June 30, 2009

Simplifying & De-stressing Secondary Education

An open letter to ...

Mr Kapil Sibal,
Minister for Human Resources Development
Government of India

Dear Sir, Mr Sibal

Your thoughts on the abolition of Class X examinations and the introduction of a single nationwide Class XII examination are like the winds of change that should blow away the cobwebs from the stultifying and claustrophobic classrooms to which we in India have condemned our children. You would of course know that in the United States, a similar system is in place with students – if they wish to join college – having to take only the SAT examination.

Our Class X examinations serve no purpose but to allow students to enter Class XI. Our Class XII examinations are no better – they merely serve as entry portals to colleges and in the case of engineering colleges, even this nominal and residual value is ignored because every college has its own entrance examination – nobody trusts the Class XII results. So no tears should be shed if these two examinations are consigned to the dustbins of history !

But there are powerful vested interests at work who would like to see these examinations retained. The various boards – ICSE, State Boards of Secondary and Higher Education – that owe their existence, salaries, perquisites, power and position to the existence of these examinations will fight tooth and nail to retain them and since education is a state subject it will not take too much of an effort for the states – particularly the communist ruled states – to block this initiative politically.

So is there a way to go ahead with these excellent proposals in the face of political opposition from the states ? Yes, if -- in my humble opinion – we consider the following steps :

  • We note that the the CBSE and the centrally funded institutions of higher learning ( IITs, NITs etc ) fall under the jurisdiction of the central government and any changes to their operations need not have the explicit concurrence of any other entity or political constituency.
  • The Class X CBSE examination can be abolished and the Class XII CBSE examination should be thrown open to all students – irrespective of the affiliation of their school. So students in non CBSE schools can continue to write their own examination but in addition can be optionally asked to write the CBSE XII. But why would they ?
  • The motivation to write the optional CBSE XII examination would be that its scores will be used for admission to the the centrally funded institutions of higher learning because the IITJEE and the AIEEE would be abolished ! So in one shot the CBSE XII examination becomes the de-facto single Class XII examination in the country .. and this can be achieved irrespective of whether the state governments agree to this or not.
  • If all centrally funded institutions ( including non engineering colleges like JNU, Vishwabharati etc ) converge to this single examination then the logistics could prove challenging – the number of students may reach a crore ! So instead of having the examination just once a year, it may be offered once every two months and a student should be allowed to sit for it as many times as he or she wants – provided that the last attempt should be within 12 months before entry to college. Thus the validity of the score would be 12 months. By spreading the examination over a year and allowing multiple attempts, the stress level associated with the examination will go down significantly. Children will be happy !
  • Since we have multiple instances of the CBSE XII examination and population that is taking the examination is different, marks and ranks are irrelevant. Instead percentile scores – based on the marks scored by all students who have taken the examination over the past two or three years – should be calculated and all admission decisions should be based on these percentiles. But given the diversity of institutions that will be using the score there should be separate percentiles for Physics-Chemistry-Maths, History-Geography-Civics, English and local language.

State boards can continue with their traditional Class X and Class XII examination which will act as feeders to local colleges but over a period of time the state examinations will become irrelevant – students will gradually lose interest because their result will be of interest to a very limited number of local colleges. The popularity of optional CBSE XII will be high because (a) that is the only route to join the popular central institutions and (b) there will be no schedule conflicts and students can take the examination at their convenience.

If the CBSE XII examination can be conducted with adequate care and diligence, new private colleges and universities – that should get created under the Governments higher education policy – and even local colleges in most progressive states will inevitably gravitate towards the same.

Hence we would have achieved our aim of abolishing Class X examinations and having a single Class XII examination without too much struggle and effort on the political front.

Mr Sibal, Sir I hope you would find merit in my proposal and discuss the same with your team.

Warm Regards

June 25, 2009

What is Cloud Computing

A slightly modified version of this interview has appeared in today's edition of the Economic Times.

What is Cloud Computing ?

Cloud Computing is less about any particular technology and more about how we use technology to reduce costs and improve efficiency. In Cloud Computing you move your data - and the programs that operate on this data - from private machines - desktop PCs or corporate servers - to machines owned by vendors.

How does this help ?

It reduces cost - both capital and operating, through economies of scale. It is like replacing the electricity generator in your home by plugging into the electricity supply : the cost and nuisance value of generating power at home is far more than having it supplied from a central utility. When a vendor supports a hundred customers with his bank of servers and support staff the cost to each individual customer goes down.

An intriguing concept, but does it work ?

Many of us are already using Cloud Computing without being aware of it. When you host a website or use Gmail or Hotmail you are using a server that is owned and operated by a vendor and your data - your web pages or your precious email - is resident on the vendors' machines. Your data is somewhere in the internet "cloud" !

