Monday, October 31, 2011

Changing learning

There are many things that India needs to do. On top of my to-do list for India, though, is a complete overhaul of our approach to education. We simply have to move to a system that hinges on learning rather than on passing exams.
So it was wonderful to discover the work that the Agastya International Foundation has been doing to transform learning, especially science education, across India. While the foundation’s emphasis seems to be on taking hands-on science education to government-run schools in rural India, its appeal is universal. In fact, I know of teachers from urban schools who have been blown away by the foundation’s work, especially the experiences at its centre in Kuppam, Andhra Pradesh. Equally important, I know of young urban Indians who’ve been through the foundation’s programmes and find them cool. Which is really cool, because it’s not often that you find teachers and students agreeing on something.
Of course what I have is second-hand information since I’ve not actually been to any of the Agastya International Foundation’s programmes or visited its centre. I plan to do some time soon, though.
However, from what I’ve been able to gather, its model is both scalable and replicable and, of course, transformational. Just the sort of thing we need to change education in India.
Staying with scalable, replicable and transformative learning models, it’s been almost a year since I first wrote about Salman Khan. Since then, the hedge fund manager turned online tutor has done a fair bit to change, at least partially, the way we learn.
Khan Academy, his free online library of short video lectures on all sorts of topics has evolved in various ways. Over the past 12 months the number of videos it hosts has grown from 1,800 to around 2,800. The lectures now cover more subjects, including sections devoted to specific examinations such as GMAT and India’s IIT-JEE. The team running the repository has also grown from one to about 18, including a couple of art history professors. This piece in the FT has pretty much the full story on the evolution of the Khan Academy, including the substantial funding it has drummed-up.
The Khan Academy’s value lies in its potential to transform learning in several ways. For one, you pay nothing to access the videos in the repository and, according to the FT piece, Khan intends to keep it that way. The videos themselves are easy to understand. And the concept can be replicated and improved by anyone who’s interested. Again, the sort of thing that should find a place in the Indian approach to education.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Consumer rant #4: The camouflaged opt-in

We really shouldn’t sign a document unless we’ve read and understood it. That, at least, is the theory. In practice though, we often end up scribbling our signature on something after, at best, a quick read-through.
About a week ago, I was at the Nokia Care centre in Trivandrum to try and fix my mobile phone. It was a busy day at the service centre — I spent about 30 minutes waiting for my turn at the counter. Once I’d explained what the problem was, I was told that I’d have to turn in my phone for it to be fixed. Then came a version of 20 Questions, including demands for my telephone number and e-mail address.
Questions answered, I was given a couple of forms/work orders and told “sign there and there”. I skimmed through the forms, but there seemed to be nothing alarming in them. So I signed, left and forgot all about the forms.
Early this week I was told my phone had been fixed and that I could pick it up. It was while I was at the service centre, waiting to pick up my phone that I actually read my copy of the form/work order. And that’s when I discovered that in one section of the form, I had actually agreed to let Nokia contact me with information on special deals, quizzes and so on. Now that is not something I would sign up for — ever.
Nokia is a brand I have a great deal of affection for. Like many others in India, my first mobile phone was a Nokia. Three-quarters of the mobile phones in our house are Nokias. That, however, does not mean that I want marketing messages from the company texted or e-mailed to me.
As I picked up my (repaired) phone, I asked the person at the delivery counter to modify my work order so that my name would be taken-off the company’s marketing list. I also asked her two questions: Why did the work order ask customers to agree to receive marketing messages? And why hadn’t I been told that I was also agreeing to receive marketing messages from the company when I signed the service centre’s work order? She hummed and hawed, and didn’t really give me an answer.
The answer is, perhaps, that in these times of ‘do not disturb’ registries and tough markets, opt-in marketing is a necessity. Something that many companies work into their marketing strategy. I understand that. However, isn’t informed consent a must for opt-in marketing?
I agree I made a mistake. I should have read the form/work order properly before signing it. At the same time, shouldn’t the person at the service centre have flagged it for me? Shouldn’t I have been told that along with agreeing to the service conditions, I was also agreeing to receive marketing messages from the company? Shouldn’t I have also been told that this was, presumably, completely voluntary?
Perhaps Nokia’s marketing policy does insist that informed consent should be obtained from customers. If it does, then that policy is merrily being flouted, at least by the company’s service centre in Trivandrum. Will the company fix this? I have no idea.
What I know though is that I’ve re-learnt an important lesson: Always read and understand something before signing it. I may sign on to receive information on special deals, but it will only be after I’ve read and understood what I’m signing on for.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The past is a mirage

It wouldn’t be surprising if the past counted for little in India. This is, after all, a country with over a billion people and all the challenges that come with that.
The reality though is that we obsess about our past. We lose no opportunity to tom-tom the glories of India’s culture and civilisation. It is, of course, another matter that this pride in our heritage seems to be wheeled out only on special occasions and is not really a part of our DNA. Why else would we be so indifferent towards visible symbols of our past — museums for instance?
Several weeks ago, I was at the Pondicherry Museum — the Puducherry Museum actually.  The government-run museum was then in the throes of a renovation, which mostly seemed to revolve around giving the building a fresh lick of paint.
What stopped me in my tracks though was the extreme casualness with which the whole process appeared to be carried out. To begin with, visitors were being allowed in, to dodge falling paint and bamboo scaffolding and see what they could of the exhibits.
The exhibits themselves were left to the mercies of the painters — very little effort appeared to have been put into protecting them from the paint and dust. There was, for instance, not a dustsheet in sight to protect the exhibits. Instead, just a few sheets of newspaper spread desultorily across some of the objects; many though were splattered with paint. And dust-covered furniture — I’m not sure if they were antiques or replicas — was stacked in the corners of some of the rooms on the first floor of the museum.
In other rooms, wiry workmen pushed around glass-fronted display cabinets that held shards of ancient pottery and antique weapons. Elsewhere, burial urns of clay nestled on beds made of old car tyres, propped cosily against walls. The glass on some display cabinets was long gone and a visitor could have easily walked away with a souvenir that was centuries, if not millennia, old.
I know it’s not easy to find the resources and expertise required to run a museum well, let alone renovate one properly. But surely, it can’t be too hard to find some expertise in a town like Pondicherry, which has a very active chapter of The Indian National Trust For Art and Cultural Heritage (Intach). And failing all else, is it so hard to bring some commonsense to how we manage museums and view the past?


It’s been three months and a bit. Attribute the absence to the curveballs that life throws up occasionally. Staying away wasn’t easy. Writing happened though, but elsewhere. In TOI Crest for one:
It's a little past 7. 30 on a Monday morning. A woman in a green sari is vigorously dusting a large glass-topped table stacked with files. She pauses for a moment to straighten the chair behind the desk, before continuing to clean the table. It is an early morning ritual that happens in offices across the country every working day.
What makes this dust-busting exercise different though is that it is happening in the office of the chief minister of Kerala and anyone in the world can view it by logging on to www. keralacm. gov. in (Read the rest here)
The curveballs have been straightened out — sort of. And regular programming is set to resume very soon. Perhaps, even later today.