Monday, October 31, 2011

Case for A 'New' Higher Education in India

In course of my visit in India, I am starting to get an idea of its new higher education landscape. This is why I came, and as I see things, I am excited by the opportunities it presents to education entrepreneurs. 

Indeed, the Indian higher ed has gone through significant transformation in the last few years, with an expansion of public and private investment, a few significant 'education scandals' and a new aspiring middle class knocking the doors vigorously. India is one major country in the world where the Government is still investing in Higher education: Understandably so, as the country is riding on its demographic dividend and looking to up-skill its huge young population. Indian industry is hungry for skilled workers, and as I understood from my several conversations, there are abundant middle level positions which are still unfilled despite the surge in graduate population.The private sector expansion has been fast, perhaps too fast, but broken legislation and flawed models affected real progress so far. The private sector participation has expanded the degree granting seats, but not much else, because the sector has been dominated by follow-the-herd thinking, everyone trying to offer in demand skills, and very little leadership and new thinking have been in evidence. 

For Indian Higher Education, this is best and worst of the times at the same time. Here is a case of bottomless demand, huge capacity expansion and a complete demand-supply anachronism. The reason is, like other things in India, lack of planning under the guise of overplanning. If the government had a plan for higher education, other than looking away and let some marauders make some money, it is not evident. The government's own investment was primarily channeled into creation of elite Engineering and Business colleges, though the general education colleges are the ones which serve most students and needed most funding. On the private investment side, the government tried to control the quality of education with the tool of land ownership - the regulation more or less is that you can get a college license if you own land - which completely subverts the ownership and incentives for an education business. Education has become a convenient way to employ real estate in recessionary times, and most of the surge in Higher Education, which further expanded the seats in Engineering and Business Management, is guided by this thinking rather than any strategic foresight. Indeed, the supply-demand gap is only to be expected in this situation.

The response of the industry so far has been curious. In India, you don't expect the government to do anything right, and rather try to fend for yourself. So far, instead of pressurizing the government to get the education infrastructure right, the industry has focused on setting up in-campus schools. Widely feted, this is the wrong model though: As the export-based industries face the recessionary pinch and competitive pressures from countries like Philippines, the cost of in-company training and wastage of human capital through general education that does not work, is making India Inc uncompetitive. As we come to know the limits of in-company training, the Indian industry has fallen in love with 'employability training'. These days, employability certification is being talked about at the expense of higher education. This is indeed a dirty fix, if it ever works: There is no other solution India can find to compete and succeed in world economy other than getting its Higher Ed right.

So, stage set for Higher Ed 2.0 in India? Possibly, and we have no choice but optimism. This year, MBA and engineering seats are going empty and promoters are waking up to the fact that education can be an expensive way of holding real estate. We may have failures of some educational institutions on the cards, which should finally make the regulators understand that having land is not any indicator of serious educational intention. This should throw open the business to serious educators, who should bring new innovation in the field. I can predict three things that will change in Education, for better, in the coming months.

First, the focus will shift from land and building to people, promoters and tutors, their credibility and whether they are serious about education and has the capability to teach.

Second, we shall see curriculum innovation and offerings in areas beyond Engineering and Management. Surely a society will need its teachers, accountants, artists, journalists to function, and they will become paying careers for many people. The expansion of such positions have been underserved by education sector so far.

Third, creative capacity of an individual - his or her ability to deal with diverse situations and problems - will make a comeback in education. It has been pushed out by the demands of narrow functional specialism, and now that the model does not expectedly work, we are seeking a yet narrower solution. Surely, it is time to wake up and get the model of education right.

So, that's my take-away from India - a quest for a new Higher Education. This is indeed a worthwhile thing to spend time thinking about. 

A Visit In Three Parts: India 2011

I am visiting India, reconnecting with it after a long absence. Indeed, such absences change perceptions significantly, and as I start again, I am rediscovering everything afresh. My family context in India has irreversibly changed with deaths and divorces within my immediate family, and there is quite a bit of emptiness I have to deal with now. The same spaces, which I grew up in and to which I automatically assign some meaning, have transformed - and each encounter with them is torn between the inevitable fresh messages that they convey now and the nostalgia I associate with them. However, India, so far, having an opposite effect to nostalgia on me: It is allowing me to feel the inevitable lightness of being.