Then what is this new hype and buzz about Cloud Computing ?

Websites and email are "new age", internet applications - not in the same league as traditional personal productivity tools - word processors, spreadsheets - or business applications like Order Management or Customer Relationship Management. The current buzz is because of the possibility of migrating these traditional applications from private machines to the shared machines offered by vendors.

How do you actually do this ?

Consider Google Docs - as an alternative to Microsoft Office. On the Google Docs website the browser will show a screen that is very similar to that in a traditional word processor or spreadsheet. You can create and edit documents or populate a spreadsheet with data and formulae but when you finally save your data ... it goes and sits, not on your hard disk but on the Google servers - and you can access this data later from any other machine that is connected to the internet.

What about business applications ?

If you have an ERP server you can of course have it located on vendor premises but you could also build your own applications and have it hosted on the web.

Does it mean learning new technology ?

Not really. My students - both in Praxis and at IIT, Kharagpur - have been building and deploying fairly complex applications on the web using the Zoho platform that looks like a combination of Visual Basic and MS Access - except that it is free and resides entirely on the Zoho website. There is nothing to purchase, download or install.

Can this be used to build really complex applications ?

Depending on your skill you can build complex applications either on Zoho or on the Google Apps Engine but quite a few applications in HR, CRM and Finance are available off the shelf.

What if I cannot access the internet ?

That is like power outage - a risk that one has to live with but with wireless broadband becoming available this risk is diminishing everyday.

Is it safe to put company data on third party servers ?

Is it safe to put your money in the bank ? It is - if the bank has a good reputation. So is the case here. One must choose a reliable vendor and more importantly one must make sure that the data is not getting locked into any proprietary format. As long as the data is in an SQL compliant database, then you always have the option of unloading your data and using it elsewhere.

Who are the good vendors ?

Almost every vendor offers a service in this area but the two that I encourage my students to try out - because there is no cost involved - is Zoho and Google. In fact, in my new book I have shown how a non-programmer can build and deploy a Zoho application in less than 60 minutes.

What is this book all about ?

"Business Information Systems" is based on my lectures at Praxis and IIT Kharagpur. Both students and managers will find this book useful not only for traditional topics like RDBMS and Object Oriented Programming but for many new age concepts like Web 2.0 and Cloud Computing.

Where do you get these unusual ideas ?

I am engineer by education, a programmer by passion and an imagineer by intention ... and my subscription to Slashdot keeps me abreast of what is happening in the world of computers.

Dr Prithwis Mukerjee teaches Systems Engineering at the Praxis Business School, Calcutta and at IIT, Kharagpur. You can read about his new book "Business Information Systems" at http://bis.yantrajaal.com

June 23, 2009

Orkut as a platform for eGovernance ?

Web 2.0 in general and social networks, like Orkut and Facebook in particular, have emerged as very powerful models of social interaction ... so much so that Iran is trying to quell its election related insurrection by trying to block Facebook and the US Government convinced Twitter to defer its scheduled downtime so as to allow Iranian thought processes to play out to their full potential !!

While Orkut and Facebook are privately owned public platforms, we know that similar ( if not identical ) platforms are available to build own's one private social networks. For example we at the Praxis Business School, in Calcutta have our own platform, the Kollaborative Klassroom ( see http://kk.praxis.ac.in ... to know what i mean ) that we have customised to reflect our own organisation ( courses and departments defined as "communities" and "friendships" that delineate relationships between individuals)

Currently employees of the government operate on a diverse set of platforms ... as is graphically reflected in the diversity of their emailIDs. Instead can we not envisage all government employees on a single Orkut-style social network ? that will allow integrated email, chat, and VoIP voice ( i am not suggesting Google, but i am sorely tempted to do so, since all of it is free and will not burden the tax payer ). Individual departments ( and sub-departmental groupings ) can be reflected as "communities" ... some of which could be closed and private while others could be open with some degree of moderation.

If we are even more ambitious, then we can consider private citizens -- at least those with voter ID cards or PAN cards -- to be included in these networks. If we want to be more cautious, we can create social networks for specialised departments like the Income Tax Department ? Whether we wish to be ambitious or cautious will of course depend on discussion that we can have at various public and private forums.

Creating a social network like this for the entire government has significant advantages. Since a large part of the eGovernance consists of collection and disemmination of information -- not the complex functionality required, say, in an ERP solution -- a social network platform could with its collection of blogs, forums, document attachment and messaging facilities, could be an adequate starting point. If additional functionality is required then individuals or communities could build community specific applications ( that is departmental applications ) that will add functional value to the network .. in fact applications could -- and perhaps should -- be decentralised as long as all this is done in a manner that is compliant with the overall network standards.

