In an atmosphere where feverish excitement is created by the media around learning applications like Byjus (http://byjus.com), it comes as a shock to many when told that apps like Byjus are in reality a serious problem in the society.
People get offended and highly agitated at the criticism unable to genuinely engage or understand why such a strong statement is being made. Defending the app, they claim that it does attempt to make learning fun and relevant while playing a role in changing the way education is being provided. People have got to be paid for their services and it is part of the economic reality of society that Byjus has a fee attached to it (and huge venture capital funding!) The Byjus app costs a minimum of Rs. 10,000-25,000 a year – definitely not affordable to those millions of children who are out of school.
At the end, they go back feeling that you have not understood the power of technology or the potential of this new world!
However, the truth is that the mainstream world drives its agenda with such finesse and smoothness that it prevents people from critically thinking about basic issues that drive the political economy and impact our day to day lives.
One of the major questions of the time and for the future is, or should be:
Who owns the knowledge with which we surround ourselves?
Should knowledge be owned? Can knowledge be owned? Is it accessible to all equally and at all times, across class and caste privileges?
Shouldn’t knowledge be like air? Free to breathe?
Knowledge is capital. Or is it?
Viewed from this perspective, many things change.
A textbook purchased by a student is “owned” by the publisher. Page one of the textbook clearly states “All rights reserved. No part of this material should be reproduced…” and so on and so forth, restricting the rights of the user.
The elementary school or higher education space that students need to enrol in today’s world views them as consumers first and learners after that. These institutions are now built on the premise of education/knowledge as a product that they are delivering or trading in, primarily for profit.
With the advent of digitization and the proliferation of online content, it seemed that technology would break the traditional barriers of knowledge creation and dissemination. However, the online world is predominantly a replica or a reflection of the traditional world and also looks at knowledge and education as a commodity to be transacted.
It is a world that has decided to “own” and “control” the definition of electricity, the classification of the animal kingdom, what an atom is, or how to measure the diameter of a circle. If you really think about it – it is absurd. How can people own knowledge?
But the truth of our liberalized society is that ‘real knowledge’ isn’t free. You need resources to acquire it, a context to develop it and permission to refine it.
The implications of this in an inequitable society like India are tremendous.
In this article, the aim is to question the commodification of knowledge, how it denies access to millions while also understanding the radically opposite and socially just idea of open knowledge and open education.
Commodification of knowledge and education
The last decade has seen the increasing encroachment of a market mentality into domains like education. “The reach of markets, and market-oriented thinking into aspects of life traditionally governed by non-market norms is one of the most significant developments of our time” (Sandel, 2012, p. 7) (1) What Money can’t buy – The Moral Limits of Markets, Farrar, Straus and Giroux
This is not simply a technical change in the modes of delivery of knowledge or education but a political, social and cultural shift in what education is, what it means, and what it means to be educated.
The perspective that education is a social good, critical for the healthy development and growth of a society has been slowly eradicated to move towards the adoption of a market-based, consumer-driven philosophy to guide education.
Along with this has been the “demonization” of the State as a provider of this social good and the celebration of the “private” to take its place.
In letter and spirit, the Indian Constitution sees education as a fundamental right. Free and compulsory education is not only constitutionally binding but a pre-requisite in a participatory democracy. However, progress in this direction is not only far from satisfactory but the happenings that are taking place in the context of liberalization are contrary to this thinking.
The Census of India remains the most reliable source for any assessment of children not attending schools. The data from the census of 2011 indicates that out of a total of 208 million children between 6-13 years, 18.3 per cent were not attending any educational institutions – in real terms, this means 38 million children. The Government of India contradicts this with much lower figures (only about six million children) as being out of school.
Whatever the data may be, the reality in rural as well as urban India is that good quality education at affordable costs or free is not available equitably to everyone. This is true for elementary education as well as for higher education.
The children directly impacted are the marginalized groups of scheduled castes, tribes and other backward castes – communities denied of equal opportunity and struggling with historic injustices. These communities are unable to access “the commodified education”.
Higher education data on scheduled tribes (2015-16) reveals that while the Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) for higher education in India is 24.5 per cent, which is calculated for 18-23 years of age group, the GER for scheduled tribes, is only 14.2 per cent (Ministry of HRD). Therefore the number of adivasis or people from a lower caste accessing higher education is still minimal in 2015.
The commodification of education only further perpetuates these structural inequities going totally against the core values of education which should be building social justice and equity.
While learning is viewed as a continual and ongoing process, and knowledge as something that must be acquired, the path to open access and free knowledge is not entirely straight.
Open education as a path to equity
The open knowledge and open education movement is a global effort to oppose the commodfication of knowledge.
Open education is a philosophy about the way people should produce, share, and build on knowledge. Practitioners of open education believe everyone in the world should have access to high-quality educational experiences and resources, and they work to eliminate barriers to this goal.
These barriers can be high monetary costs, outdated or obsolete materials, and legal mechanisms that prevent collaboration among scholars and educators.
Very often, “open” education is without academic admission requirements and uses the online world to offer its educational resources to everyone equally.
The core philosophy to open education is to promote collaboration. As the Open Education Consortium says: “sharing is probably the most basic characteristic of education: education is sharing knowledge, insights and information with others, upon which new knowledge, skills, ideas and understanding can be built.”
This philosophy opposes proprietary ownership of knowledge which becomes exclusionary and discriminative.
