Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011: The Last Post

It is that day of the year when, for one day, the past seems more important than the future. One day to remember and say goodbyes, to sum up and finish - so that one can make a fresh start next day. That's what I am set to do now.

On balance, this year changed my life. It started disastrously, with the sudden death of my brother. From that very low point, today is a long way away. But if I have to look back at what has been the theme of the year, it was this - letting things go - people and relationships, vanity, business associations which were not meaningful. In a sense, I streamlined my life somewhat, focusing on what's important. There is work to be done still, and this needs to carry on into 2012, but I have made a start.

One great thing about letting go is that one starts to realise the value of what is retained. That happened to me: I suddenly discovered how lucky I am in having what I have. I also regretted not knowing the value of things when I had them - how dearly I wished I left everything and stayed with my brother when he needed me - but it felt like a discovery that there are things I have which I should treasure.

I end 2011, and will start 2012, with this sobering feeling. Giving up also means giving up my past, at least the forgettable bits, but retain nostalgia, which was memorably defined as 'memory without pains'. Certain things will remain constant, indeed: I shall surely spend another year plotting my way back to India, and trying to escape my self-imposed exile. At the same time, I shall continue to plan going around the world, living in different places, knowing different people and learning new things. What changed is that I am not anxious about this contradiction anymore. I just know that this tension defines who I am and what I do: My globe-trotting dreams keep me open, ambitious and forever in search of a better life, but my deep attachment to my land, people and ways of life keep me grounded.

Things around me will change, indeed. We are possibly looking at a long recession in Europe and an irreversible change in the way of life and thinking at its wake. The central tenets of selfish capitalism is being questioned and its limitations will continue to show: One would hope we would collectively move towards a more responsible form of social arrangement. In Britain in particular, and Europe in general, intolerance has reared its ugly head: I would hope that this will be contained by a return of common sense. However, I am less optimistic that this can happen under the watch of the current Tory government, who has adapted, with some impunity granted by confused public opinion, a socio-fascist stance and has been trying to refashion everything British. Again, one would hope that this zeal would be contained by recession-induced common sense, that it is simply too dangerous and plainly counter-productive to pander intolerance and closed views in a world perilously close to an economic and social disaster. India, I fear, will let slip its hard-earned global reputation as an up-and-coming global power and sink into economic chaos, just because it is leaderless and is fast becoming one of the worst governed countries in the World. I have a lot to fear here: India is not just my homeland, but an economic disaster may bring into power a Hindu chauvinist government in power in India, and that would be bad for the region and bad for the world. With Pakistan inherently unstable, Iran flexing its nuclear muscles and China trying its best to hold onto its authoritarian system, the current world order is poised precariously in the region anyway: Any brinkmanship by the Indian government may tip everyone into an abyss.

There are dangers elsewhere too. With a sense of foreboding, I shall watch the three upcoming presidential elections in Russia, France and America. Vladimir Putin will almost certainly win the Russian one in March, but this will invariably unleash another round of protests and uncertainty, and may even start a round of internal unrest. Whatever the outcome, it will possibly lead to further isolation of the Russian regime, not a good thing when the world is already full of uncertainty. Since the fight is between the Communist Party and the right wing United Russia, this will also mean a return to fascism in Russia.

In May, President Sarkozy will take on Socialist Francois Hollande, and possibly win, but all eyes will be on Marine La Pen, the National Front candidate and a symbol of extreme Right in Europe. If Ms La Pen manages an upset like her father did, and reaches the second round, that will mark a new phase in Europe, an unrestrained march to social fascism, which has somewhat started already.

Finally, in November, President Obama may finally pay the price of not being the change he promised to be, and lose to Mitt Romney, who will hopefully manage to win the Republicans. Mr Romney is able, but he has to make sacrifices to win the power: This will mean further social conservatism in America, and a belligerent approach to the world, which will further push the world into recession and uncertainty.

This dark view of the world isn't something I live with. I am generally optimistic and believe that things will turn out better than we expect them to be. Indeed, I believe in human ingenuity and enterprise: I have always lived an optimistic and active life based on these beliefs. But at the same time, I don't wish to be blind: Hope isn't a strategy and the lack of leadership is all too evident all around us. I have already made my choice: I have committed myself to a career in Higher Education and know that the greatest goal that I can hope to achieve is to equip the students I come in contact with to be able to conduct themselves, in whatever they do in life, responsibly and conscientiously all the time. Indeed, this is not my 'change the world' declaration, but this is 'do whatever I can' mantra that I have learnt to live by.

This is a purpose worth living for: As I wrap up 2011, I am full of this sense of purpose. That will make 2012 worth living through.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Waiting for Godot in India

It was a fitting end to a disastrous year in Indian politics, New Delhi based blogger and journalist, John Elliot contends. With the defeat of Lokpal Bill, floor crossings and chaos, India's biggest weakness, its political class, once more is on public display. However, these are dangerous times, whether or not you believe in Mayan prophecy: Party may indeed end for India in 2012.

India had its time in the sun. As a solid member of BRIC quartet, the Indian Prime Minister became a regular invitee on the top table of global economics and politics. The country emerged as a partner in democracy with the United States, a regional competitor to China, and started assuming some global role in Central and Northern Africa and in Afghanistan. Its urban middle classes looked stronger than ever. Indian students, buoyed by the rising income, stronger Rupee and upbeat rhetoric, flocked the Western universities. Its businesses started investing abroad, claiming limelight side by side with Chinese counterparts. For the last decade or so, everything seemed to be going right for India.

The risks were always there, though. India's growth was regionally imbalanced, and only the super-rich and the urban middle class were enjoying the fruits of this growth. While the media was busy counting how many Indians will make it to Forbes, somewhat rigging the numbers by claiming some of the Non-residents their own, the plains of Central India virtually seceded to the Maoist rule. While Middle Class Indians were enjoying the $2000 cars, Petroleum prices shot up by more than 50% in the space of a few years. For all the talk of India's progress, most investment coming to India were in the form of portfolio investment, inflating the stock prices and making the urban Babus with small portfolios feel rich, but the money remaining in dangerous, liquid state, to be withdrawn the day the global bankers lose confidence in India. Finally, India's infrastructure upgrade, much needed, came with its own parasite class. A new class of politicians, who are unafraid and unashamed of corruption, were being created: Those, who lived by their own vote-bank and as long as they could throw the crumbs at their home crowd, no one really bothered about what happened to the projects, or the country.

For most part of the last ten years, this picture was hidden. Obviously, smart traders were making money and no one wanted to hear the bad news. Indians felt good as their country was being touted as the next global superpower, even if that meant a final war with the much superior Chinese. The inflation was hidden, the consumption was highlighted. The great achievement of IITs were advertised, the poor state of general education omitted. There was much pride when India turned down global aid after the Boxing Day Tsunami: The poor people may have suffered, but this was a good way to massage the egos of newly aspirational, English speaking Indians. It was a self-fulfilling cycle of India hyping, which was proving to be good for a few people.

Indeed, this is not to say that these risks can not be mitigated. There were good news in the air too: The scepticism about inflation was generally met with a more optimistic explanation that this is happening because of structural reasons, as the rural unemployment reduces and we move to a fairer prices for grains, and one would have got the feeling that some movement towards a more balanced development is finally underway. This was the great redeeming hope for someone like me, perched out afar from home, that there are good things happening which we can't see. There were reasons to hope that there is a new leadership - how good it felt to see the ascendance of a new generation of Congress leaders uncorrupted by the past, modern and secular - which will eventually steer India to its deserved glory. 

However, this is now turning out to be a wait far too long. The government continued to blunder along, taking wrong decisions at every turn, tolerating allies who are only interested in accumulating personal fortunes or political brownie points. For all the talk of good governance, the politics took precedence: The Congress party stood by the megalomaniac Mamta Banerjee (they seem to be paying the price now) to come to power in West Bengal, dumping the already impoverished state into futher depths of mis-governance and corruption. The leadership never materialized, and its struggle manifested itself as indecision or plain cover-up in public eye. Yesterday's display was only another example of how far this has now gone.

