What makes product management for education technology products unique?

I have wondered if one must come up with a new job title named ‘Learning Product Manager’. Such a thought is based on my experience as an entrepreneur running an e-Learning company and also as someone who has been in a senior managerial role in one of the best and fastest growing e-Learning companies of India (Toppr). Learning products are driven by content and a goal to provide a learning experience which is not the same as providing user experience in a traditional sense. According to me, this is what makes learning products unique. You can treat the product (the interface along with it’s functionality) as the body and the content as the soul. So, in a nutshell, it is not all about buttons, navigation and wire-frames, there is more for a learning product.

An important distinguishing feature of a product manager managing an education product is some training in how human learning works. Product features must be based on learning principles grounded in cognitive science. I myself have committed mistake of adding background music to some of the educational videos that my team created. But, now that I have learnt e-learning design principles and methods, I understand that this background music can only be a cognitive overload, a potential source of distraction. So, what product features are important from a learning perspective is an important decision that has to be made by the product manager and some domain knowledge of e-learning principles is required. In fact, even the e-learning standards that exist including SCORM (Shareable Content Object Reference Model) do not do much justice from a learning perspective. Learning scientists have time and again complained about including components in the model that can capture some learning model and not just a model that can be shared.

Almost all product teams work in an Agile fashion and use some framework like Scrum or Kanban to manage the development, release and maintenance of a product. By definition, in most of these frameworks, development teams are supposed to be self-sufficient in terms of the needed expertise. In most of the e-learning companies, product and content teams work in silos with very little co-ordination amongst them. To add to this chaos, some companies also have research teams that work in yet another silo. I believe that we must have a logical configuration of agile development teams which must include a learning engineer as a specialist on the development team. This will ensure that the body (product features) and the soul (content) can connect better. Technology developers can take care of the ‘how to implement a feature’ but ‘how the feature helps in learning’ is a question that can be answered well by the learning engineer on the development team. This gives appropriate context to the technological developers. In terms of human resource management, depending on the work load, the same individual can be a learning engineer on more than one development teams. This learning engineer will also be the link to the content development team. So, this ensures that even if content and product development teams work in silos, they are constantly in sync with each other.

User testing is an important phase in product management, be it at the stage of alpha, beta or commercial release. Testing for learning is not the same as testing for user convenience. So, the number of page visits and the number of times a button is clicked are not the kind of metrics that can be useful to test learning. This is where things get complicated because one may argue that the total learning experience is the result of both the application (product/body) and the content (soul). We will then need A/B tests or multivariate tests that can determine whether certain features or certain content led to an increase or decrease in the learning experience. Pre- and post- tests are one way of measuring the learning experience but one can also use metrics similar to net promoter score.

So, in conclusion, just like business analysts play an important role in product development in many domains, learning products and services need a learning engineer on the agile teams or the product manager himself or herself must have some domain knowledge of e-learning principles.

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Datacamp for Data Science

At the outset, let me make it clear that this is not a paid endorsement. I am writing it out of my own volition impressed by the way DataCamp has changed the way we learn things online. In a way, this is a kind of organic content marketing that every brand must aspire for. Your product or service is more valuable than your marketing campaigns!

Data science and related jobs are the buzz word today in the jobs marketplace. It seems that the world is automating and thus we need a lot of data scientists who can churn in data which then can provide valuable insights for decision making. Leveraging this demand, everyone in the e-Learning space including some business schools have started courses. Many of them are expensive and probably not worth it. In this blog article today, I will share my experience with a wonderful learning package called DataCamp which can be accessed at www.datacamp.com.

The beauty of DataCamp is that the courses have been made with a kind of empathy. The Course Creator has put himself or herself in the shoes of a learner and created these courses. They have skill tracks and career tracks. The price is very nominal compared to the kind of quality they are providing. They were running a discount campaign through which you could access all courses for a duration of one year at just five thousand rupees. There is also a monthly payment option. Once you have enrolled, you can either choose the technology like Python, R, SQL, etc or you can start a skill or career track. These tracks bundle around 15 to 20 courses which progress gradually and make you an expert.

