Friday, August 29, 2008

Social Media School Teacher

This post is reproduced from where it was published earlier today.

Dharmesh wakes up a little late. After a quick shower, he skips checking email, but goes right to his RSS reader to see updates of where the students worked within the social network. Luckily, Ning (and lots of services) send new activities out via RSS, so they’re easy to track.

It looks like Margarite has added more YouTube videos to the video section, and Franklin has written a blog post about the town’s historic water cooler. Jeremy has already commented that Franklin forgot to cite a source, saving Dharmesh the effort. He eats a breakfast bar, and hops in his car for the commute to work.

On his iPod, Dharmesh listens to last week’s book reports read out by the students. The quality of their work has improved a great deal since switching to the audio requirement. The second report, by Kelly, is a little loud and the audio clips a bit. Dharmesh makes a mental note to show Kelly how to level the audio in Audacity.

At school, the first period media students are all frustrated. They’ve built a media room in FriendFeed, but haven’t figured out what they’re going to use to present their collected information. Dharmesh lets their discuss the benefits of a blog versus just adding a group to Ning. He asks if they’ve tried Scrapblog yet, which makes simple pages in a primarily drag-and-drop interface. They agree to check that out.

Period four is right before lunch. Dharmesh has special permission to mix the two time frames, so he takes his class out on a walk, asking them to snap pictures with their cell phones’ cameras. Only one student doesn’t have a smartphone, and Dharmesh gives him a Flip camera, instructing him to shoot some video of the student’s collecting their photos. Now there’ll be a documentary to go along with the photo walk project.

There’s only one fast computer in the class room. The others are horribly out of date. But Mister McBrian has done a great job of keeping them updated, and their browsers work well enough to be mostly useful. Because the school has opted to use only web apps instead of buying software for each computer, they were able to use some money to improve memory on the machines. It’s not ideal, but classrooms are rarely state of the art for long.

Before the end of the day, Dharmesh has recorded a quick video on the fast computer, giving the next week’s assignments audibly. He’s already sent the assignments as a forum update to their Ning group, so the class doesn’t have to write anything down to remember. It’s already in their RSS feed.

On the commute home, Dharmesh listens to more podcast book reports and thinks about what he can do to raise money to get just a few more good computers into the class room. Before these kids get to fourth grade, he figures, they should know that not all computers take two minutes to load a page. Maybe a fundraiser, he think, as he drives home to meet up with his family for dinner.

What do you think? Make sense? Was it surprising that I have this as a 3rd grade classroom? It’s not inaccurate. My daughter is entering first grade and she knows how to navigate a browser, iTunes, and various websites.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

A Camera for Kids

via the TED Blog:

" be used as a therapeutic instrument for underprivileged children, e.g. children living in (former) warzones. Children can take photographs and self-portraits in order to rediscover their environment and identity, and share their point of view with others."

With its open-steering-wheel design (you click the shutter by squeezing the sides), Scope invites a new perspective on picture-taking, removing the distance between the photographer and her subject. As Groenendaal writes,

"I wanted to emphasize the importance of looking and framing. In my design there is no screen ... It places the photographer in the spotlight: while looking through the camera, the world looks at you. You cannot hide behind the camera."

Tuesday, August 26, 2008


Via the Mises Blog:
You will note that Kinsella's book Against Intellectual Property is the #2 bestseller in the store. This is despite its having been online for six years and remains so, in two formats. What a way to demonstrate a thesis. If you have something that is valuable to others, people might be willing to pay for it.

Tamil Pulp Fiction Anthology

Via Boing Boing, the story of a translation success.
Tamil language, widely spoken in the state of Tamil Nadu in south India, has a large body of pulp fiction. But it hasn't been available to non-Tamil speakers, until now. A new publishing house, Blaft translated a bunch of these stories and published an representative anthology of the stuff. I loved the book myself when I read it (I raved about it on my blog). The book has gone on to be one of the big successes of the year in India, and they're thinking of bringing out a sequel, and similar anthologies for pulp in other languages. "
The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Digital War on Poverty

Jeffery Sachs on technology and education:

Education will be similarly transformed. Throughout the world, schools at all levels will go global, joining together in worldwide digital education networks. Children in the United States will learn about Africa, China, and India not only from books and videos, but also through direct links across classrooms in different parts of the world. Students will share ideas through live chats, shared curricula, joint projects, and videos, photos, and text sent over the digital network.

Universities, too, will have global classes, with students joining lectures, discussion groups, and research teams from a dozen or more universities at a time. This past year, my own university – Columbia University in New York City – teamed up with universities in Ecuador, Nigeria, the United Kingdom, France, Ethiopia, Malaysia, India, Canada, Singapore, and China in a "global classroom" that simultaneously connected hundreds of students on more than a dozen campuses in an exciting course on global sustainable development.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Teach India Campaign

Two stories from the Times of India's Teach India campaign. Click through to read the full stories.

The first details an experience at an NGO briefing session in Bangalore.
There's a new media campaign in town to encourage people to volunteer their time with select NGOs. The idea is simple: As a volunteer you can pick any NGO from a predetermined list, decide if you like their philosophy, submit a schedule that works for you (2 hours a wk) and educate underprivileged children. The Times of India group has thrown their entire media weight behind this campaign enlisting film personalities, splashing images on billboards at busy junctions and taking out color adverts everyday. It seems to be on the same scale as the "India Shining" Campaign.

My mom signed up for this in Bangalore and she received a text message inviting her to join the NGO, Hippocampus Reading Foundation for an information session. I accompanied her, curious about the whole process...

The second details the reasons why an NGO wasn't selected and the alternatives to the Teach India campaign.
The teach India campaign is in full swing, or so we would all like to believe. Our tryst with them was short lived: we did not fit the model they proposed as we could not take in the minimum of 100 volunteers that they offered - we had asked for six. The organisers could not understand why in spite of our 9 centres we were unable to accept the 100 volunteers offered. To them the maths was simple: 9 centres into 2 shifts into 6 days = 108!

