Thursday, August 25, 2011

I'm sorry, education is a scam



My friend's daughter got accused of being ADHD a few weeks back. My colleague Dinesh is keen to take his son Aravind out of school. My friend Sandeep is trying to build software that recognises every child to be a unique individual with their own little achievements. I see a growing sentiment in my friends circle about the current state of education and it's impact on young minds. I don't have a kid, but I can only dread being a kid in this climate. It's a hostile environment that teaches kids to master a curriculum but not to learn. It makes kids competitive but teaches them very little about collaborating, about being better citizens, better people. I have a few thoughts about education and I want to share them with you - it's a real scam.

What is this model based on?


"If Isaac Newton had done YouTube videos on calculus, I wouldn't have to. " - Salman Khan

We've predicated our model of education on a system that presupposes that kids need to go to school to gain knowledge. It is based on the assumption that knowledge is scarce and you need an expert to dole it out. Except the person who your kid learns from is not really an expert. That person is a middleman. Knowledge is not scarce anymore. You could learn the guitar from a really successful, best selling artist. Using your computer. Not in school. Actually, you couldn't learn from the best selling artist in school. School is really a bit of a deterrent when it comes to learning from an expert. Yet, school is still all about that old model which isn't true anymore. Kids can learn sitting at home, using a service like Khan Academy. School doesn't teach people what our ancestors learnt - applying knowledge to the real world. School instead is preparing people only to clear the next exam.

Life skills? Not a chance?


Success is in the doing. And failures are celebrated and analyzed. Problems become puzzles and obstacles disappear. - Gever Tulley

My nephew is 12 years old. He ranks first in class each year. Awesome eh? More information - he is overweight, he plays no sports, he can't have a real world conversation beyond his textbooks and couldn't survive if his parents were away for even a couple of days. Is that what education is supposed to mean? What about experiencing life and learning real life skills? Where are the tinkering schools of the world? Why isn't every school helping children learn like Diana Laufenberg does?

We learn to succeed despite education


Children quickly learn to navigate and go in and find things which interest them. And when you've got interest, then you have education. - Arthur C. Clarke

I work in a job that I never received any formal education for. I'm quite happy about that frankly. Let me give you an example so you understand why. In school I was deeply interested in plants, animals and birds. But to tell you the truth, the biological names and academic knowledge behind them was of little interest to me. I could spend hours at Alipore zoo admiring the animals in my backyard but to remember a tiger as Panthera Tigris was beyond me. Unfortunately to have an education in nature, I needed to cut up frogs, fish and cockroaches in the lab which I avoided like the plague. I quit biology studies in 11th grade because I just couldn't take it anymore. Why couldn't I just learn about natural history as I do today? I've learnt more about birds and animals as an adult than I did with formal education in school. To me, my self-supervised hours in the field mean a lot more than the supervised hours I had in school. I got educated out of my interests in school and it's no wonder that I'm my current job is miles from what I actually studied to be. Children are wonderful - they have the natural ability to learn if left to their own interests, the internet and the resources they'll need to support their passion. Sugata Mitra's hole in the wall project proves it.
Current schools depress me. There's great thinking in various circles about the future of education, but we're not there yet. And it troubles me that my nephews and nieces, my friends' children and kids I care for may have to go through a generation of poor education. I wonder how this'll change - I'm very cynical about this whole scam we call education. I wonder what you think. Especially if you're in India, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Be open, be nice

One of my friends in the wildlife photography circle is very strict about the copyright notices on his images. A lot of his images have descriptions such as, "Copyrighted by ... and may not be used, downloaded in any form, or Print Media website without written permission of the Photographer." While I don't wish to make a judgement about his choice of restrictive copyright, I personally dislike this approach. I consider it against the very fabric of the sharing culture that makes us human. I take it as granted that writing, photography and music are art forms. No doubt about that. I also take it that artists need to make money. But sharing and making money don't have to be exclusive of each other. My biggest example is Trey Ratcliffe - he's one of the best known travel photographers in the world. Trey travels the world and makes his best photography freely available on the web. His work is acclaimed the world over - he's even on the wall of the Smithsonian. I'm pretty sure Trey makes a lot of money too, and that's because of the word of mouth his photography gets - 175,000 views a day! There's obviously a business model to making money through openness - The Power of Open is a great testimony to that model. In today's blogpost I want to share some notes about openness - photographers, elearning developers, artists, writers are all likely to have a view on this. Feel free to rouse a debate if you wish.

