Online Education

This post comes from this post that i read on linkedin today. The post is about a young girl doing courses through MOOC providers. These courses are offered by some of the leading faculty in the field, from some of the top universities in the world, but by the inherent structure of these courses, its not really expensive to do these courses. The cost of running the course can, in fact, be lower because, with the MOOC paradigm, the cost of the course can be shared by participants across the world, instead of only those in a particular physical classroom. However, as you will read from the comments on the post, the main thought people have is, does this collection of courses, and the credits these would represent in a traditional university system, represent a MBA?

Lets consider this closely.

What are the components of education?

1. The right content covering all the topics which a student is required to know to be able to say that he or she has attained a particular level of proficiency in a particular topic.

2. Teaching by a faculty who can teach the concepts covered in the course, answer questions from the students, give them homework, evaluate their homework, and make them do projects or case studies, and evaluate their performance in these.

3. Collaboration between students which helps them to learn together, from each other, and to contribute to the learning on the group as a whole.

4. An exam which can test the knowledge of the student and be able to say with a certain amount of confidence that the student has attained a certain level of proficiency in specific subjects or courses.

Apart from 4, all the other three are available in the structure of MOOC. Here are courses delivered by some of the best faculty in the world, with some of the best courseware, and students have a multitude of options for collaborating with each other. What is lacking is the assessment of the performance of students with some form of standard testing, to signal to prospective employers the suitability of the student for a particular job (this is the economic function of test scores, isnt it?). And what is lacking is the attaching of credentials to these courses.

I feel this is something that is going to change over a period of time. With more participation from leading universities in MOOC programs, what is required now is a structure which can bring courses together into a single framework, regardless of which university is teaching those courses, and aligning this framework with a standard testing model, and we have all the ingredients of a completely new paradigm of education.

The question that arises is why universities would want to do that. With the rising costs of education and delicning subsidies or grants, as universities are finding it harder to recruit students, this is a model which can help universities recruit students from across the world, without those students having to travel to the university location (which is a large cost), and each university getting funding based on the number of units taught, case studies developed or delivered and assessments run by them, this could be a viable financial model for universities.

Anyone aware of studies done which might be able to define the sensitivity of student enrollment towards cost? In other words, are we able to quantify how student enrollments would increase as costs reduce? With this information, it may be easier to find out the feasibility of this model. Anyone aware of any such studies? Please do leave a comment.

Punjab Heritage

They say that terrorism is a global phenomenon, and Pakistan is facing the scourge too. In Pakistan, Punjab, being at the heart of things, is facing a large share of this. Whats more, more and more we are seeing terrorist outfits emerging from Punjab (from what a recent article in the Times of India said, south Punjab). The reasons for this may be more economic than ideological. But the thing that is sad about this is that this trend is trying to change the very ethos of Punjab.

Throughout the history of Punjab, the people have fought innumerable wars with invaders coming to the land of the five rivers through the inhospitable mountain ranges to the north-west of the country. Sturdy were the invaders, but no less was the resistance they found in this land. And a history, a tradition of poetry, literature, song, and devotion has been inherited.

This is the land of Puran Bhagat, of Raja Rasalu, whose tales are still told. This is the land where the son of Lord Rama, Lav, founded the city of Lahore, one of the leading cities of Punjab, where his brother, Kush, founded the city of Kasur. The temple of Lav is still to be found in the Lahore fort. This is the land where Guru Nanak Dev was born, and where he taught the way and teachings of Sikhism. This is the land where Guru Nanak proclaimed:

There is neither Hindu nor Mussulman (Muslim) so whose path shall I follow? I shall follow God’s path. God is neither Hindu nor Mussulman and the path which I follow is God’s.