The pedagogy is also very effective. They have interleaved chunk sized videos of 3 to 4 minutes between exercises. The exercises are done live on the website itself on the DataCamp server with all the tools installed. You just have to play around with the commands and the exercises in the embedded interpreter. Only after getting the exercise right, you can move forward. You also have an option to see the solution by losing some XP points though it is not clear what these XP points can be used for in the future. Each of the courses themselves are to the point ranging from three to five hours.

They have tried to cover everything that a data scientist needs including SQL, data visualisation packages, GIT, shell scripting, etc. In all, I felt that it is a very good value for money. They also have projects which you can use in your portfolio once you have covered the pre-requisites for those projects. These can come in handy to get you some good jobs. Also, after every course, you can post a link to the statement of accomplishment on your LinkedIn profile. For me, it has been a fun filled and a very good learning experience with DataCamp.

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Pedagogy Reforms – Time to put the cart behind the bullock

I am using Duolingo (an app and an e-learning platform) to learn French. I noticed something that reinforced my thoughts about pedagogy (the art and practice of teaching). In French, you do not use the adjective behind the noun that the adjective is modifying. You use it in front of the noun. For example, the English phrase ‘the white flag’ becomes ‘le drapeau blanc’ where drapeau means flag and blanc means white. This then becomes a kind of rule and if one were to write text books or create instructional material, one would write this as a statement: In French, adjectives are used after the noun they modify unlike English where adjectives are used before the noun they modify. Then, one may give examples. But I think we are taking the learning from the learner by doing this. The statement that we wrote in our textbook should have been an inference that the learner makes after he comes across various such examples. And this is precisely what I mean when I say that it is time to put the cart behind the bullock.

It also occurred to my mind that our knowledge of concepts and facts progresses from something simple to more sophisticated and thus requires a ‘design’. We do not teach a second grade student that multiplication is repeated addition. We just ask him to memorise the tables. We also ask him to memorise the prime numbers and do not tell him that every number has a unique prime factorisation like the DNA in genes. Another example that I can relate here is the discovery of fire by humans. Though we are not still sure as to how human beings discovered fire, we can easily rule out that they came up with a chemical equation and found that oxygen is required for burning. They somehow found that some materials are combustible and that friction produces the required spark to kindle the fire. It was thousands of years later that we came up with the chemistry behind this process.

So, authors of text books and instructional material must somehow try to overcome the curse of knowledge. This is however easier said than done but some kind of consciousness about this curse can at least help us to reduce its impact on learning. I am also using another awesome e-learning platform Datacamp to master my data science skills and become a data scientist. Datacamp uses examples as a core of the learning experience. Videos, text, and hands-on coding are interspersed very smartly to provide a rich user experience. Sorry, I would rather use the phrase ‘a rich learning experience’!

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Artificial Intelligence – a misnomer and a hype ?

While I am writing this article for laymen who may not have the technical knowledge of machine learning and artificial intelligence, I must disclose at the very outset that I have been a researcher myself and used machine learning algorithms for my research which classified the satellite images for the land use – crops, urban land, forests, etc. I have also worked on other kinds of digital images including medical images to find objects. I also have some research publications in conferences and journals to my credit. So, that sets up the authority ! Now, in this blog article, I would argue that there is nothing called artificial intelligence and associating intelligence to a machine is at the most a branding or positioning strategy. I do not have any reservations if you use the word ‘machine intelligence’ but by using the adjective ‘artificial’, you are basically comparing the performance of a machine which just understands 1’s and 0’s to a human being whose brain is so mysterious that we still are not sure how it works. And it is not just the brain, we still do not understand the origin of life. We have not yet been able to document all the flora and fauna on this planet. We still do not know what is there in the interior of the earth. We still have not found the remains of the Malaysian Airlines flight MH-370. So, it is nothing short of arrogance to use the word ‘artificial intelligence’.

