Free Educational Content

This is a post being republished from Atanu Dey on India’s Development Blog. He publishes under a Creative Commons License. Thank you Atanu.

Please take the time to read this lengthy post, it’s a veritable gold mine of thoughts on educational content and more…


A new world

That the world has changed radically in just this generation is nowhere more evident than in matters that have something to do with information and communications technology. The evidence is all around us — including this fact that I am writing this on a laptop somewhere in India and anyone with a connected computer anywhere in the world can read it. It is hard to overestimate the profound changes. Perhaps because the changes are so overwhelming that we consider them normal and so unremarkable. However, understanding the consequences of that change is going to be important in how successful we are in meeting the evolving challenges and indeed making the most of it. Here I will argue that education — the process and its objectives — has to change dramatically in this new world.
Optimum, not maximumFrom a specific viewpoint, the new world is one in which information is cheap. In fact, one can plausibly argue that as time goes on, the price of information will go from positive to zero and eventually to negative. How can something that is an economic good have a price that is negative? Only economic “bads” — such as pollution — have negative price; economic goods have a positive price. I submit that information, beyond a certain threshold, ceases to be an economic good and its price becomes negative: the point at which people will pay to have less of something rather than more.
The general principle is that there are optimal quantities for any good. Beyond an optimum quantity, a thing becomes less than useless; it becomes positively harmful. There is such a thing as having too many cooks, and the broth getting spoiled. Having too much of a good thing, way beyond the point of satiation, is a bad thing. The optimum could be a fairly wide range, somewhere between the extremes of drought and flood. The maximum available is not necessarily the optimum. Depending on the need, the optimal usually is much lower than the maximal. Let’s talk specifically about information. Some fun facts.
Large StockFirst, the total amount of information available today is huge. Information accumulates and unlike material things, it is a public good in the sense that it is non-rival in consumption. The stock is growing even faster compared to before because the flow is accelerating as more people are producing information. The creation, storage, transportation, and accessing of information is aided by the ever more powerful information technology tools. Anyone with the most fleeting acquaintance with the world wide web is well aware that his or her optimum information needs lie far below that which is accessible with just a browser and connected computer.
Search ProblemThe stock of accessible information is of course very very large but with respect to any individual, it is virtually infinite. This poses a difficult problem, namely, how to identify the best (appropriately defined) information from the accessible stock. The larger the stock, the harder it is to find the best (or even the really good.) It is a search problem, and the problem will continue to grow as the stock grows. It sounds impressive to know that google has indexed umpteen billion pages and responded to your search request with six million odd pages in less than 0.2 seconds. But one rarely ventures beyond the first couple of pages of results. One manages with those pages even though it is possible that somewhere in the six million pages resides the best answer. The results are filtered for relevance and importance but software can only do so much.
Two penguinsSo there were these two penguins just hanging out on an iceberg. (Where else would they hang out, anyway?) One of them turns to the other and says, “Hey, you look as if you are wearing a tuxedo.” The other one replies, “How do you know that I am not wearing one?”

That is apropos nothing. I just got bored of writing this and thought it would be nice to insert a joke. As it happens, it is one of my favorite jokes. Now back to our regular programming.
Free and goodThe amazing thing is that much of the information we find on the accessible web is free. Why is it free and is it any good? More importantly, is it really free to you? The truth is that you cannot really ever acquire information for free. It may be given away for free (like this blog post) but you have to spend time reading it for you to “have it” in any meaningful way.
Is it indeed true that even if you don’t reward an author financially, that the author is not getting paid anything? The reward may be entirely psychic: the satisfaction that one derives from creating something that one values and perhaps that others value. There are indirect rewards in the creation of a work undertaken for the sheer pleasure of it.But is the work any good? Can someone who is not directly being paid to produce something actually produce something good? I think so. Work for hire can be really good because the paymaster may demand quality. Nevertheless, work created for the heck of it can actually be higher quality because the reward is intrinsic in the work and the better the quality, the higher the reward.
Still, intrinsically motivated work could be the work of rank amateurs and amateurs naturally outnumber professionals. My belief is that when the number of amateurs increases sufficiently, the top of end of the quality of their work compares very favorably with the best efforts of the professionals. Professionally filtered