Not was this land to recognize the distinctions of one religion from another, but was to embrace all religions, people professing all faiths as its own. This is the land where Shah Hussain, Sultan Bahu, Shah Sharaf, Bulle Shah, Baba Farid sang in the praise of the One True God. This is the land where the presence of God has been celebrated by people from all faiths. Where music, mausiqi, brought one closer to God, and the words of these great saints offered hope to parched souls. This is the land where love for the Divine flowered, and rained equally on people of all faiths. This is the land where Waris Shah wrote the Heer. Where the following lines were written:

Firstly and lastly, take the name of God; secondly, of the Great Muhammad, the prophet (of God)
Thirdly, take the name of father and mother, on whose milk my body throve
Fourthly, take the name of bread and water, from eating which my heart is gladdened
Fifthly, take the name of Mother Earth, on whom I place my feet.
Sixthly, take the name of Khwaja (Khazir, the Saint), that gives me cold water to drink
Seventhly, take the name of Guru Gorakh Nath whom is worshiped with a platter of milk and rice
Eighthly, take the name of Lalanwala that breaketh the bonds and the chains of the captives

This is the land where charm, romance, gaiety, and devotion all blended to create a heritage such as Punjab has. And it is in this land today that there are, more and more, Taliban style ideologies are thriving. Would they ban poetry? Would they ban Sufism? Would they ban people praying at the mazaars of the Pirs, the Saints? Would they ban the bhangra? The giddha? Or the swings of sawan? For, if they were to do that, they would ban Punjab. Is that the tomorrow for Punjab? Is the tomorrow for Punjab including terror strike at the shrine of Data Ganj Bakhsh, killing innocent people? Shall the houses of God not be spared the ugly face of terror? If not, then what is to be said about the houses of man? Is this the heritage which the terror-guided fanatics believe is the rightful heritage of Punjab? Is this what they believe Punjabiyat is all about? Is this the emotion that shall flow in the loand of the five rivers? Is this the modern-day rendition of the poem:

Wagg wagg ve Chenab deya paaniya,
Tere kandeyaan te aashiqaan ne maujjaan maariyaan!

Is this the future of the beautiful Punjab?

The New York Dispute

Theres a dispute raging about whether Park 51, and the centre for multi-faith dialogue and engagement should go ahead or not. As predicted, passions run high. The question that comes up, though, is whether this is about religion at all or not. Looking at it as a political dispute is also probably missing the basic idea. It is, i feel, more about the attitide people have for others different from themselves, and though i have no opinion, either for or against, i am just trying to look at the larger picture of intolerance and misunderstanding that provides the backdrop for this, and a number of other disputes raging across the world. I do feel this is more about attitude and ignorance than anything else.

There is an interesting piece written by Mr. Ashok Malik in Hindustan Times about A Strange Crusade. There is a picture of an a protestor holding a placard saying “you can build a mosque at ground zero when we can build a synagogue at Mecca”. Interesting, that, isnt it? Well, there are places in the world where religions can co-exist. Yes, there can be disputes, but they dont necessarily need to go out of hand, do they? There are numerous examples of this from around the world. Interestingly, there are quite a few examples of this in South Asia, considered one of the most volatile regions in the world. No, i am not talking from a political perspective, rather from the perspective of the common man, the human being.  I was, for example, recently reading a book titled Empires of the Indus by Alice Albinia, and i feel she has written wonderfully, capturing the synthesis of Islam and Hinduism into a common cultural fabric, which, though sundered by partition, is nevertheless part of the social psyche, the Punjabi Taliban notwithstanding. This, i feel, should be a wonderful demonstration of the way sometimes mutually opposing philosophies (and religions cannot be mutually opposing) can find a way to live together.

This finds much more expression in the Sufi tradition of the sub-continent. Though originating from the Middle East (i havent read much about the history of Sufism, so if you know of a good book which is available in India, please do leave a comment), i feel Sufism came into its own in South Asia, where the tradition drew from the rich heritage of both Hinduism and Islam to build something which is all encompassing, transcending organized religion, looking at The One God. Why this cannot be an example for building a movement towards greater inter-faith engagement i dont know, and where this should be physically located may also not be the central question, in this virtual world of today. Should the movement gather enough steam, the virtual world itself would keep the momentum going. What is more important is attitude.

