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Lessig on Digital Barbarism

Lawrence Lessig has posted a review of David Halperin's recent book, Digital Barbarism.

Halperin, who authored the (in)famous New York Times article calling for perpetual copyright, has now compiled his ideas into a book. Lessig offers a much-needed critique, including citing misconceptions about Creative Commons (Halperin conflates it not only with "freeware" with software... more

A few old lessons (and some new ones) for Open Education in India
Prashant (India) · Nov 16th, 2007 3:14 am · 50 votes · no comments made
The Buddha Smiles after school programme in a village near Arni, Tamil Nadu, davidreid (, CC BY-NC 2.0 (
The Buddha Smiles after school programme in a village near Arni, Tamil Nadu, by davidreid
A Vision of Students Today by Michael Wesch in collaboration with 200 students at Kansas State University

“My own education has been entirely controversial: that is why I know what I am writing about; and appear eccentric to dogmatically educated Old School Ties whose heads are stuffed with obsolete shibboleths.”
George Bernard Shaw

“If textbooks are treated as a vehicle for education, the living world of the teacher has very little value. A teacher who teaches from textbooks does not impart originality to his pupils. He himself becomes a slave of textbooks and has no opportunity or occasion to be original. It therefore seems that the less textbooks there are the better it is for the teacher and his pupils.”
Mahatma Gandhi

In Amartya Sen’s “Development as Freedom” hypothesis, the removal of substantial “unfreedoms” is seen as intrinsic, rather than merely instrumental to the process of development. Different freedoms are observed to be mutually constitutive, for instance social and cultural freedoms – including educational opportunities – inevitably lead to greater economic freedom. The challenge before the state given this hypothesis is to provide maximal affordable access to educational resources to the greatest number of its citizens.

Since, in India, the financial means needed to organise the physical infrastructure of higher education is scarce, the criteria of “merit” is frequently resorted to as an arbiter that distinguishes students to whom higher education will be made available, from those excluded.

In urban India, on normal days, we are a nation obsessively engrossed in the merit-acquisition business. “”, the official website delivering examination results online claims to have received 40 million “hits” in 2006 – an average of about 100,000 a day. In March this year, 16 Class IX students in a government school in Shimla (aged between 13-15 years) studied “for 108 hours at a stretch, with little food and no sleep, for a place in the record books.“ Whether they succeeded in this crackpot scheme is not reported. A blurb on the website of “Brilliant Tutorials” – a popular distance examination coaching institution - boasts that “Every year, well over 60,000 boys and girls join Brilliant and, at any point in time, there are at least 100,000 students pursuing various careers.”

A casual consumption of these facts – reflective as they are of the media’s fetish for ranks and figures - might easily lead one to imagine us as a nation on the march, making definite collective strides towards knowledge super-powerdom, riding upon the shoulders of the merit of our super-educated youth.

A glimpse at actual statistics on the reception of mass education in India however, casts an ominous shadow upon such celebratory visions. Reports of staggering numbers of applicants (as many as 170,000 to the Indian Institute of Management last year) seeking admission into universities every year must be squared with data that indicates that 90 percent of students who ever enroll in schools will drop out before completing their secondary education. Up to 27 percent of students between the age of 5 to 25 have never enrolled.

When one hears of 8,000 students being selected from up to three hundred thousand students attempting the entrance test to the Indian Institute to Technology (IIT) each year, one must also ponder at the extent to which differential access to expensive private coaching will determine the prospects of candidates. (The proportion of urban students between the age of 5 to 24 attending private coaching is more than twice the proportion of their rural counterparts. Note that this refers to a comparison of the proportion of students in urban and rural India, not their actual numbers.) The average annual cost of private coaching per student between ages 5 to 24 in rural areas is as high as 82 percent of the average total amount spent per rural student annually.

If boasts on websites can be believed, at least 52 out of the 57 students, fully 91 percent of students admitted in the Open Category into the National Law School of India University in 2006 were students who had received coaching at prices ranging from Rs. 4,000 to Rs. 20,000 ($100 to $500) per year. By contrast, the average annual expenditure on general education per reporting student of age 5 to 24 years in rural areas was Rs. 576 ($15). 95 per cent of the population in rural areas spends no more than Rs. 500 every month.

The above contrasts should not, however, detract from the conclusion that in India merit is mass produced. Quite the contrary, the contrasts above confirm that like most goods in industrial societies, merit in India is unequally distributed.

From this lengthy preamble, I’d like to jump straight to the relatively short “lessons” that I’d promised in the title.

1) The development of the networked information economy and the widespread diffusion of information technology give rise to new opportunities for learning. But, as Geert Lovink reminds us, “Open Access only exists for those who have made it to the machine and are literate enough to login”. To that extent, “celebrations of inclusion” by the open access movement appear as so much “rhetoric that hides actual existing exclusion mechanisms”.

2) The persistence of traditional exclusion mechanisms notwithstanding, we may be encouraged by an anecdote that Ravi Sundaram recounts in his “Recycling Modernity about Selvam, a lower-caste typist who learnt programming by “devouring used manuals, and simply asking around”. What Sundaram describes is a “world of informal technological knowledge existing in most parts of India, where those excluded from the upper-caste, English-speaking bastions of the cyber-elite learn their tools.”

Current statistics reveal that as little (or as many) as 40 to 60 million Indians are active users of the Internet. Viewed as a percentage of the population this is a meagre 4 to 6 per cent. However, this is close to the total number of graduates in India (48.7 million) and is adding users at a much higher rate than the number of new graduates every year (2.5 million). This hints at a degree of techno-literacy higher than figures of actual literacy would permit. A recent survey indicates that the internet boom in India has been led not by the metros but smaller and non-metro towns where the number of internet users has risen 69 times and 33 times respectively since 2000. According to the report "More than 60% of information seekers look for general information on the net and 45% look for educational information"

So whilst older forms of access barriers persist, the Internet remains a potential resource for self-learners who are “merited” out of formal channels of education. Yochai Benkler in the Wealth of Networks points out the “co-ordinate” benefits of access to the Internet – a search on Google delivers an “information product” that is not made possible by co-operation between various sites, but rather their simple co-ordinate existence. Without doing much more, by virtue of their mere existence on the internet, open educational resources significantly enrich the information environment that we inhabit.

3) Access to educational resources at the lower and primary education levels in India is not impaired because of copyright restrictions. A study by Oxfam on the costs of education in India reveals that expenditure on school uniforms are the highest component of this cost. This is because for years, school textbook production has been a state-conducted or regulated activity and almost ubiquitously, textbooks till the high school level are either affordably cheap or free. However, this says nothing about the content of these textbooks, which in some instances are either inaccurate or unimaginative or prejudiced. It is here that the Open Textbooks model of peer-produced materials could make an invaluable contribution, not by seeking to replace the textbook, but by making alternate resources available to be drawn upon by students and teachers alike.

4) The contemporary model of the university as a nucleus of centralized, hierarchically organized information production, that also sells accreditation has been under attack for some time. This is evident from some of the findings displayed in the video shown above. Open Education would do well to learn from these criticisms and to try not to be an electronic substitute of the University, but rather employ the several affordances of the Internet in the service of alternate education models.

tags: bangalore-hyderabad india education open-access development freedom networks

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