Free Educational Content

This is a post being republished from Atanu Dey on India's Development Blog. He publishes under a Creative Commons License. Thank you Atanu.

Please take the time to read this lengthy post, it's a veritable gold mine of thoughts on educational content and more...

A new world

That the world has changed radically in just this generation is nowhere more evident than in matters that have something to do with information and communications technology. The evidence is all around us — including this fact that I am writing this on a laptop somewhere in India and anyone with a connected computer anywhere in the world can read it. It is hard to overestimate the profound changes. Perhaps because the changes are so overwhelming that we consider them normal and so unremarkable. However, understanding the consequences of that change is going to be important in how successful we are in meeting the evolving challenges and indeed making the most of it. Here I will argue that education — the process and its objectives — has to change dramatically in this new world.

Optimum, not maximum

From a specific viewpoint, the new world is one in which information is cheap. In fact, one can plausibly argue that as time goes on, the price of information will go from positive to zero and eventually to negative. How can something that is an economic good have a price that is negative? Only economic “bads” — such as pollution — have negative price; economic goods have a positive price. I submit that information, beyond a certain threshold, ceases to be an economic good and its price becomes negative: the point at which people will pay to have less of something rather than more.

The general principle is that there are optimal quantities for any good. Beyond an optimum quantity, a thing becomes less than useless; it becomes positively harmful. There is such a thing as having too many cooks, and the broth getting spoiled. Having too much of a good thing, way beyond the point of satiation, is a bad thing. The optimum could be a fairly wide range, somewhere between the extremes of drought and flood. The maximum available is not necessarily the optimum. Depending on the need, the optimal usually is much lower than the maximal.

Let’s talk specifically about information. Some fun facts.

Large Stock

First, the total amount of information available today is huge. Information accumulates and unlike material things, it is a public good in the sense that it is non-rival in consumption. The stock is growing even faster compared to before because the flow is accelerating as more people are producing information. The creation, storage, transportation, and accessing of information is aided by the ever more powerful information technology tools. Anyone with the most fleeting acquaintance with the world wide web is well aware that his or her optimum information needs lie far below that which is accessible with just a browser and connected computer.

Search Problem

The stock of accessible information is of course very very large but with respect to any individual, it is virtually infinite. This poses a difficult problem, namely, how to identify the best (appropriately defined) information from the accessible stock. The larger the stock, the harder it is to find the best (or even the really good.) It is a search problem, and the problem will continue to grow as the stock grows. It sounds impressive to know that google has indexed umpteen billion pages and responded to your search request with six million odd pages in less than 0.2 seconds. But one rarely ventures beyond the first couple of pages of results. One manages with those pages even though it is possible that somewhere in the six million pages resides the best answer. The results are filtered for relevance and importance but software can only do so much.

Two penguins

So there were these two penguins just hanging out on an iceberg. (Where else would they hang out, anyway?) One of them turns to the other and says, “Hey, you look as if you are wearing a tuxedo.” The other one replies, “How do you know that I am not wearing one?”

That is apropos nothing. I just got bored of writing this and thought it would be nice to insert a joke. As it happens, it is one of my favorite jokes. Now back to our regular programming.

Free and good

The amazing thing is that much of the information we find on the accessible web is free. Why is it free and is it any good? More importantly, is it really free to you? The truth is that you cannot really ever acquire information for free. It may be given away for free (like this blog post) but you have to spend time reading it for you to “have it” in any meaningful way.

Is it indeed true that even if you don’t reward an author financially, that the author is not getting paid anything? The reward may be entirely psychic: the satisfaction that one derives from creating something that one values and perhaps that others value. There are indirect rewards in the creation of a work undertaken for the sheer pleasure of it.

But is the work any good? Can someone who is not directly being paid to produce something actually produce something good? I think so. Work for hire can be really good because the paymaster may demand quality. Nevertheless, work created for the heck of it can actually be higher quality because the reward is intrinsic in the work and the better the quality, the higher the reward.

Still, intrinsically motivated work could be the work of rank amateurs and amateurs naturally outnumber professionals. My belief is that when the number of amateurs increases sufficiently, the top of end of the quality of their work compares very favorably with the best efforts of the professionals.

Professionally filtered

Do professionals also give away their work for free in some instances? Yes, indeed. Researchers spend enormous effort and then give it for free to journals (and most journals charge authors a fee to examine the submitted piece.) The journals then turn around and charge and an arm and a leg for journal subscriptions. What’s going on over there? Nothing is given away for free — the researchers get fame and therefore fortune when they get jobs based on publications; the journals are expensive because they add value by bringing to the readers high quality papers. They add value by filtering.

All this has relevance to the future of educational content, as I intend to argue below.

Educational content

For around a couple of decades, people have been creating educational digital content. Certainly much, if not most, of this is professionally produced in the sense that the authors are paid for it, just as they were before the digital age. But there is a certain amount of non-professionally produced digital educational content. By that I do not mean that the authors are not professionals in their fields but that they are not paid for producing it and they do so out of their own interest.

There is a parallel in publishing. Before the digital age, published authors were (except for a bit of vanity publishing) people who were paid for their work and the work was published only by publishers who had the resources to bring the work to market. The business model was easy to understand: readers paid publishers, publishers paid authors. With the advent of desktop publishing on the internet, anyone could be a publisher and millions did — on blogs, for example.

The more the merrier

They (like yours truly) publish because they are intrinsically motivated to express themselves without having to mess around with a publisher. Of course, not everyone can be good. But out of the horde of millions of authors, the very top end of these amateur writers is really very good. So you have the interesting phenomenon of very high quality work being done at considerable personal cost but given away entirely free. Not just given away, authors actively promote their wares. The more takers there are for a certain piece, the more it motivates the author to produce higher quality.