We see a lot of earth movers today by companies like JCB which can replace hundreds of thousands of manual labour. We see busses by companies like Volvo which have sensors and processors that make many decisions more efficiently than human beings. Do we call these machines intelligent? I do not think so. There are two main types of machine learning algorithms. The first type is know as supervised learning where we have some examples of input-output pairs. This is like the socialisation of a child after birth. We are showing the child something and telling what that must be called or how it must be used. By seeing, feeling and using it again and again, the child understands to differentiate between a tiger and a cow. Even after becoming an adult, if you show him or her some extinct animal, he or she will not be able to classify that animal or name it. Machines using supervised learning also suffer from the same disadvantage. But, human beings can come up with novel ways to handle such uncertainty. Machines cannot! The second type is known as unsupervised learning where we do not have examples but we try to find the structure inherent in the data. What is more intriguing though is to understand the source of this structure or pattern. To understand that source and to solve problems which are social, human being is an indispensable link. Machines can only understand numbers and to interpret these numbers as social constructs needs the inventor of these social constructs – The human being.  This is the reason there is only one kind of intelligence and that is human. At best, we can say that the intelligence in machines is nothing but glorified automation resulting from the programming of the machine by a human being.

I am definitely not undermining the utility of ‘artificial’ intelligence. All I am saying is that maybe we must use some other word. Machine learning seems to be apt. I also wish host a website where I will list the tasks that human beings can do and which machines cannot. These tasks can act a sort of challenges which machine learning researchers can use.

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IELTS Versus TOEFL ? Which one is better?

I recently took an IELTS test (basically a test of English). These English tests are required sometimes for a visa/immigration or higher studies, etc. By the way, running these standardised tests is very lucrative and they do not distinguish among countries based on purchasing power :). So, everyone ends up paying in dollars or pounds globally.

Now, coming back to this discussion of which is better: IELTS or TOEFL. Based on my experience, I would say TOEFL is a lot better than IELTS because it is conducted more professionally and offers you all the facilities online after you have written the test. Because writing test is one thing, sending those scores to others who evaluate you is another. With respect to the pattern of these two exams, they both test the same skills viz Listening, Reading, Writing and Speaking. The only difference is that in IELTS, you get to write on a piece of paper and speak to a human being face to face. Whereas in TOEFL, you write on a computer and also speak to a computer. What matters is the score and I think computers can be more unbiased. I had a perfect score in IELTS listening and reading which were the objective parts of the examination whereas my writing and speaking scores were not so good because of the inherent subjectivity of the examiners. I wrote IELTS in India and the examiners were also from India. At the time of writing this article, I had not yet received the reviewed scores. Yes, there is an option to get your scores reviewed but you need to pay 🙂 They however refund your amount if there is a change in the score.

Probably, it is not the money that bothers so much but the process itself. Requesting additional score reports, getting your scores reviewed, etc all need to be done in a very archaic manner. You need to get demand drafts from bank, print and fill an application form, then post it to the British Council. After it reaches them, they then take their own jolly time to do the needful. This can be very excruciating for the candidates. Compare it with TOEFL which is run by ETS. All these things can be done online including the payment. So, it is a quick and hassle free.

Also, the British Council online application for IELTS is a kind of sham I believe. You can actually send your IELTS scores to 4 recipients but during the application, this step is hidden deep beneath and appears only when you tick a particular option. This is a kind of fraud. I thought that they would give me this option to select the score recipients during or after the exam. But, NO! Once the application if filled online and paid for (They somehow accept online payment during application though), you cannot go back and select your score recipients for free. You now have to pay for every score recipient.

In all, I think TOEFL is better for the standardised English test especially for candidates writing it from India.


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Foibles of Democracy

Recently, I watched an interesting movie named ‘Newton’ which is also India’s official nomination for Oscars 2017. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. India is the largest democracy in the world and we must be proud to be so by sustaining it through free and fair elections and absence of any military coup till date. However, my feelings that we have not done enough to deepen our democracy have come true after watching this movie. Good work by the team on this movie. Kudos to them.

We have started using ‘Electronic Voting Machines’ but the film rightly portrays that many of them do not know anything about the leaders contesting the elections. They are being told to press some ‘symbol’ in exchange for some petty cash or some liquor. The film has portrayed tribals who are unaware of the electoral process and they still look at their own laws as supreme. However, this ‘deepening’ of democracy is not required just for tribals and illiterates, it is also badly needed for the literates many of whom do not even exercise their right to vote or follow up with their elected leader for the betterment of their constituency. In fact, due to employment based migration, many of the voters do not even reside in the constituency.

