Outsourcing education and other issues

July 21, 2005 at 10:45 am | In yulelogStories | Comments Off on Outsourcing education and other issues

Just when you thought that certain service sectors — like teaching, maybe? — are “safe” from outsourcing, you read that Outsourcing of education is India’s new catch:

Two New Delhi-based Indian companies – Educomp Datamatics and Career Launcher – are early entrants to this new outsourcing business. Many more are expected to join the race, industry experts said.

Career Launcher has imparted tuition to more than 800 students in the US since it began operations 10 months ago and Educomp – which started around the same time – has taught about 600 students.

“While the US faces a severe shortage of quality mathematics teachers, in India we have surplus skilled manpower. We just took the advantage of the available market,” said Santanu Prakash, chief executive officer of Educomp.

At present there are two platforms of imparting tuition through the Net – direct interaction with students and working as backhand office for some tutoring companies in US, industry experts explained.

The service is given through a software called “White Board” in both voice and text platforms. The student and teacher can see each other over the computer and talk on the headphone.

These companies provide their high-end technology driven education service and charge 20 to 35 dollar per hour to students ranging from kindergarten to the graduation level. [More…]

At the same time, we have other ventures that promise Adaptable personal e-learning from beginning to end. The article describes Alfanet, a company that “concentrates itself on the recently emerging market of e-learning, an area that will undoubtedly take advantage of the new technologies related with the internet, human interaction, and machine learning.” (From their website, but buried in a frame.) Ok, this is a European company, based (I believe) in Spain, and English is not their first language, so I’ll let the convoluted prose pass. For now. But, hello? Is it a market or an area that’s taking advantage of the new technologies? And either way, who benefits? Surely the market or the area, but not, it seems, the students. From the IST article’s description, Alfanet sounds like a template, which can be a simple and even very boring tool, yet it’s marketed as a magic bullet (for markets?, areas?, or …students? There are no magic bullets for students…). Listen up, if you’re “doing” e-learning development, can you please remember who your customers are? Put the students first, not “markets” or “areas.” Sheesh.

Lynn is a small city on Boston’s North Shore, the outer terminus of the Blue Line subway and a stop along the Rockport/ Gloucester and Ipswich commuter rail. Lynn was a fair resort town in the early 20th century, but fell on hard times while its neighbours further to the north clawed their way to real estate Parnassus. Swampscott and Marblehead became pricey ‘burbs, and while Beverly maintained a seedy-ish downtown core, it could boast of its mansion-bedecked Gold Coast in Beverly Farms and beyond. Lynn, on the other hand, became a racially diverse town, and many of the good white folks (sic) fled its public school system for private schools, or they moved away from Lynn altogether. (Salem — “witch city” — located between Beverly and Marblehead, north of Lynn, was the other North Shore town that became racially diverse. Almost every other town along the Rockport/ Gloucester and the Ipswich lines — the two diverge in Beverly, their last common stop — stayed lily-white.) Now Lynn’s public schools are eyeing online Advanced Placement courses in a bid to bring a higher level of challenge to the undoubtedly bright students in the system. Lynn has two high schools, and has some AP courses already, but online AP could allow them to offer more, and they might partner with The Virtual Highschool to bring more courses into the system:

If the city decides to go in that direction, it would join communities such as Boston, Brockton, Lawrence, Fall River, Worcester, Springfield, New Bedford, Somerville and Ware, where students will begin taking AP courses online next school year.

The communities have opted to offer the courses online because they can no longer afford to hire needed teachers to offer AP subjects in the classroom. Instead, a federal grant is allowing Massachusetts students to take free courses from Maynard-based Virtual High School. [More…]

What really interests me here is the concern expressed in the article by Trevor Packer, the executive director of the College Board’s Advanced Placement program. While high schools in the wealthier suburbs offer AP classes that allow students to have face-to-face contact and allow them to develop their speaking skills, the online version neglects that aspect of a student’s education entirely. Packer says he worries “about the loss of dialogue between a student and a teacher that is at the heart of classroom discussions.”