Creative Commons licenses

The market works. Whereas in the pre-digital age, authors used to jealously guard their work from being distributed without payment, now authors are pleased to see their work being widely available to others. Moreover, some authors even don’t mind derivatives of their work. The market soon enough produced the appropriate licensing mechanism: a family of creative commons licenses which anyone can use (for free, naturally.) {See the license under which I publish this blog.}

Good free educational content

For years I have been noticing the growing pile of great free educational content on the web. Produced by amateurs, the quality leaves me envious and depressed. How I wish I had access to this or that particular piece when I was learning stuff from rather mediocre (or even bad) educational content. If only, lord if only, I had learnt using the absolutely amazing piece, I would have been much smarter. [The mind boggles, doesn’t it? I know it is a frightening thought since as it is I am a quite a bit of a pain.] I envy the kids who have the potential to learn stuff really well and without so many tears.

When I learnt stuff, I just had some plain old text with some pictures and graphics thrown in. Today you have text, audio, video, graphics, and other bells and whistles. There are technologies which allow you to interact with the content.

A small sample

In school I read about galaxies and deep space only in a book. Now you have access to Hubble’s Deepest View of the Universe Unveils Bewildering Galaxies across Billions of Years: you can see photographs, videos and get links to related matters.

Want to learn about optics? Try out this optics simulator. I just did. I added a lens in the blank simulator window, then adjusted the focal length of the lens, then added a mirror and adjusted its focal length, and then added a beam to the left of the lens and voila! The result is below.

Want to build an atom? Do it here. Here’s what boron schematically looks like:

And while there, learn that a proton is huge compared to an electron. How huge? See this image. The text reads:

This web page shows the scale of a hydrogen atom. The diameter of a hydrogen atom is roughtly 100,000 times larger than a proton. Therefore, if we make a proton the size of the picture above, 1000 pixels across, then the electron orbiting this proton is located 50,000,000 pixels to the right (but could be found anywhere in the sphere around the proton at that distance). Your monitor displays 72 dots per inch (dpi), so you would need a monitor that is nearly 11 miles (17.5 km) wide to view the whole page! Go ahead and grab the scrollbar at the bottom of the page to get a feel for exactly how far away that is!

Note: For illustrative purposes, this is a simplification of the subatomic particles. Standard quantum electrodynamics (QED) treats the electron as a point particle and through experiments has placed the diameter to be more than 1,000,000 times smaller than the one depicted above.
You can spend a lot of time learning stuff on the web. Want to figure out the speed of light using a bar of chocolate and a microwave oven (and a few other basic bits of knowledge)? Try this out in your kitchen.

Try this 3-body flash animation.

There are nearly a hundred physics flash animations where that came from. The categories are:

* Chaos
* Classical Mechanics
* Electricity and Magnetism
* Fluid Mechanics
* Micrometer Caliper
* Miscellaneous
* Nuclear
* Optics
* Oscilloscope
* Quantum Mechanics
* Relativity
* Sound Waves
* Vectors
* Waves

Entropy is simple

I have collected hundreds of bits of educational content over the years. Today I saw a free introduction to economics book on the web. (Hat tip: Rajesh) I thought it was nice but not really a style that I liked. That’s another point: there’s so much free stuff out there that you are bound to find something that strikes your fancy. Some years ago I found an excellent physics book: Motion Mountain — the free physics text book. (It’s a 50 MB pdf download, and 1,366 pages!)

That web page introduces the book with:

How do objects and images move? How can animals move? What is motion?

How does a rainbow form?

Is levitation possible?

Do time machines exist?

What does ‘quantum’ mean?

What is the maximum force value found in nature?

Is ‘empty space’ really empty?

Is the universe a set?

Which problems in physics are still unsolved?

It’s free! And it says, “Motion Mountain is downloaded over 30 000 times a year. It aims to be among the best introductory physics texts available. Do you have an idea for improving it? Add it to the suggestion wiki! For a valuable suggestion, I will add you to the sponsor and acknowledgment list, or send you a reward.”

I have spent days reading that book and marveling at the sheer quality of the work. I will end this bit with just one more example.

Entropy is not a simple idea. But if you go here, you will learn entropy simply. Who wrote that? As the page says, “A chemistry professor with experience in teaching thermodynamics to non-science majors, not just chemistry students.”

Did you know

. . . that according to the first Annual State of Education Report (ASER) report, nearly half the children in standard V in the worst performing Indian states could not read at standard II level and that nearly two-thirds could not do simple division?

End of aside. Back to the main text.

A million authors now

So what’s happening here? What’s happening is that you are getting lots of stuff produced by gazillions of people. And some of that stuff is so excellent that it makes your head spin. So the problem is not that there is not sufficient good stuff. The problem is that it is a very hard search problem to identify the bits that are best suited for one’s needs.

What are the implications? First of all, it is rather pointless for any institution to create educational content because it is prohibitively expensive to match the quality of the content that already exists out there and which has been created by self-motivated authors. Sure this-or-that foundation is spending a couple of million dollars creating content — but to really compete, they would need not millions but billions. It is a fool’s errand to try to do so. It cannot be done and it is a waste of time.

Why? I call it the “poet” problem. You could employ a bunch of people to write technical manuals but you can never hire a bunch of people and expect them to turn out great poetry. Great poetry comes out of people who want to write poems, not just because you pay them to write poetry. Also, one does not know before hand who will write great poetry. It just happens that out of a large outpouring of poetry from a very large bunch of people, some great poetry is found.

So also, the best content is not going to be created by some institution (although they may contribute some bits that go into the best content category.) The best content is going to be the aggregation of small bits of work from a lot of self-directed authors that we will come to find out about only after they have done the work and made it available on the web.

The second implication is that if you solve the problem of identifying the best content, you have something that will be useful for millions of others because the solution itself is an information good and therefore can be shared endlessly. The cost of doing the search and identify could therefore be distributed over a large set of users, thus reducing the average cost arbitrarily.

Filter will be king

The third implication is related to institutions. In the future, institutions which filter content will evolve. They will not actually produce any content nor will they give you a billion pieces of information. Their job would be to deliver a very restricted subset of the available content, filtered to suit your need. Like the publisher of research journals, they will add value to something that they essentially obtain for free but charge you for doing the filtering job.