However, the risk now is that the times are not so good. This isn't a time when one wants to scare global investors, because if they lose confidence, they run. The doubts about India were persistent, not about its resilience as a country, but about the ability of its current ruling class - the government and its alternatives - to get anything done. The last thing the investors want to see is a show like yesterday's, when the government fails to pass a basic legislative reform like the Lokpal. The leadership deficit was all too evident on both sides and the opportunists like Ms Banerjee was far too prominent. In summary, it was not about who wins or loses inside the Parliament: It was about the world starting to see the flip side of India's story.

The Mayan prophecy may be wrong. India's story may also have a twist in the tale. However, it is a wait which has gone on for too long: Let Godot show up now or we all perish.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Quality AND Profits: Interrogating Student Recruitment through Agents

These are exciting times in the international student recruitment market. This is a time for new winners and losers, new markets emerging and dominant ones stagnating, and new rules are being written. After explosive growth for a decade, Australia let its dominating position slip in 2008. Also, Britain, which became a very attractive destination in the new millennium, enjoying 64% growth in annual student numbers in the years leading up to 2010, is all set to lose the markets because of the muddled and unwelcoming approach of the current government, which seems to regard all International students coming from outside the EU as potential illegal immigrants. Further, the coalition government's on-the-fly policy-making has decidedly hurt Britain's position as a provider of High Quality Higher Education internationally: The absurd categorisation of Higher Education, Further Education and Private Education colleges (a system not readily understood elsewhere in the World) for visa purposes, and the confusion at its public universities regarding fees and places on the wake of funding reforms, created confusion among the aspiring students, who started looking for options elsewhere.

So, suddenly, it is deja vu all over again in the International student market, with new players, Canada and Germany among them, and old and new American universities, trying to pick up the opportunities abandoned by British institutions. Australians are also making an effort to come back in contention, as are different offshore locations, including Malaysia, Hong Kong and even Mauritius, who are promoting themselves as easy countries to live in while pursuing British or American degrees.

In the middle of this churn, the recruitment models are being redefined. The huge growth in the market in the last decade or so, dominated by Australia and Britain, was facilitated by an agency-based recruitment model that the institutions from these countries followed. It was a simple model: The local agents got a fee, usually a share of student fees, for every student they recruited. This model, observers claimed, was instrumental for the success of British and Australian institutions in international student markets. They even suggested that the American institutions, which operated with a direct recruitment model, start following this system to scale up.

However, if one looks closely, it surely appears a bad idea. The agent-based recruitment model shifts the financial risks from the institutions to the agents, but, as the Australian and the British experiences demonstrate, often shifts the compliance risk up the value chain, sending out students without any intent to pursue studies to sponsoring institutions, thereby turning them to conduits of illegal immigration. It is particularly bad in small private institutions in Britain and Australia, as the agents gathered massive clout during the boom years as they earned the money for the colleges and effectively taken over the admission systems of the host institutions, which invited the backlash, in Australia in the form of racial violence, and in Britain in the form of unreasonable regulation, eventually. This also goes on to show that the Agency model in its current form isn't scalable, and the American institutions may not gain anything by abandoning their current systems of recruitment. If anything, they have a lot to lose.

In fact, I would think that the British Higher Education institutions will need to think beyond the agency recruitment model and engage with its target audiences in a more direct way. This may change the cost structure of recruitment, but with technological innovation and fresh thinking, this may not break the bank. Indeed, this may require scale and some small private colleges may not be able to afford this recruitment model at all, but a merger wave is already underway in Britain and further, the change of regulatory regime, from various private sector bodies to Quality Assurance Agency, will accelerate this trend anyway. The costs associated with compliance risks that the agency model creates have become unsustainable, and the only way left is to create a more direct recruitment model.

Indeed, managers at various institutions will look at this closely and come up with various innovative, middle of the way, arrangements. There will be much greater investment in education marketing and student information systems: Many more interesting student fairs, better courses and more facility and services for the students. This will mean much greater efficiencies and transparency for the students, which will lead to better quality education in the end.

So, in summary, the practises in international student recruitment are going to change. Completely. And that will be good.


Tuesday, December 27, 2011

India 2020: Beyond The Middle Classes

If India has to grow to the next level, it must look beyond its Middle Class. In a classic case of narcissist obsession, India seems to think of itself in terms of what the outside world sees of it - the immense consumption potential of the middle classes - but its own reality is both richer and more diverse than that. So, the model of development that the country must pursue is one that must look beyond the middle classes, and release the enormous human waste that the country continues to endure through poverty. In short, the New India needs to be new, not the old one in some shiny garb.

Everyone seems to admit that India's biggest problem is its politics. It may be blasphemous to say so, but democracy has failed India. May be more correctly, India has failed democracy. For all the fine rhetoric and a constitution written in fine English, Indian citizens have little rights or respect from the state. The state that Nehru built ended up being a Desi replica of the Raj, a distant paternalistic institution designed to govern, but not serve, its people. Over the years, this obscure state has only been made more distant, only to be reached out through the high priests donned as politicians. This is India's problem: Yet again, it has put too much faith on what the outside world saw in it, and forgot the messy realities nearer home. Everyone seemed to have glossed over the fact that democracy isn't about being able to vote once in a few years, but that people will be masters of their state and the political class should exist only to serve the people.

One can be sceptical and claim that this is rhetoric too, and a democracy does not actually exist then. It is always about the political class manipulating its people, in every country. There is truth in that claim, but in the advanced democratic countries, the fierce independence of various institutions, of the Professional classes, judiciary, media, labour unions, military, and a culture of questioning and accountability, push the system for perfection all the time. In India, we made people believe that they need to be told what to do, just as the British Raj told us, and continued in that tradition.

In retrospect, Nehru's bold decision to give every Indian a vote, much criticised at the time, seemed to have an effect on India's polity. But his equally momentous decision to retain the English civil service, which ensured that the government remains obscure and a preserve of English speaking (and later Hindi speaking) Babus, came in the way of desired empowerment. In India, a common citizen, despite the claims of democracy, is powerless: On top of this, if this person happens to be a woman, a Muslim, non-Hindi speaking and poor, life is unbearably pathetic, as the government Babus will kick her around as they please, in every matter that requires state intervention; and indeed, everything in India still needs state intervention.

We have been told that the modern Indian businesses have liberated the nation, and Manmohan Singh's budget speech in 1991 was the announcement of second Indian independence, from the license Raj this time. Again, we believed as the others told us: The ground realities are quite different. Despite the Harvard Professor Tarun Khanna's enthusiasm with a billion entrepreneurs, and fairy-tale stories like Slumdog Millionnaire and The White Tiger, in India, businesses remain very much the preserve of the rich and the powerful, the diversified family-run conglomerate which will invariably eat your lunch if you manage to cook something good. The bank lending remains skewed, the institutional bias to big and powerful well accepted and anti-trust an unheard thing. The so-called liberalization was liberalization of the powerful and the middle classes, satisfied with a handout from the stock-market and a job that allows them to get loans, only abandoned the goal of self-advancement and got entrenched in the slavery of the EMI.

