Monday, November 26, 2018

AI to correct answer sheets?

The other day, I was chatting with a professor about his teaching workload in the ongoing semester. He admitted that he had a fantastic run with an elective course that had more than a hundred students. With the examinations already underway, he was dreading the deluge of the answer scripts that would follow! He was also engaged in a research project involving blockchain applications in solving a community problem. Our discussion veered toward the blockchain technology and its applications in the real world today.

Most applications of blockchain are centered around finance, (virtual) money, governance, public health etc. Education has found an interesting application too in ensuring that one can access the certificates and marksheets securely and with full confidence about their authenticity. You may want to listen to this McKinsey podcast discussion about blockchain concepts.

The conversation with the professor started me thinking about more applications of new technologies in education. One of the most draining tasks in a professor's tenure is the evaluation of answer scripts. The task is quite repetitive, not full of academic discoveries barring those rare gems and takes away time from what could have been more rewarding activities like research or consulting. This looked like the perfect recipe for a tech intervention. Artificial Intelligence has come a long way already in making sense of a paragraph beyond the elementary spelling and grammar checks. The idea isn't novel and has been in the making for at least a couple of years. This article from Aug, 2017 mentions about the experiment in US and Australia and ends with a word of caution from some teachers.

AI systems, unlike their predecessors in rule-based computing algorithms, learn from their experiences and over time, gain a much deeper understanding than a human brain. Currently, they may lack the understanding of creativity but they are very good at doing the repetitive tasks in a quicker manner. We are moving beyond the mundane matters of OMR-based answer sheets to now make sense of a written word in the right context. Some simple algorithms existed already in trying to "rate" the essay in Statement of Purpose that colleges receive every year from thousands of aspirants. But these were simple keyword searches and couldn't have been used as definitive assessments. We are now able to design AI-based systems that do medical diagnosis from MRI scans! On another front, the AI systems are also able to compete (and defeat the best humans) on games like Chess and Go.

It may sound simple as compared to these winning examples but evaluating answer scripts from different student minds is not an easy task. The "model" or "sample" answer script, against which the answers are evaluated, can't be an exhaustive sheet, specially, in the fields of humanities or social sciences. It involves an open mind to identify originality, creativity and underlying understanding of theory rather than applications of mathematical formulae.Since most exams are still conducted on paper today, it adds an added complexity of recognizing human handwriting through Optical/ Intelligent Character Recognition (OCR/ICR) technology.

If we can crack the code to use AI in evaluating answer scripts, and assuming that we move to type-written answer scripts, the opportunity of setting up a central BPO operation for multiple colleges/ universities is huge. More importantly, this will lead to a more personalized feedback mechanism to aid the teaching assistants and tutors to help the student better. Data-driven analytics will feed back into the faculty's teaching to improve quality too.

A 2016 TEDx Talk by Prof. Ashok Goel from Georgia Institute of Technology demonstrated use of an AI-powered chatbot to handle student queries effectively and virtually freed up the Teaching Assistants' time. When we hear contrarian voices about people losing jobs to AI and robots, we need to remember that human brains need to focus on the "new" rather than the "old and regular" work.

Instead of worrying about the job losses, which are quite inevitable, we need to find out what our brains are capable of beyond intelligence and let technology take over the routine stuff that it can learn over time.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Does technology really reduce work?

This week, I came across an interesting news article that quoted Frances O'Grady, the general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, an organization in the United Kingdom representing labor unions.

"I believe that in this century, we can win a four-day working week, with decent pay for everyone," O'Grady said during a speech at the TUC's annual gathering in Manchester, England on Monday.

My personal experience over more than two decades of working life in India has been a mixed bag. There are primarily two ways in which technology impacts a worker's life. First, the efficiency increases. This translates to more work in lesser time but then mostly, the work itself increases to occupy the time gained. This is typical of situations where technology intervenes to perform the same task in mostly similar manner but in a "faster" way. Imagine a cashier in the 70s doing calculations manually and then using a calculator in the 80s and then on an Excel spreadsheet in the 90s. However, I am sure the cashier wouldn't have seen herself free of work due to this change over the decades. That's probably because technology was trying to make it quicker for the cashier to do the enormous amount of work that was piling up. As a result of this speed, her desk started clearing up faster and the manager piled on more work. In some cases, another cashier might have been thrown out of job to give the extra work load to this "computerized" counter.

The second way in which technology impacts a worker's life is, ironically, extended working hours. There was a time when our parents came home from office and just relaxed. I never saw my parents carry work to home because that would have involved carrying bulky files. Even if they could have managed to carry some file home, the "connected" work dependency on other colleagues and files would have rendered the activity useless. Look at the situation today... Work itself is now on cloud and the mobiles (that are more powerful than the entire computing devices of an erstwhile office put together) have made it "light-weight" to carry work home. Moreover, the connectivity through virtually free-of-cost calling and whatsapp messaging has made it easy to get help from colleagues and other work files. This has meant that the poor worker is never off-work. In fact, it is increasingly becoming very hard to go on a vacation without feeling guilty about not being connected to work, while wanting to stay connected with your friends and family through social media.

In an interesting study about working hours per week conducted for the young millennials in 2015, it is quite evident that technology was not really helping matters.
Infographic: Where Do Millennials Work The Longest Hours? | Statista (You will find more infographics at Statista)
There are fundamental questions that we need to address before we begin to think of how technology can free up man-days from our work week. The first relates to the context of availability of resources. For instance, when I saw a fully automated self-payment enabled counter at a Retail Store in Melbourne, I was taken aback by the "impersonal" treatment while marveling at the technology and trust. In India, it would seem foolish to remove people who smile and interact with you at the checkout counter of a superstore. Foolish, also because you wouldn't trust customers to pay without trying to cheat. This is also the reason why your Boarding Pass gets checked by at least 4 humans before you board the plane in India while not a single human looks at it in Singapore today! The logical argument to this phenomenon is to provide employment to people when the government is always looking worriedly into the unemployment statistics.

