Sunday, October 18, 2009

Education as a basic right - how can we make grassroot innovation scale up and out?

I am fortunate to live in a country where basic education is compulsory and higher education is a basic right. This means, as a parent, I am punished if I prevent my children for going to school (grades 1-10) and the government are obliged to provide my children with higher education opportunities (within certain parameters).

I have earlier blogged a bit on topics around education and my visit to Mumbai this July coincided with Hilary Clinton's talk at St. Xavier, my alma mater. So, after reading Sagarika Ghose's recent post on education in India and BBC's coverage of Babar Ali I felt I had capture this in a blogpost. I hope the coverage brings support for Babar Ali to improve his efforts and more importantly energizes more people to get involved in grassroot activities to make a difference. India has earlier witnessed grassroots innovations like Abhyanand's work in coaching poor students enter IIT.

We need such inspiration and excitement to drive the hard work that goes with making things happen. We have films like Taare Zameen Par that have sensitized the public and driven a sense of civic action. And then there is the OLPC project (Uruguay was recently reported as the first country to go all out with OLPC) and innovative technology efforts like WiHood. These solutions have an ability to scale very rapidly and can replicate the innovations from Babar Ali or Abhayanand.

However, scaling this up is hard for many reasons. Based on my work with alumni from my childhood school I have reduced them to two hurdles (1) the obvious hurdle is government lethargy and corrupt practices (2) the inaction from established educational institutions. I consider (2) to be the bigger hurdle. A hurdle that, if addressed collaboratively, can transform society rapidly -- particularly rural communities that need small efforts to bring about huge change. I believe that most of the established institutions do not know how to exploit the mass-collaboration that Internet technology is making possible. This is not a technology challenge, it is about educating and education policy -- it is about practices to teach, to create learning content -- and to train teachers to be mentors in a networked world where sharing is "a givers gain". This inability and subsequent inaction -- deliberate or accidental --- is something a country like India cannot afford. The inaction almost tends to justify government lethargy, instead of egging governments to go aggresively forward in providing local infrastructure.

I have earlier blogged on the Knowledge Commission and am hopeful that the current government will provide policy change and gradually drive infrastructural development. But I am more concerned about the other hurdle. I am an impatient soul and sense from other bloggers that we cannot wait too long for development and equal opportunity to come to the masses who need it so badly. This is not missionary work -- it is about not letting the world explode because we forgot to bring along the less fortunate on this journey to the future.

PS! I have not forgotten the role of the family in the education process nor the business potential -- I've just not reflected long enough on my experiences in the parent-teacher association. Some time soon...

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Nobel prize for Obama - Why I think it is a good thing.

Friday's announcement of the 2009 Nobel peace prize award to Obama has drawn much comment around the globe The comments are driving introspection and reflection at mulitple levels -- as witnessed by blogposts and Facebook conversations. The notion of peace is being examined and dissected and I suspect weekend conversations are going to be really interesting. In itself, this is a success for the Nobel committee!

Rambling through the blogosphere, I see my own reflections from different perspectives - starting from from the banal "what has he done to deserve this" to the business consultant in me "how do we measure success" and to the digital citizen in me "the role of new media technologies in generating debate and participation" .

What has he done: In the short time he has been in office, he has shut down the Guantanamo prison, as the first US president to chair a UN Summit he has secured a unanimous resolution on nuclear disarmament, he has supported dialogue with Iran and the discussion table, addressing the Muslim world from Cairo, challenging the situation in the Middle East -- just to name a few. These are good enough for me.

How do we measure success: After the immediate WTF and knee-jerk "the award is premature"-reaction, I was embarrassed. Embarassed, because as a planning and strategy consultant I expound the values of setting direction and thinking tactically in a strategic manner -- beyond just focussing on what is delivered. Delivery and execution are critical, but recently strategy thinking has been reduced to glossy-talk that is devoid of vision (like slow food, I hope we get "slow strategy" :-)). I now see the Nobel committee's award in that light; taking a bold step to interpret Nobel's intentions for the 21st century. They were rewarding Obama for the direction he set, for the vision he creates by small actions. One man alone cannot do but one can certainly envision. Ultimately they are rewarding a vision that is open and can be adopted by anyone. And that is the real value of the award for me -- "placing a responsibility" not only Obama, but on every head of state and every citizen of the world who shares that vision. A vision of a more equitable world, a world where conflict is resolved by dialogue and non-violence, a world where people are energized so that they can make a difference. If nothing else, the award has reenergized the world in a "Yes, we can" attitude. (Aside: I wish I had statistics on how many countries and communities have been energized by the Obama presidential campaign). So Yes, the Nobel committee have acted in a very strategic manner.

New media technologies in generating participation: After my first post to the BBC-website, when this award was announced. I have been reading blogs, newspaper sites, TV programs and Facebook comments. I was struck by how little attention I paid to mainstream networks. I googled using Google's Fastflip and got the gist of what they were saying and got a lot more background. But then, it was the blogs, tweets and Facebook conversations that caught my eye. Social media technologies are engaging people more than ever and Friday's award tells me that all that is needed is something really visionary to generate a debate and to involve and include. Society 2.0 is here and going global every day (Yeah, I know I said I would not use the 2.0 term, it now evokes new-thinking and I'm happy :-))

A note on the Nobel peace prize would not be complete if I did not mention my disappointment that the Nobel committee failed to a true innovator in peace -- Mahatma Gandhi. See this article for some context. Speaking of the Mahatma, Albert Einstein puts it best “Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.”

Friday, October 09, 2009

A big problem with laws and other technical material produced for bureacratic use is that it is - for all practical purposes - limited to those who are well-versed in the jargon or those with an immense capacity to read through technical documentation. (This is not unlike similar practices where for eg only priests could read holy scripture). Opening up content, not only by putting it on the web, but also providing tools to review and comment it is a good idea.

Therefore, Sharedbook is a very welcome technology that encourages people to collaboratively comment and annotate content. This form of collaborative action is useful in growing communities and creating a more engaging electorate (or an enterprise workforce for that matter). As a champion of more direct and participatory democracy, this move has a lot of potential of driving transparency.

I mention Sharedbook, because this is being used by some in the current health care debate in the US. See Congressman John Culberson's effort to get his constituents to engage themselves in the debate. There are similar technologies for co-creation of content (collaboratively creating content) -- and hopefully we will see the electorate actually collaborating on creating content that can become law. NB! I am not advocating that untrained people replace laywers or other experts, but that people are encouraged to participate in shaping policy and help lawyers and the experts.