I had earlier micro-blogged about it. A bit earlier than that I was wondering about the ‘same’-ness of these meetings. The Kozhikode Declaration however, leaves me disappointed, dejected. It is a strange mixture of deja vu and ritualistic publication of well-meaning words that saps the energy. There is a large part of content talking about software engineers, entrepreneurs and source code but nowhere is it clear about a vision or, an objective that one should aspire to. Besides that there is the aspect of some quirk in the declaration. Just as an example, take the line
Information & Communication Technology (ICT) is one of the most powerful technologies ever developed by humankind. It has drastically changed the way we do things, the way we communicate and even the way we think.
ICT is supposed to be an amalgamation of communication and computing technologies and more often than not the abbreviation ICT4D is used in the context of using such a convergence to facilitate development. Even if we leave this strangely ambiguous statement aside, the single most important feature that the declaration lacks is the action plan to take it forward. I see a declaration as more of a mere PR exercise than an actual roadmap or, guide to implementation and sustaining the deployments.
A barrier to the adoption of Free and Open Source Software technologies in education and especially basic primary education is the mixing of the concepts of FOSS-for-Education and FOSS-in-Education. And inevitably, any discussion of FOSS and Education leads to a discussion, often misinformed, about the ways to improve the system. The root cause is often neglected – the lack of books/reading material/content that are necessary for anyone to actually adopt a methodology/pedagogy that is based around FOSS toolkits and stacks. If you pick up any book it would be obvious that there is a massive proliferation of non-FOSS technologies and terminologies in them. The change in terminology is fairly important as well – that leads to recognition of name and which in turn leads to awareness.
There is another somewhat odd aspect that I notice. FOSS concepts and discourses are being increasingly influenced by political currents. And, adoption of them are also depending massively on state-level political support. The potential downside of this is course that if political equations change, the discourses and deployments are also prone to get changed. Where would that leave us ?
Around 4 days back, I had an interesting conversation over micro-blogs with a friend. When he was at Pune, we spent a small part of the evening talking about education, educators and, the process of educating as observed here and elsewhere. It did boil down to a (somewhat idle) lament that “the system isn’t performing according to expectations”. I thought over this over the weekend and, while I am not an educator, I am a “person interested in education”, and, it makes sense to attempt to try and see what the expectations are.
Any functional education system has to provide the participants with the tools and constructs that allow them to have independent streams of thought. While it teaches the formal discipline and rigor needed to pursue new topics, its scope should ideally encourage original thought. More importantly, it should encourage creativity, be intolerant of casual approach and, be ruthless in demanding excellence.
The problem is that reality isn’t always like that. There are a significantly high number of education institutes, some of them of past repute, who are sliding down the slippery slope of mediocrity. This fall is aided by the fact that the “education system” doesn’t lend itself well towards measuring the quantum of knowledge passed on to the students by the educators. And, it is compounded by the sad truth that the prolific growth of institutes have encouraged a somewhat exponential fall in the quality of the staff. The final nail in the coffin is the datum that the system of measuring “education” is around the results of an examination. The fact that the examination pattern does not encourage “thinking” is somewhat of a greater problem.
It is true that the better educators have not involved themselves within the system as much as hoped for. It is also true that the students have been lax in bringing themselves up to speed. The refusal to be aware of whom to benchmark themselves leads to a sort of navel gazing that is self-destructive at best and, a society-exploder at worst. With the current trend of public-funded schools not getting the number of teaching posts at the expense of wider inflow of private education (both at primary and, higher education levels), it does mean that the situation is possibly going to take a larger turn for the worse – a significantly higher section of the school-ready population is going to be unable to get decently functional education.
I don’t have any solution. That rankles. I do observe with rising alarm the somewhat inevitable slide. That needs to change.
The post is brought to you by lekhonee v0.7
Taking up from where I left it last time around, one aspect that should work out is producing a distribution that is packaged with applications relevant to education. The catch phrase over here is “relevant to education”. And, it means thinking about something what the Fedora Electronic Labs does.