It is not something development theorists will readily accept, but all meaningful development efforts start with disruption. China's cultural revolution may have been an inhuman monstrosity, but this formed the new institutions ready to take the country forward. The American civil war, in the previous century, created a country with integrated markets and upwardly mobile labour force, which eventually came to dominate the world. India, so far, had no such disruption, and continuity means that the country remains bound to its past. But I shall argue that this model is now reaching its limits: The disenchantment of middle classes may not unleash a revolution, but we may be reaching the limits of continuity as we fast approach a desperate crisis in governance. What form this disruption will take is hard to predict: This may be an internal strife that shakes the institutions violently, an economic collapse requiring a redesign or a war which redefines the national priorities. However, there is another way, through deliberate leadership, which may define a new vision and recreate the country. This redefinition may look less like Nehru's Tryst with Destiny and more like Gandhi's disruptive politics of bringing the poor to the party, because India, if it has to redefine its future, must look beyond its middle classes and create a more broad-based society.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Great Powershift

These days, most intelligent conversations tend to focus on two alternative possibilities. First, the more pessimistic ones, see the current recession going the same way as the Great Depression did, slowly altering political opinions and driving the world into protectionism and national chauvinism, finally leading to some kind of great war, which may lead to an end of civilisation. The proponents see a challenger power, like the 19th century Germany, in China, and the incumbent in the form of the massive global empire of the United States. Next, there is the optimistic view, which does not see a violent end of the civilisation but a re-balancing: This is more the doctrine of decline of the West and the rise of the rest. This view suggests a power-shift, to China and India, and possibly Brazil, and that they would emerge as the World's preeminent economic powers, in a replay of what happened during the Eighteenth and Nineteenth century Europe.

To be clear, this is not the only views on the table: There is a large and influential group of theorists and policy thinkers who seem to believe that history does not matter anymore. In their view, history has ended - we create the future possibilities by our action and it is ignorant, and superstitious, to think that history will repeat itself in some form. They point to huge contradictions of the power-shift view, that India and China have major internal weaknesses and an almost total dependence on Western financial mechanism to ever achieve the kind of superiority or even the disruptive preeminence that they are expected to do. Besides, there is indeed some merit in thinking that the future will not happen in a vacuum and the intricate power mechanisms laid out by the successive waves of globalisation are unlikely to be undone.

However logical it seems, there is a history of the view of irrelevance of history and the belief that things would go on failing to materialise. History may not have repeated as the sceptics claim, but things have surely changed. The current times surely contain all the symptoms of an impending change, and rather than dismissing it, or being overtly pessimistic about it, it is worthwhile to explore the nature of these changes.

So, here is a fourth possibility: That we are coming to an age of interdependence, rather than national self-interest. Indeed, we seem a long way off because the voters love the jingoistic rhetoric and political parties regularly pander the protectionists and the racists, but the worldwide economic crisis is deep enough and persistent enough to outlast these views and to lead us into a new era. The second world war was indeed a terrible consequence of economic protectionism that followed the great depression, but it was also a start - a clear demonstration of how nationalism, seen as a progressive and liberating idea till that time, can turn into an uncontrollable demon. We learnt those lessons, which paved the way for tentative steps towards global interdependence, the rise of global institutions, greater respect for treaties, insistence on supra-national governance and open trade. In time, these lessons have been forgotten and we have reclined back into some of the mistakes we have made in the past. However, as history does not happen in a vacuum, we don't necessarily go back all the way and push the whole mankind to the brink to remember the lessons we have already learnt once.

This is not a new idea, and modern humanists always discussed the possibility. However, it seems the time for this idea has come. The reason clearly is that we are facing the severest crisis in sustaining consumer demand in the history, and at the same time, there are two billion people on the earth who do not have enough to eat or any medical care, education or modern amenities. Clearly, we are hitting some kind of limit with the selfish pursuit of self-interest, the engine that drove modern capitalism for last two centuries. Our current solutions - that enterprise will save the world - is bound to fail: The crisis that we are facing is not because we didn't want to make money or take risks, but that we took too much risk and everyone had a tunnel vision defined by their self-interest. We never thought whether our neighbours have enough to eat is our look-out. We thought we can keep Capitalism going by fortifying ourselves with ever more complicated laws protecting private property. However, we did not acknowledge that our neighbour's well-being catches up with us in tomorrow's economic news, and private property, even in its most physical form, is a manifestation of social trust on us. In a sense, we are just the keepers of social assets, and when the society teeters to the brink, we come to lose everything that we have.

Finally, returning to the opening idea about the shape of the world to come, I am an optimist but I don't think a power-shift will happen. Rather, it will just be more equal world, governed by ideas of better cooperation between governing units, which may or may not be today's nation-states. Even if the nation-states continue to exist, they would accept more supra-national sovereignty within the framework of their constitution, an idea which the current new-Tory lunatics in Britain and tea party goers in America fail to realise altogether. But that's the shift we are looking at, not China overtaking America, or something similar.

We are not working for replay: We are waiting for a revolution in ideas. 

Friday, December 23, 2011

My Social Media Thinking


I consciously worked on my 'work ethic', shedding some practices which I may have picked up early in my working life in the quest of becoming a better professional. Indeed, I did find it a never-ending process, I continuously discover things that I can do better, and have now come to accept that I may never be perfect, but have to keep on trying.

An important part of my work ethic, I consider, is my Social Media ethic, because social media is important, for my work and my professional identity. It seems almost all media that I use have a social aspect.  Even, book-reading, my intensely personal experience of all media consumptions, always had book-clubs (one that I intended to join, but got rebuffed for Marxian reasons - I didn't want to join a club which will take me as a member) and now have trendier cousins like Librarything , which I use and participate in. But, going beyond hobbies, social media is everywhere at work. 

I spend a lot of time on social media, and have to make decisions on what I can or can not do on social media space. For example, I have decided to accept all invitations sent to me on Linkedin, except those which come without personal names. I have never connected to people with names like 'All Your SEO Solutions' because they are not, in my definition, people. On the other hand, I don't usually connect with people on Facebook unless they are friends, though I used a somewhat loose definition of the term in the past. These days, I am far more observant and would usually ignore invitations sent to me on Facebook by people I don't know that well. And, I am yet to figure out what to do with Google Plus.

Then, indeed, there is this blog. I have been writing it for six years now, and it has evolved quite a bit. What started as a private experiment of writing 'morning pages', for practise of writing, has eventually evolved into my scrapbook of ideas, random thoughts, reflections and opinions. But, while this blog was a personal experiment, this was also public - and I had to work out what I do or say in this blog. For example, I decided to publish all comments, however unflattering, without any moderation at all time. At the same time, I kept the comment moderation active to filter out spam, as I get a lot of it these days. However, I am still struggling with what to do with replies: I usually reply to comments, but not to all of them. I try to, but sometimes my eagerness to publish comments the moment I see it (mostly on my smartphone) means that I don't end up responding to it immediately. And, eventually, I may end up missing on some replies: This is indeed blasphemy in social media terms, and will remain at the top of my list of New Year resolutions this time.

Also, there is the question of what not to write on this blog. I generally avoid names of people, and specifics like this, even when what I say is good. I do this to keep it consistent with the spirit of reflection - names don't matter, actions do - and also to avoid hurting anyone. On the other hand, I write about my personal life and politics, things that I wouldn't usually touch in a face-to-face conversation. So, the blog is more personal yet impersonal at the same time, and I keep on balancing this all the time as I write the blog.

Inevitably, one also has to make decisions about photos or videos. Despite my photography hobby, I far so far kept my photos out of social media. The reason is just the opposite of my writing: I thought they are personal. There are other people in it, inevitably. They are different from nameless reflections, where people are usually ideas. In the photo or video, they are people, with real identities. So, despite my huge photo folders on my computer hard disk, I am usually reticent to put them up on Facebook, and despite my endless hours on YouTube as a consumer - of professional videos mostly - I am not an active contributor.

It is also interesting to follow the proliferation of special purpose groups. I am a member of some of them: Academia for academic work and Internations to connect with other expats in London, and the other me-too networks, like Ecademy, and others. However, my usage is primarily on Linkedin and Facebook, and this blog, with some email exchanges with fellow Internation members, and only occasionally with people from other networks. If ever I come to that, I shall spend time creating a social media portfolio, with my blog as the main vehicle of self-expression, with Facebook with friending and Linkedin for business, Academia to pursue and project my professional interests, Librarything for my book-reading and Flickr for my photography (as and when I feel comfortable) and may be YouTube for my videos, Internations for meeting other expats - it already looks like a parade of my identities - and finally a network, yet unknown, to connect with other Indians. This last bit is surely missing: I loved Rediff connexions, but somehow Rediff didn't, and what a wasted opportunity that was. I have tried various other networks with mostly Indian members, Orkut (before it got overwhelmed by Facebook) and TooStep, an urban chick talk shop which I found too pretentious. I am sure there is a gap in the market for an Indian social network of some kind.

