Open up any NCERT school textbook and on the second page, right after Gandhi’s Talisman, you see the words, all rights reserved: NCERT. The text contained in the textbook is the property of NCERT. Copying or distributing the textbook is illegal. It’s not much at first glance, but it means a lot if you think about it.
[META-NOTE: (In case you are wondering what this article is about and why it's so bloody-long.) You see, most of the writing I do never gets put up on anything, not blogs or magazines, for personal reasons. This one was gathering dust (metaphorically) on my laptop since a few years. The language is not as eloquent as you'd like, but I hope the ideas get through. Since it doesn't serve any purpose unless somebody reads it, I'm putting it out there on the net. May somebody may may skim through it.]
These books, as well as much of school and college-books made by government-funded organisations, contain an alarming number of inaccuracies. But no buyer of these books has the right to fix the errors in the books, for example. Or to add his own little snippets of extra information and resell it to another person. Or to make photocopies and distribute them to children who can’t afford the books.
The only method to access the reading material in these books is to buy them. If they are available, that is
Recently there has been a change in this operation. NCERT books are now available on the Internet for anyone to read. Great. We don’t have to buy the books now but we still have no legal rights over them. If only the errors in them could be fixed as easily as they are now available, they’d be much better books. Its not just about mere spelling mistakes, but broad inaccuracies in content. We, citizens of India cannot modify books meant for us because we don’t have the legal standing to do so.
It seems a very silly grouse. This is India, for God’s sake. No one really cares whether I flout copyright laws, isn’t it? But India is slowly following the west with respect to following IPR laws strictly and rightly so. A cultured nation must respect the rights of those who create information, be it art or manuals. But at the same time, these books need to be fixed. And the problem is greater than this.
Not just NCERT books: the Indian Government pays for a huge amount of educational material, through universities and other organisations. All this material, generated every year, goes to only to students enrolled in these universities, although they pay only part of the fees, the rest being subsidised from taxes.
I might have lost some of my readers now. Let us leave these facts for a while and talk about a different story.
There is a movement going on in the software world since the late eighties, called open source, which basically means giving legal rights to freely use content, in this case software, for any purpose. Everyone has the right to freely use, study, modify and distribute open content. This has been a revolutionary method of fostering creativity in software development and preventing competition between companies to stop the best software being made. Just look at how Linux is being used everywhere, from supercomputers to mobile phones.
A few educationalists have caught on to the idea of open source and realised that it can be applied to any form of data, be it music or books or stories, not just computer programs. Think Open Content. Open content is Free Content (not because we don’t pay money for it, but rather because the content comes with many legal freedoms). Mukt, not necessary muft.
The idea is this: The legal right to use, study, modify and distribute educational material, created with funding from the state, should lie with the public.
I propose a law be enacted in Parliament to make all state sponsored generation of educational material, except those relating to defence, be made open.
So why am I making a fuss about this? What is the advantage of doing that? Let me explain by example. An encyclopedia on the internet exists, called Wikipedia. Any avid user of the Internet will know about it, and how it provides unbiased information on an astounding number of topics, (albeit sometimes unreliable).
The way wikipedia works is in two ways: One: anyone can edit and add information to Wikipedia. Two: The information on Wikipedia is protected by a license which makes its content legally owned by everyone, not (just) the people who wrote the entries. Although the first point interests most people, it’s the second (wrongly overlooked) idea which interests me.
Wikipedia is copylefted, meaning that any information added to Wikipedia automatically gets protected under the licesnse under which all the existing portion of it is protected. That ensures Wikipedia always remains free (not free of cost, but free in the sense of legal freedom to use). This freedom encourages more people to contribute their time and intelligence to expand this encyclopedia. Thus Wikipedia can be thought of as being owned by humanity, not any company, person or organisation, which of course is a very good thing. [Edit: Recently Facebook has been putting in Wikipedia content on their website]
The Wiki-Media Foundation (which started Wikipedia) has launched Wikiversity, which is a project to house open learning content. Everyone is allowed to study from here and everyone is allowed to add teching content.
The same cannot be said about information generated in government owned universities, even the prestigious IITs. All tax paying citizens make the IITs have such low fees, yet little of the knowledge generated there lies in the hands of the public to use.
(The idea I am proposing is the second idea which runs Wikipedia. I’m not saying that everyone has the right to edit NCERT books and sell them as official NCERT content. That would only confuse students because they’d not know which books to follow. I’m saying let us all have the right to redistribute the content in the NCERT books. The benefits will be greater in higher education. If everyone has the right to see and study content generated by our best institutes, the quality of our education system, over all, should improve.)
It’s important that the rule not be extended to private institutions; otherwise it would remove any importance of individual effort. The theory is, if the government pays for it, it belongs to everyone.
Open content makes sense in a democracy. If the government of the people, by the people and for the people has any role in education, its fruits should also of the people, by the people and for the people.
