Thursday, July 05, 2007

Open Source Education

On my way to the incubator I seem to be spending a fair amount of time discussing scalable education and new models of learning in the age of the Internet. This seems a critical step on the path as I have always maintained that to do the incubator effectively I would need to represent the skills of the developers. The two ways to approach this are to buy the skills or train people in them. The first approach is certainly quicker, but a too often quoted blog entry by the Riya CEO highlights the rising costs of the top tier of Indian developer talent.

Many people see the international salary leveling as an inevitable result of the globalization process. I may agree in the very long term, but think this is a short term blip in the Indian wage scale caused by a shortage of quality technical training.

When I first moved to India, I spent some weeks walking around Calcutta trying to get a feel for India and how I would fit into it. One of the most consistently amusing pictures for me was that the most pervasive advertisements, even in very poor areas was for Java, C & C++ training.

India is a very young country. Over half the population's 1.1 billion people are under 25, and based on the ads I saw in Calcutta, some large percentage of them see IT as a ticket to more money.

Scaling a technical education to this degree is extremely challenging. There simply aren't enough teachers to service this demand in any kind of traditional way.

Reflecting on my own education, I picked up very little of my primary job skills in school. Rather I learned everything on the job, on my own, in response to a project that needed doing. One neat thing about this industry is that everything needed to know to work in it, is freely available online to anyone with the language skills, computers, and motivation to access it.

Over a year ago I found the DigitalStudyHall Project online while researching technologies for cost effectively bringing internet access out to very rural areas. With DSH, what began as research in how to deliver internet access using cds and the postal system evolved into a program to distribute high quality educational videos in local language out to rural schools, and to teach the rural teachers - or in many case students - how to teach with them.

The need they address is a shortage of local teachers with knowledge of many necessary subjects ie. English, math and science. The DSH answer is to video record good private school teachers giving these lessons and then to train the local teacher how to facilitate a class using a tv and dvd player. In this way the local teacher becomes more a learning manager or facilitator rather than a domain expert.

So far their experience has been qualitatively positive.

The DSH model could be applied to provide technical training to a far wider audience than currently has access to it. In the same way DSH records master teachers to create video lectures of the core subjects, the same can be done for recording industry experts and master teachers in the technology field to create and assemble open source technology courseware.

Even with freely available learning material having someone who can assign students tasks, facilitate discussions, and answer questions or get questions answered and follow up with students about difficulties they are having remains critical to the learning process. A teacher in this sense would be more like a project manager in industry than a professor in academia.

This approach addresses the issue of too few local experts willing to teach. The premise is that training facilitators is far easier than training technical experts. And if it works the model could scale to provide quality technical education at a very low cost to many regions around India (and the world) without current access to it.

The call :
I am working with DSH to create video courseware materials in a wide range of technical subjects. Beyond basic programming techniques I would like to delve into many of the tools we use as professional software developers. This includes source control, build systems, testing, debugging, refactoring, the IDE, project mangement, deployment, additional frameworks, etc...

Anyone in Pune interested in collaborating with me in this please get in touch.

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