The next context is about commercial feasibility. A few months back, I was astonished on seeing a group of 4 people using a earth-boring contraption to drill for water. The sight that confounded me was that of the sheer manual force being used instead of the usual electric power. From my vantage point of the pre-conditioned notion of seeing boring done in cities, this was a complete reversal. But then it made definite sense in that rural area set 50 kms away from the Lucknow city. It would have cost a fortune to get the boring machine to the site. Moreover, the electric power may not even be available at the site. Some times, especially, in the developing world, the notion of using technology seems like an unnecessary and overstretched piece of imagination.

Lastly, as a wise man had commented, "work stretches to occupy the available time". This also holds true for the time left unoccupied by technology. I have often seen people overstaying in the office beyond the office hours and completing work that could have been done in regular hours. That's probably because the deadline is for end-of-day and this is literally taken as midnight by a lot of "hard-working" people. Besides, you run the risk of getting more work (probably from a less-efficient colleague's desk) if you finish yours faster!

I am quite certainly sure that technology will have the desired impact only if it is implemented with a clear objective of freeing up human time. That will involve rethinking the complete process rather than a mere replacement of human task with tech-enabled task. And then the humans will, hopefully, get over the idea of working in office at the cost of family or social time.

Till then, let's keep burning the midnight oil...

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

That's not my job!

What are the most self-damaging statements a young professional can make?

As a young man starting my work life, I joined a forging company. Like everyone else of my age, I had big dreams of making an impact, earning respect and rising up the ladder quickly. Like most others, I thought that people up the hierarchy probably didn't deserve the status they had earned. I knew for sure that hard work and sincerity in my work was the key to success. Very soon, I had many people reporting to me and some of them were my father's age! I became a Shift In-charge managing the maintenance function and had one particularly highly talented electrician in my team. This man was an expert trouble-shooter who, as legend had it, could tell the problem by smelling a circuit board.

At the top of the plant hierarchy was the General Manager, who became the Vice-President of the Group in just about 2 years that I was there. He had risen from a plant supervisor to the Vice-President in less than a decade of joining the company. Legend also had it that he could tell you that a particular bearing set was worn out on hearing the press "cry" while passing by the factory in his car. The comparison with my expert electrician was stark and made even more conspicuous because of the fact that both had joined the company together at the same rank!

This VP gentleman, however, could also tell the problems in an account statement, give expert opinion on raising debt from the market and help the marketing interns reach out to new clients. The Electrician stayed, more or less, where he had been.

The key difference between the two men was the single statement "That's not my job". Mr. VP made it his habit to reach out to other colleagues over cups of tea and made an effort to understand their work. He made sure that he was available for any "menial" work in any department at any level.

In my considerable work experience at different levels, I have seen those people moving up faster who haven't held themselves chained to their allotted work. Statements like "Am I supposed to do all the work?" or "Why don't you do it yourself if you think you can do better?" don't go down well with your manager. But more importantly, these statements are damaging their own future career more than anyone else.

My advice to young and not-so-young professionals is to cross-skill and up-skill before you get out-skilled!

Monday, July 16, 2018

How Indore became India's cleanest city for two consecutive years!

It is rare for an Indian city to transform itself and then sustain the effort to a level where people make cleanliness a habit. Indore (a city in MP with 3.2 million population) is a case in point to prove that a great plan and greater execution can make a huge positive change.

The story of Indore's transformation made a case study in IIM-Indore. The cleanliness drive doesn't come free though. Having lived in the city before this transformation happened, I was appalled at the daily sight of cows eating up plastic from overflowing garbage dumps. This was, of course, not any different from any other Indian city. Many like me would have felt a sense of helplessness and resignation. But someone from the city took this as a challenge. I admire the industrious nature of the city in that it makes you feel at home if you take risks and go on your own instead of taking the beaten path. In this video about Indore's makeover, it is worth noting the way the drive is run financially. The municipal corporation buys plastic waste at Rs. 5/ kg and sells it at Rs. 8/ kg to road builders. With 1,000 metric tons of waste being processed every day, you can do the math...

In my last visit to the city, I was overjoyed to see the herculean task of city cleaning happening at night with a gusto reserved only for the foodies' delight at the city's Sarafa Bazaar or Chappan. I was also informed that the organic waste converted into compost was sold at Rs. 2/kg to the public to encourage greenery.

The city's municipal corporation introduced a "third bin" to dispose of sanitary and medical waste, tried public shaming on FM radio channels, set up composting units at the waste source like the large vegetable markets and painted the town red with public messages about cleanliness! A song sung by Shaan is now the city's anthem for getting the act right and is played in all the 800 plus garbage collection trucks. These trucks are cleaned daily too to give them a clean look.

All of this has had positive fallout for the city. Not unexpectedly, Indore's "Muni bonds" that debuted at NSE earlier this month were oversubscribed 1.26 times and generated more than Rs. 200 Cr. for the corporation. Market rewards a good track record.

Someday, all cities in India will follow the Indore model and transform their filth into green! And we wouldn't have to look overseas for motivating stories of change.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

What does IT mean in an educational institution?

In the early 90s, IT in an institution meant PCs, Laptops, LAN cabling and often people confused Electricity with IT.

A couple of decades later, IT additionally started meaning Software, Mobiles, Apps and probably, more headache (read, work) for a lot of people working in these institutions.

Have things really changed?

Today, IT "interferes" with almost everything in a campus. None of the functions can work without internet, solutions like Excel or Word, mobile apps or, in our case at O P Jindal Global University, even a food coupon vending machine. We are aggressively pushing IT usage in almost every aspect of a student's life, knowing well that these will bring more and more responsibilities on the small IT team. New skills need to be developed, not just within the IT team but even outside!

If most users still panic only when the WiFi fails for an hour or a Projector system fails to connect within 2 minutes, it is not entirely their fault. The essence of IT infrastructure is that it should work behind-the-scenes silently and efficiently, just like water, air or electricity. The residents seem to understand that Power switch-over may take 15 minutes or water taps may run out due to maintenance needs but they can't remain disconnected for that long. A Skype or Video conferencing call may be happening with their colleagues in another country or a large contingent of eminent personalities may be waiting impatiently for the projector to connect. These instances are indicative of criticality of IT services in today's context and must ring alarm bells in the top ranks of service providers.