Most of us are not looking for money

The fact is that most content creators don't necessarily want to make money out of the stuff we put out. The internet has given us a medium to share our work which we never had before. When all we had was 35mm film and 36 shots on the film, we'd create the pictures and share the albums with our friends and family - but only those that we met face to face. Today, even our aquaintances and distant friends and relatives can see our work and share their reactions. So yeah, the internet gives us wings we never thought we had. The internet however, is prone to it's ills. People can plagiarise our work, mistakenly or deliberately not point to us as creators. It's a risk - I agree. I am of the belief though, that if someone's a jerk and doesn't understand the effort an artist puts into their work then I'm not going to change him. In fact, if someone does plagiarise my work then I really don't have the means to take that person to court. So I'm not going to lose any sleep over that. What I can do, is make my licensing approach transparent, simple and low barrier so the majority of the (nice) people out there can use my work if they want. So if they want to use it in an article they're writing, sure they can. They want to use it in a presentation - why not? They want to create a derivative work - I'm ok with that too. All I really need is attribution - the fact that my work can get used in several places means that I'm more likely to build a name with that, than I ever will via restrictive copyright. Now I'm not famous and I don't do much to build a followership with my work. I do know though that if I did want that fame - attribution would still be the only thing I'd need.

Openness helps people around us

I love wildlife photography. Actually I like all forms of photography, but wildlife photography is the only thing I'm half good at. Now the beauty of this beast is that it can be a great educational tool for anyone who views my photographs. Since my photographs are under a non-restrictive license, you can add them to Wikipedia and help build a great body of knowledge about the flora and fauna around us. People can use them for their dissertations and studies. Those who want to make a great presentation but have no money to buy stock photography can use my pictures too. By keeping my work open, I believe I'm more likely to help people and leave a bigger dent in the universe. The fact with photography is that I've created neither the moments nor the objects. All I do is to capture them through my own representation. To restrict people from being able to use that representation is perhaps being a bit full of myself. Now this is my approach and I don't say everyone needs to do this - but the only thing I restrict against is the use of my work for commercial purposes. I don't do this because I want a share of the profits or anything - though that would be nice. I take a lot of photographs with people in them. Now I am concerned if a brand decided to use the photo of the tribal woman I shot without giving her some money. Or if they used a photograph of my pretty friend without her explicit permission. Oh yeah, and I also have one more retriction. If you create a derivative of my work and share it with others, you're welcome to do so as long as you share under the same license that I shared the original work with. I don't want my open work to become closed as people create derivatives.

How to add the right copyright notices

Licensing is a matter of choice; however I strongly recommend the Creative Commons licenses for anyone producing artwork. My personal favourite is the Attribution-Non Commercial-Share Alike license (CC-BY-NC-SA). It allows people to create derivative works and share with others as long as they preserve the license and allows only non-commercial use. There's other less or more restrictive licenses. There are several ways to apply the licenses to your work.
  • If you blog, add the license embed code to the sidebar of your blog (example here). You can use a similar strategy when distributing music.
  • If you take photographs and have a newer Canon DSLR, you can add license information to the EXIF data of your photographs.
  • If you are sharing photographs online on Flickr, then the application allows you to select from a list of Creative Commons licenses.
  • If you're writing an e-book, you can add the license icons and deed to the the document itself.
  • If you're distributing an elearning course, then you can either add the license inside the course or provide a separate license document in the package.
  • If you have documents that support XMP, then you can add license metadata to them.
The key is to make the licensing transparent so that people know what the limitations are and how low the barrier to sharing is. Most people don't mind giving you credit for your work. There are some outlying idiots who we can either lose sleep over or just ignore. I choose to do the latter. If you still don't want to open up your work, at a bare minimum don't watermark your work with ugly patterns just because you're afraid of the crazy bootleggers. Share with confidence - not in fear!

