February 13, 2011

Distance Learning on a Social Network Platform

Distance learning is a topic that excites all but remains a model that is yet to be cracked with any great degree of success. Mr Deepak Parekh, in his inaugural address at the CSI National Convention states that this market will be worth Rs 11 billion in 2012 but as of today will any company actually hire someone who has an MBA degree from an online program ?

It is true that we have had correspondence courses from various open universities and of late many reputed universities like MIT and even our own IITs have come out with presentations and recorded videos that seek to distribute the wisdom of good teachers among students not enrolled with them. Video conferencing has also been tried but again, the fact that they are nowhere as popular as regular class room sessions means that there is something missing somewhere. But the fact remains that hunger for education – especially the kind of professional education that helps people get jobs – is immense. That is why private engineering and business schools are proliferating, even under the malevolent glare of the not-so-lily-white mandarins of India's higher education ! What is lacking though is the availability of good teachers to fill the ever expanding number of class rooms in India. Can we leverage the collaborative-participative model of Web 2.0 to plug this gap ? Before we try to answer this question let us understand two things :

What does current models of distance learning lack ? Obviously physical presence is very important. Watching 30 videos of pre-recorded one hour classes conducted by a professor ( which is the equivalent of a 3 credit college course ) is a very poor substitute for two reasons – it is very difficult to watch and there is no interactivity. Better alternatives can be found in either video lectures through Skype-style platforms or slideshows augmented with lectures delivered over VoIP and white-board software that allows the instructor to “write” on a screen that is shared with the students. In each case, student feedback can be taken through online chat. Net-net the technology exists but why is it not being widely used ? Because this model is difficult to scale up ! The number of people who are comfortable with juggling these multiple technologies – and I have the first hand experience to state that this is not easy even for a net-adept like me – are NOT the kind who have the deep knowledge of say, finance or thermodynamics or organisation behaviour that is essential if they were to be considered credible teachers in any college. Which leads us to the next important concept that we need to understand ...

Web 2.0 – best illustrated by products like Wikipedia, YouTube, Flickr, Orkut – consists of four distinct characteristics. User-generated content, a network of trust, rich media and the fact that it is under constant development or perpetual beta. Consider YouTube as a platform created by Google where individuals create and upload videos that are viewed and commented on (that is “consumed”) by the public at large. Can we do the same thing with college courseware ? But unlike free format YouTube videos, college courseware needs to be aligned to specific requirements and have a certain quality. This is where the other concepts like rich media and networks of trust can be brought to bear.

Let us begin with courses. A 3-credit subject would consist of 30 lectures of one hour each. Each lecture can consist of a 10 min video that explains the idea, followed by, or interspersed with 20 slides that highlights important concepts. The instructor would also have a shared whiteboard to write additional material, a chat-screen where he can receive questions and a Skype-style voice service through which he can broadcast his answers and clarifications. All this can be delivered from one  or preferably two computer screens with touch capability that will allow him to switch easily between video, slides and whiteboard.

Students can either be sitting alone at home with a 3G/broadband connection or could be in a group in a class where two computers would be projecting on two screens – one for video/slides and the other for the white board. Direct voice feedback from a dispersed audience is possible but not desirable because of cross-talk and so an online chat screen from each student's laptop will carry his questions and observations back to the instructor.

Creating teaching content like this is easier said than done. Good teachers must be helped, encouraged and financially motivated to create these modules and this process can be funded – just as text books are commissioned by publishers – by individual colleges. This can be a direct payment – of the kind that is paid to a teacher for teaching a subject  physically – or  some kind of a revenue sharing mechanism. A tech savvy person can also be appointed to help the teacher during the first few sessions. The revenue stream will be derived from subject registrants – either single students or other colleges that will use this subject as a part of their curriculum. This leads us to the next component of a standard Web 2.0 product, the network of trust.

Individual colleges can commission some subjects on their own and can source other subjects from other colleges and institutes and assemble a full blown course ( MBA, BE .. ) in a manner that ensures that all statutory credit requirements are met. Since each college is creating a subset of the entire course, upfront costs will be manageable. A very rough parallel will be YouTube channels – but with the added challenge of schedule management since all pedagogy is live and students cannot attend two lectures simultaneously. So a student who joins a college for say, an MBA course, is assured that he will be able to attend a full spectrum of finance, marketing, operations, behavioral and strategy subjects, over a period of two years ( or more, if we consider week end executive programs ) and will also have access to the all -important placement process – perhaps in conjunction with an online placement agency !