What i found interesting in the article is that Mr. Malik writes that Christians and Jews paid tax which Muslims didnt have to pay when Cordoba was a part of the Caliphate. Jaziya, if i remember history. Though what that has to do with 2010, New York, or any other part of the world, as Mr. Malik says, i dont really understand. What i also find interesting is:

To laypeople in the West, the Moorish rule of Spain was simply occupation and colonisation by an alien people. That may not be the entirety of the story but it is certainly the popular one.

That may or may not be the entire story, but its the popular one. One mistake we make is that we tend to see history in black or white. History, i feel, is never so. Rather, since history is the story of the changes human civilization has been through, and changes are always gradual, at least at the social level, history is full of transition periods where civilization is changing from one form to another, and these transition periods are shades of grey. There is no “us-or-them” in history, what we see as something which is neatly dividing into pigeonholes is actually more like a flowing river. Or, in other words, what we see as a series of lakes is actually a river. This sentiment is basically assuming that anything Islamic cannot be native to a particular region. But this doesnt consider that its people, culture, psyche which are native to the region, and is a belief system which people adopt, in a way which goes along with their cultural ethos. Which is why you find that the same religion is followed in different ways in different parts of the world.

I feel it is important for us to understand this. That there is no “us-or-them” block which can divide me from the next person, and that we are all in it together. Its not easy to divide the present into neatly divided pigeonholes, just as we cannot divide history on similar lines, for both are defined by the flow of time.

India + Pakistan

In today’s scenario of acrimony and mutual distrust that the two countries have for each other, where our choicest emotions and some of the most colourful expletives are reserved for our esteemed neighbour by people in both countries, there are some things which stand out as things which can help build bridges.

There are two things which come to mind. One material, one academic. Not that academic is not material, so please read on and you will get the drift. The other day, I saw a bus which was sponsored by Rotary Club. I would think quite a few would have come across buses sponsored by Rotary Club, but this was a bit different. The difference, or so I think, was painted on the side of the bus. The bus was sponsored by the Rotary Clubs from New Delhi, and … hold your breath … Karachi, apart from Turkey and USA. What I am writing about here is how a bus in Gurgaon or Delhi or any part of India can be sponsored by people from Karachi or any other part of Pakistan. This is interesting … understanding that both sides of the border are inhabited by human beings with more or less same ambitions, similar aspirations. This means that the helping hand, the healing hand, should be able to reach across the border much more effectively than hatred can.

Another thing I am writing about is something I read in the Times of India … an article about how universities in Pakistan are outsourcing evaluation of Ph. D. theses to India. Interesting? I guess you would be able to google it, so please go ahead … What this means is that no matter how much the hawks in Pakistan would claim to inheritance of the Mughal legacy, the Mughal empire ruled with its seat at Dehli. What that means, whether the hawks like it or not, that Dehli is the seat of Urdu. Of course, Urdu is not the only subject which the two nations share. There are subjects of human importance like medicine, engineering, pure and applied sciences, mathematics, the arts, both performing and visual, and of course a shared history, culture, heritage. Can these subjects, whether with the shared prefix or not, form a bridge to bring the hearts and minds of people across the border together? Can we not build bridges from Karachi to Kanpur, from Lahore to Lucknow, from Islamabad to Indore, from Peshawar to Patna? And if these bridges are built connecting the hearts and minds, can these bridges ever be broken? Some may try to break them, but what they can make are scratches at the most, don’t you think.

Recently, Rohan Bopanna and Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi reached the semi-finals at a tennis tournament. India-Pakistan tennis anyone?

Bombing …

Not a topic which tells you what the post is about. Thats because this post is about quite a few things. Some relevant, some maybe not so. To begin with, this post is about terrorism. To add to that, this post is about what happens when you are the terrorized.