As an example, consider Indian Language facilities. As an Orkut user I had built a Bangla Writer that is available in Orkut but is actually used by a small niche of people who write Bangla poetry ! This is in XML and compliant with OpenSocial standards. We can consider similar applications at the regional and departmental levels but of course for administrative functions, not for writing poetry !

Moving to a social network automatically takes us into the domain of Cloud Computing. Moving data and applications into the cloud means that the IT infrastructure can be centralised and many of the challenges associated with the government procurement process can be addressed much more easily and transparently. Capex requirement will be reduced and operating expenses can be billed back to individual departments on the basis of usage. Many states have now implemented WANs that are mostly sitting idle .. and a social network can be an ideal application that can be rolled out on these networks and then of course as wireless broadband becomes a commodity -- as it might with the availability of the 3G spectrum -- the application will be even more accessible from all corners of the country.

Technology is not a challenge here. Social Networks like Orkut and Facebook are highly scalable and can handle hundreds of thousands of users ... what is important is MOTIVATION : can government be convinced to even consider such a radical approach ? ORGANISATION : what kinds of communities ? who manages or moderates which one ? what happens when a person is transferred ? and EDUCATION : employees have to be trained to use this. we know that most teenagers and young adults are very comfortable with Orkut / Facebook but their parents may need handholding !

So there are challenges and I am not saying that this will be easy ... but if the CSI and similar organisations feel that this is an idea that is worth exploring further then we could have focussed discussion on this topic. A conferance devoted to "Web 2.0 / Social Networks as a platform for eGovernance" could be an excellent forum to solicit ideas and opinions around this concept which if found acceptable and feasible can be transmitted to the government at an appropriate level.

Moving the government of India to an Orkut like platform is a mammoth task. But the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Can we consider taking that first step ?

June 17, 2009

Environmental Refugees

Refugees have traditionally been associated with political upheavals. We have had Jews seeking refuge from Nazi Germany, dissidents seeking refuge from Russia, China and other totalitarian communist nations and closer home we have had Bengalis seeking refuge from the murderous regime in erstwhile East Pakistan. Then we had economic refugees who sought to flee their homeland not because of political persecution but because of economic need. One cannot argue with an empty stomach and their are parts of the world where an empty stomach is rule rather than an exception. This explains the exodus from South and Central America towards the land of milk and honey to the North. So is the case of economic refugees fleeing Africa for Europe and closer home we once again have had people from Bangladesh coming across the border into India and West Bengal.

But political refugees and economic refugees are now old news … The latest development in field of human misery and migration is that of the environmental refugee — that is those who have to leave home and hearth becaus home and hearth is not habitable anymore.

In the past we have had many environmental disasters and some of them have been pretty gruesome : Bhopal Gas Tragedy, Chernobyl, Exxon Valdex and what not, but these were “incidents” or “accidents” that affected a large number of people over a period of time. What is now looming over the horizon is a more systematic attack on a way of life and the culprit is “mother nature” itself … in the form of global warming.

We have all heard of global warming .. how the glaciers are melting, how the arctic ice cap is shrinking and how the sea water is rising but Cyclone Aila — that struck the Sunderbans in June — has made it so very real for us in Calcutta.

How and why ?

Because we now see more and people leaving the Sunderbans to come and start camping in our southern suburbs like Sonarpur and Gosaba. These are people who are realising that there is no future left in the Sunderbans. The embankments are being washed away, fresh water wells are being submerged in brine and paddy fields are turing salty … and what is worse is that the process is irreversible. With each passing day, the water will rise higher .. more embankments will be washed away, fewer and fewer sources of fresh water will be available and cultivable land will diminish.

So why stay anymore ? It is not as if these people are leaving because of political or economic pressures but because the land is becoming inhospitable.

These are the refugees of the 21st century, the environmental refugees.

June 08, 2009

Modelling Education Reforms on the Financial Sector

Pratap Bhanu Mehta's article in the Indian Express on the devil being in the detail of educational reforms is very interesting. It makes us look around for successful models and one that strikes the eye is obviously the Stock Exchange mechanism -- that is perhaps one of the most successful model that has emerged from Indian reform process. To see if this model can be used as a reference, let us see some of the regulatory issues that a "company" needs to address before it can transact business and earn money.

At its minimum, a company must adhere to the conditions of the Companies Act and register itself with the Registrar of Companies. We note that the RoC does not really approve or reject the application on the basis of the quality of the companies products or that of its promoters. All that the RoC ensures is that the company meets certain basic disclosure norms in terms of ownership and financial issues. The focus is on accurate disclosure -- or transparency -- not on the actual facts and figures that are being disclosed.

