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Teacher Connect

2 Mar


Teachers should be in tune with times

Thursday, 23 January 2014 | Meeta W Sengupta | in Oped

The technology and teacher inter-connectivity boom in India is still at a nascent stage. It needs to spread for results to be evident

The tide has silently risen — and teachers are better off because they join. I speak of the conversations between teachers across schools, networks and geographies. Teachers are acknowledged to be at the centre of improvements in education — they are the single factor that determines the quality of teaching and learning that happens in a classroom. While much of these have been measured by student achievement, a teacher’s contribution is a lot more in terms of the values, the team skills and the emotional support that they offer to their classroom. Teaching is an act of transformation — it takes a lot out of the teacher and they too need validation and renewal.

A decade ago, the only place where teachers gathered would be in teacher-training sessions organised by their authority or in consultation meetings — where only the senior teachers had access. Training sessions were designed to be top down, and were often honoured in the breach rather than in actual renewal. Teacher training often became just about compliance. The past year has seen significant changes because of sterling work done by many to address the systemic issues that teachers face on a day to day basis. The first being isolation.

It is not only single-teacher schools in far-flung rural areas where teachers feel isolated. This can happen in a large, populated urban school too. Teachers who wish to innovate in their classroom, or have an idea that they think will work for a school, or maybe an interesting activity or lesson plan do not always find support within their schools. Every teacher has much to share based on their experiences and efforts. But for such sharing to happen teacher communities needed to be enabled both within and outside schools. One of the positives about team-teaching is that all teachers share materials and plans, which makes them effective support systems for each other. The downside is that it takes an initial investment of time from the teachers who will see benefits only once they make a success of it. Team-teaching has been seen to be effective only in schools that are technology enabled and where the teachers themselves naturally integrate technology with their teaching preparation and practice.

It is this technology boom that has enabled teachers across the world to connect with, teach one another and share what they can. This change has been slow in coming to India — many of the schools here barely see electricity, let alone have computers. Those that do find the journey as digital immigrants varied — the schools that have been able to enable open access with well- designed content have benefited the most, other schools find ‘computers’ to be a chore since it is seen as a separate subject and task. Teachers lead the change and those who have had support and are able to adopt it for use as seamlessly as a textbook or a blackboard are those who have more to share.

The technology and teacher inter-connectivity boom in India is nascent. Some of it is via Government networks such as those that link universities across the country. Many of these are enabled via email groups, Facebook and other social media. Large newspapers with significant education supplements have invested in developing communities of teachers across the country, as have social entrepreneurs who help create social learning platforms for teachers to share materials within school networks. The most ambitious of these is the open education resources programme that encourages teachers to share their teaching resources with others, for free, and to access and use other teachers’ shared resources.

Higher Education and Technology

25 Jul

The contrast between the private sector and the state sector in Universities is stark when you look at the investments in technology. A large proportion of university classrooms look as they have for decades – large rooms, with seating arranged in traditional rows and columns, lit by a few bulbs and tube lights and a blackboard at the front. Yes, of course, they have been ‘computerised’ and many do have projectors in their classrooms. At least some classrooms. Students, in many of them have access to computers, though often it it is rationed access. Contrast this with the investments of the private sector in their universities who use these amenities to attract students to their campuses. Classroom conditions are better – acoustics, climate control, lighting, net access and of course projectors and microphones.


Using technology in education is not just about bringing Mahomet to the mountain, it is also about the mountain moving to come to Mahomet. Both, educators and technology need to move closer to each other to work effectively. Education technology has now, just about, come of age and become accessible in more ways than one. Not only has the cost gone down, both in absolute terms and relative to average income levels, but also technology has become more user friendly.