“Who speaks?” Who gets to speak? As usual, John Taylor Gatto has some interesting thoughts that relate to what we might call a missing component of active literacy in online delivery of “content” based on templates and checklists:

[The 1918 NEA Report “Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education”] assured mass production technocrats they would not have to deal with intolerable numbers of independent thinkers—thinkers stuffed with dangerous historical comparisons, who understood economics, who had insight into human nature through literary studies, who were made stoical or consensus-resistant by philosophy and religion, and given confidence and competence through liberal doses of duty, responsibility, and experience.

The appearance of Cardinal Principles signaled the triumph of forces which had been working since the 1890s to break the hold of complex reading, debate, and writing as the common heritage of children reared in America. Like the resourcefulness and rigors of character that small farming conveyed, complex and active literacy produces a kind of character antagonistic to hierarchical, expert-driven, class-based society. [More…]

(See also my September 4, 2004 entry on hearing a phone-in conference and interview with Gatto.)

On the one hand, simple electronic delivery of content can lead to independent thinkers taking it in, free from the coercion of group-think that occurs in classrooms or peer-groups. But on the other hand, if that content is packaged in such a way as to discourage critical thinking and dissent, it’s no good. And even if it does allow for critical thinking, to bring it out in a student might require a teacher who asks questions at the right time. Either way, e-learning is not another one-size-fits-all, let’s-make-a-template quick-fix.

Novelists on politics and terrorism

July 20, 2005 at 4:51 pm | In yulelogStories | Comments Off on Novelists on politics and terrorism

Interesting interview in The Spiegel (English-language international version) with the novelist Ian McEwan:

McEwan: Inevitably, we’re going to start seeing around the preposterous political correctness that allows us to have radical clerics preaching in mosques and recruiting young people. We have been caught too much by a sense that we can just regard these clerics as being like English eccentrics at Hyde Park Corner. But the problem is that their audience has already been to training camps.

SPIEGEL: But isn’t the West providing the best advertisement for terrorist recruiters by being in Iraq and killing Islamic civilians, torturing Muslim prisoners a la Abu Ghraib and spreading pictures of the deeds around the world?

McEwan: I don’t think terror needs a breeding ground. I don’t buy the arguments in the Iraq war. What keeps getting forgotten here is that the people committing massacres in Iraq right now belong to al-Qaida. We’re witnessing a civil war that’s taking place in Islam. The most breathtaking statement was the one of al-Qaida claiming responsibility for the London bombings saying it was in return for the massacre in Iraq. But the massacres in Iraq now are being conducted by al-Qaida against Muslims. I also think it’s extraordinary the way in which we get morally selective in our outrages. When there was a rumor that someone at Guantanamo Bay had flushed a Koran down the lavatory, the pages in The Guardian almost caught fire with outrage, but only months before the Taliban had set fire to a mosque and destroyed 300 ancient Korans. [More…]

Unfortunately, I can’t find an English version of an essay by Leon de Winter, published today in the German-language Der Spiegel. Called “Murderous Piety,” de Winter’s essay argues that “tolerant” Islam as well as “radical” or “fundamentalist” Islam both rely on the same verses in the Koran, and that Sharia law, taken as god-given and directly emanating from the supposedly holy book, cannot be altered or contextualised. If it’s god-given, there is no other context, and if you mess with Sharia, you have to mess with Koran. But for Westerners who aren’t fundamentalists, context is everything. The ummah, meanwhile, does nothing to criticise, reflect on, or …contextualise Islam from within, either. Echoing McEwan, de Winter points out that Muslim leadership did nothing when the Taliban reduced Afghanistan to a humanitarian and cultural wasteland based on the total suppression of women and of any notion of individual selfhood. Only the dissidents and refugees criticised the status quo in Algeria, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in the Sudan: rarely did Muslim leaders do so. De Winter allows that censorship squelches critique, but he also notes that none of the leaders protest the humiliation of women in their culture and religion. That’s because the culture is typically based on tribal structures based in shame and honour, but not in self-criticism, self-reflection, or personal responsibility. In such structures, misfortunes are the fault of others, of outsiders. De Winter notes that already some Muslim leaders claim that the London subway bombings were the work of Jews: Iran’s Ayatollah Mohammed Emami Kaschani said the bombings were the fault of the US and Israel; Iranian state radio said that the Mossad was behind the attacks.