As the company gets bigger and needs access to more funds, it seeks listing in a stock exchange. A stock exchange is not a monopoly government organisation -- it is run by its members as per rules that dictate a certain minimum level of financial competence and ensures a far more rigorous level of financial and administrative transparency. Once again, the focus is on transparency of the organisation, not on the quality of products or services offered. A stock exchange has two interesting aspects : first there can be more than one stock exchange, so there is no threat of a monopoly and second they are supervised by SEBI to ensure compliance with the laws of the land.

However the stock exchanges do not provide financial support to any company. That is done by individual investors in the capital market based on their personal or institutional perception of the company's performance.

So the three components of financial sector are (a) Registrar of Companies and the Companies Act (b) Listing in the Stock Exchange under SEBI supervision and (c) Funds from the Capital Markets. For foreign companies wanting to do business there is the fourth agency -- FIPB that has a wider mandate of protecting India's strategic interests.

Let us now map these components into the Education sector.

First the role of the Registrar of Companies can be performed very well by the AICTE -- provided we remove its authority to approve or accredit institutions. This authority used with malafide intentions has been the bane of education in India because it has kept out the best and allowed in the worst operators. The powers of the AICTE should be restrictively defined in a new Education Act and should be modelled on that of the RoC.

Any institution registered with the AICTE should be allowed to offer any educational services subject to the Consumer Protection legislation in the country. Consumers in India are quite conscious of their rights and if they have the choice -- as they now have in telecom or air travel, not to mention on soaps, shampoos or cars -- there is no fear that educational service providers will be able to cheat them. Let us have some respect for the Indian customer.

But if an institute wants to move into the next, higher league, we need a self-managed organisation like the industry association that will ensure discipline and transparency in its members. One or two leading institutes -- some from the government sector like IIT, IIM and some from the private sector like BITS, ISB -- can take the initiative to form these associations. Initially this might lead to multiple organisation -- like multiple stock exchanges -- but in the long run, through a natural process we might end up with two or three, similar to the BSE/NSE model that we have today. These associations would ensure transparency and consistency in the behaviour of its members and could be supervised by a government body like the AICTE. Institutes accredited through these associations would be ranked higher in the perception of students -- who are the customers of educational services.

Finally funds ! And this is where both the government and private organisations must step in with generous support -- but we must use a market driven approach. Both the government and the private sector should set up multiple funding organisations each with its own goals and objectives. The UGC is an obvious candidate but the Department of Space could provide separate funding for programs leading to astrophysics and the Department of Minority Affairs could have a separate funding for Muslims. Similarly Tata Steel could fund institutes operating within 50 kms of Jamshedpur and an NRI in California could fund institutions in his native Bankura district -- to each his own !

Whatever may be the source and intent for funds we need transparency on two fronts (a) the criteria for funding and (b) the actual distribution of funds in each year. Each funding agency could have its own criteria publicly available and any "registered" institute can in principle apply for funding provided it meets the requirements of the funding agencies. Agencies would distribute funds to eligible institutes based on their perception of how "good" the institute is -- in terms of how published criteria. This is where metrics like "student-teacher ratio", "placements", adherence to social goals in terms of gender and caste equity, quality of research, patents can be introduced. All funding agencies may not have the same set of criteria -- each should have the liberty to specify its requirements and institutes will have to compete for funds.

Some of the funding may be automatic and statutory – for example HRD funds to IITs and IIMs – while others may be discretionary based on the extent to which an institute meets the criteria. However all funding agencies , especially those based on tax payer's money, must make available to the public all information on funds disbursed to each institute AND the justification for the same in terms of the adherence to the funding criteria.

Potential students can study the pattern of fund disbursals and draw their own conclusions about how good or bad an institute is as perceived by funding experts who have voted with their purse ! In a sense, market forces will drive both funding and students to the best institutes in the country.

In fact honest competition is what is completely missing in the education sector and this has led to an immense complacency in the public sector education system in the country. What makes it worse is that public sector institutes are so dependent on the bureaucrats in the HRD ministry for money that they have no option but to toe the sarkari line. Both these issues can addressed through the structure that is proposed here.

And finally what about foreign universities ? If as a nation we are brave enough we can allow them to come and operate through this route but otherwise we can have the equivalent of an FIPB to ensure that trashy organisations are kept out -- but this is neither necessary nor sufficient for quality and is best kept in abeyance for the time being.

As a part of the Prime Ministers 100 day program, may I request Mr Kapil Sibal to organise a conference on Higher Education where ideas like these – and those from other, more eminent people – can be formally considered for speedy execution.