Saturday, November 9, 2013

“Education sans Frontiers” Rise of MOOC?

Skills shortage or inadequacy of workforce is a global phenomenon. Today, we people need specialized skills for particular job profiles; one that requires generalized ability as well as pointedly specific skills to execute the current job function. A sizeable portion of our middle and top management comprise of people who were predominantly educated during the 70s and 80s. A lot has changed in the world since then. It is a serious feeling that for a diverse set of reasons the growing work force will need to be rapidly re-skilled. This will increase employability and help organizations hire productive human resource. There will be a demand for around 300 million skilled people by 2022 in India itself.
However, what were lacking till recently are reliable and effective sources for continuing education to smoothen the rough edges. In today’s world, there is critical need for specialized selective learning at all levels – entry, middle and senior. Based on the job profile of the moment, people need additional education/ learning packets to cope with the demands of day – to – day world.

For example: A person is working as an executive up with some global giant. He/ She needs to know the nuances of globalization, about local markets, emerging economies etc, cost difference, transfer pricing etc. These topics maybe taught to a certain extent in management programs but this person needs very specific and realistic understanding of the subject to discharge day-to-day responsibilities and not just have a conceptual understanding.  
Similarly, a person having responsibility of costing cannot limit oneself with knowledge of finance. He/ she will need in-depth understanding of the manufacturing process, cost drivers, process flow, significance of each step, technology etc.
What we are stressing upon in this article is not just higher graduate level education but some serious concentrated topics for gaining exclusive and precise competence with the changing environment.

Spirit of MOOC

Education, learning and knowledge are required in equal portions to become skillful. In the last 3 decades we have seen lot of improvement in higher education not only in terms of content but accessibility and ease of learning and application. There were quite a few distance learning programs and then came the Internet. We started getting access to presentations and teaching notes of professors from universities around the world. YouTube happened and video lectures and “how-tos” came into the scenario. SlideShare presentations provide a wide range of learning topics. At every step there has been marked improvement. And everyday access to quality and flexible specialized courses started becoming convenient and cost-effective. However, just a couple of years back hopes to do even a short course from the prestigious Harvard or Stanford University were elusive for many. Exposure to such world-class education standards was restricted to a select few each year. Today we can imagine doing the same from the calm confines of our home or office or even sitting in a park.

The leaps and bounds of growth in Information Technology have now given mankind –Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC). These are platforms for providing world class courses which are interactive, participative and most importantly OPEN TO ALL accessible through the web. It is posed to create a revolution of sorts.

One such course on Introduction to Artificial Intelligence is reported by Udacity to have received close to 160,000 enrollments from 190 countries. It is like all the countries on this planet. This is unimaginable in a normal classroom setting.
These courses are available openly online with usually two options – free to learn and paid for certification. The courses have online forums for all students to discuss. Real-life cases are shared between students from America, Africa, Latina America, Australia, Europe and Asia simultaneously enriching the entire learning process. There is peer to peer review of assignments and tests to evaluate level of learning. And a huge knowledge bank is getting created in the process. There are few front line providers of MOOC but regional sites are also coming up rapidly from across the world which is teaching in native language.
These platforms are ideal for continuing education, learning in parts based on time and need, and building competency. Most importantly this is like Spreading Education across Borders treating the student pool as One World.

The spirit of MOOC can be encapsulated best by Udacity’s belief – “Education is no longer a one-time event but a lifelong experience.”

MOOC Resources

The largest MOOC providers are: edX, Udacity and Coursera

edX promotes itself as consortium of many schools.

Coursera’s website claims to have 300 + courses and content from 62 universities across 16 countries and still counting.

Emerging Concerns

A MOOC when accessed by us seems so fluid and enriching but it takes lot of effort to create the course material and videos. There are hours of recording involved on part of the faculty and their assistants. Due to the interactive nature of the course, the teaching staff has to engage with the students and steer the discussions in the right direction or make valuable inputs to keep the conversation lucid and valuable.  
The student teacher ratio is very high; there is a pressure for more feedback that is preferably instantaneous. The structured course material like reading material also needs to be developed simultaneously.
With all things bright and shining in favor of MOOC, there are doubts and concern. Well that is the case with anything new or outrageous or courageous. When you bring out such huge chunks of knowledge and learning from the hallowed halls to the nook and crannies of the world, causing disruptive innovation, the purists can get jittery. There are voices suggesting that it is a passing hype and will die down soon. Questions are also on the effectiveness of the course and about completion percentage.
Many people seek out these courses like gardening and take away only bits and pieces. There is lack of seriousness. Keeping oneself motivated in a self – learning environment is quite a challenge. I have taken up a Globalization course myself (INFX523-01-Globalization’s Winners and Losers: Challenges for Developed and Developing Countries) and I am seriously lagging behind. Honestly, I signed up to get a first hand feel of a MOOC.

