Conversation Context

If you are on WhatsApp, you are probably on a host of groups, which you have, in all probability muted. Ever seen a pattern in the conversations in these groups? If someone started a group, and you connect with old friends after say 20 years, the first few days are about exchanging notes, and reminiscing about old days. After that the lull comes in the conversation, and this is when most groups become about forwarded messages or jokes.

Friends from college have a group, which is the place for college-style conversations. After a while, the conversations turn towards politics, and discussions about the world, pretty much the way it used to be back in college (boys don’t grow up, remember?!). However, due to a number of reasons, we decided to start a separate group about political/intellectual debates. Yes, intellectual indeed, even if I myself say so. Over time, the original group, which all of us are still members of has become a group for forwarded messages.

The reason is simple … context. No conversation can happen between two people without some modicum of a shared context. Take the context away, and the conversation can’t last. As college friends, we have gone different ways in our lives. However, there is a strong shared context of our time together at college, but beyond that, the shared context is that of the world around us. And hence, these are the two topics on which conversations can sustain.

In other words, context is key.

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Virtual Education

Over a period of time, I have written about how virtual education can be used to address some of the problems facing education today, namely, shortage of good faculty, and the high cost of getting high-quality education to a large number of students. Few days back (which is when I had made a note to write this, but didnt quite get round to it, maybe because of the New Year holidays, but then, that would be just an excuse) I read about virtual courses offered by IITs being attended by students from other colleges (please help with a link if you could find … have been searching, but not to much avail). In this, the college from which the participating students come from decides whether they want to give credit to students for the courses they attend virtually, but if they do, then this is a step in the direction I have written about. For the participating colleges, there is, of course, the additional aspect of building the infrastructure to support the learning around these courses, in the form of labs, Q&A sessions, tests, and so on, but there is a benefit too. This would arise in the form of the content being made available to students, around which the learning then takes place.

Taking this one step further, is the possibility of building Centres of Excellence, hosted by one or two colleges, and have courses around these topics being delivered virtually by Professors from these colleges. For instance, these centres could be like Material Science, Thermodynamics, Engines and Turbo-Machines, Operations Research, and so on. Based on mutual agreement, specific colleges could be identified as CoEs for each of these, and courses delivered on these areas by Professors from these colleges, with students participating from all participating colleges. This would give the benefit of standard, high-quality education being delivered to students across the country, without necessarily replicating faculty skills at multiple locations, and enhance access as well as address cost issues.

From here, the individual colleges could take over, in supporting the learning process around these courses. This would be in the form of Q&A, homework assignments, labs, case studies, projects, exams, and facilitating cross faculty-student collaboration. In this way, the participating colleges get access to world-class content, delivering colleges build a source of revenue, and there is a symbiotic relationship between the two. The participating colleges give credits for these courses, manage the learning process, and give degrees based on their own criteria.


Social Eminence

A discussion I was having the other day with colleagues about eminence and the role of social media in creating the persona of people who are experts at things brought out some rather interesting thoughts. One of the ideas that came out was that social reputation is based on one’s willingness to share knowledge. While I completely agree with that, this viewpoint confuses knowledge with the act of sharing. One can actually share things on social media without really knowing much about them. One of the things I see, for instance, on twitter, is that the rate at which people share links must mean they are reading like probably a thousand words per minute. Quite a few people I know just glance through an article or blog, and share it on social media. This is why I say hat sometime knowledge can be confused with the act of sharing.

Another important thing to understand is that it is very easy to manufacture things on social media. You might have seen a number of quotes from Albert Einstein on the web, and I don’t know how many of them are attributable to him. Taking an instance of a talk show I was watching, the analyst on the show was quoting a long-departed leader as having said something. This didn’t quite sound logical to me, so I started searching. After much searching, I found a blog which told how a lie was fabricated and why, and how it was circulated all over the world over social media. The “fact” may find it’s way twice around the world before folks start finding out. Also, there will be a number of folks on social media who will have spread the word, and very few who would take the effort to validate. What this means is that social eminence can be manufactured, and while there are self-correcting mechanisms which are there in the social ecosystem, these methods may not always be effective in a world with a very short memory. By the time you figure out something is wrong, nobody’s really interested, and setting the record straight is a moot point.

The point I am trying to make is that we need to be selective in the sources we subscribe to, and that we need to do our research before publishing something, a thing which is seldom done.