Do professionals also give away their work for free in some instances? Yes, indeed. Researchers spend enormous effort and then give it for free to journals (and most journals charge authors a fee to examine the submitted piece.) The journals then turn around and charge and an arm and a leg for journal subscriptions. What’s going on over there? Nothing is given away for free — the researchers get fame and therefore fortune when they get jobs based on publications; the journals are expensive because they add value by bringing to the readers high quality papers. They add value by filtering.
All this has relevance to the future of educational content, as I intend to argue below.Educational content
For around a couple of decades, people have been creating educational digital content. Certainly much, if not most, of this is professionally produced in the sense that the authors are paid for it, just as they were before the digital age. But there is a certain amount of non-professionally produced digital educational content. By that I do not mean that the authors are not professionals in their fields but that they are not paid for producing it and they do so out of their own interest. There is a parallel in publishing. Before the digital age, published authors were (except for a bit of vanity publishing) people who were paid for their work and the work was published only by publishers who had the resources to bring the work to market. The business model was easy to understand: readers paid publishers, publishers paid authors. With the advent of desktop publishing on the internet, anyone could be a publisher and millions did — on blogs, for example.
The more the merrierThey (like yours truly) publish because they are intrinsically motivated to express themselves without having to mess around with a publisher. Of course, not everyone can be good. But out of the horde of millions of authors, the very top end of these amateur writers is really very good. So you have the interesting phenomenon of very high quality work being done at considerable personal cost but given away entirely free. Not just given away, authors actively promote their wares. The more takers there are for a certain piece, the more it motivates the author to produce higher quality.
Creative Commons licensesThe market works. Whereas in the pre-digital age, authors used to jealously guard their work from being distributed without payment, now authors are pleased to see their work being widely available to others. Moreover, some authors even don’t mind derivatives of their work. The market soon enough produced the appropriate licensing mechanism: a family of creative commons licenses which anyone can use (for free, naturally.) {See the license under which I publish this blog.}
Good free educational contentFor years I have been noticing the growing pile of great free educational content on the web. Produced by amateurs, the quality leaves me envious and depressed. How I wish I had access to this or that particular piece when I was learning stuff from rather mediocre (or even bad) educational content. If only, lord if only, I had learnt using the absolutely amazing piece, I would have been much smarter. [The mind boggles, doesn’t it? I know it is a frightening thought since as it is I am a quite a bit of a pain.] I envy the kids who have the potential to learn stuff really well and without so many tears.

When I learnt stuff, I just had some plain old text with some pictures and graphics thrown in. Today you have text, audio, video, graphics, and other bells and whistles. There are technologies which allow you to interact with the content.
A small sampleIn school I read about galaxies and deep space only in a book. Now you have access to Hubble’s Deepest View of the Universe Unveils Bewildering Galaxies across Billions of Years: you can see photographs, videos and get links to related matters.
Want to learn about optics? Try out this optics simulator. I just did. I added a lens in the blank simulator window, then adjusted the focal length of the lens, then added a mirror and adjusted its focal length, and then added a beam to the left of the lens and voila! The result is below.
Want to build an atom? Do it here. Here’s what boron schematically looks like:

And while there, learn that a proton is huge compared to an electron. How huge? See this image. The text reads:

This web page shows the scale of a hydrogen atom. The diameter of a hydrogen atom is roughtly 100,000 times larger than a proton. Therefore, if we make a proton the size of the picture above, 1000 pixels across, then the electron orbiting this proton is located 50,000,000 pixels to the right (but could be found anywhere in the sphere around the proton at that distance). Your monitor displays 72 dots per inch (dpi), so you would need a monitor that is nearly 11 miles (17.5 km) wide to view the whole page! Go ahead and grab the scrollbar at the bottom of the page to get a feel for exactly how far away that is!Note: For illustrative purposes, this is a simplification of the subatomic particles. Standard quantum electrodynamics (QED) treats the electron as a point particle and through experiments has placed the diameter to be more than 1,000,000 times smaller than the one depicted above.

You can spend a lot of time learning stuff on the web. Want to figure out the speed of light using a bar of chocolate and a microwave oven (and a few other basic bits of knowledge)? Try this out in your kitchen.
Try this 3-body flash animation.