The Fedora Education SIG seems to have a slightly different approach and, a different objective. Especially the part:
The Fedora Education Spin is the number one goal right now and includes software to use it as a terminal server client. In parallel some SIG members work in integrating K12LTSP into Fedora. Once that work is finished it remains to be seen if we integrate that work into the Fedora Education Spin.
It would be good to try and see if a Fedora based release can be done which gets installed out-of-the-box and, somewhat along the lines of this blog entry, wrap meta-data around the applications so that it becomes relevant to the target consumer. There are a couple of hops to go before LTSP and such can be packaged into a complete ‘solution’ that comes preloaded with relevant content. Getting the bits out there for playing would also allow a lot of volunteer driven innovation to land up and enhance the process.
I guess I am talking more about the modular breakdown of competencies that allow a larger group of people to start contributing in whatever way they can. Having such a bit would help in FiE and OCiE as well. Ideally, this could be something that is possible to be explored by any upstream project irrespective of whether it is a distribution. So, let’s say a GNOME-Edu compose set that let’s one package a lot of educational applications using GNOME bits to make it available as a functional-out-of-the-box installation.
There are 3 trends I notice when we talk about Education and FOSS in the same sentence. Especially when it comes to conferences and workshops in India. These are:
- FOSS in Education (FiE) – in all probability this can be the one aspect that is quickly done. There exists a curricula and content, and, the aim in this workflow is to ensure that the needs of the curricula are met via FOSS tools and technologies. A pretty much on-topic example could be consumption of Fedora Electronics Lab (FEL) towards teaching the content. Or, using parts of the GNU ToolChain when teaching programming and development.
- FOSS for Education (FfE) – reworking the focus and direction of the curricula and courses towards giving it either a neutral shape (thus allowing easier FiE) or, going full-throttle and making change happen. Since curricula creation has a lot of traditional (and, sometimes unusual) stakeholders, FfE is a game of constant flux, push-n-pull. For obvious reasons, it is also the place where a large amount of community involvement is required. Changes need catalysts. Community participation and direction provide that bit of spark which starts getting_things_done.
- Open Content in Education (OCiE) – have heard a lot of discussions around this but, am yet to see any University or College take this up seriously. Making the entire course content (syllabus, reading, references – the works) open and available for re-distribution or, re-use is something that Universities need to consider seriously. The era of classical education being driven through ‘red-brick’, ‘government funded’ institutions is close to being over. There are multiple ways to reach out to the potential learners as opposed to just waiting for the students to come in and enroll themselves. Re-thinking about content and breaking out from the mould of ‘elitism’ is something most educational institutions are not accustomed to doing. And, it requires careful handholding. Both in terms of the ‘coming out’ as well as the legal aspects of putting out the content. I would be interested in knowing about institutions in India that have managed to put this as part of a practice.
Dipankar Gupta has an article in the India Today special issue called ‘Transforming India’ (dated 06th Oct). Some of the numbers from his piece do make for interesting reading:
- India spends around 45 billion USD on Research and Development (he doesn’t specify what exactly counts as R&D, but those line items should be available somewhere)
- From 1990 till 1998, the spend on R&D and Technology Training came down from INR 219 crore to INR 156 crore (note: 10 million make a crore)
- The global rank of some of the institutes are as follows: IITs (50th), IIMs (84th) and JNU (192nd)
He goes on to add that India doesn’t cut a dashing figure in the Scopus Index as well.
There would be more such numbers available to show that
- the country isn’t doing enough by means of policy and implementation to encourage basic science and technology
- the country isn’t getting its act together to ensure primary education is being delivered correctly
State run/sponsored/funded schools still take in a large segment of the student population. And, various schemes notwithstanding, the schools have a systemic problem in terms of delivery of content and availability of teachers.