Core Education

Education will have to change, as I mentioned before. The current system is anachronistic. Relying on this system for education is like using Roman numerals to do arithmetic. You could do some simple arithmetic with some difficulty using Roman numerals but it is rather pointless to do so when you have the alternative of using the decimal positional number system easily and manage to do a great deal more.

In the past, you had to know facts; now you have all the facts (and more) at your fingertips. What you need to know now is how to use the facts. What education has to do is to teach the skill of learning how to learn. That is the larger goal. But fundamental to all learning are a few basic skills: literacy and numeracy, to name just a couple. These can be learnt easily enough by anyone given a little bit of instruction and a bit of effort.

Core education does not require humongous amounts of content. Depending upon how one defines the core, I estimate that much less than a gigabyte of content is sufficient. What has to be added to that content is the one thing that is the most precious of all resources: time.

It is much better to give a little amount of coherent and good content to a student and allow him a great deal of time to internalize the lesson, rather than to give a huge amount of content and only a little bit of time. I despair that today students are inundated with content and have so much of their time taken away by teaching that they have very little time left over for learning.

A Solid Foundation

I don’t want to dwell too much on the faults of the current system. For now I will just note that the current system does a particularly bad job of building a solid foundation of understanding. The average student, I have discovered, has fundamental gaps in his grasp of the basics. (Aside: I hate having to write “his or her”. At the risk of sounding sexist, I will just use “he” and “his”.) He knows that he does not fully understand something but is forced to move on by the system. He lacks confidence in his understanding of the subject and having lost his grip on it, is forever slipping. This has to stop.

It is possible to comprehensively teach the basics to anyone who is not a certifiable moron. Once the basics have been learnt, anyone can continue to build upon it as preferences and motivation dictates. [I speak from experience. I am not the sharpest knife in the drawer but fortunately I had been able to get a solid basic education. That allowed me to move from engineering in the undergraduate level to an entire different field of study at the post graduate level, namely, computer science, and then from there to yet another field (economics) at the doctoral level. If I can do it, I am certain that anyone can do it.]

The future

So what would the schools of the future be like? First of all, I believe that they will be quite different from today’s schools. Instead of “one size fits all” types, they will be places which offer personalized schooling. The technology affords that possibility. Recall that once upon a time, in the age of industrialization, you could have any color of Ford Model-T as long as it was black. We have moved on from those days. Even IBM with their mainframes and their vertically integrated offerings are history. Today we have Dell. You can go to Dell and personalize your laptop, just like you can pick different attributes of your car at the GM website and have a made-to-order car delivered to your car dealer.

There is no reason why instruction cannot be personalized similarly. The technology exists and the only thing that is stopping the transition is the imagination of the bureaucrats that control the education system.

But all hope is not lost. Market forces will force the change.

I am sure that on the horizon are looming firms that will promise a new education paradigm. These firms, due to competitive pressures, will transform education in ways that are easy to contemplate. They will make it more efficient (less number of hours, months, years spent in learning the skills) and relevant (the skills that matter in the long run).

Of course, in the period of transition such as we are currently in, some firms will try to shoe-horn technology into the current system. Their successes in doing so are going to be limited, however. Technology can help mask some of the obvious shortcomings of the current system but only temporarily. The larger transformation will soon enough make obsolete the patched-up older system.

It’s a different world

The education system is anachronistic for a number of reasons. We live in an age of plenty, not of scarcity, with regards to information. The system was designed for scarcity and naturally performs miserably in conditions of abundance. See how unfit modern humans are to live in a world where calories are abundant, whereas their evolutionary history was predominantly in environments where calories were scarce. Obesity and related diseases are killing them just because their bodies have hard-coded in them the tendency to hoard calories.

Information obesity will be as debilitating. Our education system is still predicated on a condition of information scarcity. It will predictably lead to coronary diseases of the brain. (Not sure that that is what I mean.)

We also live in an age where the dominant system is not one of command and control but of free markets and competition. The education system was designed to serve the needs of a centralized command and control order. Socialism and centralized planning is a decided failure. Their colossal wrecks are impressive sights to behold. India suffered (and how) from Nehruvian socialist planning in industry. Only recently are there some hopeful glimmers of liberation in Indian industry. Yet the same old socialist control of education persists. It is certain that it too will be relegated to the dustbin of history. The major concern is how long do we have to suffer this and how many hundreds of millions of humans will have to be sacrificed to Nehruvian socialism before rationality prevails.

I hope for the sake of the future of India, and its hundreds of millions of school-going age population, that we wake up soon.

Read India Foundation

We reached the school around 9'0 Clock. It already got started. We were a group of some 7 people - all young and energetic and was present there with a definite purpose of life. I looked around the school building. It was a small compound with a good stretch of land in front of it. I came to know from one of my friend that this land was donated to the group to support the noble cause of educating the most under privileged section of the society and to help the great cause of eradicating the EVIL of Illiteracy.

Read Samantak's full post on teaching children to read.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Book Review: Kolhapur to Beijing

With just five medals (if you don’t count hockey) in its 60 years of participating in Olympic events as an independent nation, India is not exactly hot property. But there is always hope.

Kolhapur to Beijing is one such story of hope. With the country sending out a swimming team (earlier, it was just the odd contestant) for the first time to the Olympics, 17-year-old Virdhawal Khade’s story will hold a lot of meaning for every growing, aspiring youngster.

Read the full piece at LiveMint.

Friday, August 22, 2008

From the Press....

Before you say, China, of course, hold on. A while ago, the Financial Times carried a wonderful article about how China recruits athletes in remote villages and trains them (to the exclusion of everything else) to become world-class athletes. The story talked about one Olympic kayaker, Yang Yali, who was recruited from the provinces even though she didn’t even know how to swim and had never seen a kayak before her recruitment. But Yang Yali had the broad shoulders and long arms of the superlative kayaker she would become, and the talent scout recognized that.