There are nearly a hundred physics flash animations where that came from. The categories are:
* Chaos
* Classical Mechanics
* Electricity and Magnetism
* Fluid Mechanics
* Micrometer Caliper
* Miscellaneous
* Nuclear
* Optics
* Oscilloscope
* Quantum Mechanics
* Relativity
* Sound Waves
* Vectors
* WavesEntropy is simple
I have collected hundreds of bits of educational content over the years. Today I saw a free introduction to economics book on the web. (Hat tip: Rajesh) I thought it was nice but not really a style that I liked. That’s another point: there’s so much free stuff out there that you are bound to find something that strikes your fancy. Some years ago I found an excellent physics book: Motion Mountain — the free physics text book. (It’s a 50 MB pdf download, and 1,366 pages!)That web page introduces the book with:

How do objects and images move? How can animals move? What is motion?How does a rainbow form?
Is levitation possible?

Do time machines exist?

What does ‘quantum’ mean?

What is the maximum force value found in nature?

Is ‘empty space’ really empty?

Is the universe a set?

Which problems in physics are still unsolved?

It’s free! And it says, “Motion Mountain is downloaded over 30 000 times a year. It aims to be among the best introductory physics texts available. Do you have an idea for improving it? Add it to the suggestion wiki! For a valuable suggestion, I will add you to the sponsor and acknowledgment list, or send you a reward.”
I have spent days reading that book and marveling at the sheer quality of the work. I will end this bit with just one more example. Entropy is not a simple idea. But if you go here, you will learn entropy simply. Who wrote that? As the page says, “A chemistry professor with experience in teaching thermodynamics to non-science majors, not just chemistry students.”

Did you know

. . . that according to the first Annual State of Education Report (ASER) report, nearly half the children in standard V in the worst performing Indian states could not read at standard II level and that nearly two-thirds could not do simple division? End of aside. Back to the main text.
A million authors nowSo what’s happening here? What’s happening is that you are getting lots of stuff produced by gazillions of people. And some of that stuff is so excellent that it makes your head spin. So the problem is not that there is not sufficient good stuff. The problem is that it is a very hard search problem to identify the bits that are best suited for one’s needs.
What are the implications? First of all, it is rather pointless for any institution to create educational content because it is prohibitively expensive to match the quality of the content that already exists out there and which has been created by self-motivated authors. Sure this-or-that foundation is spending a couple of million dollars creating content — but to really compete, they would need not millions but billions. It is a fool’s errand to try to do so. It cannot be done and it is a waste of time.
Why? I call it the “poet” problem. You could employ a bunch of people to write technical manuals but you can never hire a bunch of people and expect them to turn out great poetry. Great poetry comes out of people who want to write poems, not just because you pay them to write poetry. Also, one does not know before hand who will write great poetry. It just happens that out of a large outpouring of poetry from a very large bunch of people, some great poetry is found.
So also, the best content is not going to be created by some institution (although they may contribute some bits that go into the best content category.) The best content is going to be the aggregation of small bits of work from a lot of self-directed authors that we will come to find out about only after they have done the work and made it available on the web. The second implication is that if you solve the problem of identifying the best content, you have something that will be useful for millions of others because the solution itself is an information good and therefore can be shared endlessly. The cost of doing the search and identify could therefore be distributed over a large set of users, thus reducing the average cost arbitrarily.
Filter will be kingThe third implication is related to institutions. In the future, institutions which filter content will evolve. They will not actually produce any content nor will they give you a billion pieces of information. Their job would be to deliver a very restricted subset of the available content, filtered to suit your need. Like the publisher of research journals, they will add value to something that they essentially obtain for free but charge you for doing the filtering job.
Core EducationEducation will have to change, as I mentioned before. The current system is anachronistic. Relying on this system for education is like using Roman numerals to do arithmetic. You could do some simple arithmetic with some difficulty using Roman numerals but it is rather pointless to do so when you have the alternative of using the decimal positional number system easily and manage to do a great deal more.

