Advice to High-School Graduates: ‘You Are Not Special’

The Atlantic has an interesting article giving advice to High-School Graduates: ‘You Are Not Special’, which is the message of a graduation speech in 2012 by David McCullough Jr., an English teacher in Wellesley High School.

Here are some excerpts from the article:

According to Boston Magazine’s “Best Schools in Boston 2013,” Wellesley High School’s students have a 98.3 percent graduation rate, and 95.1 percent earn a score of 3-5 on AP exams. Wellesley students’ SAT scores average a 623 in reading, 631 in writing, and 631 in math. These kids are born and bred for success.

But, say McCullough:

“If you remove from the kid the notion that every step is crucially important, all expectations are spectacular achievement, and allow him to operate free from adult scrutiny and be a regular kid and follow his interests, it makes for a much healthier educational attitude,” he said.

and:

“The kids now seem so directed and scheduled—they’re tutored and coached and the degree to which parents are involved in their lives is … well, one notices,” he said. “They’re getting very little experience conducting their own lives and living with the consequences of their decisions. When they stumble, their parents step in, denying them very important formative experiences.”

and finally:

McCullough hopes teenagers will “think about why they do what they do, follow new interests, not worry so much about material reward, invest themselves in the moment, [and] trust that results will take care of themselves.”

Which is pretty much what the Bhagavad Gita says, right?

Read the full article

Building a School in the Cloud – Sugata Mitra

Sugata Mitra, famous for his Hole in the Wall Experiment, gave a TED talk in which he talks about self-organizing schools in the cloud, and how we need to just pose the big and interesting questions to children, make the internet available to them, and get out of the way.

He starts off by pointing out what he thinks is wrong with our education system today:

[I]f you look at present-day schooling the way it is, it’s quite easy to figure out where it came from. It came from about 300 years ago, and it came from the last and the biggest of the empires on this planet. [“The British Empire”] Imagine trying to run the show, trying to run the entire planet, without computers, without telephones, with data handwritten on pieces of paper, and traveling by ships. But the Victorians actually did it. What they did was amazing. They created a global computer made up of people. It’s still with us today. It’s called the bureaucratic administrative machine. In order to have that machine running, you need lots and lots of people. They made another machine to produce those people: the school. The schools would produce the people who would then become parts of the bureaucratic administrative machine. They must be identical to each other. They must know three things: They must have good handwriting, because the data is handwritten; they must be able to read; and they must be able to do multiplication, division, addition and subtraction in their head. They must be so identical that you could pick one up from New Zealand and ship them to Canada and he would be instantly functional. The Victorians were great engineers. They engineered a system that was so robust that it’s still with us today, continuously producing identical people for a machine that no longer exists. The empire is gone, so what are we doing with that design that produces these identical people, and what are we going to do next if we ever are going to do anything else with it?

And, he goes on to give an explanation of why students don’t learn very well in our existing schools with their exams and tests and punishments:

The reptilian part of our brain, which sits in the center of our brain, when it’s threatened, it shuts down everything else, it shuts down the prefrontal cortex, the parts which learn, it shuts all of that down. Punishment and examinations are seen as threats. We take our children, we make them shut their brains down, and then we say, “Perform.” Why did they create a system like that? Because it was needed. There was an age in the Age of Empires when you needed those people who can survive under threat. When you’re standing in a trench all alone, if you could have survived, you’re okay, you’ve passed. If you didn’t, you failed. But the Age of Empires is gone. What happens to creativity in our age? We need to shift that balance back from threat to pleasure.

So, what should we do, according to Mitra? Based on his Hole-in-the-Wall experiences, he is obviously in favor of self-organizing schools where the teacher just poses the questions and gets out of the way:

I think what we need to look at is we need to look at learning as the product of educational self-organization. If you allow the educational process to self-organize, then learning emerges. It’s not about making learning happen. It’s about letting it happen. The teacher sets the process in motion and then she stands back in awe and watches as learning happens

So, what’s the job of the teacher? Asking the questions.

I think we need a curriculum of big questions. You already heard about that. You know what that means. There was a time when Stone Age men and women used to sit and look up at the sky and say, “What are those twinkling lights?” They built the first curriculum, but we’ve lost sight of those wondrous questions. We’ve brought it down to the tangent of an angle. But that’s not sexy enough. The way you would put it to a nine-year-old is to say, “If a meteorite was coming to hit the Earth, how would you figure out if it was going to or not?” And if he says, “Well, what? how?” you say, “There’s a magic word. It’s called the tangent of an angle,” and leave him alone. He’ll figure it out.