A larger question is about the role of IT in the institution's strategy and direction. The litmus test is to see the constitution of the Board to verify if IT has a representation in it. We are yet to see this happening in educational institutions and we continue to see the representation of HR and Finance and in some cases, the Infra team if the institution is in an aggressive growth phase. IT representation in board meetings becomes limited to ensuring that the Powerpoint presentation runs well on the projector!

If educational institutions want to make projections into the future, they have a near impossible task if they don't think of IT as a strategic partner. How does one be prepared for a future that will see more learners outside of a campus than inside? How does an institution plan for a future where their students will not be from a definite geography? How does one get ready to launch academic courses and research programs if the courses will need global collaboration using technologies not prevalent today?

In the modern context, IT initiatives can have major impact in the cost structures of an organization. With the right interventions, IT can free up precious resources to redeploy in more
high-value transactions. At O P Jindal Global University, we have replaced a manual process of calling students' parents for approving gate-passes by an automated IVR-based calling process. As an immediate impact, the hostel staff could now focus on calling parents for feedback and longer chats concerning their wards. Subsequently, we released another upgrade to allow the parents to approve their ward's gate-pass request by clicking on a dynamic link.

In other situations, IT can help solve operational challenges to manage costs (like a mobile app for meal coupon tracking), ease processes (by installing a mechanized RFID/ Biometric-based entry-exit gate) or improve efficiency (by automating the sticker generation process for conducting anonymized examinations). These measures drive home the point about taking IT as a central pillar that drives innovation in an institution and impacts almost every aspect. As a visible reminder of the potential of impact on other departments, at OPJGU, we call our IT department as the Office of Innovation.

IT must bring about the change in an institution's working and strategic planning. And as with most other things, this change starts at the top. We are fortunate to have the leadership at OPJGU take cognizance of this fact and allow the Office of Innovation to make interventions that have long-term impact on the institution's vision.

Thursday, February 01, 2018

Teachers, lead from the front when it comes to technology!

Professional development for teachers focuses on pedagogy and content and misses the critical point about the necessary technology connect with the students. In today's classroom, a teacher is usually hopelessly lost about the students' "techaptitude". Right from the toddler stage, today's children are exposed to a natural barrage of gadgets and technology all around them. Unfortunately, a teacher isn't in the same league due to an entirely different stage of life.

Parents often face this dilemma and choose to stay aloof giving the excuse of being too occupied in their careers and home. Teachers, however, don't enjoy that luxury as they are expected to guide their students, and not be left behind. Adding to their woes, technology changes at a much faster pace than they can even begin to understand the current one. Newer apps, tools, games, gadgets and lack of time/interest make the job of keeping oneself updated even harder.

Image result for technology friendly teacherI faced a similar situation myself when I used to teach at a test prep centre and then a K-12 school. While I was teaching the class, I realized that my students were using their phones for twitter, instagram and other such sites. While they were quite observant in the class, their attention span reduced to a few minutes due to the constant inflow of information on their mobile. During the class break, I started interacting with them to understand their source of attraction. I would be lying if I said I wasn't drawn to some of these sites. So, I decided to dive in too and learn the new technologies and make my presence felt on these sites.

I believe a teacher is far better geared to handle the "distractions"- probably due to the age factor and the intent. With an intent to be prepared and ahead of my students in understanding the tech tools of the times, I could now address the class with the trending hashtags and speak in their language. It generated an amused curiosity in my students about this old guy who was up-to-date with the trends of their age. In just a short time, I was now ahead of them because of my interest in "what was coming next" than "what was happening now".

This was the beginning of a love affair that has lasted till date and I have been blessed to have an ever-unsaturated hunger to be ahead of the curve. It has helped me, as an edutech practitioner and learner, to connect with today's learners in more ways than the subject allows. I feel sympathetic towards those teachers who don't take the pain to adopt technology, or at least, understand it. They are probably not realizing that it is only a matter of time when their students' interest will wane out from the subject- not the least because of the teacher's subject knowledge!

So, what do you do to upgrade? Simple, use technology to learn technology. Google for what you want to learn and you shall come across tens of sites and courses to help you jump in the bandwagon.

Welcome aboard!

Monday, November 27, 2017

Playing God, or better than Him?

In an article in Scientific American, the author, Larry Greenemeier, presented a case about whether prosthetic legs gave an unfair advantage to athletes like the South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius or the Paralympic long jump champ, Markus Rehm.

Even in today's technology age, a differently-abled person is not expected to perform as well as an able-bodied person, though we have seen enough inspirational stories of grit and determination that indicate to the contrary. These stories are exceptions than rule. Most people in this context will feel less equipped to handle the otherwise routine work carried out by able-bodied people. Well, this is going to change in the near future. In fact, I believe that completely able-bodied people will begin to opt for a prosthetic change instead of the one they were born in. Does this seem like science fiction? Read on...

When my mother-in-law went through a knee-replacement surgery, the difference in her walking stance was stark. Had she been a runner before the surgery, she could have continued doing so after a slight recovery gap. There are numerous examples of marathon runners in every marathon today who have had a knee replacement too. I would definitely want to replace my ageing knees or the entire teeth set to be able to run as well as eat more sweets! Taking these cues further, I could have done this two decades earlier if I was convinced that the new man-made knees would give me a definitive edge in shaving off 30 minutes off the Marathon time.

On the high technology front, a bionic lens could enhance normal 20/20 eyesight three-times! With the existing technology, you could have your natural lens replaced with the bionic lens at about $3,200 and get a super-sight. With this lens, you could see the molecular details on your palm or read a book 10 feet away. I am certain that much more fancy stuff is on its way that will allow you to choose the super-sight features you may want and at a much more affordable price.

The organically grown body parts will become such commonplace within 50 years that a parent might choose to enhance the yet-to-be-born baby's eyesight with hyper-vision and get it changed after child-birth. In a way, it will be a customized accessory that will replace the "factory-fitted" eyesight. And unlike what we might be dreading as a robotic fixture, the body parts will be grown out of the mother's tissues.

What does all of this imply for education?

How and what one could "teach" a child, who has a customized memory-retrieval chip that will not add on to the world's largest memory stick (your brain) but will be far more efficient in retrieving the things you need. Teachers today are already finding it hard to cope with the ever-pervasive Google and the good ones are changing their teaching styles by using Google/ internet as an enabler.