In summary, a significant part of my life is played on social media, and it is not just another thing one has to manage, but it is also one of the key influences on what I am and what I am known to be. It is important to have some kind of strategy, indeed a portfolio, to engage in social media. There are various considerations, some legal, but most moral and ethical, that one has to take into account. I would claim that social media strategies today are one of the most important ingredients in a professional's portfolio. I have already heard the term - Media Coach - and I am sure they would become commonplace soon. In a way, I am dreading the day when I get an invite on Linkedin from 'Your very personal Media Coach".

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Summing Up The Year: 1

It is that sort of time of the year when I am tempted to look back, as well as look ahead, at the same time. The festive season is already here, with the police closing traffic at the West End for shoppers' convenience and the weekend parking charges at our local shopping centre shooting up from £3.50 a day to £16.30 a day: The work at office is coming to an inevitable halt as people start to disappear for their year-end holidays. I can't wait to end this year, one of the most difficult in my life, but a strange sense of melancholy overwhelms me somewhat. It seems it is the time to say a final goodbye to so many people who have already departed, but those who I so dearly loved and thought I would never let them go, whose memories lived with me every waking moment during the year: It seems, with the turn of the clock this year-end, they would finally step back and become a part of my past, never to return to presence yet again. 

However, this was also a year spent in preparation, as most of the other years of my life. I kept my head down and was building a private college. I was already into it in 2010, but through the current year, step by step, my involvement and my responsibilities expanded, and despite the ever-so-often disappointments, this was a journey I enjoyed. If I started the year as an incurable optimist, the experiences made me face the reality, indeed to get overtaken by it. In many ways, I feel more able now: I feel proud that I have not given up on dreaming, yet, even after so many false starts.

I spent the year working for a Private For Profit College in London, which built its business serving overseas students coming to the UK for British education. During the year, the British Education system was torn apart by the Tory government: On one hand, they dismantled the British university funding system, making most universities vulnerable to market forces and potential bankruptcy, and on the other, it started making the field alluring to For Profit Higher Education corporations. The corporatization of British Higher Education looked imminent. However, before the Private Education industry could seize the opportunity, the Government quickly and decisively tore into the student visa system and created an unseemly bias against the For Profit Education industry. The students in these colleges, including ours, were stripped off their part time work rights, or the ability to bring dependents to the UK, while the universities kept the privilege. It is a classic policy muddle, as if the government wanted to cut the private sector off the equation and wanted to hand over the market to the universities, but was completely unaware of the ground realities that this will anyway drive most students away to more welcoming destinations like Australia and Canada.

Admittedly, the existing student visa system was badly implemented and this led to abuse, but instead of tackling the implementation issues, the government started fiddling with policy, making Britain a very unwelcome place for students coming from outside the EU. These changes effectively meant that the British Private Education sector was to be squeezed out of its market, to be closed down altogether and replaced with large American corporations. The M&A activity in the sector began immediately, with the larger colleges being snapped up by large trade buyers. The smaller colleges were immediately chased by private equity in search of a cheap deal and quick cash out. There were moments, forced by the imperfect conditions and tightening market, I felt like giving in and advised the board that we should look for a private equity buy-out. However, at saner moments, looking at the relative strengths of the college and the relatively stable financial position, we decided to keep going as an independent college and explore M&A activities later, if the need arises. A new management team was put together to change the college's business model and to prepare the college for this new marketplace.

It was unlike anything I have done before. I have worked in larger organisations with stable businesses, and while I have always contributed with innovative ideas, this was always to develop the business, not to replace the business lock, stock and barrel. What's more, while we are tasked to reinvent the business, we have to do this while maintaining the continuity as far as possible. This means that we are supposed to make a revolution without breaking the china, and prepare the organisation for a very different business with the existing teams of people and mindset.

This was more or less the story of my year, a continuous zigzag through despair and inventiveness, a continuous stream of thinking the impossible and living the idea day by day. I needed all this, because the biggest problem was always my out of bounds optimism, and I needed this injection of realism, the ability of living with disappointments every day, to balance the same. With hindsight, this seemed to have worked. We have definitely raised the standards of education delivery in the college, and now taking the battle to other areas of the business: That of restructuring the organisation, creating professional functions like Finance, HR and Marketing, reinventing the recruitment channel from scratch and building a new product portfolio. We are currently in the middle of a very audacious experiment - that of retiring more than two-thirds of the courses that we currently offer and replace them with new partnerships and courses. All this makes my life complex, with a quarter-by-quarter agenda of things to be changed, all without rocking the boat too much.

As the new year starts, I shall be back, in a certain sense, in my familiar territory. The last 18 months, when I stopped travelling and started teaching, was some sort of a sabbatical, a much slower life than I ever lived, stable but unexciting. In the new year, I am expected to build a recruitment channel for the college, a new one which can meet the requirements of the new realities. This will put me back right in the middle of things I do best: International partnerships, product innovation, etc. Indeed, this will go hand in hand with the work that I shall do for the On-line Education business that I am involved in, and allow me to connect to India, and other countries, more closely.

I almost feel my holidays are over: Can't wait to get back to my normal life.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Why was Cameron wrong?

David Cameron is now enjoying a bit of a popularity wave at home because of his veto on an EU-wide agreement on deeper fiscal union between the Euro countries. English press is trying to project this as a Cameron versus Sarkozy game, and quite explicitly equating Sarkozy, who isn't a very tall man, with Napoleon, the other French who had a poor opinion about the Brits. The British public feels good about staring down the French, and sees this as cheap politicking by nasty Sarkozy, which has put our dear David into a corner. In a sense, Cameron's articulation skills may have saved him one more time.

However, while it is easy to mistake articulation for achievement, the drift away from Europe, which is now manifesting itself into cross-channel rivalry yet again, is a disaster for Britain. For a start, we don't live in the age of Napoleon, and a global financial crisis is indeed gathering momentum. Once this happens, it will indeed spare no one. What Cameron has effectively done is to attempt to protect the misdemeanours of the British banks and other financial institutions, and by doing so, sacrificed the interests of millions of British workers and small business owners, who need to make things and sell them.

Cameron's vision of Britain is possibly that of a small island which can turn into a safe haven for banks and people with money, but Britain is still a powerful country full of ideas, great manufacturing companies and real industries. In short, Britain isn't Cayman Islands, upon whose model the Tory party may want to shape Britain. It can't live in isolation, and isolation it will be when the Europe turns its back because of British up-in-your-face exceptionalism, which Cameron so vulgarly displayed in Brussels.

The other fundamental shift one has to deal with is that the time of self-interest as the main driver of progress is somewhat over, and we have somewhat decisively entered the age of cooperation. I am aware that the jungle version of industrial capitalism is being touted to the new developing countries like India, but that's more like pushing an out-of-date technology which had its day in the sun in the West and now must be exported to the poor colonials who will lap up our throwaway bits.

All over the developed world, however, 'social' is the buzzword. Even David Halpern, Prime Minister's adviser, is a big enthusiast of 'social capital', the value that emerges out of cooperation between people. David Cameron's pet scheme of Big Society is all about stepping out of narrow self interest, but it seems that his convictions don't go much beyond the rhetoric. He is happy to pursue a strategy determined by national self-interest even when the world is literally at the brink, and the fact that his actions are informed by his own requirements of survival makes it look even more petty.

In the end, a quote that gets attributed to Hillary Clinton (but I believe it came from someone else), "The difference between a politician and a statesman is that a politician thinks about the next election while the statesman think about the next generation”, sums up Cameron's attitude. Indeed, in these difficult times, we are in desperate need of statesmen.

Finally, to sum up, Bob Edwards says it all - "Now I know what a statesman is; he's a dead politician. We need more statesmen."