I’ve tried incredible, incredible questions — “When did the world begin? How will it end?” — to nine-year-olds. This one is about what happens to the air we breathe. This is done by children without the help of any teacher. The teacher only raises the question, and then stands back and admires the answe

Here’s his final vision – school in the cloud:

So what’s my wish? My wish is that we design the future of learning. We don’t want to be spare parts for a great human computer, do we? So we need to design a future for learning. And I’ve got to — hang on, I’ve got to get this wording exactly right, because, you know, it’s very important. My wish is to help design a future of learning by supporting children all over the world to tap into their wonder and their ability to work together. Help me build this school. It will be called the School in the Cloud. It will be a school where children go on these intellectual adventures driven by the big questions which their mediators put in. The way I want to do this is to build a facility where I can study this. It’s a facility which is practically unmanned. There’s only one granny who manages health and safety. The rest of it’s from the cloud. The lights are turned on and off by the cloud, etc., etc., everything’s done from the cloud.

See the full transcript or the video for more details.

It is interesting to note the contrast between what Sugata Mitra says, and the contrarian view from Fredrick DeBoer, who argues that online-only self-service education will never work, and that students, even good students, need to be “dragged” to learn.

“Free Indian Science from Bureaucracy” – Mathai Joseph & Andrew Robinson

Nature has an interesting article by Mathai Joseph and Andrew Robinson who argue that Indian Science is being stifled by government bureaucracy and needs to be freed.

First, the government claims to care about science, but is not willing to invest in it:

Sadly, science and its administration, once seen as central to Indian development, are not currently on the agenda, despite some trenchant critiques from scientists and science policy-makers. Repeated government promises to increase the expenditure on research and development (R&D) to 2% of India’s gross domestic product have not been kept. R&D spend remains at about 0.9% of GDP — compared with 1.12% in Russia3 (down from 1.25% in 2009), 1.25% in Brazil and 1.84% in China2 (see ‘Brick benchmarking’).

And whatever science that does happen in India is limited by bureaucratic rules:

The basic problem is that Indian science has for too long been hamstrung by a bureaucratic mentality that values administrative power over scientific achievement. And, to preserve local control, research is still done mostly by small teams working in isolation rather than through collaboration — a key generator of impact

And the results of this bureaucracy are clear enough:

Today, although India ranks tenth in the world for output of scientific papers, it ranks 166th for average citations per paper (see go.nature.com/xl3ldg). Almost 20% of patents filed at the World Intellectual Property Organization in 2010 were from China, with just 1.9% from India (below Russia’s 2.1% but above Brazil’s 1.1%)

In other words, our scientific community is reacting as happens in any situation involving inflexible bureaucratic rules – by following the letter of the policy, but not the spirit.

Why is our scientific output so bad? The authors specify three important reasons:

First, scientists are promoted on the basis of years of service, rather than achievement, and once at the top they stay until retirement age; long after, in some cases. Even at the prestigious Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in Mumbai, which is less rule-bound than many other institutions, research groups are almost invariably headed by those who have been there the longest.

and:

Second, although research in the leading institutions is well funded — with more money available than requested in credible grant applications, a striking contrast to the situation in many nations — the funding is subject to unsuitable restrictions applicable to the entire government bureaucracy. These include limited foreign travel and no travel support for research students, ruling out regular participation in leading conferences and research gatherings.

and finally:

Third, the movement of researchers from one institution to another is discouraged, because administrators prefer senior positions to be filled by internal promotion rather than lateral hiring.

Is there a solution?

More than two decades ago, the threat of imminent national bankruptcy forced India’s government to liberate its economy from the notorious ‘licence–permit raj’, which had strait-jacketed commerce and industry since 1947. What will it take in 2014 to reinvigorate India’s decrepit scientific empires, trapped for decades in a similarly rigid bureaucracy?

Instead of just complaining, the authors give 4 specific suggestions on what can be done:

The first step towards reinvigorating Indian science must be to create an empowered funding agency, staffed by working scientists, some of whom could be non-resident Indians

and:

A second step must be to ensure planned rotation of institutional roles and responsibilities.

and:

Third, the formation of trans-institutional groups that can undertake coordinated work in a few well-chosen areas should be encouraged at the funding stage.

and finally:

Fourth, how to spend that 2% of GDP when it finally materializes? Leading institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Technology and many others are already well provided for, by any standards8. New research money should be spent on regenerating the scores of poorly provided university laboratories that lack the funds to procure and maintain modern scientific equipment; they currently receive only around 10% of the R&D budget but are expected to produce most of the country’s PhD

Read the full article – it has far more detail.

