Call for open research on the integration of SOLE based learning in classrooms of India to create a generalizable framework of collaborative learning in schools

The look, feel, methods, and objectives of modern classroom education are still stuck with the industrial-age “factory education”. The function of which was explained by Northwestern University economist Joel Mokyr as:

Much of this education, however, was not technical but social and moral. Workers who had always spent their working days in a domestic setting, had to be taught to follow orders, respect the space and property rights of others, be punctual, docile, and sober

The goals of this system were to:

produce the people who would then become parts of the [colonial] bureaucratic administrative machine. They must be identical to each other. They must know three things: They must have good handwriting because the data is handwritten; they must be able to read; and they must be able to do multiplication, division, addition, and subtraction in their head. They must be so identical that you could pick one up from New Zealand and ship them to Canada and he would be instantly functional.

As described by Dr. Sugata Mitra in his TED talk.

Uniformity is the apt way to describe the orientation of the majority of the contemporary education systems, the use of standardized tests being at the core of it and rote-based learning being the outcome as well as the primary learning approach. In a lot of countries, the use of standardized testing for promoting students, screening them for higher education and jobs, and measuring their achievements at a holistic level has created new paradigms and industries that work on optimizing the student performance against their mental and financial well-being, completely disregarding the more sensible application of these tests meant for helping students identify their strengths and weaknesses, and assisting them to improve their understanding of the subject matter. What we have in the end is a system that kills creativity, doesn’t do much to cultivate critical thinking, and doesn’t focus on factors important for self-efficacy in learning.

The regulations and policies that surround this regressive paradigm of education suppress attempts to improve the conditions. Programs and innovations like Design for Change and SOLE (Self Organized Learning Environment) have not been successful in scaling to an adequate level to result in the wide-scale adoption of these pedagogies. But scaling and mass adoption of anything in education has been historically a slow process taking a monumental effort on the side of all stakeholders involved.

There are always infrastructural, financial, and regulatory hurdles involved in implementing most new pedagogical approaches in classrooms. What has been identified as a major issue in this regard is that these programs would demand a revamp of classroom layouts, teaching, and management processes, and administrative interventions that are followed in the schools. While this might result in positive feedback from a small number of schools in limited geographies, the general outlook is often that these approaches only work for a few elite schools that have the finances, resources, and administrative flexibility to make them work.

SOLE is an interesting pedagogical approach that blends inquiry-based investigative learning and peer learning into a framework that supports self-directed education. Over two decades of research have found that there are numerous benefits to the program but at the same time a high barrier to entry for regular schools.

The objective of this research proposal is to verify the practical challenges mentioned above, understand the constraints under which schools operate that make the implementation of SOLEs difficult, and hypothesize and experiment with approaches that can effectively integrate the use of SOLEs into the curriculum and processes of classroom education (e.g., starting a concept by using SOLEs and following it up with the usual teaching methods, or structuring classes such that some parts of learning can be done after school using an online platform in low-income regions), and design a generalizable framework that schools, educators and students around the world can follow.

Following are the excerpts from a draft proposal for the research on implementing SOLEs in classrooms:

Scalability problem: Requirement of revamping the infrastructure of classrooms: Educational institutions often don’t have the suitable funding and technical know-how to change the existing layouts of their classrooms, install enough computer systems for many small groups of students, hook them up with fast internet, and set up firewalls to block any inappropriate content.

Scalability problem: SOLE-Curriculum Gap: While SOLEs work fine for small sessions to cover a concept or two, schools need to complete a given curriculum in a limited amount of time. There is no standardized library of SOLE questions that can be used by the various school boards across the world, making the scaling of SOLEs from a couple of sessions to an entire school year very difficult and bound exclusively to the involvement of the teachers. Services like StartSOLE do offer countermeasures to this issue but fail to scale due to other reasons.

Scalability problem: Existence of an examination-focused teaching system: In most countries, especially South Asian ones, the primary objective of schools and teachers is to train students to score good marks in exams. Learning the core of a concept is often a way to achieve that rather than being the central focus of this educational paradigm. Rote-based learning and teacher-centric approach to education are the norm in many parts of the world and the same was observed to be reflected in online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic with the classes and evaluations. The dynamics of SOLEs are the exact opposite of this and make it difficult for educational institutions to adopt them.

Opportunity: Cooperation between online SOLEs and educational institutions: There is no existing framework to refer to for educational institutions on implementing online SOLEs in such a way that it balances their curriculum requirements, the time of students and instructors inside and outside the classrooms, and the evaluation process. Even if there are institutions that adopted virtual SOLEs there is no publicly available data to show that the same can be replicated by the majority that is restricted by education boards and financial limitations.

Task: Establishing data collection and processing mechanisms and standards for usage of online SOLE support platforms, and our experiments using them with schools and colleges.

Task: Organizing online SOLE sessions in collaboration with educational institutions to understand what difficulties might arise in formal education environments, gives us insights into the problems and opportunities related to scaling the platforms.

Deliverable: Open research on the integration of online SOLE sessions (which can be generalized to other online learning tools and frameworks) with school curriculums, schedules, grading, and infrastructure in the context of Indian education.

Outcome: Study and findings on the perception and acceptance of an alternate learning methodology that is student-centric based on curiosity as a motivation rather than the competitive and merit-focused one that is followed currently.