MOOC will Change the Future

MOOC is still at its initial stages and as technology evolves so will MOOCs especially the delivery part and it will invigorate lateral development. Few years back we never thought of needing a social media expert did we? MOOCs will also spawn a new set of opportunities for small companies to provide facilities to develop courses (including studio facility), create supporting material, design and develop ebooks and slides as the rage takes over the world and many universities come forward to embrace it. Even if these local universities lack global appeal, they will still be able to find a sizeable audience among people in their own country.

It will surely become a great leveler. When gifted but resource – challenged people get access to this kind and quality of education, my mind simply quivers with joy to think how many new Googles and Facebooks will dot this world. Entrepreneurship for one will get a huge thrust.   

It is too early to say how MOOCs will change the education dynamics world over. Whether MOOC is overhyped or the norm for the future, only time will tell. My view is that MOOC will surely transform many a “Mook” (Hindi term for Mute, Unspoken, Voiceless, Wordless) into competent, productive and confident souls.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Avoid Errors during Crisis with Checklists

Book Review 

Atul Gawande. 

The CHECKLIST Manifesto How to get things right
Penguin Books India. New Delhi, 2010. pp. 209, Rs. 149 (Flipkart)

At the outset, the title of this book seems pretty uninspiring. Who does not know about checklists? We all resort to it at some point or the other. Why read an entire book on it?
What piqued my interest towards the book is its accomplished author Atul Gawande. I have read his earlier books – Better and Complications both of which are extremely insightful and delves into the depth of medicine and healthcare; facets that are usually shielded from common man and the books come across as honest and determined. I was convinced that this book will definitely have some key takeaway for people in general.
Dr. Gawande is a general surgeon at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and a staff writer for The New Yorker. He has often written eloquently on public health policy issues.
As I read through the book, I realized its applicability in all walks of life. The basic point driven across in this book is about the errors caused by human beings which are clearly avoidable. One is out of ignorance which is still acceptable but the other severe cause is human ineptitude. It means the inability to apply our existing and adequate knowledge during crunch time either entirely or in the right sequence.
He writes at length about human ineptitude in case of medical emergencies, pilots flying aeroplanes and people involved in erecting skyscrapers. He also goes on to prove (with statistical data) how the use of well-drafted checklists have reduced human errors, saved lives and created a positive difference.
With automation and development in all spheres of life, there are too many variables at play at any given point of time. It is practically unimaginable to remember each and every point while trying to save a cardiac arrest patient or landing a plane which is malfunctioning. That is where a checklist becomes useful. It helps the person in charge to confidently go about the job with a greater degree of assured outcome. However, what is important here is to follow the checklists meticulously and not resort to improvisation.
There can be lot of debate on pertinence of checklists in all kinds of situations or Gawande’s dogged faith in the same as professed in the book. It gives a feeling of being narrow and insular. The choice is left to the reader to be either critical and nitpick or adopt checklists in their lives to improve outcomes. The vital part is that the effectiveness of checklists in all walks of life is indisputable. How we use them to the best of our needs depends on us.
The book consists of nine chapters each having twenty to thirty pages which makes the reading experience quite enjoyable and undemanding. The language is extremely uncomplicated such that the contents revolving around medical jargon and science can be easily comprehended by school students to business owners.
The beauty of the book is its relevance from mundane activities like going shopping for routine stuff like grocery to building a rocket and how everyone can create their own list based on specific requirements. A checklist is truly a recipe for success if executed with diligence. The book provokes readers to seriously think about making checklists in their domain of activities.
I recommend this book for small business owners especially for two reasons; one – they have shortage of skilled manpower and two – the margin of error is very narrow for this level of business. By creating simple yet in-depth checklist to monitor finances, machine performance and maintenance, production output, inventory management and order processing etc., owners can improve their business productivity and performance to a huge extent.
There is no other book in these lines which has such a powerful pitch for such an insipid theme like a Checklist.