Sunday, December 11, 2011

On Technology in Higher Education

We have no choice but to turn to technology if we have to solve the problems of mass Higher Education. In Higher Education, we have so far taken a model that was designed to serve a few, and tried to expand this to service the needs of an exponentially larger population. By doing so, we have worked ourselves into the twin problems of soaring cost and declining quality, alongside other attendant problems like creeping irrelevance of Higher Education and degree inflation. In this setting, the only way to create and run a High Quality Higher Education offering is to maintain selectivity, but the social value of it is highly questionable: One could argue Cambridge is a great institution because it only admits great students, not because it does a greatly superior job in teaching. 

This presents a number of problems. First, this is neither consistent with social expectations, a selective system is seen as elitist and a target of regular attacks by politicians and policy-makers, nor it is helpful for economic development of any country, as selectivity means a huge waste of human abilities and shortage of skills for industry and other employers. Selectivity also hugely distorts the educational preferences of the populace, attaching more prestige to more selective subjects and institutions, and regularly burning out a significant number of people who fail to make it and wasting a vast amount of talent of others who go through the gates only to realize that they have come to the wrong paradise. The quest for selectivity often undermines the efforts to teach better - the elitism creeps into the tutors and the students - and makes the learning increasingly disconnected from the real world. In a sense, selectivity somewhat distorts the purpose of education - that of opening up human possibilities - and end up creating more old boys' clubs than we need. 

What's worse is that the century-old argument that selectivity indicates a meritocracy, which is somewhat fair by definition, looks increasingly thin. It is easy to buy advantage in terms of better schooling, educational resources available at home and parent's connections. British Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, found himself to be in a bit of a pickle when it came out that he got his first internship in a big investment bank through his father's connection: He indeed defended this as a 'common practice'. There is increasingly debate that America, seen as a land of opportunity and of meritocracy, is growing an educational aristocracy through its prep schools and ivy league institutions, while the aspirationals, the rest of the middle class who are chasing the higher education dream, end up broke after taking huge loans and spending this on useless education handed down by various out of touch state universities or greedy private colleges. 

As the American student debt exceeds its credit card debts, and across the pond, the British government takes the first steps to enforce an American style education system, the only way left for educational policy-makers and leaders is to look seriously at technology adoption to solve the problem. There are hugely successful examples already: The British Open University, founded in early seventies, have been a great example of using the technology available at the time, broadcast media, into education. This has opened up education for many, and the Open University courses have excelled not only for expanding access, but for quality and rigour as well. This has allowed a flexible format for people to construct their own educational experience, picking and choosing courses to construct their awards and combining various methods of learning to achieve the learning objectives. However, Open University remained committed to its core audience, British Working Class, and have only allowed limited adoption of 'High Technology'. Besides, Open University is designed to be the University of Second Chance - an effort to re-skill the British working class women and men for demands of a service economy - whereas the current challenge is to stop young people from dropping out of life altogether because they can't afford or don't find interest in education anymore.

This must call for serious attempts to employ technology to solve the education question, and indeed, private sector is better suited to play a leading role than the public institutions, which are currently caught in the middle of an antiquated model of education delivery and the selectivity conundrum. There is already a lot of technology employed in education, but the model so far has been to employ the information and communication medium to serve the existing paradigm of education: That of teacher as the guru, learner as the receiver and knowledge flowing more or less in one direction. One would argue that things have changed and we have moved on, successively, to the age of teacher as the designer and then on to the learner as the designer, and from education being classroom bound to open education and then, omnipresent education. In the age of mobile searches, Google Goggles (which recognize objects, and though Google did not release the feature, can recognize faces and search information on people's details), Facebook friends and always-on networks, the medium must alter the message: One needs to create a model of education which can follow the learner. We have so far avoided the debate and tried to hide behind academic rigour: But, as Open University has shown, access and academic integrity are not necessarily at odds. What is needed is imagination - shall we call it re-imagination - of what education can do. 
Rest will be easy.

Friday, December 09, 2011

How To Return To Recession

We have been here before, we are at it again. Edmund Burke should stand corrected: However much one reads history, one is doomed to repeat it. The Great Depression was caused by financial excesses followed by protectionism and government inaction: The next one, which is looming around the corner, will be exactly the same. 

David Cameron saved his job, for the moment. He, who wanted to be the hero, walked out of an Europe-wide deal to save the Euro. By doing so, he showed not just the 'bulldog spirit' that he was to show, but 'bulldog brain', but then bulldogs may be offended. He sunk into protectionism, a sort of desperate politics to keep some of his loony backbenchers and out-of-touch colleagues pleased. And, by doing so, he risked two things: First, if the Euro ends up collapsing, a long and potentially bloody depression all over the world; and, second, if the Eurozone countries manage to pull together, a final setting of sun of any British influence over the world. Britain loses either way.

It has always been a difficult thing for Britain, as it punched above its weight, to know how to deal with the world after the empire. The first problem was that the ruling class and its children hardly got over the imperial hangover. The second is that Americans hardly thought much of Britain, despite Britain's attempts to be on the right side, despite the enormous costs that the country had to bear. It was Britain's desperation to be the 51st state, despite its very different social and economic realities from the nation across the pond, which kept it dangling like a sore thumb in the twilight years of nationalism in Europe. And, that made it hard for Britain to reconcile its international image and street realities: Here is a nation with imperial hangover and street riots, the country that gave the world free trade but sunk into protectionism itself, that taught liberalism but ruled by cranky illiberal reactionaries, a country which preaches what it can't practice. Cameron had all these problems, along with some of his own.

Like, he loves the banks. In his vision, Britain is a one square-mile size nation whose economy is kept afloat by bankers who bank their own money in Belize anyway. An economy which is so fragile that a night time parking charge by the Westminster Council, which will affect some super-rich who needs to spend evenings shopping in Oxford Circus or boozing in nightclubs in Piccadilly, would almost destroy it. In his vision, it is a nation which has never grown up to face a globalized world, a world where the movement of capital, information and talent are global and what matters is not how protective you are but how connected. Banks are Britain's problems, not solutions: It sucks away the tiny nations wealth with its 40% profit margin and convert it into a formless bonus, to be spent on Gulf homes, Russian mistresses and Swiss bank balances, and Cameron will indeed do everything to keep this going. Except his fat rich backbenchers, everyone is more or less saying that if Banks go, we don't have to bail them out again and the country can possibly go back to what it did best - making things - but he is too enthralled in his La belle epoch to realize any of this.

The problem with Britain kept out of an European deal is that potentially, this marks the beginning of a new era of European rivalry and decline. We were comfortable with the idea of a benign passing of era kind of decline, but this could be different: It can hit Britain where it hurts, in the job creating industries like manufacturing, and eventually, banks will leave anyway if anyone else, like some mad ruler in a gulf country, will take them. Cameron, in a way, is only a symptom, and not the whole problem: The two Eds of Labour must be happy that they are not at the sharp end. But the British self-realization has once again failed to come through: The sunset of the empire is not going to be hampered by parking charges this time. 

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Getting Ready for 2012

I have an one point agenda for 2012: To do things that I love.

I used to say I shall retire at 42. That was when I was young and naive. I realised two things as years passed. First, one can actually retire anytime. Second, doing what I love is actually retiring, because that never feels like work. In any case, that's what people mean by retiring: They want to escape the drudgery of daily work and do something they love.

You may say I am justifying the fact that I am not a millionaire yet in a very roundabout way, but truth be told, my dreams don't involve swimming pools or private helicopters, but being able to live a life full of activities that I love doing. I am no party animal, so this does not include parties or drinking. Except for an odd walk in the mountains, there is not a thing which the usual millionaires do in my list.

Instead, it has always been about writing and reading and doing something which has an impact. My belief that we live in an unjust world did not end with the collapse of soviet dictatorship or with various communist parties going native. Instead, it was always about being able to use the time I am given - my life, in short - to make lives better for a few other people. It was never about the class or the race, or being in the fashionable business of philanthropy, but creating something, be it a business, which makes lives better. In that sense, I am a huge fan of Google or Microsoft - yes, I know this is blasphemy - because these companies, however imperfect, have made lives better for those on the margins. I am very much from the margins, being a suburban boy who went to local school and never spoke a word in English till late in life, and I know how businesses like Microsoft can open up opportunities, however inadvertently. 