I clearly remember the first computer to be allocated or purchased by our school, that year a Kendriya Vidyalaya. Decades ago. It came in a box, mysterious processes that we did not see had conspired to send this magical box to the school. No instructions. No support systems. No training. Well, at least not before the box arrived. It was a PC. The youngest teacher in the school, the yoga instructor was handed the box – the others too old or ‘experienced’ to deal with these new fangled ideas. He plugged it in. Spent hours figuring out how to connect the keyboard, monitor and ‘box’. Switched it on. A green dot blinked. He pressed a key on the keyboard. The cursor.. well still called a dot/line since nobody knew any more.. moved down. And blinked. I was called to help. Why me? Because I lived on a campus where they had been using a mainframe computer for years, and I had visited the grand rooms (airconditioned) where the mammoth machines were kept. And had handled punch cards (anyone remember those?).


We have come a long way from those days. Sugato Mitra’s hole in the wall experiment, years ago, surely offered more than a blinking screen to the slum kids – which enabled their learning. A new device today offers so much more in terms of usability – it has walked a few steps towards the educator. The educators too have moved on from a phobia of computers to grudging acceptance of its usefulness, especially after the internet proved that access and communications were much more effective than earlier methods. Even so, many professors in higher education do little more than email or create their papers and presentations on the computer. Despite having so much at their disposal. Often, even simple tasks like printing out a paper (why print at all??) or sending out an email are delegated to a younger assistant.


One of the biggest challenges in India today is helping educators get on to the technology bandwagon. Many use sophisticated smartphones, have access to good technology, are and badgered by vendors offering them customised products and services. Some, indeed many, have their own websites. At the same time it is also true that higher education institutions have been unable to build and use systems that make learning seamless and effortless. Having a website, or offering a static list of information is not really using the potential of technology to its fullest. A step forward is to use it for marketing the institution – both for potential students and as an ambassadorial tool. Some offer learning materials online, including lesson videos. It is time to do that and far more to create a vibrant learning habit. For the mountain to go to Mahomet.


Much of this is changing. Slowly but surely. The All India Management Association (AIMA) holds regular webinars hosted from their Delhi offices. As do many of the IIMs and others. The Higher Education Forum (and I am a part of that) interacts online as much as in real life, working to improve the quality of learning and sharing in the sector. IGNOU has been at the cutting edge of technology for decades, using radio and television before the internet arrived. The National Knowledge Network that promises to connect learning hubs across the nation brings hope. And then, one look at government and university websites, and one knows that there might be a while to wait before they actually become effective tools.


Education technology is so much more than a single website, projector or app. It is a means of making learning accessible, seamless and integrated. It is a means of enhancing the learning experience and supports the teacher in filling gaps as they emerge. In the age of MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses), when Universities were forced to look honestly at the role they play, one thing is clear – education technology is the path to widening participation in higher education. And the path to mobility across learning areas, and teaching institutions.


Much of our learning happens outside classrooms now. Khan Academy and You Tube are cited as the sites most accessed for learning new concepts or skills. Assignments, lessons and peer learning can happen anywhere as long as one has a connected device. Learning has come full circle – it is again social, as it used to be before schoolrooms were invented. The difference now is that the learning village is global. Students now use mobile phones, if not the more expensive tablets and computers seamlessly in their lives. Recent reports show that social media is the preferred route to sharing learning materials – amongst high school students in India. All the more reason to build on this strength in higher education. The experience with MOOCs has proven that technology is a key partner in learner centric education, and this is where our higher education institutions need to focus their energies.


The age of technology in education is less about the means and more about the ends. This is a chance for the learner to step up and design their own learning pathways regardless of traditional institutional constraints. No longer should it matter whether biology is an optional course in the the BSc. offered by one institution or whether ‘applications of mathematics’ is available at the right level. With the aid of the new tools, every device is its own classroom, and every device is a chance for a deep and meaningful connect between the content, the student, the teacher and the institution.



Meeta Sengupta
10 July 2013, 09:42 AM IST

EduTech: Consider the Teacher

25 Jul
05/09/2013 | 7 comments

One of the first real insights into marketing that I credit my professors with was the concept of need. A gap in the market does not define the need for a new product, however interesting and attractive it may seem to those of us with bright ideas. A market for a product exists only when the need for it is felt so much that it becomes a pain point, which is when people will fish for their wallets, even dig deep to pay for it. Till you have a paying public, you do not have a market.