“@Seema10Singh: Why The New IISc Director Has His Work Cut Out For Him

Anurag Kumar of IISc has just been appointed the new director of IISc.

Seema Singh has an interesting article in which she lists the challenges that will face him

IISc needs to change:

What worked for IISc for the last 100 years will not carry it through even in the next quarter century, let alone the next 100 years. And while rankings are a function of many things – number of PhDs, faculty, budget, etc. – and not really reflective of the true value of the institution, the 2014 Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings shows that IISc has slipped in ranks, from 130 to below 200.

Seema argues that IISc needs to start focusing on applied research – research that results in new products.

In the past when I raised the issue of quality research resulting in products, Balaram told me I was “soft” on the industry (and hard on the academics) in not asking them to invest more in R&D. He is right to the extent that journalists cannot question industry’s poor investment in R&D, it’s their money and if they don’t see merit in R&D, their short-sightedness will come to haunt them. But institutions like IISc do research with public funds. Frankly, it’s not about value for public money, it’s about regard for public need. India needs scientists and engineers working on Indian soil to solve its problems, particularly in game-changing fields like energy, healthcare, water, and so on.

IISc scientists focus far too much on getting papers published. This needs to change:

Career scientists and engineers in research institutions like IISc have thrived mostly by publishing papers. That calls for a change. Peer review is ailing and collapsing under its own weight.

and:

The head of an Indian arm of a large publishing house tells me how “vanity publishing” has proliferated in India as the entire reward system is based on paper publication.

What should the new director do?

The new director must pick a bunch of faculty and their research groups, seek bold ideas, and back them to the hilt. If India waits for agencies like DARPA or ARPA in the US, another century will go by. The much-celebrated role of private finance (or venture capital) role in innovation and economic development is debunked by economist Mariana Mazzucato in her 2013 book The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs Private Myth, clearly establishing the solid role that government labs, engaging in high-risk research, have played in the global economic boom of past decades.
This means many will have to get out of their comfort zones, stop playing safe and do risky research. Only a director can ensure such research reaches a critical mass in a short span of time.

And increase collaboration with industry:

At any given point, there are more than 150 companies working with IISc researchers. But most of those are can be categorised as projects, hardly any would qualify as big, ambitious goals.

The full article has a lot more interesting stuff to say. You should read it.

Online courses need to be more than just video lectures and assignments

Forbes has an interesting article which argues that Coursera and the other posterboys of online education are getting it wrong, and other companies (specifically, 2U and CorpU) are doing it better. The basic theme of the article is that online courses need to be much more than video-lectures

Let’s start with this provocative quote:

One of the founders of Coursera has, on multiple occasions, proclaimed that its “innovation” was no less radical than the printing press.

Really? If you have ever taken a MOOC course, you will know that a statement like that might qualify as among the most significant hyperbole of the decade.

I agree that what Coursera has on offer currently, falls far short of this promise, as one look at the completion statistics will show

But, online courses do have potential. What more is needed?

Online Courses need to break away from 1-hour lectures

The first questions is this – does idea of video-taping 1-hour lectures and putting them online really make sense for an online course, or are we doing that simply because that is easier and what we’ve been doing for a 100 years?

First, you cannot do this by simply filming a classroom and posting the video. Lecture capture is online learning 1.0 and, to be frank, it is lame.

[…]

You have to share the learning concepts in “bite-size” nuggets that move constantly back and forth from concept to exercise.

[…]

Further, high-level production values that use narrative nonfiction, animation and documentary filmmaking techniques are essential.

Online courses have less interactivity than classrooms

When you take people out of the classroom, they lose the primary touch point of that social experience. You have to replace this with touch points through online modalities. These range from synchronous sessions facilitated by faculty to team-based exercises and problem solving. There are many ways to build in social experiences in the online environment, but online learning architects must be thoughtful about it.

Online courses can beat classrooms with data

Third, data collection allows for better outcomes. As I have noted elsewhere, “Big data in the online learning space [gives] institutions the predictive tools they need to improve learning outcomes for individual students. By designing a curriculum that collects data at every step of the student learning process, universities can address student needs with customized modules, assignments, feedback and learning trees in the curriculum that will promote better and richer learning.” We are still at the early stages of capturing and utilizing data in this way, but the opportunities for dynamic learning are tremendous.

Read the full article.

Also read our other posts about MOOCs.