I shall surely be denounced by every purist, including the Hindu nationalists in my own country, Islamic Jihadis internationally and Occupy Wall Street protesters in the Capitalist world, as my version of Socialist Social Media will not fit into any description of way to God. But I am not looking for one: I am just preparing for retirement, doing something that I love to do. 

I know I have been lucky in life. I have had a great family to support me. Though I would miss my brother dearly - it has been a year now he passed away - I have many great memories which I shall keep playing back in my mind. I have had great friends who always stood by me, helped me and taught me many things in life. I have been lucky with mentors, as a student and in my work life, who have been supportive. In short, I could do whatever I wanted to do, more or less, and I can't complaint. But I am still trying to make 2012 a different sort of an year.

My life is supposed to change if I do nothing. I have graduated into a senior role in the college that I work for, and in many ways, I can now shape the way we do business. I have more or less completed the taught portion of the MA I was pursuing and this will open up a huge amount of time for me next year. In many ways, I can look forward to a stable year in 2012, where I have some visibility of what I shall be next 12 months. It may sound strange, but this is somewhat unique in my life. 

 But I am also aware that I am going to do something, and that is to launch U-Aspire, the online college I wanted to do for last few years. I have never been better prepared: All the elements, the idea, the people and even the funding seem to be coming together now. This may mean I can spend time doing some work in Educational Technology yet again, something I love but I shall get paid for doing this now. 

I see this as a life-changing opportunity because this is what I believed in, using technology to expand opportunity and change the way things are done, and I can put some of the ideas I had in action now. Last few months, dealing with the mundane, financial aspects of the plan, I had to renew my faith every day that this can actually happen: For me, this is not so much about the money one can make but the great possibilities this can open up. In my mind, this plan is pinned on turning the learner as a designer of his own experience - whatever we end up doing, this will be the primary motivation - and link it to the purpose that s/he decides for herself.

In my mind, I see this - learner in charge - as the primary purpose of education. We can have endless debates about social value versus private gains coming out of education, but as the student debts reach unsustainable levels and most governments totter on the edge of bankruptcy, we have to think about a new model, which aspires to achieve some sort of balance between both ends, keep the costs down and go beyond the credo of 'employability' and allow individual learners to define and design what 'success' means to them personally. 

There are lots of things come with this project. This is not just about technology and business, but about the blank canvass on which to put the whole thing together. By definition, the education businesses are unimaginative - they are full of people who are cautious and conservative - and barring a few notable exceptions, they are about continuing the same old thing in a new format, if possible. I expect U-Aspire to be different: I am reading up as much about the path breaking software businesses than the usual tomes about new universities, as I think it is time to do some new thinking how a college should be formed and run. In short, this is an inflection point of sorts, time to acknowledge the fact that business as usual has failed, and it is time to re-imagine the sector.
Finally, this will change my blog, hopefully. As my life changes, I shall withdraw from all the things that do not fit into my primary goal, making U-Aspire successful, and cut down on all my other commitments. However, this blog isn't one of them: This is central to who I am and what I do. As I learn new things and explore new ideas, I shall keep the conversation alive here.





Saturday, December 03, 2011

Getting It Right With Pakistan

The BBC Documentary on Pakistan - The Secret Pakistan - is a classic statement of Western disillusion with Pakistan. But, is it also time to acknowledge that the Western world view, about how to manage the world after the Cold War, has failed?

In fact, one can look beyond Cold War and explore how Pakistan was created. The recent research suggests that Pakistan's creation emanated from direct British encouragement for a separate Muslim state. Though this was a long standing British policy in India, dating back at least to the early twentieth century, the earlier policy was directed towards weakening, or even denying, the Indian national identity. However, once the Independence of India was accepted as inevitable, this policy subtly shifted to the creation of a separate state on Indian North-West, a state which would have to rely on Western support to remain viable, and in return, will serve as an important outpost for Western interests in Persia, then the main petroleum producing country in the world. Furthermore, Pakistan, which was designed to be weak and dependent because of its fragile polity, and was further weakened by the migration of its intellectuals and middle class, mostly Hindu, in the years before Partition, was to be West's frontier state against Soviet imperialism, an aim which Pakistan would serve brilliantly during the dying days of Cold War.

I shall contend Pakistan was never a viable state as this was based on a colonial conception of the world, of that of unending conflicts between subject races, which was no longer true after the nationalist aspirations took hold. Indeed, there are fanatic Hindus in India who still subscribe to such a distorted vision and continue playing to the tunes of the imperial age, but in the age of global business and Internet, those conceptions are as dated and out of context as any can be. However, such Hindu nationalist fantasy on the Indian side, and some cynical politicking in Pakistan, have so far kept the colonial hangover alive. But in this format, Pakistan remains only viable as a client state of the West, or of some other sponsor if the West abdicates, and the Pakistani rulers have always played to the tune of Western masters to keep their seats.

Now to see Pakistan accused of double-dealing is somewhat ironic. The nascent nationalist pride in Pakistan, primarily pushed by the ascendancy of Hindu nationalists in India and their politics of brinkmanship, is at odds with founding purpose of Pakistan, that of a compliant Western client state. On the other hand, in a strange reversal of fortunes, as the Soviet threat subsided and China started showing its aspirations and possibilities of becoming a global power, the Western countries stopped seeing India as a threat, and started viewing it as the new frontier, a nation which will supply, some day in future, foot soldiers against the Chinese billions. Besides, as the surpluses stalled the Western economies, the conception of India as the market of a billion people started to take hold. In this new world, Pakistan became more of a liability than an asset, and the Pakistani ruling class, always disconnected from its people, had no choice but to double-deal, keep everyone happy and yet extract American aid-money as usual.


However, for all the disappointments, ruling classes in the West have not learnt lessons about Pakistan. They don't yet know however fragile its politics, it is a land of extremely resilient people - a land of hardworking peasants which can wait a thousand years to deliver justice. This is a land of warriors, people who fought various marauders through the ages, starting with, as the recorded history starts, Alexander the Great. It is a nation with nuclear arsenal, and very good reasons to use it. It is a poor nation, desperately exploited by its pandered ruling class. This is not a country which can forever be fooled, or should ever be forgotten. And, these lessons are not just for the West to learn: India, too, needs to see Pakistan with a fresh pair of eyes. It is Indians who estranged Pakistan by nuclear belligerence and Hindu rhetoric. However, a strong and stable India can not be built without a happy and prosperous Pakistan. They are the same nation, sharing the same waters and a plain, similar languages and values, and same sufferings over the centuries. All of us need to think about a new Pakistan, including the Pakistanis and their neighbours: I watched the video with this sense of foreboding.




THE BBC DOCUMENTARY HERE












Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Morality AND Profits: A Study By Corporate Executive Board

I was out at the RSA again this morning to listen to a panel discussion on Corporate Ethics. The panel represented an interesting combination - Wendy Harrison, Programme Director Ethics and Compliance, Shell International, Dan Currell, Executive Director of Corporate Executive Board, Matthew Gwyther, editor, Management Today, and Patrick Donovan, Chief Ethics and Compliance Officer of Airbus and Chandrasekhar Krishnan, Executive Director of Transparency International - and the discussions were effectively steered by Matthew Taylor, RSA's Chief Executive.