In future, a teacher may become a redundant figure in a child's development and get replaced by a much more involved creative guide to a learner. Technology (read, internet) hasn't really replaced schools or teachers. But that is only because the employers are still hesitant to hire someone without formal schooling/ higher-ed qualification. With this set to change to hiring requirements for thinkers and innovators, the kind of education one needs would need to change too.

We are slowly, but surely, moving to a future with far more complex relationships with machines and robots. To keep our human-ness intact, education will play a very big role. They may take a completely different form but schools and colleges are not really going away soon. The trick is to ensure that they keep current, even in future...

Monday, October 09, 2017

What's wrong with the Indian genes?

Image result for australian traffic
I have traveled a bit of the world, and my last trip was to Sri Lanka a couple of years ago. When I went to Melbourne, Australia, it struck me as a "civilized" society in the true sense and I admired the civic sense of being considerate about your fellow beings, following traffic rules and showing respect for other people's space. And I thought that this was a "white sensitivity" that I had witnessed.

Then I visited some parts of Asia- Nepal, Philippines, Malaysia and Sri Lanka. I had anticipated brotherhood and similarity with India. I was disappointed. The streets were clean, people humble, and traffic- well organized. Cars gave way to pedestrians and cyclists were given space on the same road as other vehicles. In most situations, I was quite amazed to see cars exactly in the middle of their lanes and exactly the same number of vehicles as the number of lanes on the road. When traffic was slow or jammed for any reason, people didn't just try to cross over to the middle of two lanes to congest the roads.

That brings me to the question in the title of this piece- What's wrong with the Indian genes? Some of my well-meaning Dilli-walla friends have argued that the impatience in jumping a red signal, when nobody is on the road, is a sign of creativity and zeal to move quickly. Another equally well-meaning Aussie friend remarked the other day that Indians seem to be always in a hurry to reach somewhere but were always late for meetings. This dichotomy in observations once again drives the point about something fundamentally wrong with our upbringing or even with our genes. Historians often attribute this unruly behaviour to the years of British oppression. I would rather imagine that the British rule would have brought more discipline in our forefathers unless, of course, the British of those times were the opposite of what they are today, strictly referring to this context.

Going back in my childhood memories, I can't recollect my parents ever telling me not to behave well or not to keep surroundings clean. Neither can I recollect any of my friends' parents teaching their children to be unruly. However, I can clearly remember that it was a routine matter to see people litter the railway compartment or the roads as if it was someone else's job to clean them later. Growing up, I also noticed that people coming back from foreign trips commented on how clean those places were and how they were reprimanded by the local people/ police whenever they behaved like they did in India. Nevertheless, they just resumed behaving in the same "Indian" way as soon as they landed back home.

I have two partial explanations to this strange phenomenon. As for seeming to rush in traffic, we are always in a state of perpetual competition. Since early childhood, on the pretext of a large population, we are trained to compete for the simplest and most innocuous of things like a chocolate or grades in school. We are always encouraged to fight it out and eventually compete in IITJEE and later CAT. This competitiveness gets hardwired into our circuits and passed on to the next generations and the roads offer the perfect arena to practice these "get ahead of the guy in front of you" skills.

The second situation about littering around (except inside of our homes) is a more complex symptom of the VIP culture that plagues our social fabric. We feel privileged to have someone else clean up after us. The bigger the car (or the house or the muscle), the more privileged we feel and even more high-handedness in dealing with others. When I see people throwing stuff out of a car, the need to have the car clean is combined with a sense of privilege and a tacit assumption that the walkers (and hence, less privileged) will clean up the mess. Ditto with dealing with our rivers, air and the like.

Our PM Modi's pet project, Swacch Bharat, is fighting against our genetic constitution and will be hard to execute. After I did a few foreign trips, my sense of civic responsibility and traffic improved. At the risk of sounding pompous, I maintain that I was anyway one of the anomalies in the genetic context. I am certain though that it would make a big difference to let our people experience the way foreigners behave in their home countries. Travelling abroad will be a big expense but we can be innovative in our approach to bring that experience back home. Bollywood and education can make a positive impact.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

National Open Grid for Student Performance

There is always an intense discussion about the support academic infrastructure to regular schooling. A few years back, I happened to meet the then CBSE Chairman for a brief moment. At Beyond Teaching, we had just begun offering preparatory courses for CTET. I wanted his views and ideas about this initiative so that we could make a better product offering. I didn't expect him to get involved with the effort, but what I didn't expect was his antagonism towards a coaching/ tutoring company. And the attitude is reflected in any governmental effort or setup. Right from the Ministry of Education to the school, nobody wants to even acknowledge the existence of the support function.

It is ironical that parents of school going children are of the exact opposite view. An Assocham report in 2015 estimated the coaching and tuition industry's annual turnover at Rs. 1 lakh crore (about $2 bn) with an annual growth rate of 35%! This is even bigger than the 2016 allocation on entire education sector at about Rs. 70,000 crore.

Are we not behaving like the proverbial ostrich by choosing to ignore the importance of this critical contribution of the support system of education? Even if we do at all levels of government bodies, this cannot be wished away. The reality is that almost every parent sends (or wants to send) the child to a tutor or coaching centre. This is in spite of having an understated respect for the school and the teacher in it. The parent, however, also knows that it is near impossible for a school teacher to cater to each child within the class. The tutor, on the other hand, is engaged for this sole reason. One can easily see the difference in a child's behaviour in a school classroom and a tutor's classroom or in a coaching class. I believe this difference is due to the objective of the setup. In a school, a student is not particularly bound with a single objective of excelling in academics, while in a tuition class, there is no diversion from the core objective.

This points to the essential need to acknowledge the contribution by the secondary source of knowledge dissemination. More importantly, we need a mechanism that will help bring the two teachers together- a school teacher and a tuition teacher. We need to redefine this relationship as a teacher and a support-teacher, who work in tandem to achieve the perfect result. The school teacher focuses on the class and yet is able to check an individual student's progress. The tuition teacher, on the other hand, is able to fill the gaps in learning by acting on the school teacher's precise observations.