In the past, you had to know facts; now you have all the facts (and more) at your fingertips. What you need to know now is how to use the facts. What education has to do is to teach the skill of learning how to learn. That is the larger goal. But fundamental to all learning are a few basic skills: literacy and numeracy, to name just a couple. These can be learnt easily enough by anyone given a little bit of instruction and a bit of effort.
Core education does not require humongous amounts of content. Depending upon how one defines the core, I estimate that much less than a gigabyte of content is sufficient. What has to be added to that content is the one thing that is the most precious of all resources: time. It is much better to give a little amount of coherent and good content to a student and allow him a great deal of time to internalize the lesson, rather than to give a huge amount of content and only a little bit of time. I despair that today students are inundated with content and have so much of their time taken away by teaching that they have very little time left over for learning.
A Solid FoundationI don’t want to dwell too much on the faults of the current system. For now I will just note that the current system does a particularly bad job of building a solid foundation of understanding. The average student, I have discovered, has fundamental gaps in his grasp of the basics. (Aside: I hate having to write “his or her”. At the risk of sounding sexist, I will just use “he” and “his”.) He knows that he does not fully understand something but is forced to move on by the system. He lacks confidence in his understanding of the subject and having lost his grip on it, is forever slipping. This has to stop.

It is possible to comprehensively teach the basics to anyone who is not a certifiable moron. Once the basics have been learnt, anyone can continue to build upon it as preferences and motivation dictates. [I speak from experience. I am not the sharpest knife in the drawer but fortunately I had been able to get a solid basic education. That allowed me to move from engineering in the undergraduate level to an entire different field of study at the post graduate level, namely, computer science, and then from there to yet another field (economics) at the doctoral level. If I can do it, I am certain that anyone can do it.] The future
So what would the schools of the future be like? First of all, I believe that they will be quite different from today’s schools. Instead of “one size fits all” types, they will be places which offer personalized schooling. The technology affords that possibility. Recall that once upon a time, in the age of industrialization, you could have any color of Ford Model-T as long as it was black. We have moved on from those days. Even IBM with their mainframes and their vertically integrated offerings are history. Today we have Dell. You can go to Dell and personalize your laptop, just like you can pick different attributes of your car at the GM website and have a made-to-order car delivered to your car dealer. There is no reason why instruction cannot be personalized similarly. The technology exists and the only thing that is stopping the transition is the imagination of the bureaucrats that control the education system.
But all hope is not lost. Market forces will force the change. I am sure that on the horizon are looming firms that will promise a new education paradigm. These firms, due to competitive pressures, will transform education in ways that are easy to contemplate. They will make it more efficient (less number of hours, months, years spent in learning the skills) and relevant (the skills that matter in the long run).

Of course, in the period of transition such as we are currently in, some firms will try to shoe-horn technology into the current system. Their successes in doing so are going to be limited, however. Technology can help mask some of the obvious shortcomings of the current system but only temporarily. The larger transformation will soon enough make obsolete the patched-up older system.
It’s a different worldThe education system is anachronistic for a number of reasons. We live in an age of plenty, not of scarcity, with regards to information. The system was designed for scarcity and naturally performs miserably in conditions of abundance. See how unfit modern humans are to live in a world where calories are abundant, whereas their evolutionary history was predominantly in environments where calories were scarce. Obesity and related diseases are killing them just because their bodies have hard-coded in them the tendency to hoard calories.
Information obesity will be as debilitating. Our education system is still predicated on a condition of information scarcity. It will predictably lead to coronary diseases of the brain. (Not sure that that is what I mean.) We also live in an age where the dominant system is not one of command and control but of free markets and competition. The education system was designed to serve the needs of a centralized command and control order. Socialism and centralized planning is a decided failure. Their colossal wrecks are impressive sights to behold. India suffered (and how) from Nehruvian socialist planning in industry. Only recently are there some hopeful glimmers of liberation in Indian industry. Yet the same old socialist control of education persists. It is certain that it too will be relegated to the dustbin of history. The major concern is how long do we have to suffer this and how many hundreds of millions of humans will have to be sacrificed to Nehruvian socialism before rationality prevails.
I hope for the sake of the future of India, and its hundreds of millions of school-going age population, that we wake up soon.



  1. Anonymous September 2, 2008

    Atanu Dey is a Hindutva nut. He belives Stains deserved to be murdered. Please don’t give more ammunition to these guys.


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