The background of the discussion was research undertaken by the Corporate Executive Board, covering more than 30 countries and over half a million executives. Ably presented by Dan Currell, the research explored various issues around corporate ethics, including what makes people tolerate bad behaviour and what may be the effect of corporate corruption on shareholder value. The essential point made was integrity is good business, and usually the companies maintaining and striving to maintain ethical conduct are good long term investment. Indeed, this is commonly preached wisdom, but coming at the back of impressive research, this was valuable advice. Besides, the CEB has also identified seven attributes that influence a Company's culture of integrity, namely, Comfort in Speaking Up, Trust in Colleagues, Direct Manager Leadership, Tone at the Top, Clarity of Expectations, Openness of Communication and Organisational Justice. [More about this research can be found here]

The discussion more or less revolved around these points, with various speakers adding perspectives to it. Interestingly, Wendy Harrsion of Shell identified three main challenges that companies like Shell faces in maintaining a high ethical standard - the challenge of communication (how to keep it simple and understandable for employees who are simply trying to do their job), the challenge of supply chain and third parties (how to create shared values across the 'extended family') and the international challenges (how to make employees understand which law to follow). Patrick Donovan's ideas were on similar lines, though he made clear that corporate ethics and compliance starts and ends with people. He stressed the factors such as Tone at the Top, as well as Tone at the Bottom, and how ideas and opinions are shared and circulated across the company. Chandrasekhar Krishnan broadened the discussion by bringing the challenges faced by small and medium enterprises and how they follow different standards at their home country and at their international locations. He made one specific point which had some resonance with me: He was asking what does a small company do when their material, without which they may lose business, are held in customs for demand of a bribe. I did face a similar situation a few years back and ended up refusing to pay the bribe and lost some business as a result. Mr Krishnan's answer was valid - he talked about 'setting right expectations' and 'better planning' - that businesses should factor in such delay and refuse to pay bribes. He estimates that the cost of doing business will go up by 10% to 20% if the companies are accepting demands for bribery, and this will become 'a race to the bottom'.

Issues discussed in the session, though it was done mostly from a big company perspective, had deep significance for me. Ethics and ethical behaviour is of paramount importance in the sector I have chosen to work in, but this is one thing in acute shortage. Higher Education is over-regulated and under-innovated, a playground for dodgy business practises and unaccountable sole proprietors. Indeed, in some countries like Britain, it is going through a transformation, but corporate investment in the sector will not automatically make the companies more ethical. If anything, this may actually import some problems from the United States, where some of these private providers have been implicated in wrongdoing and mis-selling the courses. What we need is completely fresh perspective on business and people practises in the sector, and sadly, this isn't forthcoming. One should be optimistic and hope that the message, transparency is good business, will reach the industry soon: Till then, however, higher education will remain an industry in search of a long term future. 


Monday, November 28, 2011

Quality And Profits: The Case Study of Introducing Moodle in a For-Profit Business School


Dr. Kendall, the Programme Director of the MBA programme in a management college in the city, was recently advised by the accrediting university that the ‘student experience’ in the course must improve. During a recent conversation, the students told the University representatives that there was very little interaction outside the classroom hours between the tutors and themselves, and often they felt that they had been rushed through the programme. They also indicated that they felt that there wasn’t enough library resources, and they were not sure that the programme was preparing them adequately for a career in business.

There wasn’t a straightforward solution available to Dr. Kendall. First of all, his was a Higher Education programme in the midst of a Professional Training college, where most tutors were adjunct and they would not commit extra hours outside the contracted time for student contact. Library resources were hard to come by, as this wasn’t something the college administration really deemed necessary, given their background in Accountancy training. Furthermore, the majority of students were from overseas, balancing work and study, and were hardly available for any extra-curricular engagement anyway.

However, Dr Kendall was painfully aware that he must act, quickly and decisively. The university moderator was quite clear that he might not allow the college to take on any more new students unless actions had been taken to improve the student experience. The college management was equally clear that the programme wasn’t making money for them and they needed to take on more students and even be able to raise the student fees for the forthcoming intakes. Besides, spread over three campuses, the college management hardly ever interacted with the students, and did not see any reason for Dr Kendall’s alarm.


The Convergence of Interests

One solution, suggested to Dr Kendall by one of the members of the management team, Dr Eric Blair, the newly recruited brand manager of the college, was to create a student community. The rationale for this advice was more marketing than academic, but there was a clear pay-off for Dr Kendall : The community might pull the students to the college, making them spend more time and learning from each other and demanding more from tutors. What’s more, Dr Blair suggested rather persuasively, the students might feel more positively about the college if they were more involved, and this might reflect in their feedback, formal or informal, to the university. Using marketing-speak, Dr Blair talked about ‘engagement’ being the key to solve Dr. Kendall’s problems as well as something that may help the college raise the fees over time. Whatever was the merit of these arguments, Dr Kendall felt most persuaded to follow the advice because Eric had some budget to enhance student engagement.

Unbeknown to Dr Kendall, however,  Dr Blair was also keen to explore options. First of all, he was not convinced that the student experience at the college was good enough, and knew that any marketing efforts would be quite ineffective if the service levels did not improve. He was keen, from a business and marketing point of view, to help out Dr Kendall.

Dr Blair had a certain influence on the owners and board members of the business. His experiences in other large international education businesses were valued, but more importantly, he had the experience of raising money, from venture capital funds, for education businesses. The college wanted to tap such funding for its future expansion and this was the precise reason why Dr Blair was offered the position. Also, unlike Dr Kendall, Dr Blair was a business executive and spoke the language the board members understood: He set a goal – being able to charge double the fees for the MBA programme in twelve months’ time by enhancing the value perception of the programme – which was fully supported by the bankers, the Finance Director and the investors in the business.

The Baby Steps

Dr Kendall, therefore, was happy enough to accept the suggestion of building a student collaboration website which incorporates an online learning platform. This was to be a shoestring exercise, and an ‘Open Source’ platform, Moodle, was chosen. This was, however, a more difficult choice than it appeared: Both Dr Kendall and Dr Blair knew that to make Moodle work, it would need more time and effort than something that could be bought off the shelf. However, the upfront investment of buying a ready-to-use platform prohibited such choice: Dr Blair was simply reluctant to go back to the board asking for any significant investment upfront.

He could secure, however, a coalition of the willing within the organization. One of the senior managers, James, already tried using Moodle for professional accountancy courses, but it gained no traction as the tutors refused to post their notes on the site. Professional Accountancy training being tutor-driven as it is, James had very little negotiating power and had to abandon his plans to use Moodle for these courses. However, the infrastructure was already invested in, which Dr Blair could now use without any additional investment.

He also enlisted Daphne, the young IT specialist who recently joined the teaching staff of the college. Daphne had an Engineering degree, but completed Masters in Design from a Scottish University. She took up the teaching job being without an option in the recessionary job market, but was looking to move into User Experience work. Dr Blair convinced her to lead the task of running the Moodle for Dr Kendall’s students, arguing that this would give her enough ‘user’ facing time as she wanted to have and would allow her an opportunity to apply her professional expertise in the field of education.

Dr Kendall also mandated that all tutors in the MBA programme must use Moodle to post their notes and be available to answer student queries. Tutors were aware that they did not have as much negotiating power and mostly agreed to cooperate. However, they objected to extra work, particularly as they had to learn a new software. This was easily circumvented as Daphne, anxious to get the work going, volunteered to take on the job of posting all the notes, as long as these were supplied in Microsoft Word or PDF formats.

Finally, Dr Kendall also decided to review all contracts and move the tutors from an hourly to a package rate for teaching; the new contracts offered more money to the tutors but covered an undefined amount of extra work which must go into supporting students online. Most tutors did not see the students using the site anyway: They agreed.

Here come the students

When the first batch of students was registered on Moodle in October 2010, the expectations were rather modest. The site, despite the tacit agreement with the tutors, was bereft of any content at the time. This was not due to tutor’s reticence, but more because there was no content to give. Most tutors used whiteboards or overhead projectors in the class, and those who used Powerpoint slides were treating these as tools of the trade and did not see the point of giving them away. Desperate to register an early win, however, Daphne set up Moodle registration sessions, where she would hire out large classrooms with computer terminals, make all the students sit together and register into Moodle. This was effective: She had almost 200 students registered on Moodle in a matter of a few days.