Pakistan has been at the receiving end of terror for some time now. Some estimates say that Pakistan loses more people to terror than India does. But those are just numbers. The true story, the human story starts where the numbers end. Whoever did this, by bombing the shrine of Data Ganj Bakhsh, has bombed the house of God. Is this something any society should be proud of? Are these people the fidayeen who shall eliminate the enemies of Islam, as they like to call them? Whether they be Hindu, Christian, Jewish, belong to any race, any civilization … heck, maybe martians, too? Or are these the jihadis?

And this is a question which Pakistan must ask itself. This is a question, the answer to which is important for not just Pakistan, but for the entire subcontinent itself. If you look at this scenario closely, it reminds of one of the Sherlock Holmes adventures … The Speckled Band. And this is the point. There is an article which talks about Haji Hanif Tayyab being outraged at banned groups working under new names. There is also mention of how the JuD has links with terrorist organizations, and hence funding must be withdrawn.

And this is where one needs to stop and wonder. How many years ago India mention this? How many times has India taken this up with government of Pakistan? How many times has Pakistan been reminded by India of the terrorist nature of some organizations? Whats interesting is how these organizations were welfare organizations as long as bombings, attacks, were happening in India, and then, overnight, they became terrorist organizations when there were attacks in Pakistan. Which is why it is important that the powers that be in Pakistan sit up and look deep at the sources of this terror, and whether the establishment there is in some way encouraging these terror groups in the hope of creating unrest either in India, or in Afghanistan. For example, a recent report by LSE which claims that the Taliban are supported by the ISI. There are statements to this effect by American authorities as well (ok, cant seem to find them, but remember reading them in the newspapers, so if you have links, please leave them as comments).

Bottomline, terror is terror, whether you are at the receiving end or not. And it would be important to find out how and whether the government of Pakistan reaches this conclusion, and if they do, where do they go from there. They need to understand that whatever form of terror they export, can come back to them. For, after all, terrorism has one enemy … humanity. And it knows no boundaries, whether of nation, religion, or of any form.

Hockey in South Asia?

Yesterday, there were two matches … Pakistan were playing Australia and India were playing South Africa. No, this is not cricket, but the poor cousin (at least as far as South Asia goes), hockey. Pity hockey is only the national sport on India. We have been told that the 7-1 loss to Pakistan at the Asian Games in Delhi was the factor which sealed the fate of Indian hockey. I dont quite agree. If this be the scene, then what sealed the fate of Pakistan hockey? Pakistan doesnt seem to be doing much better than India at hockey in the world cup, at least. On the other hand, they actually lost to India 4-1, two misses from Sohail Abbas notwithstanding.

Be that as it may, thats not really the question i am looking at here. Somehow, hockey in South Asia has not been able to evolve with the changes in the playing conditions. There is astro-turf, but then, thats been around for two decades now, i think, and one would think by now we would be able to adapt to it. After all, with our skill and technique in hockey, we should be able to adapt to conditions. I am talking here about both India and Pakistan. Now i am not an expert on this, but maybe some of the rules are also not conducive to our brand of hockey? Even if they are not, we have to live by them, and adapt our hockey to them. From the way both Indian and Pakistani teams seem to be going in the world cup, seems the problems for both are the same (sometimes i think the only problem India and Pakistan dont share is the performance of the cricket teams, and that too is only a periodic phenomenon).

This is where the idea came to me, would it be helpful if India and Pakistan were to collaborate to develop hockey? Maybe create a place where the hockey talent of both the nations can be nurtured and brought to a level of global excellence? See, as it is, the only thing we do is fight with each other. And while there is a school of thought that cricket could help heal the divide between the two countries, fact is that the fight between India and Pakistan becomes more pronounced when the two teams are playing each other. So probably more than cricket, hockey has a chance? And this is the question i am asking you today. Looking from two perspectives, one of creating excellence in hockey in South Asia (remember the time when Pakistan won the cricket world cup down under and people in India were happy that at least the world cup came to South Asia?), and another for fostering greater sporting ties of a collaborative nature between the two countries? Maybe India-Pakistan hockey league? Or similar ideas? Please do post your opinions on the poll.

Please do post your opinion. Who knows we may make something out of it? Do post your comments too.