Some organisations like Association for Democratic Reforms are doing a wonderful job by making necessary information available to the voters. They have also influenced and led many public interest litigations that have brought some welcome judgements from Supreme Court. But due to the sheer size of our democracy, we need more such organisations to work at all levels of our government to make our democracy more lively. One idea that I want to implement is make all the citizens aware of the major provisions of the Constitution of India through street plays and videos enacted in local languages. Another one relates to a web/mobile app for addressing public grievances.

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Is a degree certificate actually needed for employment ?

I think some of them would label me crazy for posing such a weird question. It is taken for granted that a bachelor’s, master’s or a doctoral degree or a certificate is a must to gain employment. We then have industry stalwarts complaining that a majority of undergraduates are not ’employable’. Most of you would agree with me that most of us take admissions into colleges to gain employment. There could be very few who do it just for the sake of gaining ‘knowledge’. Those few would have the luxury of their social capital or accumulated wealth from their past generations.

For those of us laymen who gain admissions into colleges for making a career out of it, the picture is not so rosy, at least in India. I recently read an article which said that more than 30000 Engineering seats in a particular State of India were vacant. Even the so called premier institutes of India which have some Is and Ts in their name also had to conduct multiple rounds for admission. This was bound to happen. There are many fake colleges in India also which are run like ‘family’ business ‘only’ with the intention of making money. Such institutes will vanish from the education domain in the future. Already, the Government of India is framing rules to make it compulsory for Engineering colleges to make sure that every admitted student gets an internship opportunity. They must extend it to an employment offer too.

Put yourself in an entrepreneur’s or employee’s shoes. Why would someone employ you? The answer is simple. Your skills and knowledge ! Someone must get convinced that you will add value (monetary and non-monetary) to the organisation. That is when they decide to employ you and pay you a salary. And by the way, they are not doing a favor to you. They are only increasing their wealth or intend to do so by employing you. The academic degree or certificate that you possess then acts only as a means to narrow down the sample candidates that the organisations like to interview. However, with the advent of internet, the sample space will increase and in fact, the whole universe is open to organisations from where they can employ. Work from home is also an option nowadays. Freelancing is becoming popular.

However, at present, organisations and companies still use academic degrees and certificates as an eligibility criteria for their employment. A better way would be to give everyone an opportunity who has the ability to add value to the company or organisation. That day is not far. I am currently working on an idea of edutainment television channel and a Teaching-Learning-Assessment platform that has the potential to be the next game-changing venture.

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Beyond the syllabus

I am studying around 100 words every day on a wonderful website www.vocabulary.com. While I was doing this, an obvious idea struck me. Why were we not equipped with a good vocabulary in our school. It is not just vocabulary. There are so many basic things just like vocabulary that we start chasing at not so apt age just to write some competitive exam. Weren’t these supposed to be implicit in our school study.

A good vocabulary is a prerequisite to forming meaningful sentences and meaningful sentences to form paragraphs and paragraphs to form a coherent article or book or thesis. When I tried to look at why we were not equipped with such a vocabulary or basics, the only answer that I could find is ‘Syllabus’. Our schools focus a lot on syllabus prescribed by some authority. Of course, this is needed to have an uniform evaluation across geographies. Examinations conducted by such authority to an extent act a measuring rod for future career opportunities too.

What is not right is an overemphasis on syllabus at the expense of such basic tools like a good vocabulary. School administrators need to understand that a good vocabulary in turn allows students to understand the syllabus well and also write better answers. I am just using one example of vocabulary but there could be many things like reading books, newspapers, math shortcuts, etc which can be a routine part of the school activities. It is high time that we go ‘beyond’ the syllabus.

There are around 240 school days in a year and 5 words per day can equip a student with 1200 words in a year. I do not want to be an armchair scholar just harping on these things. So, I have gone ahead and started implementing this vocabulary activity in the school (www.sukruti.org) of which I am a director. Education is my life-mission and I would like to contribute something substantial to the way we educate during this life time.