How will all this work in practice ? The core technology consisting of  video capture and display, streaming video, slideshows, white boards, online chat, VoIP, touch screens and broadband internet is all available at a price students are willing to pay for a management or engineering degree. We need a integrative and easy-to-use platform – what YouTube is for videos and Flickr for photos – to make  all this available in a  convenient manner. We need a couple of colleges that will commission content for certain subjects and are willing to use content commissioned by other colleges – and once we have some critical mass, market rules will take over. Student feedback – like the Facebook “like” --  will be used by other students as benchmarks, high quality content will increasingly command a premium and teachers who create them will earn more money if there is a revenue sharing mechanism in place. Orkut or LinkedIn style communities can be created around each subject where students spread across different colleges can interact with each other and with the teacher in asynchronous mode and links to additional material stored on Slideshare, Scribd, Docstoc and other Web 2.0 services can placed. Students can upload assignments into these groups and formal examinations can be conducted either online or with pen-and-paper on college premises with proper invigilation so as to ensure credibility of the degree or diploma that is being awarded.

All this is possible if we have a specialist social networking platform built on the framework of Web 2.0 concepts that will set standards, ensure uniformity and attract membership from both individual students as well as institutions offering management and engineering programs. The Kollaborative Klassroom ( http://kk.praxis.ac.in) is a very tentative step in this direction but a lot more needs to be done to realise the total vision articulated here. But without this totality of features, the project is a non-starter. Fortunately funding all this should be possible with an investment that is only a small percentage of Mr Parekh’s estimated size of this market !

Earlier attempts at distance learning have had limited success because they started out with the premise that we can extract information from a teacher and then exclude him from the equation by automating everything to the maximum extent possible. This is fallacious because teaching is inherently interactive. Social networks – which are the most dominant constructs emerging from the concept of Web 2.0 – are popular precisely because they recognise the centrality of the human being and his quixotic and unstructured interactivity as a key element around which a successful product or service can be built. A distance learning mechanism that can integrate itself into a Web 2.0 social network of the kind that is described here will stand a far better chance of being successful than anything else that has been tried so far.

1 comment:

SM said...

Dear Sir,
I believe your idea is startup material. It is a good model to start an online business. But the kind of facilities like double screens, etc. are only possible in a very institutionalised framework. I would propose a more open model on the lines of a TED.com or even YouTube but it would be dedicatedly for education. The categories would be subject and education level wise and the student can choose from a wide range of lectures available. This would ensure the convenience of watching the video when one is free at a later stage or as you call it asynchronously. The lectures would, as you have said, include video lecture, a powerpoint and some written notes. Moreover, the teacher may use whiteboard software to solve problems in case of subjects where mathematical problems are involved. This should be made the basis requirement to post a lecture on the site. Anyone can be allowed to upload on the site but it would be a moderated upload with the site maintaining a quality check (a more flexible form of TED.com). This ensures that students have a wide range to choose from so that they may want to watch a lecture which suits their level of understanding and may well watch the advanced lectures at a later stage. Each lecture should invite comments which would be questions and these comments should have a time (the amount of video played already) attached to it so that the instructor knows exactly in which part of the video and which statement is arousing the question. This would lead to improvement in the quality of the lecture for one and also ensure that the students get access to the best possible knowledge. The revenue model should be a mix of ads and subscriptions or fees so that there is no fee to watch a basic lecture but some advanced course would ask for some nominal fee.
I am afraid that at present all this can be done only to complement the offline educational setup. The validity and value of an online degree is still limited to only an addition to a CV along with your main degrees earned by going to an actual physically existing institution and I don't see any drastic change in the near foreseeable future. But this platform can certainly be used to make the costly coaching centers redundant. There exists a huge gap between classroom teaching and the skills needed to clear a competition or to get a job. The portal may be directed at this. I would say that even the students from the best of Universities would want such a service as it would be a much better way to access high quality knowledge anytime and gain better understanding.
I think is an idea waiting to be picked up and worked upon to come up with a great business.

Sushant Mishra