Civilization Cycles

A very important question Panditji poses in The Discovery of India why, over a period of time, nations lose their vitalityand cannot seem to come out of a stupor as though unable to move in the direction of change. He says, on page 46, that:

One senses a progressive deterioration over centuries.

He goes on to say that this is not a trend, but rather, is a phase which gets reversed through some period of productive, progressive activity, only to slip back into slumber. How is it that Europe managed to subjugate the till then vastly superior armies of Asia?

This is a question which was probably a difficult thing to answer when Panditji was writing this book, but i think he had an idea. And this is something we can see today.

What i think is that nations go through cycles of prosperity, vitality, and so on. Which is why India, or China, having enjoyed a vigour in their civilizations, as can be seen from the tremendous contributions of these civilizations to sciences, arts, dance, music, literature, even war of a period of centuries. And this is where the interesting part comes. As we can see, after a burst of development in all spheres during the Middle Ages, and reaping the fruits of these developments over the following three centuries or so, Europe somewhat lost that edge, and America and Japan came to the fore in the 20th century, leading innovations, not just scientific but economic, commercial, managerial, and in a number of spheres (including Hollywood, i would say).

And this is where the interesting part comes. Today, as we can see from internaitonal geo-politics, nations such as India, China, Brazil leading the world in areas unheard of, whether it be outsourcing or BPO, technology, or (well, well) emission reductions. In a nutshell, like everyone says this is India’s and China’s millenium. While i wouldnt go so far as to describe the millenium that way, we could say this for the century. And with this, as you can see, is where the wheel comes full circle.

So why does the wheel coe thus? I believe that as a nation is at it zenith of glory, that is when the seeds of decline are sown. Let me explain. If there are certain things which bring a nation to the zenith, they have worked in the past, and so there is no reason to believe that they wont work in the future, and success gives the confidence to assume this. This is where the nation tends to ossify, becoming rigid in its ways, thoughts and more importantly in its intolerance of new ideas because they would challenge the status quo and the status quo is the zenith, so why bother. And this, i believe, gives opportunity for other nations to “build a better mousetrap” because if the current one isnt working too well, then there is reason to change, and this reason to change displays itself in a new suppleness, an openness to new ideas, to a change, the outcoe of which may not be well defined. And the cycle continues …

Global … Warming?

There are two views to global warming today. One is the general view that global warming is bad, it is one of the evils created by the industrialized world and it will lead humanity to disaster. The other view (can we say contrarian for want of a better word?) is that global warming is a non-starter, essentially for two reasons:

1. The data that scientists are basing their predictions on is too small to be able to predict anything like global warming.

2. Global warming would have happened anyway because its part of the cyclic phenomenon we call global climate, so it doesnt really matter what we do.

The interesting thing is there is no way you can actually debate these lines of reasoning. This is because one is based on too short-term a view and the other is based on too long-term a view. I had an interesting discussion with a gentleman today about this, which got me writing this. Whats interesting is that while one cannot debate these lines of reasoning, they do raise a few questions.

One of the questions that they raise is can we afford to err? We may be making a mistake by assuming that global warming is actually happening, or we could be making a mistake by assuming that the data we are basing our conclusions on is too limited. At this point there is no way we can say which of the two is a mistake. The question is, can we err on the side of assuming that global warming is fictitious? It would be ok if it was, but what if it wasnt? Would we be walking over a precipice with our eyes open?

The other aspect is that of these climatic phenomena being cyclical. They might well be cyclical and warming might well have happened, human activity notwithstanding. What i think, based on my limited understanding of Chaos Theory, a dynamical system like the weather may have multiple equilibrium states and the fact that it is in a particular state doesnt mean it cant move from this equilibrium to the other equilibrium state it can have. Having said that, this movement would require some amount of nudging along from somewhere, and the question this brings up is, can we afford to have human activity being the nudge for moving to an alternate equilibrium, which may include extinction of humanity? I dont think so, but then, these are possibilities.