De Winter has another article, this one in English, that came out on July 16 in The New York Times on the Op-Ed page: Tolerating a Time Bomb. It focusses mainly on Holland and the murders of Theo van Gogh and Pim Fortuyn, and has none of the urgency of the German-language essay.

I can’t find any working links that elaborate the difference of opinion between John le Carré and de Winter, but the former did write a column attacking Tony Blair’s collusion with the US in invading Iraq, and de Winter launched a counter-offensive. I would typically side with le Carré, but the ferocity with which fundamentalist islamofascists oppress women — and the absence of progressive, enlightened leadership within the Muslim community, the absence of any sense of equal rights for women (and don’t tell me about any “wonderful” separate but equal claptrap; we’ve been down that road already…) tells me that appeasement is ridiculous, and that it’s people like Irshad Manji who really know the score.

Meanwhile, speaking of John le Carré: he could have written the text for this story, told by Ian Johnson: How a Mosque for Ex-Nazis Became Center of Radical Islam. It was published in The Wall Street Journal on July 12, but you have to pay to see it there. The link I have here is to the post-gazette.com in Pittsburgh; I have no idea what its political leanings are. Suffice it to say, Johnson’s article (unfairly, in my opinion) caught the attention of all the rightwing ranters (including “Little Green Snotballs”), but typically they pounced on it, pointed a finger or two, and then left, without understanding the complex historical underpinnings that Johnson brings to light. The struggle between the German Herr Wende and the Americans is classic le Carré subterfuge, a lose-lose tale that produces totally unexpected outcomes. Really, the story is a classic tale of how stupid the West could be in its blind struggle against the Soviet Union and perceived international Red Menaces.

Context is everything.

You know you’re cramming too much in when…

July 19, 2005 at 1:25 pm | In yulelogStories | Comments Off on You know you’re cramming too much in when…

You read something terrifically interesting somewhere — on a webpage, in a book, or was it in a magazine? It’s inspirational, and it slightly angles a familiar subject in such a way that new insight reveals itself to you. Because it is tied to something quotidien, something you’ve given thought to in the past, you “bookmark” the passage in some mental in-file, for possible future consideration. It’s not a pressing matter, in other words.

Later you wake up in the dead of night, convinced that this passage is somehow portentous. You remember almost the entire passage, but you’re no longer sure where you read it. Then, as the minutes tick on and you try to get back to sleep, you convince yourself that it’s on a webpage from your local library, which has a “look-into” feature for some of its newer books. That must be where you read it — you were looking to see if so-and-so’s newest book was in the library, and the feature was available, so you read the first chapter. That must be where you read it!

After what seems like an age, you finally manage to go back to sleep.

The next day, a million things need attending to. You don’t get back to checking up on that passage, although you’re quite convinced that you can still remember what it was about. Another day goes by, and you finally get to check that library webpage again. Shoot! The book you thought contained the passage doesn’t. The library and its “look-into” feature was not the source of the passage.

In fact, because you were so fixated on locating the source, you now can’t for the life of you remember the passage at all. Not what it was about, what it might have been about, or what it was about it that you thought made it something relevant about your life. You are in fact utterly aboutless. Information overload (along with all the other attendant overloads, our current overlords) has deleted your “about.com” account. Poof.