To help achieve this objective, we need to capture the data on student performance and make it available to all those who are interested and can positively contribute to the progress of the student. Of course, unlike a completely "open" repository, this access can be controlled by the student and/or the parent. Here, then, is the scenario:

A classroom teacher uses a simple web or mobile interface to record a student's performance in a test. Several tools can be designed to administer self-designed tests that can capture understanding and application. Once captured, the data adds to a structured timeline of competency-based assessment portal. This portal can be accessed by the student and parent free of cost, or with a minimal charge.

In the after-school tuition class, the tutor also has access to the same portal and can see where the student is lacking in the skills. The analytics engine crunching the portal data will give topics-to-cover list in an easy manner. The tutor can begin working on the skills and help the student in mastering the skill.

Next day, when the classroom teacher realizes that the child has learnt the skills, he/she can customize the learning plan better and together with the tutor, he/she has helped the child bring up to the class level.

This will help reduce the pattern of falling-behind in our school children. Falling behind in basic skills is a prime reason for students dropping out of school at the middle-school level. An Open Grid will provide the much-needed support to plug this hole.

From my interactions with the teaching community at Beyond Teaching, I can safely confirm that at least 15-20% of the teaching community is interested in providing free support to needy children to help them bridge their skill gaps. However, we need to provide them with a concrete and customized roadmap using analytics on top of the performance data so that their help can be precise and result-oriented. Another big factor in making their services available is to enable an easy and affordable online tutoring mechanism that can be accessed on mobile or PC.

Indian parents lay a lot of emphasis on education for their children and will be ready to pay for quality services and this Grid will help realize their dream of getting the exact help for their children.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

My father, my Superhero!

This is a personal tribute to my late father, who gave me this life and all the learning that I have had so far. He continues to live inside of me and motivates me to do better and good. Though this writing doesn't fall in the blog's genre, I have included this as a source of learning to me through my experiences with my father.

As I sit next to the hospital bed, with my ailing father's hands in mine, the soft wheezing sound of his breath seems to defy the roaring life he has lived. I look at his face that has suddenly grown old and pale in the last one year, when his cancer showed up.

Looking at his frail body, who would have believed that this same man was cycling 30 kms and more to collect small change from his clients just a month ago! It was quite unusual for us to see him lying down, from the time we woke up to the time we went off to bed. And he was here now, lying still, perhaps thinking about the unfinished micro financing business that he had started, even before it was made fashionable by the likes of SKS MIcrofinance.

I have heard from uncles and aunts, and more so, from my mother, about his resilient and laborious nature. At one point of time, he used to manage 3 jobs apart from his regular one at the Army Medical Corps where he grew from a junior clerk to the head clerk by the time he retired. I remember seeing him leave for office at 7 in the morning after the daily ritual of complaining to his wife about getting late due to her not getting the food ready in time. She, in turn, would be a picture of a superwoman trying to manage everything in about 40 mins- from waking herself up and the two of us siblings to pushing us hard to get ready for school, to making the always-the-best tiffins and finally being on time for her 8 am bus to reach the office just in time to avoid being late. My father returned the favour by making her a refreshing cup of tea whenever he could manage.

My father was never a hands-on person when it came to household work, preferring to wait, instead, to let the two sons grow up to help the superwoman at home. Right from changing the light-bulb to shifting pieces of furniture, he would just let the three of us take charge. I guess he always had larger things on his mind, like how would the country fight corruption or how he could have changed the course of Indo-Pak relationship. Those were the times, when men used to discuss issues of national importance over a cup of tea, though my father didn’t even care for the cuppa. Even while I started developing a taste for tea due to our nocturnal sojourns preparing for exams in the hostel, he remained a stoic milk-drinker, or mostly, a water lover. My brother and I gazed at him, in wonder, when he used to gulp down a one-litre water bottle, and then precariously ask the host aunty for more water. Since refrigerators were a rare occurrence then, he would take every opportunity to make the best use of a visit to one of the “cool water” homes. Much to my mother’s consternation about etiquettes and manners, he would simply ask for more and more water while we stood in anticipation of a minor share.

Things were always quite adventurous with him around, and he never made us feel the pinch when it came to travel. I can blame it entirely on him for mylove for travel of any kind. We had two bicycles for the family. And I can still hear him telling us that walking never hurt anyone, not even the ten and eight-year old kids. Of course, the harsher reality was that we couldn’t have afforded a rickshaw every now and then! I have an uncomfortable thought that the cycle journeys to the far-away parks in Lucknow were far more enjoyable than the countrywide tours we have gone on recently. There was always a sense of togetherness on those bicycles than what you feel in the car or the flight. Now, I stoked his hand in anticipation of a response, but he seemed to be deep in sleep after the intense struggle with a particularly heavy breathing session.

My thoughts went back to my first day in the hostel where he left me standing in the reception. I recall not showing any emotions as a twelve year old, and just turned my back to him even before he was out of sight. I always thought I was like him, unemotional, non-committal and above the worldly relations. Fathers and men are meant to be that way, I guessed. I was taken aback when my mother told me that he had cried inconsolably and shamelessly that day in the train journey back to home. “Why did he leave me all alone in the hostel then?”, I had asked. And she had replied truthfully, “because we cared for your future more than our own feelings then.”  Parents have such a queer habit of turning everything in your favour without any feeling of remorse.

Display of emotions was never his turf, with an exception. I am certain he must have been a romantic person during the short period of his marriage before I was born as the elder offspring. His occasional maneuvers to woo my mother to accompany him on the journeys gave a glimpse into the past. Strangely though, his offer for company would always be veiled under the guise of “everyone should accompany him”, even when we were a four-member family! As children, we pestered him with promising our company, without mother, and he would expectantly look in her direction. My mother was never a “walking” enthusiast, and the disinterest continued on even when the family afforded a bicycle, moped, scooter and a Maruti 800 in that order. I suspect she always wanted to be wooed into the act instead of giving in so easily. Her husband, on his part, never gave up, even up to the day before he had to be admitted to the hospital this time. I hadn’t missed the moment when he was looking at her longingly before she decided to leave for home this night.