Sometimes i wonder whether i get to know the news thats impacting me or not? At times its more appropriate to think that we get to see the news that the editors of the news channels or newspapers believe we should be seeing, and this is where the media gets to define the scope and topic of debate in society. But there are aspects which probably get left out in all this because they arent very important, maybe.

Let me explain what i am talking about. Those of us who have followed politics in India for some time now will remember how the rise in prices of onions cast its spell over the elections in four states in India. Those of us will also remember the coverage the rise in prices of onions, an essential to Indian cooking, got in the political debates. For those of us who dont remember, you could read bits about it here or here.

What i am concerned about is how little space is being given to the price rise that we are seeing today. Yes, there is talk about it somewhere in between the columns on the inner pages. One could say that this is because there arent any elections round the corner thats why the price rise isnt as important an issue to be covered as it was a decade ago. But then this would imply that even then the coverage wasnt of price rise for an essential, but was coverage of an election issue, and this would imply that the debate is not about price rise and its impact on people but about elections and the impact of the price rise on elections. Now i am not saying that price rise hasnt got coverage but not the way when elections were round the corner.

Whats interesting about the price rise is who benefits from it. The vegetable walla told wife that if a Cauliflower is bought for Re. 1 from the farmer it is sold for Rs. 25 in the market. This means that the benefit of this price rise doesnt pass to the farmer but to a set of traders, middlemen if you may in the supply chain, and this is an aspect which not many seem to be talking about. Shouldnt this be something which should be the core of the debate and shouldnt this debate be at the core of the discussion in the country? To me, i believe, the two areas which should dominate the debate in the country are the impact of this price rise on common people and of course the ongoing negotiations at Copenhagen, which again are inspiring quite a bit of cynicism, like the one i read somewhere (dont remember where) … If the climate were a bank, it would have been saved.

Are there any areas which you think we need to focus on more as a nation? Please do write your comments, maybe we could start something?


It is quite routine these days to read about the world we live in as a global village increasingly interconnected with more and more integration of the different parts of the world into one unit. This is indeed a wonderful thing. But what is the extent to which it is happening is the question which needs to be asked. Why am i asking this question? Can there be a reason other than Copenhagen? Maybe Copenhagen will become the second Scandivanian city to have a phenomenon named after it? The other maybe is not too pleasant a syndrome, one would say.

Over the last year or more since the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the ensuing mayhem one thing became very clear. That the global exonomy is indeed global. That is, no country can today say that their economy is isolated from the effects of the economies of countries around the world. Some maybe more some less, but nevertheless. This gave the feeling that governments around the world are coming to the understanding that unless the world faced the global crisis as a single unit the consequences would not be pleasant for anybody. There was a growing acceptance of the globalized world we live in today. Thing is, this bonhomie lasted only as long as we were talking about money. When it comes to the climate we arent quite as globalized as we think we are. Or is it that this is my pollution and that is yours? Are we trying to believe that your pollution is not going to impact me?

Lets look at the stark reality. We are indeed a globalized world. And nowhere more so than in terms of the weather. And either we all swim through or we all sink. True, some people will be impacted more than others. Rather, some countries would be impacted more than others. But the point we need to appreciate is that no matter which country, the poor would be the ones who would be impacted the most. Agriculture would be the area which would probably be impacted the most (from what we read). Question is, can we bring the cooperation of global economies to the sphere of global climate? The stakes are high, and we all need to understand that this is our world. Unless we cant look beyond the next two quarters?

I read an article which said that ISRO data shows that the rate of depletion of glaciers in the Himalayas is slowing down (cant find the article so if you can find it, please post the link). Positive sign. Things can be reversed? Certainly. Question that we need to ask ourselves (otherwise our children or grandchildren may not even get the chance to ask the question), do we have it in us to do it? OK, this is beginning to sound rhetorical, but thats because its meant to be. I am not an expert on the issue of climate (or on anything but i am not going to admit that), but trying to look at the problem from a simple common-sense approach. Any thoughts, please feel free to write.