The same week that I read the story, I attended Pratham Books’ launch of a children’s book, From Kolhapur to Beijing, which chronicled the journey of Olympic swimmer Virdhawal Khade. Khade’s voyage was fraught with resource constraints and hurdles. Here was a boy who wanted to swim, who was an Olympic-level swimmer and yet, he had to fight at every step to get where he was. Wouldn’t it have been far easier for this kid if a talent scout like the ones China employs in droves just spotted and moulded him; changed his destiny in one fell swoop?

Source: Mint, China’s return to the ancient Olympic goal

Thursday, August 21, 2008

A Critique of India's IP Regime

Via Spicy IP, an interesting article by Latha Jinshu on the limitations of our copyright regime and why it needs to be diluted.

It’s a pity that India has not learned some lessons from its partner in the promising new IBSA alliance which brings together India, Brazil and South Africa. We have not had the liberating experience of having a culture minister from among the creative community nor sadly have we had a leader who was able to visualise new ways of harnessing culture as a tool for bridging the difference in our deeply divided society. The Internet does not figure even remotely as a creative space that can yield huge dividends.
Prashant responds to the article and in concluding says:
My point therefore being that all is not lost Ms. Jishnu – there is more than just a ray of sunlight for the copyright regime and cultural production in India. In fact I would say that the sun is shining bright over the Indian copyright regime and we must recognize the efforts of those few bureaucrats, politicians and businessmen who have played an important role in cultural production by encouraging an accessible cultural regime either through the innovative use of the law and through innovative business strategies.

Open Textbooks

If you're looking to learn basic economics, here's a free textbook:
Micheal says, "I haven't gone through the whole thing, but a quick spot check on various topics suggests that (at least in that random sample) the text is clear, well-written and does a good job explaining those concepts."
Battling pricy textbooks with open-source texts, social media:
This interactivity between teacher and students strikes me as a great development. The past decade or so has seen the rise of student assessments, with the aim that the feedback better shapes the teaching. Getting those same students to collaborate on course materials ought to have the same effect but to a much finer degree, thanks to the ongoing conversation.
Picture uploaded by uncultured

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Girish Karnad on Translations

Kannada playwright and actor Girish Karnad, elected as a World Theatre Ambassador of UNESCO’s International Theatre Institute, has said the honour reflected the importance of getting good English translations done of works of Indian literature.

“I may write in Kannada but the world only knows me through my English translations. I am an exceptional case in that I translate my own works into English. But Indian literature needs good translations — and translations are particularly important for plays and poetry.”

Read the full story at the Hindu

Flash Fiction Contest

Via zigzackly:
Quick Tales, the LiveJournal - Caferati Flash Fiction contest, asks you to tell us a story in 500 words or less. On offer: delicious cash prizes (top prize: Rs 19,999), global visibility and the chance to be part of a book.

From the contest page:
  • Theme Your subject is Journal.
    Feel free to interpret that how you like. For example, you could tell a story in diary entries or blog posts, or have a lost journal play a critical role in the narrative. You could tell a love story; a whodunnit; a gritty urban tale. Whatever. let your imagination fly, but make sure your story has a more than cursory connection with the theme.
  • Deadline You must submit your entry before midnight, 7th September 2008.
    A leetle word of advice: please don’t wait until 11.45 p.m. on the 6th to submit your entry. Chances are that many others may have dragged their feet, and while our system is, we think, robust, any server can be overloaded.
  • Eligibility 1. Residents of India. Contestants must have a street address in India.
    2. LiveJournal Users. Contestants must be registered LiveJournal users as of the date on which they submit an entry to the contest, and should still be members on the date on which contest results are announced. Anyone with an internet connection and a minute to spare can become a LiveJournal user by signing up at their site. LiveJournal Basic Membership is 100% free.
  • Exceptions The contest is not open to employees and stake-holders of LiveJournal, Scenario Consulting, Caferati Creative, and the contest jury, and their immediate families.
  • Judges Caferati’s editors will screen the initial entries to keep the long list to a reasonable number. The short-listed entries (the top 100) will go through to a second round of judging by our panel of judges: Samit Basu, Anjum Hasan and Anita Roy.
  • How to enter Use the contest entry form, please. Entries will not be accepted by any other method.

Are Editors Necessary?

Jeff Jarvis asks:
Do we need editors? I hesitate to ask, knowing that one or two will be taking a sharpened pencil - a cursor, rather - to this very question..

Editors are a luxury we must afford. But as their jobs change, so will their character. Editors will become gentle coaches whose job it is to look for the good in the world of the web. They'll have to be nicer. Based on that, some may still choose to impale themselves.
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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Help Akshaya Patra....

Akshaya Patra is the world’s largest school lunch program – feeding 1 million children every day in India – for only $28 a year per child. But I am not asking for a donation.

Please help us by nominating Akshaya Patra by September 1 for a chance to win $1.5 million in funding from the American Express Members Project! And tell your friends to do the same...

You don’t need an American Express Card to vote.

The top 25 projects with the most votes move on to a second round to be voted on by a panel of judges. And we only need 2000 votes worldwide to jump into the lead. We are counting on you to SPREAD THE WORD!

  • Please control + click on this link to cast your vote!
  • Click on “nominate your favorite project” below the picture of children.
  • Log on as an American Express card member OR sign up as a guest.
  • If signing in as a guest, you are required to enter your first and last name, email address, and a user password. THIS DOES NOT SIGN YOU UP FOR AN AMERICAN EXPRESS CARD.
  • Nominate Akshaya Patra – Feeding One Million Children Daily
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  • Tell your friends to do the same!
We thank you in advance for your time and support!

The Akshaya Patra Foundation is the largest NGO midday meal program in the world. Akshaya Patra is an organization with the vision that no child shall be deprived of education because of hunger. Now feeding over 960,000 underprivileged children in over 5,700 schools in six states in India, Akshaya Patra will reach its million children milestone fairly soon. It costs only $28 to feed a child for the entire year.