You may think I'm taking the moral high ground here because no one really cares about my work. You could be right if you think that way - I'm no famous artist. That being said, TED, Jonathan Worth, DJ Vadim, Trey Ratcliffe, Curt Smith, Kalyan Varma and others are famous, aren't they? Something works for them because they make their work open. While my advice is only a guideline, their work is an inspiration. I strongly urge all of you to make as much of your work as open as you possibly can. Let's remember that we would have learnt nothing as a human race if anyone who discovered or created anything decided to close down their work under restrictive licenses. I'm more than happy to be part of a debate on this one - I have strong views as you may have noticed. So yeah, if you have a view - let me know.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Spatial Serendipity - The Key to A Social Workplace

Image credit Christopher Schoenbohm

First things first, I'm sorry I couldn't post anything on the blog in the last few days. I've been in China and the great firewall is simply impregnable. I've somehow broken into Blogger and can now post. Thanks for your patience. So, let's come to what I want to write about today. Serendipity - it's a beautiful thing. Imagine walking down a street and seeing an interesting restaurant that you'd never heard of. You walk in, and order a great meal and have a great story to tell at the end of it all. I'm guessing I'm not the only person this has happened to. It's a wonderful way to learn about things around you and I argue that the human race would have learnt very little had it not been for the serendipity we've been privilege to, ever since our existence. Serendipity, or accidental discovery is also at the center of most social business strategy. Technology aside though, I believe this phenomenon has a big place in the physical design of workplaces. After all we didn't invent serendipity after social media. In today's blogpost, I want to share some thoughts about the design of workplaces and how they may affect the social fabric of your organisation.

Being Social begins in the Real World

For social media to make an impact to your workplace, the physical orientation of the workplace should ideally mirror all the behaviours you're trying to mirror online. Think of these of the top of your head, you'll perhaps come up with sharing, openness, visibility, connectedness, storytelling and the like. Why then, are workplaces designed for the exact opposite? Corner offices, cubicles, closed doors - all of these are counterintuitive to the idea of serendipity. Now, I'm not saying that we don't need closed doors conversations. Businesses are sensitive and certain conversations need a closed environment. That being said, designing your workplace around that as the default is perhaps a bad idea. This leads to the concept that I'm calling spatial serendipity. Here are a few questions to ask yourself.

How connected is your team?

My team at work is starting to get bigger. Dinesh heads our knowledge strategy and enterprise 2.0 offering, Nikhil owns our social business platform, Sahana community manages, Kavita is our instructional designer, Siddharth handles industry research and Rajiv takes care of branding and events. Add to this the several people at ThoughtWorks University and we've got a fairly diverse team. It may seem like a good idea for each person to have their cubicle and work by themselves. In fact the commute in Bangalore is so bad that I sometimes feel like working in my silo at home. All this said, some of the most productive days for me are when I can work onsite with my entire team in one place. Merely listening in to my team-mates' work life creates a huge difference and each day I learn something new. If you notice from the picture above from our Xian office - teams in my company sit across one big table with no barriers. This is really cool because people can listen into conversations happening across the table and problems get instant solutions from the chatter around the team. Cubicles may be the way to go for predictable transactional work, but for knowledge work, a barrier free team environment is the way to go.

How visible is your work?

Agile promotes the notion of big visible charts to depict your work. This is how you'll see creative companies like IDEO or Duarte work as well. There's something magical about making mental models explicit on a big, visible chart and to depict the state of work on a visible information radiator. Now my company also sells Mingle which is quite an awesome collaborative project tracking and collaboration platform. That being said, visualising your work only on a software system such as Mingle turns it into what my colleague Mark Needham calls an information refrigerator. There's a lot of value in having a representation of your work status that not just your team members but everyone in the office can see. Often, people walking by will notice something unusual and give you an interesting tip. Often people will learn from your representations. For example, I learnt an interesting way to represent a customer journey by looking at the above design wall for one of our teams in China.

How connected is your workplace?

It's not just the team that needs connection and serendipity, but potentially your entire office. We talk of silo-busting in the virtual world, but what about the physical silos? Why do different teams need to have different rooms and work areas? Why can't we have large contiguous spaces where each team is visible to the other? Take a look at the design of our Xian office above. The entire office is one single space and the head of the office sits in the same place as the rest, as do people in HR, recruiting, admin, finance and the like. Everyone knows everyone - most people are aware of each other's work and that level of connectedness leads to solutions to common problems from the collective. It's not that tough, we just need to get over the default mindsets behind office design.
In my view workplace design needs to be an integral part of any social business consulting that you seek out. Serendipity just happens, but the fact is that you can prepare yourself for serendipity by creating an environment that encourages it. Workplace design can't just be the realm of architects and interior designers - it's a social engineering activity. By now there's a lot of examples out there, including Google, ThoughtWorks itself, Stanford. Inspiration's out there - it's time for us to learn from it.
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