These numbers were an important catalyst in a number of ways. Dr Blair declared an early victory and informed the board members that 90% of the MBA students registered on the Moodle platform within the first seven days of launch. It was an important half-truth: He never said that this was done through organized classroom sessions, but this allowed him to project this to be a popular initiative that the students love and ask formally for resources, including an Online Library subscription, to be integrated into it. He further pressed on the other departments, such as IT, to integrate various workflows, covering important other tasks that an overseas student needed done – such as request for council tax exemption letters, travel letters, holiday work authorization letters, turnitin access to check for appropriateness of referencing – to be integrated in the same platform.

Dr Kendall, meantime, sent the same message to the tutors, that almost all the students had now registered on Moodle and, even if they have no content to give, they should start answering the student queries etc on the Moodle forum.


The Unexpected Consequences of Being There

The students, however, started using Moodle straightaway, even before any content was posted onto it. The first post on Moodle forum, dated October 12th 2010, hours after the students were registered, read – “Moodle is the best thing that the college management has ever done. At least, we can now talk to each other about our studies, and get to know the students in other classes”. By October 17th, a Sunday, a student was writing about “forming a club of students which will run sessions… Can we have a petition to the college management to give us a classroom after the college hours?”

The first tutor notes came in a week later. The Marketing Strategy tutor reported that the students requested if the notes could be made available online, and he had to give in to them. Soon, almost all the module tutors got some notes onto the platform. The CEO of the company wanted to check out what’s going on and wanted to access Moodle: His first post, responding to the student request for facilities for the student club, was made on the November 24th, a month after the original post: “It is good to know that you wanted to take the initiative. Let your course administrator know when you want to organize this session and a room will be made available. I would love to attend the session.” The discussions with the course team resulted in formation of ‘Enterprise Network Club’, a monthly evening event where local entrepreneurs and employers were invited to talk face to face with the students. The first meeting of the ‘club’ was held on the 12th January, three months after the idea was proposed, and the CEO of the company did attend, much of Dr Kendall’s relief.

Everyone’s Baby

Despite its apparent success with students, six months after it was first launched, the site was still thin on content on some of courses. Two of the most highly regarded tutors refused to give any content for putting up. One of them wanted to protect his intellectual property and insisted that the site did not have the adequate level of security. The other argued that his content is mostly on Overhead Slides which he wrote by hand in the class; he also argued that he did not want to give his slides to students who did not come to the class. Some of the other tutors objected that they were having to do more work than they thought would be necessary, as the students kept sending queries through Moodle and annoyingly for them, N almost always did a follow-up.

Dr Blair was not successful in getting an Online Library subscription: The high cost of doing so deterred the board members. Instead, he secured an access to the university online library, which all students could use. This did not happen through Moodle, but he was happy nonetheless that this was now available. However , he had some minor wins: The board agreed to invest a modest amount in a Department library instead. The IT department was also lately persuaded to allow the Moodle to be connected to their databases, allowing the students to make the request through the Moodle rather than having to fill up a form physically.

Dr Kendall regards Moodle as a personal victory – he got annoyed when some of the tutors referred to it as ‘Noodle’; light-heartedly, they insist. He retained his accreditation, and has a greater quota nowadays. The university moderator is quite happy with progress, but the students are now complaining that access to Moodle is often difficult as the college does not have enough computer terminals for use of students. The university has now recommended that the college reviews its IT infrastructure, including the number of computer terminals and broadband access and load. Dr Blair has a new thing to argue about – giving a free laptop to students when they sign up for the course: He believes that this will enhance the ‘perception of the course, introduce a touch-and-feel dimension of the technology orientated nature of delivery’. The CEO contends that he recognizes the marketing-speak, but he would want to talk to some students first.    

Reflections

The experiences as narrated here cover a number of perspectives and relate to a number of theoretical perspectives on group behaviour and the research on introduction of technology in an organization. In the following paragraphs, we shall reflect on two such perspectives, one exploring the positive student experience and the other relating to the challenges such technology introduction usually faces.

One of the most puzzling aspects of this project is the students’ apparent satisfaction with the platform without content. It is possibly appropriate, in context, to look at the students as ‘digital natives’ and reflect on previous research on the Net Generation’s satisfaction with Online learning (Dziuban et al, 2010). This research identify six component areas from which such satisfaction emanates:

A.     Effective Institutional Responsiveness, or the feeling among the students that their institution is making some effort to accommodate their lifestyle needs.
B.     Increased Educational Engagement, or the satisfaction with the ‘enhanced ability to ask questions and clarify their concerns’.
C.     More Explicit Role Expectations, or knowing that the assessments are responsive and equitable, and having a clear vision of rules of engagement (achieved through interaction with others and tutors).
D.    Reduced Ambivalence, achieved through a ‘heightened sense of engagement and clearer understanding of expectations’.
E.     Increased Information Fluency, by developing an effective filtering mechanism, through interaction with others and tutors, of the information overload.
F.     Increased Commitment to Education, through empowerment with a sense of agency.
(Dziuban et al, 2010)

It can be said that the organizations commitment to deploy Moodle and engage students through this created the overall sense of empowerment, created the positive engagement and started the enabling conversations that the students craved for.

It is also interesting to look at another perspective, that of the people initiating the project inside the organization and the various challenges they faced in introducing the piece of new technology. An useful perspective is provided by Grudin (1994). In his effort to list the eight challenges that Groupware developers face in an organization, he touched upon various areas which remain valid even after a decade and half. Grudin’s list represents eight dimensions against which various aspects of this case can be explored:

1.     Disparity of Work and Benefit: The tutors saw additional work in implementing Online Learning, and the project would not have moved forward without the Project Coordinator stepping in to take on some of the workload. The benefits, increased student engagement, came only later.
2.     Critical Mass and Prisoners’ Dilemma Problems: The platform needed critical mass, and it would not have been helpful for any one individual to start using it first. The group registration session helped to get most people on board at the very beginning and was crucial for eventual adaptation of the site as the principal communication platform.
3.     Disruption of Social Processes: In some cases, introduction of Moodle laid open the students’ dissatisfaction with some of the tutors and facilities, and students took advantage of the direct communication facilities with the Executive Management. Some of the tutors and programme administrators felt undermined to a great extent. Their lack of enthusiasm, mainly due to this reason, had to be addressed.
4.     Exception Handling: The Moodle platform was not there to solve all the problems the students have, though there was an implicit expectation that it would do so eventually. In the areas where it fell short, the users were disappointed.
5.     Unobtrusive Accessibility: One of the most successful spin-offs from this Moodle experiment was the start of the ‘club’, a real group activity involving external participants and students on Moodle. The coordination of this activity was through the general forum, which was actually the least used area of Moodle, but turned out to be quite popular as this allowed the students to converse regardless of their course enrolments.
6.     Difficulty of Evaluation: It was difficult for the Project Team and its management sponsors to actually evaluate the impact of the project beyond anecdotal evidence. The communication aspect was well understood by all in the organization, but how it benefitted anyone was not entirely clear.
7.     Failure of Intuition: It was difficult for a management team to design an appropriate learning and collaboration platform for a body of students it did not know well. The project manager’s user facing design experience was therefore critical, but the project still suffered, at times, from the IT Team’s failure to understand the students’ needs and inability to communicate in the users’ language.
8.     Adoption Process: It was not just a piece of technology, but a culturally situated process of negotiation and involvement that was required to get the project going.
(Grudin, 1994)

The above model provides a framework to understand various aspects of introduction of a new piece of technology requiring group participation, and the narrative of this case can be explored in context.

References

Dziuban, C. D., Moskal, P. D., Bradford, G. R., Brophy-Ellison, J. and Groff, A.T. (2010) Constructs that impact the Net Generation’s Satisfaction with Online Learning; in Sharpe, R., Beetham, H., and De Freitas, S. (Eds), Rethinking Learning For A Digital Age, Routledge, NY.

Grudin, J. (1994), Groupware and Social Dynamics: Eight Challenges for Developers, Communications of the ACM, Vol 37 No. 1, January 1994, NY.


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