Akshaya Patra is a public-private partnership that combines good management, innovative technology and smart engineering to deliver school lunch at a fraction of the cost of similar programs in other parts of the world. For many of the children this is their only complete meal for the day. This gives them an incentive to come to school, stay in school and provides them with the necessary nutrients they need to develop their cognitive abilities to focus on learning.

Through kitchens specially designed by engineers to leverage technology and sourcing its food stocks from local markets, Akshaya Patra is able to reduce costs associated with transportation and food spoilage while supporting the local economy. In a short time, the foundation has grown to become the largest, and certainly most innovative, school lunch program in the world. Akshaya Patra is a great example of what a non-profit organization can achieve-- a cost effective, scalable solution with high quality service delivery.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Great Unbundling

In the world of publishing, unbundling the message from the medium allows for a greater degree of re-use of the message and even novel ways of creating the message. The physical format of books and the processes involved in creating such books is a limitation to creation, contribution and re-use. Once the message is in digital 0s and 1s the message is no longer confined to the physical medium and there are far fewer barriers to access.

A case in point:
Charles Wankel is gathering hundreds of co-authors from around the world to write his latest textbook — 926 of them in 90 countries, to be exact.

Mr. Wankel is an associate professor of management at St. John’s University, in New York. Each of his co-authors, most of whom are also management professors, will write or edit a small portion of the final text, which is slated to be published by Routledge. They’re organizing the vast effort using a wiki that lets participants see and edit each other’s contributions.

Mr. Wankel is essentially asking the expected audience for the book to be part of its production, since he hopes that management professors around the world will end up using the text in their courses. He found his co-authors by searching social networks like Facebook and LinkedIn for members who were management professors — and of course he invited colleagues he had met over the years. The practice has been called “crowdsourcing,” a term coined by a Wired magazine writer to describe outsourcing a project to a large group using collaborative Internet technologies. . . .

Picture uploaded by Paul Watson

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Are we Reading Anymore?

So why are we so loathe to buy books? Too expensive, we say. How can young people afford them? Well, let’s use an Orwellian parameter to calculate things.

It costs Rs 200 to watch a movie on a weekend evening at a multiplex. (And that’s without the popcorn and the soft drinks.) Now my edition of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road — for my money the finest novel of 2007 and a New York Times bestseller, which means that a lot of people, including those who make their reading choices based on what Oprah recommends in her book club, have bought it — costs Rs 195. A Penguin Modern Classic — the storehouse of the finest literature in the history of literature — usually costs Rs 250.

It's a sad tale of woe.

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Print on Demand Comes to India



Cinnamon Teal offers an add in to publish in multiple Indian languages too...

Updated to add: also fully supports all Indian Languages. We already have 7 books in Hindi, are working with a Bengali author and more to come. Do check out

The Translating Millions

They started with the Spanish translation which was finished in less than a month by about 1,500 volunteers – since then it’s had around 8,594 translators and 66,274 translations submitted. It has been so popular that Facebook has introduced translations for specific Spanish locales like Spain, Mexico, Chile and Venezuela…The German translation was next and took less than two weeks with around 2,000 contributors. The French translation of Facebook took a few days to complete and involved close to 10,000 people! A total of 67,445 translations have been submitted so far.

On how Facebook managed to translate their product into 63 languages...

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Buy the just launched "Kolhapur to Beijing - Freestyle!" online

The OLPC's Exaggerated Demise?

At the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2005, Nicholas Negroponte, supreme prophet of digital connectivity, revealed a strange tent-like object. It was designed to change the world and to cost $100. It was a solar-powered laptop. Millions would be distributed to children in the developing world, bringing them connection, education, enlightenment and freedom of information. The great, the good, the rich and the technocrats nodded in solemn approval.

And then some of them tried to kill it.

Read the full story at the Times Online.

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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Community Radio

"...The Restoring Force (TRF), has received the preliminary Letter of Intent from the Ministry informing TRF that it has been granted a license to start a community radio station in Gurgaon. Considering TRF’s existing work in government schools in Gurgaon, especially in the area of career counselling and infrastructure development, it seems appropriate to focus, at first, on this area alone."

"My intention is to blog the entire community radio project so that, one, the entire process is documented, and two, so that any one out there who has an opinion or input can do so via this blog. Unlike a commercial project, this project is completely transparent, so there is no hesitation in sharing ideas and progress, and failures and successes.

If this is a project that you have something to say about, you MUST write in."
More at Arti's blog...

Picture uploaded by YlvaS

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Round Up

Via Reuters:
It may be about time to dig out that old library card. Hoping to draw back readers, libraries have vastly expanded their lists of digital books, music, and movies that can be downloaded by their patrons to a computer or MP3 player -- and it doesn't cost a cent, unlike, say, media from Apple Inc'siTunes or Inc.

Via Techdirt on how copyright law is holding back creativity:
While not enough people recognize it, the real purpose of copyright law is to provide an incentive for the creation of more content. The government felt that there was a market failure, where not enough "content" would be produced without a limited monopoly, and thus, copyright was born. However, that happened back in the day when creating content wasn't easy. You pretty much had to go through a professional process. These days, thanks to new technologies, creating content is exceptionally easy -- and thus, a big part of the very basis for copyright no longer makes sense. We're drowning in content -- and it's not because of the "incentive" of copyright. There are plenty of incentives for creating content these days and very few have anything to do with copyright.

Via Boing Boing, how the lack of attribution is far more worrying than copying on the Internet:
Danny O'Brien's new essay "Copyright, Fraud and Window Taxes (No, not that Windows)" makes a really good point about the way that people view copying on the Internet: copying is a ho-hum, every day thing (after all, in order for you to read these words, they had to be copied dozens, if not hundreds, of times) but "passing off" (plagiarism, fraud) is more frowned-upon than ever.