You feel robbed by loss. File deleted, hard disk crashed, sorry no-can bring back. I must be spending too much time on my computer…

Stephen Downes on the e-learning market

July 18, 2005 at 12:15 pm | In yulelogStories | Comments Off on Stephen Downes on the e-learning market

A quick reminder to myself: reread Stephen Downes’s July 10/05 article, The Economy of E-Learning, where he responds to a reader who wrote to him as follows:

I just finished a PhD in elearning, and I’m looking for my next steps. Thankfully I have many options but I realize that elearning looks more like a non-profit, charity sector than a normal, economically-viable activity. So I’d like to ask you a question: Where do you see the money being made in elearning today?

I’m skimming through this inbetween doing 15 other things, but I’ll get back to this for a reread:

There will be a short-term market for software tools designed to produce content, distribute content, to manage content and to display content (by short-term, I mean about 3-5 years). A good analogy is the market for MP3 creation tools; in the Windows environment, there existed a proliferation of tools available for recording and storing audio content; these tools marketed for $30 – $60. However, with the development of a free and open source audio content creation tool – specifically, Audacity – the market for these tools disappeared. In blogging, we see a similar phenomenon: early bloggers desiring a tool would purchase Userland or Typepad, however, the free Blogger service essentially closed that market; similarily, the thriving market for Movable Type was significantly impacted by the free WordPress alternative.

Therefore, the spending on learning content will drop significantly over the next decade, with allocations shifting from the purchase of commercial content on a restricted license, to the production of content in-house for free or effectively free distribution; this content will be viewed essentially as a public service (and may eventually qualify for tax credits) and, in commercial environments, as a loss-leader for greater value-added services. For example, IBM is investing heavily in the production of Linux and other free and open source applications, and has shifted its business model from hardware and software sales to services and consulting. Smaller markets will open up for other companies in more specific niches; Vancouver-based Bryght, for example, contributes to the open source Drupal online community application, and generates income through support and service.


Software, as numerous commentators have already observed, is rapidly becoming a commodity, and at a pace even more accelerated than content, is rapidly becoming [something?] people can produce for themselves. There is no inherent constraint on the continued expansion of open source, though factors similar to those related to content – substantial lobby support by commercial publishers, their membership on college and school boards, quality-assurance and quality-control concerns, existing (and increasingly broad) copyrights, existing royalty-holders within the educational system, lack of marketing and distribution for non-commercial software – will ensure that the expansion of open source software is gradual. As noted above, there will be short windows for commercial applications, but since in most markets these applications will not be protected by software patents this window will be a short one (in the United States, patent protection will not protect the market, and the development of free and open source software, along with its economic advantages, will move offshore). [More…]

That last bit about sitting on boards…. Hmmm….

Virtual High School dot com

July 18, 2005 at 11:49 am | In yulelogStories | Comments Off on Virtual High School dot com

Via Darren Cannell, a link to an excellent article by Christina Wood, Highschool.com, in the April 2005 issue of Edutopia Magazine. The article gives a great overview of online education’s place in high schools today. At present, about 25% of US high schools offer some form of virtual instruction, but the key word may well be instruction. The Concord Consortium and the Hudson Public School system (both in Massachusetts) pioneered the Virtual High School back in the second half of the 1990s. The key to their success might well be that they place great emphasis on the role of the teacher in the virtual environment. In exchange for providing a teacher for an online course, a school can enroll up to 25 students in that course. VHS essentially cherry-picks from the best teachers in the system, nation-wide. As well, training, provided by VHS both to teach the virtual classes as well as to develop courses for VHS, is mandatory. “To date, VHS includes nearly 300 public and private high schools in 27 states, as well as 24 international schools, and offers more than 200 Internet-based courses.” [From Wood’s article.] The system can work exceptionally well, with teachers making the student feel as though s/he has a private tutor on hand. It can also be an eye-opener for the teachers:

Students also demand more of their teachers. “One of our professors made an interesting comment,” says Allen D. Glenn, professor and dean emeritus in the University of Washington’s College of Education, an expert in teaching teachers to use technology. “He said,’I never realized how many of my students’ questions I never answered until I taught online.'” [More…]

But note, the emphasis is on having a teacher teaching the online course. Students can also have experiences that are far less positive, either because they’re doing the courses on their own (à la “correspondence school” model) or have untrained markers or teachers who put in a truly minimal effort to provide feedback… At this point, e-learning falls apart.