Somebody tell this to those who design technology for education. Please.

Education technology products, barring a few exceptions, have been designed and created by bright teams that seek to solve perceived needs. And then try to ‘train’ the users in making the most of their products. Naturally, both sides are frustrated.

Teachers and administrators are annoyed at being asked to work extra hard to try to figure out a system that is alien to them and comes with promises of making their life easier only to complicate it further. An analogy: Have you ever worked on an quantitative analysis done in say, excel, by somebody else? How easy is it to navigate through some other person’s logic? Unless there is a standard template it is virtually impossible to work through another person’s processes with ease. The only way around it is to be a part of the initial thinking and process.

Educational users see many hurdles on the path to using the technology that is offered to them. First they have to learn how to access the system, then how to use the highly codified processes and then they have to troubleshoot when things go wrong, as they invariably do, and then they must maintain and update the system with or without specialist external help. To many this sounds like way too much work. This certainly does not qualify for the ‘technology will make your life easier’ badge in their books.

Let us take the example of a medium sized school, as middle of the road as you can imagine. The teacher in charge of a class has around forty students to look after. She had an attendance register that was marked manually. Her major investment of time in this process was writing out the forty names on the left – once or twice in the year. In class, it would take about three (rarely five) minutes to call out the names, mark as she went along and tally the absentees. Her job done, she could send the register down to some administrator who would compile records for the school. In the process, she had the chance to notice the body language and tone of each child in the class, and to respond to it or not in the 35 minutes now available for pastoral or academic conversation. A caring teacher knew her students, their academic and personal challenges and facilitated their growth.

Now, this teacher has been encouraged to use an LMS – a learner management system. A computer sits in the classroom that takes about 2-3 minutes to boot up. In the time it took for attendance to be taken manually, the e-file has barely been opened. And so on.. the tedium of data entry starts with attendance, goes on to marks in tests. Errors and changes add to the confusion. This is for regular tasks, not for teaching yet. Clearly many thousands of teachers see this as an unnecessary burden that is time consuming and resource intensive. The benefits are clear to those of us sitting in judgement above – better recordkeeping, a history of achievement for each child available at the click of (quite a few) button(s), safety and privacy of records (ahem) and a database that helps a school evaluate its own performance.

Of course technology has a role to play in enhancing the educational experience for both teachers and students. Even parents can benefit – for example with the app that sends a message to parents informing them of the status of the school bus their ward is scheduled to use. And yet we see that few schools and teachers evangelise the use of technology in the classroom. They may speak of specific brand names because they have become familiar with them – not necessarily because the technology has enabled them to become better teachers. It is still an outsider in the pedagogical process.

While technology is touted as the solution to the problems of access, of standardisation, of quality delivery and of governance, it is also true that nowhere has technology proved to be a perfect substitute for a teacher. Definitely not a substitute for a good teacher. I have seen technology make the work of a teacher easier, when they have materials to hand on the move, when they can replicate successful lessons and activities, when they can email materials out to their students, when they can run class discussions remotely via twitter. It is also true that students can create and share learning materials, have rich discussions and access information that would be tedious, time consuming and costly in the pre-internet age.

There is no doubt that technology for education serves the efficiency argument. There is also no doubt that a good education is not necessarily an efficient education.. much that seems wasteful is necessary to allow growth of the student. The point of technology is to nudge learning in specific directions, to measure progress and to use the benefits of efficiency to release resources for value addition. But for this to happen, the teacher and the learner have to be at the center and origin of this spiral. The need, and thence the design of the edutech product has to come from a gap in the learning process.