A critical component of open education
The open education movement is built on the use of Open Educational Resources, called OERs.
OERs are learning materials that can be modified and enhanced because their creators have given others permission to do so. The individuals or organizations that create OERs – which can include materials like learning videos, presentation slides, podcasts, syllabi, images, lesson plans, maps, worksheets, and even entire textbooks – waive some (if not all) of the copyright associated with their works, typically via legal tools like Creative Commons licenses, so others can freely access, reuse, translate, and modify them.
It is important to state at this juncture that not all digital content available freely on the Net (for example, learning videos on YouTube) are part of the OER movement. Most often these are videos under the copyright regime which we use and therefore assume they are “free”, and conclude content and knowledge have become available.
However, one cannot modify, reuse or remix this or collaborate on its production. They are part of the proprietary world that believes in commodification of knowledge. A practitioner of open education would not use these resources.
In 2013, India launched its own OERs called the National Repository of Open Educational Resources (http://nroer.gov.in) where all the content is licensed under the CC-BY-SA (which is the Share Alike license). The repository currently includes videos, audio, interactive media, images, and documents, and aims to “bring together all digital and digitizable resources for the Indian school system – for all classes, for all subjects and in all languages.”
Initiatives taken by organizations like Pratham Books, in the area of open publishing in different Indian languages and their online platform, Storyweaver (https://storyweaver.org.in/) are excellent examples of the open education movement in India.
The online platform, Storyweaver, allows you to read, create, remix, retell and even translate a story in multiple languages for your use. Teachers and educators all over the world can read a story in marathi and translate it into a local dialect for their children to enjoy – all in a matter of minutes. The translated book can also be enjoyed by people across the globe.
OERs are revolutionizing the way communities access learning globally.
Open Education – MOOCS
In addition to OERs, a movement that has gained momentum in open education is the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).
MOOCs are online courses accessible to anyone with a computer and access to the Internet. People call these courses “massive” because their enrollment is open to more students than traditional educational institutions might permit – meaning that hundreds (even thousands) of students might participate in a particular MOOC. Many renowned colleges and institutions around the world have collaborated to release their content and make their faculty available to students around the world.
One example is EdX, a non-profit education partnership that in 2012 grew from a collaboration between MIT and Harvard (and now several dozen colleges and universities from around the world have joined) to offer hundreds of courses free of cost to students around the world.
Mumbai’s Indian Institute of Technology (IIT-Bombay) is a partner with EdX and hosts several courses in collaboration with it.
EdX offers students tuition-free opportunities to enroll in courses on a variety of subjects from instructors across the globe. Students register, attend, and complete their classes online. In 2013, EdX released the source code for its online learning platform, so programmers could download and help improve it. Others could even use it to build their own education platforms.
Similar open education initiatives include Khan Academy and Coursera. The extent to which various MOOCs license their course materials for remixing and reusing differs from one institution to another.
Why open education is the only path to building educational equity
The open education movement provides unlimited possibilities to support social inclusion and build educational equity.
Imagine a young girl living in a tribal village in Chattisgarh. While she may not be able to afford or qualify for competitive exams, she can (if opportunities and data reach her) opt to learn video editing or animation by accessing digital content and knowledge through a MOOC or other open educational resources. It is possible for her today to gain these skills and begin using them in a variety of situations.
Moreover, schools located in remote areas with limited budgets can and must follow the open model in order to ensure that their marginalized students have access to high quality educational resources. OERs are affordable, flexible and can be adapted to the needs to the students.
For example, Tamarind Tree (http://tamarindtree.org), a small educational initiative with tribal children in western Maharashtra is built on the open education model. It hosts a Learning Management System (LMS) based on the open source, moodle.
In this LMS, the school digitizes and contextualizes all NCERT courses to suit the needs of the children. Students as young as eight years log in to their LMS (http://mybigcampus.in) and access their courses there. They attempt quizzes, write blogs, respond to images in a forum and get graded online by their facilitators. Teachers upload content created by them that is relevant and meaningful to the child – all in the open domain.
Students everywhere must be imparted the basic digital literacy to be able to access free and open educational content online.
For teachers, open knowledge and OERs is a fantastic way to collaborate and share knowledge. A math teacher in a school or college anywhere in the world can create lessons (text), videos, and other digital learning material and release it in the public domain for others to use and remix. She can also host an online free course to teach math – making her knowledge and teaching accessible to hundreds of people simultaneously.
At the end, it is only Open education that will spread knowledge as capital to everyone equally. Let us come forward as educators, teachers and learners to reject commodified knowledge and education and embrace an open world.
What the open and closed worlds say:
The open model – Khan academy: Our mission is to provide a free, world-class education to anyone, anywhere.
Byjus: Fall in love with learning – Buy a combo course!
- PhET – Interactive Math and Science Simulations. https://phet.colorado.edu/en/simulations/category/new
- Storyweaver – Read, remix, translate, re-tell stories. https://storyweaver.org.in/
- Gcompris – Educational resources for ages 2-10 years. http://gcompris.net/index-en.html
- Tux Math. https://tuxmath.en.softonic.com/
- Tux Paint. http://www.tuxpaint.org/
The author is part of the team that runs Tamarind Tree school. Tamarind Tree is an alternative technology driven school for first generation tribal learners, in Dahanu taluka, Maharashtra. You can follow the author on Twitter@tamarindtree2.