Adequate training and screening for virtual teachers becomes a crucial part of the package. The best virtual schools pay enormous attention to teacher training, but others use their programs as a way around traditional teacher requirements.

A good teacher makes a good class. Even with excellent training, some teachers simply don’t work well online.


Another critical issue is course quality. As in traditional classrooms, the caliber of virtual classes can vary considerably. More established schools have developed rigorous content and curriculum standards and require a high level of interactivity in the courses. But the same can’t be said for all online courses offered to highschoolers today. [More…]

Read the whole article, it’s very interesting. Explore the Virtual High School site further, and read about their 2001 Stockholm Challenge Award for Global Excellence in Information Technology.

Tech epiphany?

July 18, 2005 at 9:37 am | In yulelogStories | Comments Off on Tech epiphany?

It’s like a tech-epiphany. I now have a bit of an inkling as to why (some) people frolic over (some) tools. Several entries back or so, I mentioned that I’m keenly interested in learning about the latest developments in e-learning, and that I’d expanded my reading to include several new blogs, sites, etc., that focus on this field. But how to keep track?

Well, I am now a dedicated user of RSS, having installed Sage RSS reader (which is an extension of Mozilla Firefox), and it does the trick like a charm. I’m not looking for a “relationship” with the ed-tech bloggers, I just want their information. RSS, like a good tool, puts that needed distance between me and them, and away we go, together, on a project that has some shared goals.

Wait, it gets worse.

I have signed up for …watchlists …on Technorati. I’m still exploring this one, but here’s a results page for e-learning, one of my watchlists. Because of the symbiotic linkages between Technorati and Flickr (eurgh, pangs of guilt arise because I never did find the time to order my Flickr photos into sets, etc., nor to follow up with more photos of those development projects around town….), anyway: because of this linkage, my Technorati watchlist page for e-learning shows me Flickr photos that have been uploaded with that “tag.” I click on that link and am taken to this Flickr page, one of several photos uploaded by Design Online Content. Would I ever have learned about this, without using those other tools…? At the same time, how useful is it to see the photos?

On the downside, I’m still unclear as to how to subscribe to a site’s RSS feed if the site doesn’t display the little orange logo on the bottom right of the page. The Sage RSS reader needs that icon, and most blogs have it. But if the site doesn’t have that icon, I can’t use the reader — or at least not the simple one-step click version offered by the Sage tool.

Move over, podcasting, it’s swarmcasting’s turn?

July 16, 2005 at 8:19 pm | In yulelogStories | Comments Off on Move over, podcasting, it’s swarmcasting’s turn?

On my surfing voyages through the world of e-learning, I came across The Friday Report‘s pointer to a blog called Socrates Technological University, whose entry Amazing New Software Turns Any Computer into A TV Station points to a new tool called Alluvium. Their website explains,

Alluvium is a technology for doing low-cost streaming media broadcasts. However, it uses a very different approach from existing streaming servers such as icecast, Real Server, and the Quicktime Streaming Server. In fact, all you need server-side is a standard web server. You don’t even need any modules or CGI scripts.

The first thing you need to run an Alluvium station is a playlist. This is a simple file in the Alluvium playlist format, which is based on the RSS 1.0 news format. All of the RSS tags used are standard tags from existing schemas and which retain their intended semantics. Radio station playlists and RSS newsfeeds are really quite similar. They both specify a sequence of content of possible interest to the audience. One interesting side project to do would be creating audio and video weblogs and news stations which are created by aggregating multimedia feeds about particular topics. For the moment, however, we’re working on simple music and voice broadcast. You can generate an Alluvium playlist file easily from a normal music play playlist file using the playlist generation tool. [More…]

Ok, I’m a technopeasant, so this is still all hieroglyphics to me, but the suggestion seems to be that it’s easy enough…

For more information, see the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s article, ‘Swarmcasting’ Software Developed at U. of Texas-Austin Lets Anyone Run an Internet TV Station:

Internet television is not a completely new concept, says Mr. Lopez, who has run stations of his own online in the past. But swarmcasting software could democratize the technology, he says, just as “podcasting” software has done for online audio distribution. “This is a much more efficient way of running a station for someone with just a cable modem,” he says. “We’re trying to make it so anyone can use this software.”