A moment when the teacher says – ‘If only I had a tool to…’ or the student says, ‘If I could do it this other way….’ — that is a felt need that should be at the core of all education technology design. Not a designer presenting to their team – they can only imagine what may or may not be felt. Design that originates from clear felt need and engages the learners will never be trapped in hurdles or training at all. Good design seems to organically grow out of the process fitting in almost invisibly, enhancing potential. For example: spectacles. Excellent education technology that improves access to learning fusing naturally within the process, requiring little by way of ‘how to use spectacles in the classroom’ training. (Yes, technology is not necessarily driven by electronics, electricity or the internet).

Then, why are MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) so popular? Are they not driven externally? They have been berated by many educationists as being less interactive than teaching should be, for having little or no pastoral or contextual elements to the learning, for being manipulated into a cheap substitute for real teaching etc. These miss the point. MOOCs are valuable precisely because they put the learner at the center of the process. Technology gives the learner choice of two things: 1. What they want to learn (and how much they want to learn, it is barely tested, dropping out is easy, as is joining again in the next cycle) 2. Who they want to learn with – the secret sauce to a successful MOOC is the peer learning network. Which puts the learner firmly in charge of choosing and using the technologies – email, google hangouts, skype calls, chat rooms, open libraries etc.

In Education Technology, as with all successful products, the design has to start and end with the people who will use it – the consumer must be both the starting point and the ending point, a partner in the process to be able to reap the joys of enhanced learning

This was published in Forbes India On May 9 , 2013

MOOCs and the Future of Education

15 Nov


The conversation about the future of education has recently been dominated by the acronym MOOC – Massive Online Open Courses. These are famously run by large Ivy league colleges, often on a common platform such as Coursera, though some are run independently too. These are normally free and are available to anybody who has a good internet connection on a computer.

MOOCs are seen as the most disruptive technology for higher education. Of you have a Stanford professor teaching you something, even if it is online, wny do you need to go to your silly little college at all? Your teachers may not be as good as the Stanford professors, and you may not learn beyond your textbook.

The best thing about the MOOCs is the chance to study with keen students across the world. Students formed their own study groups across continents, explored areas of interest triggered off by the online sessions with the professor. The peer learning networks that we have been speaking of for over two years came alive, triggered by a good professor!

There was plenty of assessment during the MOOCs too – in session exercises, assignments, peer discussions, reports. The work was not trivial either – there was a lot to read and research. The course was not simply about listening to a video. The challenge for these courses that provide assessment avenues is that one cannot verify the honesty and thus validity of the assessment. So far all these courses do is give one a certificate of participation that really does not carry any credits. There have been reports that employers are excited about these, but they do not translate into direct university credits.

The challenge for online courses such as these is clearly in interaction and connection. However wonderful an online course is, there is no substitute for a wise and caring professor. The mentorship of seniors and the escapades with peers are an indelible part of  coming of age journeys. The virtual experience, even one as good as the Khan Academy, can only be a shadow of the real one.

Yet it is a valuable addition to the brave new world of learning. There is much to be said for  these online courses – as is evidenced by their massive popularity. They provide excellent in depth explanations, standardized learning experience and repeat access to the training materials. While nominally the cost of these courses is zero, of course for many the access  to a computer with a good quality internet connection becomes an issue. Some, of course externalise their cost to their workplace. In a perfect world, all college and univerisity libraries would be open to all, 24 hours a day with free internet access. This happens in some cities and countries – there is always a resource available for those who want to learn.

MOOCs bring value in cutting across traditional boundaries. People of all ages, from any background can participate in these lessons. And engineer can study philosophy, a scientist can learn of history. The cross seeding of knowledge and experience is bound to make great things happen in the near future.

So, are MOOCs all good? Not really. There is no substitute for the teacher who facilitates and catalyses intellectual growth. In the absence of such a teacher, this is a good step forward. A MOOC – so far – has been unable to cater to the personalised needs of the student.. it moves on, jaggernaut like, at its own pace. It can neither stop for those left behind, nor are there any built in mechanisms to help people catch up. So far, the success rates even if measured as full participation are rather low. But then, of course, many join a MOOC to learn rather than to gain a certificate or participate in assessments. MOOCs are the face of massification, an invaluable tool in disseminating knowlege. And therefore will be an integral part of learning now and in the future. A part, not the whole.


