Notemonk, innovative Indian website combining open textbooks and social learning

May 4, 2010, [MD]

There are lot's of exciting open projects coming out of India, and I was very excited some time back to discover that the National Council of Education Research and Training had put hundreds of K12 books in several languages online. It was fun looking at a first grade textbook in Hindi, or a 12th grade history textbook in English. However, the interface of the website was (and is) horrible, most people I showed it to didn't realize that they could actually download the entire text of the books there (and right now, the website is down entirely).

I began thinking about ways of mirroring the books, and presenting them in a much more useful format. I was delighted to discover that a software engineer in Bangalore, Prashanth Ellina, had already done so, setting up a simple website with links to all the books. We chatted online, and I was hoping to be able to meet him when I was in Bangalore, but that unfortunately did not work out. When I gave talks at IIPA and IGNOU in Delhi, I also used his site as an example of the kind of reuse that open licenses can enable.

But Prashanth didn't stop there, he kept developing his idea, and has just launched a new project called "Notemonk", which is a platform for people who are studying with these textbooks to collaborate. He takes out the detailed table of contents for each book (example), and for each chapter, collects relevant videos (like MIT OpenCourseWare, and other open lectures), and enable people to ask and answer questions (example).

I think this is a great example of remixing open resources, and I am excited to see where Prashanth will take the project. Since neither the open textbooks in India, nor his project, is very well known internationally, I asked if he would agree to do an e-mail interview. He graciously agreed, and below you can see him introducing his project in detail. Visit Notemonk and let him know what you think!

Who are you?I am an entrepreneur working out of Bangalore, India. I co-founded Headrun Technologies Pvt Ltd to pursue various innovative trajectories under one umbrella. Prior to this I worked as a software developer at Veveo (A technology startup HQ'ed in Boston, USA). I consider myself an ardent supporter of the Open Source Movement and try to aid by releasing code to the general public every once in a while through my blog. I am at the stage of awakening to the Open Education arena and I believe there are exciting things happening and even more yet to happen over here.

When did you first come across these open textbooks? How? What was your first thought? What did you think about the content, and about the site itself?About 3 years back I felt an urge to re-read my school textbooks hoping to learn the same information but with new perspectives. Simultaneously I was also looking for people with similar motivations online. While searching I came across NCERT's excellent resource and was thrilled to know that the Indian Government was providing easy access to beautifully designed text books. The NCERT text books are fantastic. They are much improved compared to when I was in school. The site itself looks and feels like a relic out of the earlier days of the internet. How did you get the idea of making an alternative site to make these resources available (your first site)?I starting reading the books after downloading from the NCERT site and realized quickly that a better organized site would make it easier to access the books. Initially it was to be just a personal library interface and then I thought it might actually be useful to others so I hosted it on my website.

How did you do it? Was it a lot of work?At the time my day job involved a insane amount of Python/Linux hacking, CGI's, System infrastructure building, Web back-ends etc. So I knew exactly the right tools and methods to get the job done. I spend about 3-4 evenings after work to get the first site done.

Did you receive any feedback, were there many users? The interesting thing is that I wrote the site and put it up for general access and then completely forgot about it :) I was debugging something else on the website a few months later and happened to look at the Apache logs and found a steady stream of visitors pouring in. That is when I realized that there was a "need" for this resource.

Looking back I got almost no feedback which I think is mostly because I did not provide an easily visible email address or feedback form.

Are these resources openly licensed? Do you fear any legal problems? Have you had any contact officially with the people behind that website?The legality is in the grey. I looked around for licensing terms on the NCERT page at the time and found no explicit document or text. However, I received assurance that the material is intended to be open, and I am working with them (NCERT) to have it explicitly stated as such on the site.

How did you get the idea of Notemonk? Was this the plan all along, or did you first do the first website, and then get this idea?When studying text books in school my father taught me to first understand the scope of the book by looking at the contents page and then to skim through the book looking at the main topics and their subtopics. I would do one or two iterations of this process until the "Framework" of the book fit into my mind. This is incredibly useful because any content you consume from the book thereafter fits into the appropriate niche in the mind. This is the way I read any book thereafter (except for books where suspense has to be savoured :)).