Such moments were rare when he was in his full elements now a days. Things had started turning a bit hostile, if I may use that word in context, gradually but surely. I tend to believe that the sequence of events, right from my moving to a hostel from the age of twelve, to moving out again after marriage to leave the pair alone, had a large role to play in the deteriorating relationship between the two. At least in the later part of the life, I could have managed to stem the rot with my closeness to both. My brother, though far more caring than I was, tended to take mother’s side leaving my father to guard for himself. My brother had been at home for most of his initial life before college. His mannerisms and steadfastness reflected what he had inherited from my father. In these hard times for the family, he stood quietly, yet somewhat defiant, mostly out of sight of his ailing father. For my father, his younger son always remained someone to be protected and loved, albeit, from a distance. There were ideological conflicts between the two strongmen in the house, and each one of them stood his ground as true warriors.

My father never missed any opportunity to show his deep hatred for all things “wrong”. In his heyday, I remember him showing intense aggression towards anyone showing a hint of disrespect to a woman, particularly his woman, in a train compartment. There was always a palpable nervousness in our minds when we were about to confront an unsuspecting public servant looking for some “tip” for doing his duty. Out of the numerous instances that I can recall, one stands out for its elaborate manner of execution. One fine day of anticipating the official visit of the inspector, the poor man showed up at our door to conduct his regular inspection for our passport application. This didn’t, however, turn out the way he had quite anticipated. My father welcomed him in the house, fully aware of his intentions as soon as he showed up our passport form. He was made to sit and, in true “Lucknowi andaaz”, offered tea and a choice of homemade snacks. We sat at the edge of our seats anticipating the moment of truth for the poor man, who took his time with the snacks before belching out his innocuous demand for money. My father was unusually slow in his reprimand, perhaps honoring the Indian tradition of letting a guest have his full. By the time he was half-way through his sermons on how public servants should behave, the poor servant would have wished not having to come to our place at all. Such was the finesse in the method, that the powerless passport inspector not only had to leave without any reward, but had to promise that he wouldn’t repeat his demand elsewhere! I am sure the promise would have vanished into the hungry bowels of his conscience, yet I got an important lesson of my life. In a recent encounter with a traffic policeman, I insisted on him giving me a receipt for the official fees for a red-light jump offence. While the hapless fellow tried in vain to produce the receipt book, I quietly thanked my father to help me do my bit. I wouldn’t be honest if I said I haven’t paid bribes at all. I maintain that honesty has its own limits, and those limits are often defined by the bulge of your wallet.

A sudden grasp on my hand brought me back to look at the frail man in the bed. Ever since his reports confirmed that cancer had infiltrated his spinal cord, he had internally lost hope of a revival. His exterior, though, only broke off during bouts of intense pain. His doctor described the pain being equal to dozens of bones cracking and dissolving in the body. We could only help him make the least movements possible and the mere feeling of being dependent on others for his daily rituals made him want a quick end for himself. God has his own ways of dealing with such feelings of mortals, and he was made to bow to his wishes in these last days.

My father was never a devoutly religious person, though as is the norm with an Indian hindu, he was given to perform puja every morning. Much against mymother’s constant reprimands to follow some respectful routines, he would follow his own instincts when it came to the nitty-gritty of the ritual. Mondays were a totally different matter. On Shastriji’s call for a one-day fast by every Indian, he began the fasting with a vengeance. Mondays used to be no food and no water days till he broke the fast with his late evening meal after a generous two-hour long puja. I believe it was his way to put his body to test regularly to know whether he was in command. The Monday routine, followed for more than four decades, was rudely interrupted by the demands of modern medicine for the last few weeks. He quietly resigned to our requests for letting the doctors inject the vital energy juices into his body. I wonder if his body revolted to this intrusion by giving his mind sleepless nights.

His eccentric ways of testing his physical endurance seemed to be growing with his age. On one of the several occasions of my mother coming to visit us, when he found himself alone at home, he resorted to a liquid diet of water and juice for 21 days! My mother was distraught and vowed never to let him alone again, only to give him another opportunity a few months later. We used to insist on both of them staying with us for a month while my father always had his business to attend to back home. After retirement, he had made himself even more occupied with his social venture. Though he impressed upon us that this gave him good returns, he was much too emotional to earn money out of it. He wanted the small-time chaiwallas and rickshaw-pullers to cultivate a savings habit by depositing small change with him. To facilitate the process, he went on his cycle covering more than 20 kms everyday to collect tens and twenties from his loyal clientele. A margin of ten percent between the lending and borrowing rates, he maintained, would take care of bad debts as well as give him some returns. The  more we tried to talk him out of it, the more stubborn he would behave. Eventually, we gave up.

Well, we didn’t give up completely. We tried to bring the other hobbies of his yesteryears back into his life. He was a good artist with his pencil. His slender fingers were magical in drawing sketches of Ganesha, the God most given to artistic liberties. And of beautiful maidens who seemed to come into life of their own from his creations. He had also developed a liking for making paper models of buildings and houses. In a stall we put up at a local Durga Puja festival, he had even made a grand replica of the Parliament House. The most striking feature was that he didn’t use any adhesives or pins to bind it all together completely relying on folding and cutting the sheets. Over the years, his hands gave in to more manual labour than pursuing his softer passion. His art showed up in some of the mundane work like the much-disliked wall-plastering work he took up of late. Inspired by a fantastic work of a neighbor, he began collecting broken ceramic tiles and plastered them on the walls of our house trying to get them into designs. Even while I have always had a bias to whatever he does, I was taken aback by the rawness of the creations. While I have inherited his earlier quality of perfection, this was completely out of sync with my imagination. My mother, always a discerning critic that she is, was in her elements when she finally had it all removed in an act of defiance. After much huffing and puffing, she gave in to his demand of plastering the inside wall at the terrace. Till today, a portion of the wall stands testimony to his misadventure.