I am being slightly eccentric this time, by choice. I have kept myself away from Internet, mostly, except this one day when I checked an week's worth of mails etc. I have spent a lot of time in our family temple, not out of a new-found religiosity, but a sense of duty in my grandmother's absence, and may be because I wanted to revisit my identity. Then, I took a 36 hour train journey across India, something I have not done for at least 10 years, may be more, to come and see my sister in an airbase in Punjab. Along the way, I met interesting people, whose names I did not ask, and know about their lives and preferences; I complained about missing hand towels, cramped toilets and torn bed sheets, watched the ticket collectors soliciting for bribes from passengers without ticket, the railway catering men overcharging unsuspecting customers for train food service, and was pleasantly surprised to see that my mobile phone mostly worked along the way. This was my way of getting back to the India mode as quickly as I can.

It is something I needed to do. I have stayed away for long but I don't want to do this anymore. Right at this moment, as I type away this blog post after a long gap, the normalcy of life in London seems desirable. But I am almost certain about what I want to do in 2012: Re-engage back in India, come more often, eventually working out my path to return. Indeed, I see immense possibilities in India - an education system right for transformation, where the skills and abilities I have acquired over the last few years would be useful. If I have to find a purposeful life, this seems to be the land of the possible. I have learned, from my previous experiences, that one can't do much in India while being away; this is one thing my new life intends to change.

I obviously know how difficult it is to come back to India. It is more difficult than it was for me to go to Britain. One may think this is about expectations, and it indeed is: But, this country has become a different country since I left. In the new millennium, India seems to have got onto the bullock-cart of prosperity and a generation, which has not seen the difficulties of independence and war, and which has no time for the trademark despair and lack of opportunity of the 80s, has taken over. The material progress, the urge to get rich quicker than one's neighbour, has transformed the country - changing not just its 'Hindu rate of growth' but its 'Hindu value system'. In it, there is no apparent space for someone like me, with a wrong age, wrong ideology and wrong sense of priorities. My approaches to friendship, life and aspirations, all too romantic and idealist perhaps, are out of sync with the very practical land of the white tigers. I know that I have to transform myself quite a bit to be able to adopt and survive in this new country.

Indeed, this country has not changed much as far as state of affairs go. For all the talk of new India, it is still mostly the old India, Babus, the old Business houses, politicians of very predictable nature, that reigns supreme. The talk of enterprise is still muted, and the model of education is still Victorian. The ideas of progress is still governed by the idea of narrow ideas of individual well-being, not unlike 1870s Chicago or 2007's Dubai. Admittedly, the privileged class has widened, but the barriers of entry has got only higher. I know I shall need a different survival strategy altogether in this country, and living here may mean giving up some of things that I believe in. But the opportunities are still endless: I have been a diligent student of Higher Education policies, technologies, and developments across the world, and I feel excited about the education innovations that I can work on in India. In summary, I see this as a country in need for change, where change is critical for catching up with its own rhetoric.

Today, also, this marks the end of first part of my visit, which is about reconnecting and revisiting. Tomorrow, I meet the students and the owners of a successful Indian business school, where I may get associated over longer term. After that, I meet another company in Delhi, who I wish to work with in setting up a design training project, and finally another set of schools and entrepreneurs in Kolkata, some from my old life but some new, where I explore the options of taking our new business venture into India. That's part two, before the final parting, which must invariably happen soon.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Going To India

I am going to India on Monday and looking forward to it.

First of all, I am going after 18 months. This is quite a change: I used to go to India almost every other month during my earlier job, an intense period of three years between June 2007 and April 2010. Due to a variety of reasons, when I left, I was tired of traveling and chose to take on a job which did not require travel. I wanted, for the first time in life, to stay home and have a 'regular' life. In short, I needed to restart. The fact that I feel ready to go now marks an end to that period - I am ready to return to the life I always loved yet again.