B_G [a friend] notes:
Well we all know that the ncert texts aren’t the best and are replete with typos, conceptual errors, ill-managed treatment of subject matter and obfuscating language. blame is generally due to the board of editors of each respective text. but also, keep in mind, there are many people who not only notice these mistakes but also think that they are well equipped to repair them. for instance, their might be many young teachers (IIT pass-outs) teaching in the leading coaching academies of the countries whose students worship them and secure top ranks in IIT exams and who think they can provide a better mode os education in classes 11 and 12 than the ncert people. once you open source it they will scramble to put in their bits and pieces and it will be all a big mess.
the teachers will (like all egoists) try to put tougher and tougher problems which will surpass the 11/12 level of study. Changes will keep on happening to the books till the last date and the student will not know which version of the book to follow for his finals. the one of today or the one of on-emonth back.
open content is a tricky affair.
The idea is not to let everyone edit ncert books, but to use the text in the ncert books, no strings attached, and use it anyway they see fit. In classes 10-12, its not a lack of information, but the quality of books and learning material as a whole. Put copyleft Open source in the mix and you are bound to get better material.
And when it comes to higher education, it means access to good quality educational material to people even in sub-standard colleges (provided professors in government colleges are somewhat okay). Let them decide what their lecture notes contain, as always. But make those notes available to everyone, so people who are smart enough to understand the notes, but not smart enough to get into those institutes.
I understand this might be a dangerous thing. It’s a bit like socialism of education. But the education sector has private forces in them too. So it seems to me to be a good bet. The question which bothers me is, although I see immediate benefits, will those benefits remain ten years after this idea is implemented? Won’t the really smart educators move out of government colleges, because their hard work seems to feed on everyone else? Well, the trend in the software industry seems to show otherwise. The sure result is that the novelty of hallowed subjects taught outside of our stream will wear off. The best colleges will compete in terms of the physical facilities they provide, and how well their professors actually teach, not how well written their lecture notes (to be vomited out in exams) are.
Education should be a right. But saying it doesn’t make it so. The NDA government passed an Act saying proclaiming the Right To education. Its implementation has been left hanging, to be completed by some faceless unknown government in some distant unforeseeable future. It is things like this which give us false hope and degrage the sanctity of institutions like the Legislature(as if it needed to be degraded more here in India at the present time)
Public education is rightly identified as the way to move forward. But I think for the kind of place we are in, a little out of the box thinking is required. Our requirement is to bring education to everyone. Not schools. There is a vital difference. I know you will scoff. Schools are the most institutionalised method of imparting education. But its not the only one. Look at learning theory. Humans learn all the time, provided the environment provided changing data that our brain can interpret. The focus should not be on building schools only. That comes later. The first step is to arouse interest.
How is that possible? Willingless to learn is a very personal thing. The hourse can be brought to the well. It cannot be made to drink. Trapping a bunch of kids in a building with a person who has a teacher’s job doesn’t make the magic happen.
Each One teach one. Make it fashionable for everyone to teach at least one person at a time. Students, especially from better off families are at a good place to teach. They don’t need to work while they study. Using spare time to teach helps them as much as those who learn from them.
Step Two. Make information available. Good cheap textbooks. Guides on self study. Easier access to topics of further interest. In this case the concept of open source education will help.
The school books today are pretty simple. And cheap too. But think of a 12-year old using his school book to teach another 12-year old. See the problem? The quality needs to go much, much higher.
School books should be such that a child can teach himself, if necessary without being very smart. The only requirement being that he spend time with them.
Formulate ways of being self taught. We need to go to a place where the worl has never gone before. Let us make that quality contenet and give it to the public. Make the texts copyrightfree. Put all those old UGC programmes on youtube. The public will help to make improvements.
For Secondary education, quotas based on economic standing, nothing else. Publish detailed information of what materials can be read to teach oneself. Make IGNOU a place where u just come over, give exams and take your degree. A “legitimization” center for all self-taughts.
Make it trivially easy for an educated person to teach someone. If I want to teach an illiterate child, I want the instructions and material with me in 5 minutes. No more. Same for if I want to teach myself. 5 minutes.
For urban areas I believe, this can be a way. I believe the uneducated in urban areas know very well what the advantages of education in terms of income are.
It will be more difficult for rural places. There more schools must be built. There are no shortcuts. We need ways of monitoring how well they grow.
Is there any way of tracking a child’s education?
I’m looking at this after years, and now I’m happy to say there has been some progress, though not at NCERT’ end. NPTEL is doing a great job with Engineering related videos, and is added content every few months. But what is really great is teh Khan Academy, which covers basic Math, Chemistry, Physics, Biology, and some other subjects right from 1+1=2 to the class 12 level. Fascinating stuff. And yes, Khan Academy provides excellent tools to track progress. Much better than most schools, I bet.
In the end, I realise that time changes the perspective on issues such as this. So instead of this remaining a private conversation, I’m putting it on my blog.