Beyond Blended Learning

 For a long time now, I have been promoting 'blended learning'. 

The reasons are various. I have done enough online learning myself to know that the solitary, individualistic learning experience can be a poor alternative to what one may experience in a campus. Besides, most of EdTech is still focused on delivering educational content, but ask anyone about their college days a few years after the fact, all they would remember is the people they met and the experiences they had. Artificial Intelligence, if it ever matches the claims its evangelists make, may perfect educational content delivery but it may never deliver this, the most memorable aspects of an educational experience.

But then, I went to school in India and apart from a few truly inspiring encounters, my educational experience mostly consisted of boring lectures and oppressive examinations. One could indeed say that those magical moments made all the drudgery worth it, but I wouldn't really ever want to go back to those classrooms. But I trace the root of that sad experience in the same obsession with educational content and assessment that pervade most of the online learning industry. It's easy to miss the irony in the similarity between the dreams of new education revolution and the realities of those soul-destroying classrooms: The whole point is to master the content and get the degree.

Between the two extremes, the bright idea that I chased for the last eight years has been about blending interesting content with the human contact of an in-person classroom. The focus of my work was to bring together frameworks, teachers and content from American or British universities and allow the learners to get together and do project work in the training centres in China, India or Africa. That was my blend - best of both the worlds that leverage the technology and yet do not lose the human connection.

Over the years, I have worked on many iterations of this model, revisiting these assumptions again and again. Real life challenges, that tutors and students are human beings and they bring with them not just their accents but assumptions, values and ideas to the classroom, were encountered and negotiated; commercial models were reimagined; endless regulatory jujitsus were duly performed. Some students graduated and got jobs, while others did not - just like any other college. But - as I now know - the magic of education isn't about grafting different 'good' things together. If that's the point of the blend, it's time to look beyond.

This is not about the model that I was pursuing and the data I gathered from trying out various things. There are many things that I learned that would seem obvious with hindsight: Put an Indian student in front of a teacher on the screen, he would be even more deferential to her than what he would have been in a class; deliver an American business curriculum in small-town China and the concepts and ideas therein would look even more absurd than how they would have appeared to a visiting Chinese student; friendships would form in the remote classrooms just as they do in sprawling campuses and would play out in its endless varieties of love, jealousy, competition, collaboration and lifelong bonds of trust or its opposite. But the most important lesson is in what we missed when we arrogated to blend - with the unspoken assumption that we had all the bits. 

We didn't: Education isn't an one-way street teachers delivering 'knowledge' to students. It's the bit that students - with their varieties of personalities, culture and values - brought to the mix. As I know now - that's the bit we left out.

In fact, as the penny dropped, I know that the problem of educational access is not a technological problem. The fact that teachers deliver uninteresting lessons is not something that the artificial intelligence will solve: It's not just about the intent or the ability of the teacher, but the job she is expected to do. That almost all educational experiences are prisoners of assessment grades - and no one railing about employability will ever question that proposition - is not merely a regulatory peccadillo; rather, it's a symptom of the impossibility of education. Impossibility, because education isn't, and can't be, a strictly formal exercise. It is, using a fashionable term, 'situated', a slow sipping of a style, a language, learning into being. It's not a thing that can be 'delivered', signed and sealed; it's rather like an environment that one grows in and into. 

After many years on the blended faultline, I am searching for a different model: One of wholesome education! It's not one which can be shaped by AI or foretold by data, but one that is constructed around the lived realities of the learners. There is this model of education as practised in India and other post-colonial states: You learn something for a degree and a job, never considering it useful for life! Whatever is useful, you learnt at home, or at the place of religion or at the family or community gatherings. Indeed, a similar model was there in industrial era England (and other European and North American nations later on): The Coffee-house (the good, third, place) was really where the discussion happened. The publicly-funded college ate up all those channels, extinguished all those possibilities of knowledge, and created this vast, bureaucratic, 'formal' knowledge machine. By creating a technical apparatus, I was just extending the reach of that vast machinery to places - excluding different forms of knowledge and conversations which were perhaps more important and definitely more relevant to those who were learning.


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