This time, India will be different. I would indeed miss my brother, my constant companion, someone who always stayed with me whenever I was in India. I didn't go home after his untimely death to escape from the reality of his absence, but I am going to face it now in all its bareness. I don't feel ready, and almost afraid. There has been three other deaths within my immediate family and the shape of it has changed irreversibly in these 18 months, so my family commitments in India will be quite different this time. In many a sense, this will be a fresh new start from me in India, a full cycle in my journey when I left India in 2001, wanting to stay away. 

India, indeed, has irreversibly changed in these 18 months as well. A year earlier, it was the time of hope, with a new government in New Delhi, being visibly led by a new generation of young leaders. In many ways, the mood turned now to one of disappointment, with endless stories of corruption. What seemed like new leadership has finally become like the old, and while new roads have been built and new gated communities have sprung up, some of India's favourite industries, software and outsourcing, have apparently stalled at the wake of global slowdown. The India story, which is still being told in an excited tone, started looking a bit tired. 

In a way, the fault is mine: I have started taking the new India for granted. This time, the glistening airports in Mumbai and Delhi will not surprise me anymore, but the usual lethargy in Kolkata airport will. I am doing a lot of railway journeys in India this time, going cross-country from Kolkata to Punjab, and then traveling back again through Delhi. This is my attempt to connect back to India of my imagination, the one I grew up with. I am almost hoping that while the airports have transformed my expectations, the railway stations almost remained the same: Traveling through them will disappoint less. 

I am also conscious that this trip may only be a prelude to more frequent journeys, a re-engagement of a kind with the country. Now that the glamour of export trade is fading, everyone seems to be discovering India's strength: Its people. When the New India has started failing the expectations, much like the airports and young leaders, suddenly the Old India is back in contention, all arise and awake, and ready to engage. 

In India, I am searching for new ideas in Education, which seemed be awakening the old country all over again. Finally, India is marking a break with Macaulay and trying to find a new identity all by itself. I am no longer touting the magic of English, but trying to understand the aspirations and identities of new Indian students, meeting some of them as I go along. I am visiting a number of Business Schools and Engineering Colleges, the factories where the new old India is being made. This is a different industry with a different mechanism, and I expect my visits to be very different from the ones I made before, engaging mostly with the Outsourcing company executives. This time, the people I shall meet is expected to talk and breathe India, being in touch with its students on a day to day basis, and surviving on its middle class aspirations. I am expecting this to be a very different visit.

Finally, a wish: I want this visit to mark the beginning of the project I always wanted to do in India. I wanted to set up a college, which defies the Victorian mould and fuses creativity, technology and enterprise together. In my mind, that's what we will need to go beyond Macaulay. The dead peer's greatest achievement was not about replacing Sanskrit and Farsi with English, but in creating a native Babu class, lured into subjugation by the promise of privilege and perks. It was about a Cartesian dualism introduced at the heart of education, where mechanical pursuit of knowledge precluded the promises of creative thinking, and this still dominates the education thinking in India. However, the world has moved on beyond that factory mode of Education and it is time that the revolution is brought home. This is perhaps my most important, and hidden, agenda while in India: Meeting its entrepreneurs and education leaders, and exploring the idea of setting up this institution that I have imagined.

In a way, this will be my return to my forever old homeland.


TASMAC London Closure: Time To Stand Up and Be Counted

It was heartening to see that India's Tata Group, with its diversified interests in Tea (Tetley), Steel (Corus) and Automobile (Jaguar and Land Rover), has become Britain's biggest manufacturing business. The International press took this as evidence of a resurgent India, projecting the power and the confidence of the Indian businesses to play on the world stage, particularly in Britain. 

However, the recent closure of TASMAC, an Indian Education company which opened its London campus apparently to take advantage of student interests in British Higher Education aided by easy student visas, tells another story: That of opportunism and amateurism of Indian businesses not fit to play at the international stage.

