November 18, 2013

Beyond the MOOC: ‘Reclaim Open Learning’ Winner Jaaga, A Creative Community Space

Category: Digital Learning
side by side pictures of a creative community space packed with students

The initiative to Reclaim Open Learning launched a competition that was covered here at DMLcentral to recognize projects that were transforming higher education with innovative uses of technology and learner-centered programs.  As Anya Kamenetz argued, publicity for the project recognized the need to get beyond the headlines and “move beyond the MOOC” to highlight new approaches to the “course” part of massive open online courses and divert some of the attention being paid to companies such as Coursera or Udacity that were quickly standardizing formats that did little to effect substantive reform to more creative experiments in the instructional technology movement.

The winners are an incredibly diverse and international group chosen among a terrific pool of deserving candidates serving a wide variety of learners and learning communities.  Coincidentally, the two recipients from the United States have been subjects of DMLcentral stories before.  Howard Rheingold recently introduced readers to Jim Groom of the University of Mary Washington ds106 project that promotes digital storytelling, and I blogged about the Dialogues on Feminism and Technology project here and here, which was represented by students who applied.

However, DMLcentral readers may be less familiar with the international programs from India and the U.K. and so I’ll write about both in this post and my next.  During a visit to Bangalore, India, I interviewed team members from Jaaga, toured the site, and dropped in on a raucous Maker Party sponsored by Mozilla.  The organization, which was founded by Archana Prasad and Freeman Murray provides space for community activities, co-working for startup companies, and DNA or “Design+Networks+Art.”  Now Jaaga is expanding to offering Jaaga Study, which allows students in India taking advantage of the rise of open content courses produced by elite institutions in the United States to have space for the social, emotional, and material interactions necessary to stay motivated, collaborate meaningfully with peers, and succeed at pursuing their educational goals.  Jaaga participants also argued that American-style remote learning often doesn’t recognize the complexity of scheduling around festivals or the role of family responsibilities and involvements when it sets deadlines and structures courses around a highly individualistic paradigm of educational literacy.

In an extended conversation with Jaaga design lead Shaona Sen and Akshay Kanthi, Program Co-ordinator on Jaaga Study, it was particularly interesting to hear about their own frustrating experiences as students in MOOCs when they were only participating as autonomous learners doing solo study in isolation at home.  They both enrolled in Paul Kim’s “Designing a New Learning Environment” but neither managed to finish the course to the end.  Although Sen said that India’s 12½ hour time difference from Stanford generally worked to her advantage, peer work was so important in the project-based learning course that it was difficult for her to finish when her partner in California had to drop out.  Kanthi found that the modularized units and repetitive question-and-answer format were not enough to sustain his engagement without the context of live interaction to make the content seem less arbitrary.

Sen is now much more happily enrolled in “Human-centered Design in Social Innovation,” which was launched by famed design experts IDEO on the +Acumen platform, a free and open course that requires design teams to be in the same geographical area.  Sen uses Jaaga as a “common meeting/brainstorming area with my course partner.”  Now that Sen and Kanthi have a physical space for creative collaboration at Jaaga, both are hoping for even better results for learners with “Practice-Based Research in the Arts,” taught by Leslie Hill.

Kanthi, who has a degree in chemical engineering, asserted that the Indian educational system provides even less incentive for taking any pleasure in learning.  According to Kanthi, after the intensely competitive jostling for spots, in a country where one million people may vie for a place among 10,000 who can enroll in the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology, Indian students may feel extremely disconnected from a system in which you go to school only to be admitted to another school with the same structure of “redundant practices, completely obsolete curricula, compulsory attendance, authoritarian control, and very few electives to help you figure out what you want to do.”

He and Sen introduced me to Prashant, a computer science student who found happiness at Jaaga after misery at college, where he felt he had little access to practice-based learning about software development.  Before arriving at Jaaga he had to make do with cobbling together knowledge at Code Academy and the video tutorials in computer science courses at Udacity.  Unfortunately the MOOC experience didn’t give him what he most wanted: encouragement, mentorship, and real-world experience.  Soon after showing up at the hip, airy space, which featured a café, vertical garden, solar-powered sound system, and rack-supported building elements, Prashant was tasked with adapting a harassment map already in use in the Middle East for Indian citizens, with an eye toward creating a mobile app to help city-dwellers target mistreatment against women and alert police about the locations of trouble spots where more policing was needed.  “Here I’ve had a totally different experience of confluence and studying with people from arts and technology.  I am missing classes to be here, but the syllabus at my college is from the 1980s.”  He described feeling let down after starting college, since the boarding school he attended beforehand actually facilitated far more informal learning, since the teachers were much less remote.

Jaaga is not afraid to admit that they face many obstacles in piloting a totally different model of education.  Although Kanthi thought that open badges were more likely to measure the value-added approach to education than providing  certificates to graduates, Sen cautioned that many disciplines were structured around competencies of process as well as product, and it may still be very difficult to judge programming and design skills without context.  Freeman and Prasad have also been working on a sustainable funding model, since they want students not to have to pay tuition before seeing the value of their learning experience, although it might be difficult to enforce a pay-afterwards policy with those who land higher earning jobs.

None of these impediments seems to dull their devotion to the Jaaga vision.  Although they acknowledge that many of the participants are much more affluent and educated than the typical Indian citizen desiring more from higher education, they are hopeful that variants of the Jaaga model could be piloted at other sites around the country.  Kanthi hopes to return one day to his hometown in Hubli to begin a Jaaga branch that serves learners who want the resources of remote learning with the social interaction that makes it meaningful.

Banner image credit: Jaaga