After our attempts on bring back his artistic form failed, we tried to revive his interest in Chess and Carrom, his other expertise. I feel proud to have learnt the latter from him and put it to good use while winning a few trophies in the game. He always pushed both his children to take up some sport and adventure, and I did take up a bit of his advice while pursuing Table Tennis, Basketball and Cycling to good measure. Post retirement, carom seemed more like a resignation than a pursuit. He didn’t take the bait and continued his social adventure instead, much against our collective wishes. Secretly, he seemed to enjoy doing whatever my mother disliked. My mother, wise enough after years of togetherness, made good of this habit by coaxing him into doing something by asking him do the exact opposite! Like an awed soldier, I often marveled at the strategic skills of these warring commanders.

My years of distance from the family were interspersed with brief visits back home and the picture presented to me was often a temporary feel-good image of a perfect home. My brother was a witness to the true family drama and hence a more rational mediator at the occasional feuds. It will suffice to say that my father was never a submissive party that our matriarchal home could have easily made out of him. In matters of conflict, he would stand solid on his grounds while ensuring regular supplies of food and ammunition from his adversary. I admire my mother’s ability to cook and serve food to the family even when, from the inside, she would have surely wished otherwise. We all knew when to stop our gibberish if we wanted this to continue.

Even during the bed-ridden days, my father would never want to miss the delicacies made by his all-rounder chef partner. Even while my brother became an accomplished chef, and later, an almost revered teacher by his students, my father sang paeans in reverence to his wife’s culinary prowess. My mother on her part, looked forward to his words of praise, much more than the recognition she won easily at the local social dos. He was quiet a foodie and devoured huge quantities at his old age, much beyond I could muster even at the prime of my youth! I can’t fathom what must be more fulfilling a thought for my mother- feeding a man and his two sons with humongous quantities of food, or get the few words of appreciation from him. It must have been quite unnerving to get a request for a few hand-rolled chapaties after coming back home from a good meal at a hotel! Now, of course, it is a struggle to feed him with a few mouthfuls of the choicest of her food. What an irony for a person like my father!

I haven't been the most obedient or trusted son that a father or mother look for. I haven't followed in his footsteps to be a teetotaler and even a non-smoker. I have had my share of adventures in my college days to be a bit reckless with smoking and drinking. Though I never allowed this to become an addiction, money to sustain such indulgences was always a problem. My father used to send money on demand. I only realized it later when my mother showed a letter written by him. This letter was never posted that it summarized into just one thought that the humble family finances couldn't afford such luxuries. I can only imagine their struggle now that I have to refuse my daughters about some foreign excursions from their school. The scale might have changed but not the struggles. Some day the daughters would grow up to have a similar learning about life.

As if reading my thoughts, my father tightened his grip on my hand and motioned me to come closer to him. I bent forward to lend my ear to him but was taken by surprise at what he did next. With an immense energy that probably was all that was left in his body, he hugged me tight. I hadn't hugged him for years as the unwritten rule of the family was to touch his feet whenever we met. The memory of that embrace gives me shivers to this day. It was as if he wanted to take his son along with him. But this son wasn't going to oblige his father. I felt that embrace fill my body with such force that I was almost scared for my life! Wasn't this life his own? Does a son owe it to his father?

I believe I have become him. I am reminded of this Urdu composition by Nida Fazli about a father-son relationship. After the death of the father, the son is supposed to pray on his grave. But he doesn't do the ritual as he just doesn't believe that his father is no more... 

tumhārī qabr par 

maiñ fātiha paḌhne nahīñ aayā 

mujhe mālūm thā 

tum mar nahīñ sakte 

tumhārī maut kī sachchī ḳhabar jis ne uḌaa.ī thī 

vo jhūTā thā 

vo tum kab the 

koī sūkhā huā patta havā se mil ke TuuTā thā 

mirī āñkheñ 

tumhāre manzaroñ meñ qaid haiñ ab tak 

maiñ jo bhī dekhtā huuñ 

sochtā huuñ 

vo vahī hai 

jo tumhārī nek-nāmī aur bad-nāmī kī duniyā thī 

kahīñ kuchh bhī nahīñ badlā 

tumhāre haath merī uñgliyoñ meñ saañs lete haiñ 

maiñ likhne ke liye 

jab bhī qalam kāġhaz uThātā huuñ 

tumheñ baiThā huā maiñ apnī hī kursī meñ paatā huuñ 

badan meñ mere jitnā bhī lahū hai 

vo tumhārī 

laġhzishoñ nākāmiyoñ ke saath bahtā hai 

mirī āvāz meñ chhup kar 

tumhārā zehn rahtā hai 

mirī bīmāriyoñ meñ tum 

mirī lāchāriyoñ meñ tum 

tumhārī qabr par jis ne tumhārā naam likhā hai 

vo jhūTā hai 

tumhārī qabr meñ maiñ dafn huuñ 

tum mujh meñ zinda ho 

kabhī fursat mile to fātiha paḌhne chale aanā

(Composition: walid ki wafat par/ Source:

Saturday, December 19, 2015

5G: Impact on Education & Training

You may be excused if you want to take this with a spoonful of salt, or think of this as sci-fi. But I would rather dream on and take a peek into the future. Some reports put the 5G launch to 2020, but most of us in India will be happy with a 4G by then. I don't intend to argue on when this will happen, but I would definitely want to foresee what will happen to education when it happens. Before that, let's get some 5G basics right:
Source: (

  1. For a full HD movie of 8 GB size, 3G speed should take a few hours (the above illustration shows much more!), 4G speed should take 6 minutes, but a 5G speed should take a mere 3-6 seconds! 
  2. Even more importantly, latency in 5G should come down to 1 millisecond from 50 milliseconds in 4G. What it implies is that the devices will be able to interact with each other much quicker. So, the response from a remote learner's iPad can reach a teacher's laptop in a flash.

There is no consensus on these figures yet, but experts broadly agree on similar scales. In any case, it looks to be too futuristic to begin a debate on a few thousands of bits. So, if we go by these estimates, what difference will we see in how people will learn in the future?

Let me take a parallel in defense applications where technological innovations deliver a mission-critical advantage before a civil application is made feasible. In the days of our Maharajas fighting battles, the speed of information would determine changing strategies and a win or loss. An army waiting for reinforcements a thousand miles away depended on pigeons to know the status. From those times, transition to the modern warfare where a missile can manoeuvre itself to follow a moving target based on a GPS tracking capability. The critical factor that has changed the scenario is the response time to a stimulus.