TASMAC is a sizable Indian company with three or more campuses in India, offering a range of degree and diploma programmes. Their London campus had 650 students as reported, all of whom had paid them in advance. In any sense, this should not be considered as a small fly-by-night operation. In fact, TASMAC has not closed its Indian businesses, and it is trying to protect its reputation in India blaming UK Border Agency for its sudden closure. 

This is indeed completely untrue. The UKBA did nothing to close down its operations. The visa changes, however problematic, were in the cards for a long time coming and it does not just affect TASMAC, but all other private colleges in the UK. While the visa changes may stem the flow of new students, it has done nothing to stop the services being provided to students who have already paid the full fees. The TASMAC liquidation is a cynical and opportunistic attempt to defraud vulnerable students. Sadly, while many other private colleges are taking the hit and continuing to service their students even with mounting operating losses, TASMAC's example will set a bad precedent which would be used to portray the entire For Profit Education industry in a bad light. There is already talk about a guarantee being imposed on For Profit providers (one fails to see why such guarantees should not be applicable to Public Providers), which would burden the sector even further.

TASMAC indeed is legally right: After siphoning off all the money that the students have paid in advance, they went into liquidation. However, education is not like any other business and a more responsible behaviour is expected of the providers. It is not about being legally right, but morally responsible, and indeed TASMAC has completely failed its students and the Education business community as a whole. It is outrageous to see that it believes that it can continue to mislead the students in India, claiming that its closure has something to do with visa regulations, and think that its Indian business can go on as usual. 

In the last few days, I have been in touch with some TASMAC students. This is because we wanted to stand by the students, though we had very little prospect of getting paid anything at all for doing so. This was about servicing disenfranchised students and show some responsibility that we, in the For Profit Education sector, must show to be counted. Indeed, our efforts so far have been hampered by the lack of direction from the accrediting university, which, as a good example of why the Public Universities are not up to the job, was incommunicado about how the crisis could be handled. After we volunteered to help, we expected to be told what we need to do: Indeed, these students were doing various courses and appropriate credit transfer arrangements have to be worked out with the university. This would have almost surely happened in a private sector business scenario. However, not so in this case, and after waiting to hear from the university, we had to assume that some alternative arrangement must have been made, only to learn from the students that they were completely clueless about any such arrangement.

We have decided to ask the University yet again if any assistance is needed, and we have decided to do all it takes to protect the reputation of the British For Profit Education sector. Indeed, we are quite a small college in relative terms and what we can do is quite limited. However, the lesson I learned here is that in an industry full of unscrupulous businessmen and indifferent public universities, the only thing we can do is be foolish enough to stand up and be counted when needed.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Who's Afraid of For Profit Universities?

The short answer: Everyone in the UK Higher Education sector at this time. Except those who have retired and are happily dreaming about a second, cushier, career than their first. 

They have reasons to be worried, indeed. The writing seems to be on the wall for a while. The last Government gently nudged the country towards this direction after they asked Lord Browne, a businessman, to determine the future of UK's Higher Education sector. One of the first acts of the current coalition government was to accept his recommendations almost entirely, and at the same time, allowing the first Private university, in the form of BPP, to get degree awarding powers after almost thirty years. The government managed to withdraw almost all of teaching funding the universities received so far, and putting their faith on 'competition' to ensure quality in the sector.

The policy directions couldn't be clearer than this. The uneasy feelings in the UK academia about Dave Willetts' frequent hobnobbing with major US and UK For-Profit Higher Education companies are no less intense than the nation's horror's with Liam Fox's all too visible friendship with Adam Werritty, who seemed to have been wheeling-dealing on behalf of some defense companies. Higher Education Executives, faced with declining international student numbers due to the anti-immigration rhetoric and clumsy policies of UK Border Agency, increasing uncertainty among the Home and EU students about poor job prospects due to recession and rising tuition fees, clear apathy from the Ministers about the sector, seem to have found their villain in the For-Profit Education, and have been calling it names. There is a clear change of attitude in the British universities about the For-Profit sector that exists today: The recent scandals that hit the University of Wales because of its association with questionable colleges in London only hardened this apathy further.