Via Jeff Jarvis on how the Internet is breaking down barriers to creativity where there is no gatekeeper to decide what is good and what is not:
But we are shifting, too, from a culture of scarcity to one of abundance. That is the essence of the Google worldview: managing abundance. So let’s assume that instead of a scarcity there is an abundance of talent and a limitless will to create but it has been tamped down by an educational system that insists on sameness; starved by a mass economic system that rewarded only a few giants; and discouraged by a critical system that anointed a closed, small creative class.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Environment Series reviewed in Deccal Herald's Open Seasame

Village tales
Anupama Ramakrishnan takes us to the village of Jhilmil where adventures wait at the drop of a hat!

The Case Of The Healing Herbs’, ‘In Search of the Rain Woman’, ‘Chasing The Plastic Pisach and ‘Danger in the Forest’– all stories by Sumathi Sudhakar– take the young reader on an interesting trip through the wonderful world that we live in. Through catchy narrative, the story leads us to the village of Jhilmil where Jeeva and his brother Jatin lives. Their friends, the animals who live in the forest, add colour to their adventures. The stories take interesting twists and turns. But all’s well that ends well. In ‘The Case of the Healing Herbs’ sickness sweeps through Jhilmil. With the entry of the grandmother and her medicines, everybody is fine except Uncle Venu. So the brothers go in search of the Medicine Man and then the Baba and the Ageless Granny with great difficulty. They do get the cure. And the cure lies in herbs. The story stresses the importance of traditional and herbal medicines.

These four books are a good read as it tell us in a simple manner how man and animals can co-exist, how we should protect nature and the good and bad side of certain things. Stories by Sumathi Sudhakar Illustrations by Arka Prabha Roy Chowdhury, Pages 16, Rs 25 Publisher: Pratham Books

To read full review click here

Publishers + Electrons

Carmen-Maria Hetrea in the Britannica Blog:
Lifting a book out of the print medium and dropping it into an electronic format I call “publishing electronically.” That is a reductionist view of a print product in the new Web economy.

But no longer trapped in static linear pages, electronic information on the Web can now take on a life of its own. Concepts and ideas can be liberated from the context of the page and juxtaposed in novel ways. When new content-management rules can retrieve a book’s content not only alphabetically in an index but dynamically along all axes of content organization (by time, place, category, hierarchy), the book morphs into a powerful interactive experience in the hands of the user. I call this “electronic publishing,” a virtual and dynamic reengineering of the book, a new access methodology to be exploited at its fullest in an electronic medium. It affords publishers to become information providers.

It is a well-understood reality that once a book is out of the hands of its author, it takes on a life of its own. The same applies to content creation in the electronic world. Retrieval creates new and unexpected experiences that cannot be controlled editorially. Learning, exploration and discovery take on a whole new dimension with an end-user’s query as publications unfold and come alive. It is a hard lesson for publishers to learn.
What role will publishers play then? As facilitators or reuse and remix? As platform owners? As curators? And what of the authors? Do they not have moral rights to and in their work and should they not have control over said derivative works? And more importantly, where's the business model in all of this?

Picture uploaded by LincolnStein

The OLPC Arrives

Nicholas Negroponte's project, OLPC or One Laptop Per Child, has finally made it to India via private partnership.

Via TC-I:
After weathering multiple rebuffs, Nicholas Negroponte’s much touted One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project has finally found a foothold in India, in the form of ADAG (Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group). The Digital Bridge Foundation, part of ADAG, is providing the technology backbone and logistics for installation of OLPC’s white and green laptops in primary schools. Dubbed as XO, the laptop is finally being mass-produced in China.

Atanu Dey on the OLPC:
I have been following the OLPC story for a while on this blog. I think that technology — especially information and communications technology — presents tools that are going to transform how education is done and what it achieves. It will really be appropriate to call it a revolution and it is just a matter of “when”, not “if.” Tools transform; they change processes, and eventually they change the product. The process of education which has essentially remained unchanged for at least a hundred years is ripe for change, whether or not the current bosses of the system are willing or not.

But I don’t think that the XO is the answer to any of the basic problems that Indian education system faces. Some people just don’t get it: that something can be quite useful and good, and at the same time inappropriate for a given situation.

I have no reason to doubt the glowing reviews that the XO has received. I have no difficulty believing that all else being equal, a child with an XO is better off than one without one. All else being equal, a person with a BMW is better off than a person without a BMW.

Negroponte speaks very eloquently about how children gifted an XO get terribly excited about going to school and learning. So would I. So would the child get excited about going to school if he gets the promise of a much-need mid-day meal. Incentives matter.

But eventually we have to face the fact that if children are not excited about going to school and have to be enticed by promises of goodies, then we have a problem whose genesis lies deep within the system and superficially dealing with the symptoms are bound to be in vain.

Picture uploaded by Wayan Vota

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Lost in Translation

At the recently concluded iSummit in Sapporo, one session was devoted to the issues of translation and multilingualism on the web and in the Commons and a problem that has proven to be difficult has been to maintain the cultural contexts when translating.

Wojciech Gryc writing in the official iSummit blog:
The session itself was a series of presentations, with Chris Salzberg moderating and focusing on the difficulties of working in a multilingual web. Leonard Chien presented on Chinese translation on the Global Voices site, and Hanako Tokita did the same for Japanese. Kyo Kaguera talked about his QRedit tool for translating English texts to Japanese, and Mohammad Daoud presented how machine translation is being used by the Digital Silk Road (DSR) project. Shun Fukazawa finished with a presentation of the Japanese Wikipedia and Wikia sites.

While statistics are difficult to get, it appears that less than a third of the web's users use English as a first language, and only a third of all websites are in English. Unfortunately, building a multilingual web is more complex than simply using an automated translation service. Computers have yet to understand local contexts, cultural references, and do not have a proper grasp of grammar."

Translation is extremely difficult, especially in a distributed context. For example, when translating from English to Chinese, one has to decide whether Traditional or Simplified Chinese will be used. Furthermore, a volunteer from Taiwan may use different characters or metaphors to describe events than a volunteer from Beijing. As such, volunteer management is often more structured and complex than one would initially assume.