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Changing the way we ‘school’ ourselves

In this article, I am not going to be as heretical as Ivan Illich whose book ‘Deschooling Society’ (1971) gives examples of the ineffectual nature of institutionalized education. Illich posited self-directed education, supported by social relations in informal arrangements. What I propose is something less extreme than Ivan. I propose that parents and students must have a choice not to be a part of this institutionalized education and still score ‘marks/grades/degree certificates’.

Home is considered as the first school and mother, the first teacher. Before the advent of ‘school’ as we know it today, pupils were ‘educated’ at home, in the fields, in the apprenticeship of someone in the family or close to the family. With the advent of modern schooling, education is said to be ‘outsourced’ from the precincts of the home and family. It is time now to bring back ‘education’ to home again.

In general, Governments all over the world have bureaucratized education by making it compulsory for students to enroll themselves in a ‘registered’ institution to be awarded a completion certificate. We must do away with such a requirement and make it optional to attend schools. All we need is an examination authority at provincial, national and international levels to administer exams and certify the students.

Some courses will need ‘on-hands’ practice and laboratory set up for which sufficient infrastructure can be set up. But, school for 6 days a week is definitely not a necessity. Some may quick to rebut that school provides an atmosphere for bonding but school is not the only place for bonding. Social bonding can happen with your neighbors, with your distant relatives and so on. So, this advantage of bonding is a kind of exaggerated. By making it optional for students to enroll into a school, we will be providing a freedom of choice to the parents and students. In fact, for some classes (or standards), the student may go to a school.

Self explanatory videos can come in handy to allow the students to learn at their own pace and in their comfort zone. Imagine how such videos will be a boon for the kids in our villages, the war torn Syria or conflict ridden Afghanistan.

We need a change of mindset and do away with such bureaucratization of education. Only then can the ‘Right to Education’ really become a right.

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Simplifying Knowledge

It is ironical that we are in the 21st century talking and experiencing artificial intelligence, supersonic jets, cryogenic engines, storing digital information in bacteria and yet our basics and school education is so far fetched from what it should have been. Do we have teachers with perspicuity of the basic concepts?  Let me share with you two of my life experiences. The first one was during my engineering undergraduate degree. Yes, I am an electronics engineer and I am proud to say that I still do not understand perfectly how an amplifier works. I once asked the physical interpretation of Fourier Transform to my professor who happened to have done her PhD in an IIT (more about these institutes with I’s in another blog). Her answer: ‘You are confusing the whole class. Sit down!’.

Second example is that of this gentleman who belonged to some mathematics research institute and he is the recipient of Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award (awarded to geniuses in basic sciences in India, very popular). He happened to have got this award for his work on complex numbers. After his seminar, I asked him the physical interpretation of complex numbers. My reasoning was if complex numbers are imaginary and not real, why do we worry about them (there is so much in the real world to work on !). His answer: “Your question does not deserve to be answered !”. My befitting response: I just walked away from that seminar room.

Fourier and Laplace did not start with a mathematical equation. They started to solve some problem and then once they found patterns in their solution, they could come up with an equation. Today, we forget the roots and all we have is their equation. Throughout my engineering (bachelors degree), I have just plugged in values in numerical problems and calculated the answers. This is more or less the same for every engineering undergraduate in India, at least the majority of them.

Common ! We can do better. We need to focus on the basic concepts right from school to the college and only then, our demographic dividend will produce higher yields. Unfortunately, demographic dividend in third world countries is restricted to providing mechanical skills which do not require the use of intelligence and such ‘intelligent’ work is left to those in the developed nations.

The way we have organized the knowledge is partly responsible for this fiasco. I hear many people saying that we are fortunate to be living in a world where we have internet and ‘google’. I think that this is not true. Ramanujan, J. C. Bose, Visveswariah were stalwarts in their fields in an age without internet and ‘google’. In fact, ‘google’ has blinded us and our information base today is restricted to what it shows in the first two pages of it’s search results. And, there are professionals (called SEO professionals) who are working hard to make sure that your website is listed on the first two pages). Thus, what we see in the first two pages of search results may many a times satiate our immediate need but never take it for the best response or answer to your question.

We need curated content and knowledge using the best of both artificial intelligence and human capabilities to create an organized knowledge base. Such a knowledge base will be valued more than the Facebook, YouTube, Google and Netflix put together. That is the future of ‘Knowledge Economy’.

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