Mr. Lopez and Mr. Wiley are serious about spreading the gospel of Internet television. They plan, for example, to post their program online as open-source software. And they are preparing a pair of how-to guides to accompany the program. One will discuss the technological requirements for an online TV channel, and the other will offer tips on using a station to build a community of filmmakers and artists. [More…]

Better Bad News is at it again

July 16, 2005 at 7:55 pm | In yulelogStories | 2 Comments

Oh those naughty (clever) people at Better Bad News

Have you checked out their latest video, Al Franken’s 2008 Senate Bid Considered A Joke To Traditional Minnesota Progressives? Sad, poignant, but still funny. Here’s some dialogue, as per my transcription:

David the Moderator [lecturing]: “Now Betty, … if the parties were not able to jigger the vote ([sotto voce:]…and both parties do it), third parties would eventually rise to win seats, … and a green party could emerge, …and that could split the left…”

Betty the Panelist: “So let’s put the Democratic Party’s feet to the fire, at least. That’s how third parties work. But if they can’t even threaten to split the left, there’s no way to advance progressive politics in this country. [nostalgic:] …I remember oppositon parties. I do. It was great. [determined:] And we need it again.”

Mantra the second panelist: “It’s the Patriot Act, stupid.”

Kinda sums it up, don’t it? From Clinton’s “it’s the economy, stupid” to Bush et alia’s “it’s the patriot act, stupid”?

Birds and breakfast

July 16, 2005 at 10:37 am | In yulelogStories | 2 Comments

Sitting at breakfast just now, bickering over this and that, we hear an explosion of rowdy raucous crow voices, see the flurries of black wings, and notice the cry of a large seagull as it skims close to our house, between large elms, power lines, fences and hedges, the noise of a car or two competing with the birds. Crows are in pursuit. The gull flies off, the crows congregate. They’re very loud.

Was there a “plunk” or a “plop”? Did I hear something sharper, behind the birds’ voices? Where did the body come from? There, a couple of metres from our house, in the neglected southwest corner of the yard, facing the arterial road, close to the old, soot-encrusted yew hedge, suddenly, a body.

By now the crows are going crazy. Punching their way through the overhanging tree branches that keep the cleansing rains from ever washing the dirt of cars off the hedge, they’re fighting over the body of a juvenile gull, supine on dormant grass and fallen leaves.

Can I finish my toast, drink my coffee? Where’s the switch to shut this off? But after a while, it’s clear this won’t go away. I make my way outside, armed with two plastic grocery bags and two rubber gloves, a left and a right. The bird is surprisingly young, and small — I’m not even sure it is a gull, it’s so exquisitely beautiful. Definitely a seabird, webbed feet, a gullish beak in the making, but such variegation in the feathers! It’s so small, compared to a mature seagull. Its body is still warm, the blood trickles from its neck, and when I push the outspread wings close to its chest, it seems the softest thing I’ve ever touched. Every feather feels like down; there’s nothing yet seasoned or exposed about this bird. I expect it to breathe, but it doesn’t. My body is directly over it as I compose its shape into a semblance of elegant compactness, my back is exposed to the trees, the crows are getting louder. I expect them to swarm me, but they do nothing, just talk.

After the body is in the bags, I give it to my husband to dispose of. As I wash the blood off my rubber gloved hands, I call to the crows, “Don’t ever do that again!” But I doubt they listened. Within minutes, they were gone.

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