User interfaces are a key challenge for effective translation. While open source packages like MediaWiki and Wordpress have support for multilingual interfaces or posts, the translation process itself requires more than just a dictionary and somewhere to type. Translators often use sites like Wikipedia or extensively search the web to understand the cultural contexts of certain sayings and metaphors. For example, how would you translate "It was raining cats and dogs" into Swahili -- and more importantly, how would an African volunteer figure out that this is a metaphor for "heavy rain"?

This brings up a difficult problem in user interface design: How can sotware developers build user interfaces for translation that not only provide support for using dictionaries and typing text, but actually help search for the meanings of analogies, supported fonts, verb conjugations, and other language-specific features? For example, how would a translator converting an English text to Japanese know when to use a formal (polite) or informal verb conjugation, when the original writer never even had to consider such a choice? Luckily, tools like QRedit are already trying to solve the problem.

And now Google has stepped into the fray with their newest addition to the family; the Google Translation Centre.

Blogoscoped reports that:

"...this is meant to be a translation service which offers both volunteers and professional translators... and I suppose at least the professionals will want to get paid."

Here’s what’s printed as a description on the service’s frontpage:

Request translations and find translators
Upload your document and request translations into over 40 languages.

Translate and review translated documents
Create and review content in your language through Google’s free, easy-to-use, online translation tools.

Brian McConell weighs in to add that:
Google has been investing significant resources in a multi-year effort to develop its statistical machine translation technology. Statistical MT works by comparing large numbers of parallel texts that have been translated between languages and from these learns which words and phrases usually map to others — similar to the way humans acquire language. The problem with statistical MT is that it requires a large number of directly translated sentences. These are hard to find, and because of this SMT systems use sources like the proceedings from the European Parliament, United Nations, etc. Which are fine if you’re writing in bureaucrat-speak, but aren’t so great for other texts. Google Translation Center is a straightforward and very clever way to gather a large corpus of parallel texts to train its machine translation systems.

For freelancers, GTC could be very good news; they could work directly with clients and have access to high quality productivity tools. Overall this is a welcome move that will force service providers to focus on quality, while Google, which is competent at software, can focus on building tools.
I do hope the Google releases an API for this so that it can be implemented withing other projects too. We at Pratham Books would certainly be interested given that we'd like to publish in more languages than we currently do and finding translators and reviewers and managing that process is very difficult.

Monday, August 4, 2008

On True Education

Dr. Bhamy Shenoy writes in the Star of Mysore about "True Education" in Mysore. Pratham Mysore tried to offer courses for students that stressed on creativity and asking questions, only to find that only 4 students were interested.

Dr. Shenoy argues that despite the talk among educationists about child-centric, creative learning (and in popular culture too... like Advani's tears after the movie Taare Zameen Par), there is a long way to go in changing mindsets about the aims of education.
"Coaching and tuition classes are flourishing in Mysore. Crores are spent by the parents to prepare their children to take admission tests for professional courses. But when an NGO like Pratham offered free cour-ses a few weeks back to prepare them to face real life situations where creativity is stressed over routine work, only four students enrolled....

We can ignore such a shocking poor response to a well-recognised and universally praised pedagogical sys-tem to poor marketing by Pratham. By doing so, we are making a mistake. To me the poor res-ponse holds mirror to the failure of our educational system....

Some prominent educationists have also tried to spread the word on "True Education". Deputy Commissioner P. Manivannan has offered to take some classes. Some have expressed interest. But so far, no educational institution in Mysore has come forward to conduct this course. Reasons: students are not interested, lack of motivated teachers, no spare time, busy with examinations, admission time, beginning/end of semester etc.

The main objective of "True Education" course was to ignite the thinking of the student and teach them to ask questions. In our schools and colleges, in class rooms, students are not encouraged to ask questions. Examination-oriented education system emphasises rote learning and scoring high marks and ranks. It is such an educational system which has given rise to a culture of tuition. Every educationist is critical of it. But no one does any thing about it.
Cross posted from Gowri's post on the KLP Blog.

Pictures from our Book Launch

Khade: Book Launch

Click on the picture to see our album...

Round Up

Jeff Jarvis asks why "... shouldn’t books have ads to support them as TV, newspapers, magazines, and radio do? Ads in books would be less irritating than commercials interrupting shows or banners blinking at you on a web page..."

Kevin Kelly states that "...people want to pay. They really do! People, mobs of them, will grab stuff that is free. They will try stuff for free that they would never touch if they had to pay. They will always gravitate, on average, to the lowest price, and what is lower than free?" But, he adds that payment is "...a way of connecting, a sign of approval, a vote, it indicates an alligence with the maker and it feels good to the payer, to support."

William Patry had decided to quit blogging about copyright because he feels that "Copyright law has abandoned its reason for being: to encourage learning and the creation of new works. Instead, its principal functions now are to preserve existing failed business models, to suppress new business models and technologies, and to obtain, if possible, enormous windfall profits from activity that not only causes no harm, but which is beneficial to copyright owners."

I had written previously about the Garfield minus Garfield blog and now the blog " to be turned into a book – with the backing of the cartoon’s original creator..." Jim Davis gets it.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Getting a 100 Million Children to Read

How do you go from a rural India in 2006 in which:- close to half the children in grade 1 could not recognize numbers or letters- almost half the children in grade 2 could not read a grade 1-level text fluently or do a 2-digit subtraction problem confidently- about half the children in grade 5 could not read a grade 2-level text easily or do a simple division problem to a situation by 2009 in which:- all grade 1 children know at least the alphabet and numbers- all grade 2 children can read at least simple words and do simple sums- all grades 3-5 children can at least read simple texts fluently and solve arithmetic problems confidently. And do it for a target population of almost a 100 million children?
Jyoti visits Pratham and writes about our Read India Campaign.

Picture uploaded by World Resources Institute Staff