Indeed, the objections so far have been that the For Profit Education is somewhat like a sausage factory, wholly unsuitable with the British model of Education, which has the concept of a 'gifted amateur' at the heart of it. Inspired by Oxbridge, the 'British' model of Education is claimed to be about free-wheeling inquiry into the areas of study, rather than rigorous and single-minded cramming of textbooks that is often experienced in For-Profit model. The For Profit model emerged in Britain, as in many other countries, largely from the Professional Training sector, and hence, their teaching practices are heavily influenced by the practices in Accountancy and IT training. Operating on the 'value for money' paradigm, most For-Profit colleges focused on tangible deliverable, clear learning outcomes and teaching to pass the course perhaps. This, the HE sector has claimed, is responsible for current apathy of employers in hiring graduates: However, soaring graduate employment has only focused minds and increased the appeal for quick-fix training, and indeed, many traditional universities have jumped into it. With Americans around the corner now, it seems that this game is about to be changed, and all-or-nothing fight for 'models' is on the cards.

The other objection that the Universities often throw at For Profit upstarts is that they don't invest in infrastructure, such as libraries, common rooms, spaces where independent thinking can grow and prosper. Somewhat connected to the first objection, this reinforces the image of For Profit colleges as factories, churning out commoditized degrees but not a nice place to be. However, it is an interesting argument, because the universities, which built their lavish, often wasteful, facilities on the back of public funding, are being disingenuous in wanting, at one hand, to keep out the For Profit from access to public purse and on the other, complaining about their infrastructure.

However, this is a losing game and almost every VC around the country know that. All the academic community is doing at the time is to try to minimize the threat and deny the level playing field to For Profit as long as possible, but with Government's areal bombing, they have as much chance of holding on as Qaddafi had in Sirte. Whether this will turn out to be good or bad for British Higher Education will be determined with time: Despite the problems with For Profits, American and Australian Higher Ed seemed to have gained from its advent and the big public institutions in those countries thrived regardless. There is one word of caution that must be uttered in the end. However much this government tries to talk about competition, they don't really believe in it. So far, their vision of competition was more alike old boys' polo matches rather than a fiercely competitive bazaar, where only the most inventive could survive. The threat to British Higher Education does not come from competition but from the lack of it; not from the upstart colleges but from the government. There is indeed no halfway house in the policies British government has adapted: One can only hope that they can put their money where their mouth is.    

Monday, October 17, 2011

In The British Library

This is a part of the work I am doing on Learning environments. We looked at the British Library as a team, and I am tasked with writing about its service areas. I, as with other things I learn or think about, thought it appropriate to post the report here.
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I looked at the Service Areas of the British Library, the spaces that fill out the areas around the reading rooms. They hold cafes and galleries, a shop that sells books and touristy trinkets, as well as more functional areas, lockers, cloak rooms, and indeed, the reader registration area.

From the outside, the British Library building seems to represent a purpose: That of reading. Hence, despite passing it by many times, I would never dare enter it without the specific purpose of reading. I have used the adjacent Novotel and paid for the expensive coffee there for meeting people, but I would never cross the elaborate courtyard into the Library for such a trivial purpose. This reverence, preserved by the elaborate outside, seemed to contrast the more touristy feel of the reception, for example, the shop that sells books and mementos, rather than the dusty scholarly stuff I was almost expecting. The flashes of digital cameras, people posing around an outsized desk-like statue chained with a mini-globe, sparse seating arrangements and an all too recognizable hum give it a feel of a railway station.

In a way, that may be appropriate, if the function of this large open space is waiting. One can see an intricate structure of stairs and balconies, and a very visible column of books, the King’s Library, and a gallery, from the reception. It is as if one is looking into a sacred area, shrouded by some complexity and privileged access. This feeling is confirmed as one goes through the rituals of handing over the coats in the cloakroom or store other possessions in the lockers, which, alongside its strict instructions, have the feel of a secretive bank than a meeting place. Finally, the Readers’ Registration Area, with customary queues, confusing computer layouts, multiple layers of process and real interrogation desks, completes the process of initiation: One is stripped off the distractions of the outside and somewhat ready for heaviness of the inside.