This was one fundamental drive. Another one is a more recent feeling. When in school and college I realized two things. Firstly, the staff was underqualified and ill-equipped to act as agents of learning. That was mostly due to the economic conditions which paid teachers far less than in the Industry. Secondly, most students would not learn about things because they weren't excited enough about understanding things. This is both due to lack of exposure and to lack of proper training. Education was simply not made enough fun for them. The proliferation of online communities in the form of Forums, Social Networks coupled with Online Video coupled with the above seeded a subconcious thought that something could be done to harness new age technologies to solve this age old problem.

So, after watching the first site grow and attract people, I thought of experimenting with the ideas I've had for a while. That is when I started building Notemonk.

Who is the target group for Notemonk? How do you see people using it?Right now we are looking at engaging school students from India using NCERT text books. However we are already working on making the site more generic so we can support more syllabi from across the country and beyond. Indonesia has put up textbooks online. Tamil Nadu (a state in South India) has also done the same. We are going to make those accessible on Notemonk. At some point we want to actively involve teachers too.

It has been just a month since we launched the site and we have 500+ registered users and fledgling community asking questions and answering on various books and topics across the site.

What is some of the unique functionality you offer?

What is the business model? Is this something you are doing purely voluntarily or would you like to make money in the future?We do plan to monetize this in the future although all the base features will be free for all for ever. We've identified a few business trajectories but what we put in place will depend on the learning we are deriving right now. We are firm believers of the fact that a solid business can keep churning out quality products and feature sets for the benefit of consumers and are working hard to get there. Right now our focus rests solely on making a highly relevant and useable service.

How can you afford to hand out stuff to people if they get enough points?It is a revenue sharing programme. Right now we do not have any revenue so we are investing for now and plan to continue to do so until we can get revenue started. If we make 5000 Rs running the site in a given month and decide to share 50% with the community that makes it Rs 2500 for that month. This amount is distributed to users based on their overall score. Users can either choose to redeem right away or wait to accumulate enough credits over many months.

What do you think of the potential of open educational resources in general, especially in India? And what about the sites where they are usually hosted?The disparity between the number of people with quality knowledge and those without is very high. Traditional methods of learning involving going to schools and universities are not scaling as much as we would like them to. South India alone has nearly a thousand engineering colleges but even these are not able to provide education to all. Also, most of them are ill-equipped to train students owing to lack of trained staff and facilities. The same applies to primary and secondary schooling.

Open educational resources have the potential to make a real change in this space. If we can create the right tools and generate enough awareness thus connecting students to the tools, there is immense potential to revolutionize education and improve penetration to previously unthinkable levels.

Existing Open education resources are more concerned about making content available to students. This is a great place to start because content comes first. Most sites seem to be at this stage of development. I believe that we need to fasttrack to the next stage - creation of interaction models around content. Imagine being able to create a rich interaction model like that of Facebook only in the space of educational material. A framework within which students can be exposed to educational content, peers and seasoned teachers from across the world.

Anything else you want to add?Yes. A call for help!

We are building a rich feature set along with a carefully crafted interaction model for Notemonk. Please consider dropping by at the site to get a feel for it. We would love to hear from you.

Thank you very much to Prashanth for agreeing to the interview, and best of luck with his venture. I think these kinds of aggregations of OER around certain topics (in this case, TOCs of common textbooks) is great. Students are not that concerned about which university the video comes from, they just want to watch it. However, it would be very useful to slice up the videos in smaller segments – 10, 20 minute pieces that each explain one concept. People who want to see the whole lecture could still subscribe to a play list, but if you are just studying the zinc substrates, you could plug in exactly that part of the lecture relevant to the chapter.


Stian Håklev May 4, 2010 Toronto, Canada
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