Friday, September 26, 2008

A linkage between "Ekalavya-ism" of Indian mythology and the modern concept of open courseware

Back in 2001 MIT took an unprecedented step when it announced its intention to make most of its courses and course materials freely available on the Internet over the next few years. Today MIT has advanced significantly towards this goal, with the school’s Open CoursewareWeb site now providing access to syllabi, lecture notes, assignments, exams, problems and solution sets, tools and tutorials, and a growing library of video lectures for most of MIT’s courses. Subsequently, the Open Courseware Consortium was formed as a collaboration of more than 200 higher educational institutions and associated organizations from around the world for creating a broad and deep body of open educational content using a shared model. Many of the world's leading academic institutions now contribute to the open courseware movement in their own unique ways. For example, Rice University runs a very vibrant site called Connexions as "a place to view and share educational material made of small knowledge chunks called modules that can be organized as courses, books, reports".

So what is the linkage between the modern concept of open courseware with the story of Ekalavya, an interesting character from Indian mythology? Let me give you a brief overview of Ekalavya for those who might not have heard of him. For further reading, please click here.

Ekalavya, as narrated in the great epic Mahabharatha, was a young prince from a lowly forest tribe who wanted to learn archery from the great Guru Dronacharya who taught Arjuna and his brother princes. However, Drona refused to take on Ekalavya as his student because of the latter's humble origins. Some commentaries say that Guru Drona recognized a master archer and didn't want anyone to come in the way of his favourite pupil Arjuna.

Disappointed but undeterred, Ekalavya went back into the forest, where he created a sculpture in the likeness of Guru Drona and started a rigorous schedule of self-study in archery in front of the sculpture. As a result of his tenacity and single-minded focus, he achieved a level of skill in archery that was far superior to that of Arjuna, the favourite pupil of Guru Drona.

Of course, the story has a cruel ending which the interested reader can pursue separately. But the point of interest for me is that "Ekalavya-ism" is a philosophical way of looking at learning as a self-learning process in which the meditative mind can function and learn even without the physical presence of a Guru or teacher. Ekalavya's role model was Guru Dronacharya whose sculptural likeness provided the physical and spiritual connection between the student and the teacher. Today, modern technology provides us better tools to emulate that connection.

Often, when educators discuss the important role of the teacher and the relevance of face-to-face interaction between teachers and students, the general consensus is that without teacher-student interaction students may not learn to their potential. My contention is that we need to apply the concept of "Ekalavya-ism" here. Modern technology allows us the luxury of access to information and knowledge through initiatives such as open courseware. Technology enables the student to view video images of lectures and create a mental image of the lecturer. It is then up to the student herself to create the remote spiritual connection with her guru or other role model.

While there is no denying the importance of role models, role models are not necessarily available as close physical entities. Role models exist in the virtual, conceptual and spiritual domain. We just need to make the appropriate connection.

So, those aspiring young students who might never have the opportunity of going through the hallowed portals of MIT or Stanford or whatever else is their ideal place of study, should not despair. They can still benefit from the open courseware movement as long as they emulate Ekalavya within themselves. In any case, higher learning is always about self-learning.

The spirit of the Open Courseware movement is the same as that of the mythological Ekalavya.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well said! I really like the connection you have made here- it is empowering and I hope motivates students to heck out some excellent content available online. I have personal experience as I have utilised some lectures by Friedman for an MBA class to set in motions ideas about the ole of business in social impact.