The Open Cafes and galleries seem to maintain this feeling. In its quietness, rows of people gazing into their Macbooks, the severity of the reading rooms seemed to have overflowed outside. There are reading spaces everywhere: Standing chairs and wide top railings where we finally manage to keep our notebooks and write. This space, a floor up, seems a world removed from the reception, as if the invisible walls of the cloak room and the registration transformed everything.

Finally, an anomaly: As we walk into the Friends Room for a final debrief, the order of the atmosphere breaks down. Right inside the gut of the Library, here is a chaotic room, where people don’t seem to mind laughing or raising voices, or rearranging chairs and tables to convene talking groups. This was somewhat liberating from the very solitary feeling of even the social spaces.

Looking at this, British Library seemed to signify to me a slight confusion of what a Library meant to be: Inclusive or exclusive, solitary or communal, a place to preserve knowledge or to create, etc. May be, it is a continuum from the Kings Library to the Friends Room, segmenting various kinds of learners automatically and representing the full spectrum how people learn. Or, may be it is an unintended mix, a government building purposed to become a place to learn, a somewhat middle point in knowledge’s journey from British Museum to the Internet.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Air India continues to bumble

I don't fly Air India. I have suffered enough already, but if I needed any more proof, today's incidents in Gatwick added to the already dismal record of the airline. It proved again that bureaucrats, particularly the Indian ones, are absolutely hopeless in running a customer facing service. I am no lover of privatization, but it is absolutely certain that something drastic is needed in Air India.

So this is what happened: Due to fog, this morning's Heathrow bound Air India flight needed to land at Gatwick. If this was any other airline, this would have been fine: The passengers would normally be taken on a bus to Heathrow, a 45 minutes journey. Not for Air India: Surely the Babus could not decide what to do with such an 'unusual' situation.

Their idea, therefore, was to fly the plane from Gatwick to Heathrow, about 30 miles away. The problem indeed is that the EU regulations demanded the crew had to be changed, as the original crew had already flown from Mumbai and couldn't undertake another flight. So a new crew had to be found and dispatched to Gatwick, and reportedly, this new crew lost their way in the Gatwick terminals.

Chaos, thy name is Air India, indeed. So the passengers had to wait in Gatwick for 8 hours - yes, eight hours - between 8am in the morning to 5pm in the afternoon, when, finally, a new crew took over and completed the 20 minute flight to Heathrow. And, all this while, characteristically for India's national airline, no one spoke to the passengers: No one knew what was going on and when they would be released. Reportedly, a passenger got frustrated and took his bag and walked off, only to be escorted back to the plane by Sussex police as the airline had not made an arrangement for disembarkation at Gatwick.

There are many lessons to be learned here, but I am certain that Air India does not learn lessons. It exists to be a plaything of Indian ministers and supply occasional leisure flights to them and their cronies, but it is absolutely hopeless in serving fare-paying passengers. I decided not to fly Air India ever again after one return trip to India where my flight was delayed, without announcements, for 5 hours at Heathrow and cancelled on my way back: I remember being treated like a hapless citizen dealing with government bureaucrats as if they were doing me a favour allowing me to take a flight I have already paid for. I also remember the chaos at the airport, where no one knew what they were doing, and the fact that they left the wheelchair bound passengers unattended when finally the flight was called and the mad scramble for the gate began. To enhance the drama, one wheelchair bound passenger left that way that day was Russi Mody, a past chairman of Air India, who possibly had to endure the drama with a certain sense of irony.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Learning at the Chalkface

I am in the middle of a teaching commitment, and having taken it up, I have started regretting it somewhat. This is indeed because of pressures of my day to day life, with many things demanding attention at once, not least the management work at the college. We are at an interesting point in the 'journey', when the changes I have been advocating for finally come to be implemented, and I am hopeful, the college will emerge as a completely transformed entity in the next 12 months time. My own business is also coming together, a logo, an office, ideas about technologies and courses, a partnership, various disparate elements: All of this is demanding my time too. Finally, I have reached the last taught module of my MA course at UCL, and this is possibly the most interesting one I have done so far. This is about learning and learning environments, and we have made trips to museums, cafes and finally to British Library to start thinking about learning environments.

