Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Unlearning Learning and Rethinking Education

There must be something about the air in India that makes me more social. I suddenly find myself itching to tweet and blog. Of course, it could also the pace of life here where you stop and smell the chai and have a little more time to process and read your timeline while sipping your 3rd cup of chai for the day. Whatever it is, it is great to be back in India over Diwali and I wish all of your a very prosperous year ahead!

Growing up, Diwali, the festival of wealth and prosperity, was a big deal in the Sharma household. I distinctly remember my mom leading the Pujas (prayer) and my dad, who was an entrepreneur, bringing out all his fresh accounts books for her to bless. It clearly worked because my parents were able to send all 3 of us to the US for college and graduate school in the subsequent years. My dad, like many Indians, always connected education with prosperity. He truly believed in investing (his life earnings) in educating his girls at a time where many others were focused on marrying off their daughters into other business families. Education during that time meant taking standardized tests (lots of them), getting into a good 4 year program and essentially follow a recipe to get a good job for a couple of years that sets you up for a 2-3 year graduate program to get an even better job that hopefully invests in practical training and intermittent skills development through some professional training workshops.

But things are changing in the world of education. And fast. While I'm on vacation in India, I have been taking a free 4 week course on Coursera called the Kennedy Half Century with one of my favorite professors at The University of Virginia, Prof Larry Sabato (@LarrySabato). Its my first MOOC style course and the interface is so friendly that I stay up really late at night listening to the lectures, taking the quizzes but most importantly interacting with my classmates from all over the world on the discussion forums. Prof Sabato is very respected analyst in the US politics circles and also launched book on the same topic this week. The free MOOC Course is an amazing marketing tool about the book because while the course does not require you to buy the book, he does refer to it frequently. The course is a great teaser on the book and the video content is very engaging because it features a lot of historical footage and photos from the Kennedy years. And the social buzz around the course is amazing! He is very active on Twitter. Check him out at @LarrySabato and the course handle @JFKClass.

While many people talk about MOOC for 21st Century students, I don't necessarily think this is restricted to the millennials. Thomas Jefferson, who founded The University of Virginia, had a very clear vision that learning never ends and therefore didn't believe in granting degrees. So one could argue that a desire for  life long learning is instilled in every age group. INKTalks, the TedTalks of India as a classic proof point of this. My sister and I attended the INKTalks in Kochi this weekend for a "brainspa" and there were 20 somes to 60 somes from every walk of life, every discipline, every profession participating in the sessions. You can also listen to many of the Talks online if you didn't attend in person. This was my second INKTalks and one of my favorite events of the year.

This got me thinking about how we run technical and executive conferences in our industry. Just last week I was the host of  IBM Enterprise2013 in Orlando, Florida which was a week long conference attended by 2800+ attendees from 815 companies across 19 industries and 20 countries. From the standing room only general session to over 400 Technical University sessions to 60+ technology exhibits in the solution center, delegates learned about various technologies like System Z Mainframe, Power Systems, Flash Technologies, And Storage solutions like Storwize v7000 and DS8800.  By all accounts this was a very successful conference, but for those of you run conferences and events, you know how much time, effort and resources it takes to pull of these great shows.

What if we delivered most of these sessions in a MOOC format using reverse instruction (check out the TedTalk on this concept)? This would save time and money for our delegates, would enable year round learning and use our face to face time for peer to peer sharing and collaboration vs. one way lectures from instructors. So I am not suggesting we do away with F2F conferences, rather, complement them with MOOC like courses, much like Prof Sabato has done for his new book or like INKLive which complemented the incredible face to face event.

What has your experience been and do you think the average 25-45 year old technical professional would be open to a new way to learn?


  1. Virgina, I would disagree on doing away with F2F conferences. I think the networking experience is much more clear in a physical conference and I say this due to a recent experience when I met my global counterparts in person. It helped us connect better, generate ideas and share experiences in much more detail than what we were doing over online training sessions and workshops. The MOOC approach works too but there's always a need to meet personally with the people you interact with. I organize conferences and events in my company. It's stressful, takes away your time and sleep but the end result makes you feel like it was all worth it. PS: a virtual conference is a lot more stressful for organizers due to the technical complexities, issues and challenges which may or may not crop up. The tension is there till the end!

  2. Welcome back to India and Happy Diwlai to you too !!!
    MOOC format using reverse instruction and then an F2F conference certainly makes a lot of sense. Two reasons:
    1. MOOC will facilitate per-learning and when we know even an iota of the subject before the F2F interaction it adds a lot of value in the classroom learning.
    2. Because we know something, collaboration with the teachers and fellow learners becomes easier

    And ofcourse this is an excellent marketing tool as well...

  3. The Title Unlearning learning seems to be something different but with the Best Signs of rich meanings. Your Insightful Article is very nice. Thanks.