This was published in the Times of India blogs on November 12, 2012 and is linked here, and

Teachers and Technology

10 Nov

This article got the highest recommendations and the highest ratings possible.


Not only am I personally really comfortable with well designed technology, I am also the type of teacher who thinks she can deal with any class, any level of technology. I come from a time when we did presentations with just our voices, when the chalkboard was the key resource. Overhead projectors overheated and often melted our slides, or their very expensive bulbs gave out in the middle of the session. We had to be prepared for power cuts, sound system failure and of course the presentation not ‘loading’. And this was in the elite teaching institutions.


No, I mis-speak. I am comfortable with technology when it works well. When things go wrong, even with the common photocopier, I seek help. I know my limitations. Often, one technology is as good as the other, for in my book my job as a teacher is to energise the class in such a way that they get excited about the content and engage with it. The technology only supports my endeavor.

The first time I taught in a fully tech-enabled classroom was a rather daunting experience. Not only did the projector shine in my eyes as I walked around the classroom, but I was separated from my students by this wall of monitor backs.. each student had a computer monitor on the desk in front of them. I could tell by their faces when they had switched to other distractions, but other than move and teach from the back of the class, where I could watch all monitors, there was little I could do. Of course, over a few classes, a new protocol emerged, and the students figured out how much I could be fooled – or not.

But does it? For many teaching teams that I have worked with do see it as less than an efficient use of their time. They are used to their ways, their old notebooks and traditional technologies work just fine for them. Of course it is nice to be able to put on a video during class, or use the support lesson to ease the pressure. Some admit, this is the only time they get to mark assignments from the class.


Sadly the use of technology in the class has rarely gone beyond that in many cases. Pure technology based learning has been proven to be a disappointment, to be used exclusively only in places where teachers are not available at all. Human intervention has proven essential for learning, especially when it comes to higher order skills. The internet or offline units of knowledge are useful for sharing information, preparing the student for the lesson and of course for testing. True learning needs the teacher to engage, curate and facilitate the conversation.


This of course leads to the widely accepted concept of blended learning, but even here current models are a combination of technology based learning materials and teacher engagement – not a blend. There will of course be cases of micro-innovations where some teachers have managed to fuse them well to suit the needs of the learners, and clearly we have much to learn from them. Somehow, once when in the flow, the blending is not difficult.


What is often challenging for teachers is changing over to the use of technology. Sometimes it just does not seem worth the trouble. For others of course, it enlivens a class and makes it possible for the teacher to focus on more specialised aspects of teaching in the classroom. The training and support of teachers as they adopt current ICT systems into their classrooms is critical to the success. If rolled out before proper training and traction, it is very likely that the technology will lie unused and will not thus impact learning outcomes.



Technology is supposed to be the great leveller, but in India there is quite a journey that must be completed before we reach that stage. Technology based support systems are currently available to the well to do, both at school and at home. The have nots, who suffer a lack of mentors and teachers at home are pushed further back as the tech resources are  expensive – both to buy and run. Having said that, where the system or the government has provided computers and internet to children at schools, various innovative learning tools such as class blogs have become successful tools for embedding learning via sharing.


An interesting question that has not been asked is whether this technology would make the teacher lazy using the same materials year on year? Entirely possible – as it is possible with content created by others. But this is a fear that has not been realised yet. Most teachers are more comfortable with their own materials. Even if they are guided by another person’s test or presentation, they prefer to create their own. It is this that troubles vendors who find that their research and design efforts may or may not actually be used on the floor of the class.


This is probably because, so far, the technology inputs have come from the suppliers. Unless the lead is taken by the teachers who demand what they need, the impact is going to be sub-optimal. Suppliers too would be happy to be guided to meet the right demand. It is up to the teachers to not settle for what the salesman supplies and to demand the tech that works for them, this building a partnership with the suppliers to invest in building the future of education.


This was published in the Times of India blogs on October 31, 2012 and is linked here and