In the educational context, imagine training a batch of mechanical engineering students on machining. The trainer might just connect with an alumnus working in the industry to show the machining processes Live. A more structured approach could enable the alumnus give a case study and a project based on the organization's existing requirements. A sure outcome of this would be a better matched and trained work force for an organization.

A group of school students in India might interact with 20 more classrooms from across the world to work on a project involving best practices adoption in environmental awareness. We know how traveling in foreign cultures opens up a person's mind and helps her come out of the shell. Any of my visits to a foreign country has always made me a better citizen back home. Interacting with students from other countries or states, and the ability to talk to them live on a video call can be a much better education than in a closed wall classroom.

To seriously contemplate the seemingly impossible task of training 500 million people by 2022 (of which NSDC has achieved about 1.3% till 2015, with all the good intentions and projects), we need to explore entirely new ways of doing training. With a communication technology like 5G available on mobile, without the need to setup wired infrastructure, a group of young men and women in a remote village can be trained by working professionals directly from their work environs. Imagine having a live and interactive video feed from a drone in a machining workshop that can move around and talk to the operators when they can explain a few things to the trainees.

Just the other day, I got the Google Cardboard to explore what is available. The most interesting part of the VR idea is that a teacher may someday be able to create VR models for her class just like we create word docs today. Coupled with 5G speeds, the VR technology will make it possible for a class in Lucknow full of inquisitive children to make an interactive tour of an educational excursion being conducted by another teacher in Bengaluru's Science Museum! On a real time basis, the teacher's head mounted device will convert the environ into VR and the students in the Lucknow class will be interacting displays on their own individually!

My head is dizzy thinking of the possibilities....Dream on :-)

Monday, August 10, 2015

Cinema and education

You might have seen the Hindi movie, Drishyam, or its original Malayalam version by the same name.

Apart from the fact that the movie has a very terse narrative and direction, one dialogue struck me the most. The female lead in the Hindi version, played superbly by Tabu, wonders how the "fourth-grade fail" cable businessman (played by Ajay Devgn) could be so "smart"! And then she makes a very pertinent observation after a colleague remarks on Ajay Devgn's penchant for watching movies. She simply says that the cinema angle is important in this context.

Theatrics and Tabu's attribution to her industry aside, can cinema actually educate an illiterate? It looks like an over-simplistic solution to India's education woes. But does it deserve any merit? I would hazard a "Yes" for that answer, though the kind of education that I am talking about is quite unlike what is taught in our schools and colleges. Would Ajay Devgn's character have learnt from his school all the things that he learnt from his countless hours of watching movies? That is a definite "No". Our education system doesn't gear us for real-life challenges, not to mention the ones this movie talks about!

The things that I could learn from Hindi cinema are values, traditions, strategy, leadership, communication, problem-solving (of the real kind), patriotism, history, geography and culture, to name a few. Some of them are, of course, dealt with at various stages in schools and colleges, but the focus tends to be on completing the syllabus and securing good grades. At the same time, a viewer can also acquire dangerously different connotations of the same elements that I mentioned above, depending on his/ her state of mind, social context and the atmosphere itself within the theatre. A rape scene, for instance, may have two diametrically opposite stimuli on two people.

Given the strange "uncontrollable" effect on a viewer, is it really possible to use cinema in classroom? I recall watching "Other people's money" with my MBA class as a part of the "Mergers and Acquisitions" subject. It completed the subject by giving it a soul. We were often told that the big deals had more of a human element than some numbers. With our dear Professor discussing the movie intermittently and expertly relating it to what we had learnt in theory, the movie has remained etched in my memory.

Movies with "a moral of the story" like Swades, Lakshya and Taare Zameen Par are easily a great source of inspiration for our children. But specific instances or characters or even dialogues have brought out the teacher in me. One particularly hilarious dialogue from the bad guy played by Prakash Raj in the 2009 hit, "Wanted", is a lesson in leadership (gone wrong). Here's the link to a "lesson plan" I thought of. This is the first of the blog piece from my new blog effort called "Lessons From Cinema".

Keep watching this space for more...

Thursday, April 10, 2014

What's the ultimate aim of education?

I am sure everyone ponders over this question at some point in life. A child in school probably thinks of in-class time as a waste of time, considering that she has a lot of exciting things to do outside the four walls. A teacher in the same classroom is concerned about completing the prescribed content and schedule within the limits of time. The parent at home is mostly at ease with the fact that the child is in school while he goes on with his daily chores.

The one entity that gets impacted more than anyone else, and that, unfortunately, has the least power to influence the whole process, is the Society. The human civilization has, over the ages, come to terms with the fantasy that education (or, simply, bringing up a child) is an individual's responsibility. To be fair, states do put in a lot of emphasis on making their presence felt by controlling the essentials, namely, the finances and the "rules of the game".

What happens at the end of one's education is something that hits the society like a fireball. You get people who don't want to work on something, but they must- for whatever reasons! You also get people who are not able to cope with the real-world pressures and display behaviours that don't exactly gel well with others. The education that was supposed to produce "good human beings" suddenly begins to look as if it had all the right things in place, yet without a heart. In some countries, I am told, schools begin with social etiquettes and then with the alphabet. I wonder if they "fail" a child for not passing the first phase. What does a child do if she can't fathom the "selfishness" in her demanding the cookie of her brother? Or what does a teacher do on seeing a "hyper-active" child trying to jump over another child in the class and hurting himself in the process?

Do we really have a choice to not make good human beings more than anything else? And who should be doing this more than anyone else in the whole cast? Should we hold someone else accountable when a young male in the streets makes obscene overtures towards a girl? Or when an adult hits a child at the roadside because the child was "tampering" with this expensive car's side-view mirror? Or when a religious "jagrata" in the neighbourhood keeps you from sleeping peacefully for the whole night?

I fantasize about a day when brain-mapping technology would advance to a level when it identifies a suspect behaviour in a child at the age of four and provides help to its hapless (and often, defensive) parents. Until then, we need to help the society in bringing up the right next generation into its fold by giving preference to "bringing up" than "educating".

(Also published simultaneously on my other blog on Unschooling at