At this time, having to teach 18 hours a week is quite demanding. This means long nights and starting early in the mornings to do the preparation. I don't, as a matter of principle, recycle my old materials when I teach: I try to update them with new information and incorporate things which I learned from the last session. May be I am being a bit naive and creating work for myself, but having signed up to be a professional teacher, it would have been wrong for me to settle for anything less.

But no regrets, as this teaching makes me revisit the assumptions about teaching and learning I had. The model of British Postgraduate Education is essentially research-based, and I had woven together a series of themed exploration based on their own personal experiences. That plan, quite elaborately made, lasted till my first contact with the class. Clearly, some of the international students I had did not have the experience or the inclination to do this at all. They were expecting to be 'taught', be told what is the right formula of marketing, and asking them to use their own judgement and come up with answers to difficult questions started to disappoint them.

Indeed, the other philosophy I wanted to carry was to be student-centric. Standing up to deliver the lecture, however, it is difficult to define what it means. Does it mean that I must do everything I can to encourage the students to do more, even if something is clearly beyond their capability or interest, knowing that this would possibly meet the end requirements of the course? Or should it mean that I allow the students determine what they would like to be taught, activities etc? Trying to do both, which, admittedly, I have been trying for last two weeks, is a struggle, and this has taken more time and effort than I initially planned.

One of my key problems is that most of the students I had didn't want to read. They were, instead, interested in knowing what would be there in the examination, and wanted 'notes' to address these areas. By no means, I am suggesting that this is illegitimate or problematic, but confining myself to these areas would have meant a series of disjointed conversations rather than any meaningful exploration of the subject. I handed out a number of reading materials, though the nature of these materials changed as we went along: I started with some scholarly articles, and soon had to move to more 'pop' ones. Again, this was okay, given my inclination to talk about concepts like Long Tail and how to compete against free in the class: I am anyway more in Fast Company and Wired territory than in the realm of Journal of Marketing. But it would be quite a significant leap for the students, I reckon, to transform their writing from where they are to where they need to be, writing academic pieces laden with references and complex concepts, in only a few weeks' time.

So, overall, teaching this MBA class was interesting. I have this suspicion that I learned more through this experience than did the students. It is only coincidental that this happened to be one of the most interesting times of my life and my priorities did indeed clash. This would also mean that I would not take a teaching commitment at least till next March, until after U-Aspire is completely set up and going. From that perspective, I am glad I did this now, as I shall take away an enormous amount of learning from this experience.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Why Was Steve Jobs such a Big Deal?

Steve Jobs' death certificate says that he was a 'high tech entrepreneur'. Indeed, but he is more than that: He is an entrepreneur's entrepreneur, an icon, a representative of a generation that is now passing. In his famous Stanford commencement address, he talked about his feeling that 'he dropped the baton as it was passed on from the earlier generation of entrepreneurs'. He was not just a carrier though: He was one who redefined the game.

An entrepreneur exists to solve problems. Steve Jobs was not a technology whiz or a finance guru. Steve Wozniak talked about his 'instinctive feel' of what the people wanted from technology. That makes him a rare genius, because most tech entrepreneurs don an evangelical garb and preach to people on technology. Steve Jobs seemed to have turned this evangelism on its head and became people's voice in the world of technology. That's where he made a difference.

Indeed, he famously said - 'it is not customers' job to know what he wants'. This may seem counter-intuitive in the business world obsessed with research, but this possibly separates entrepreneurial spirit than that of a mere investor. The French economist J B Say made that distinction two hundred years ago, but this seemed to have blurred over time and today, some very unpleasant people sitting in Dragon's Den have become entrepreneurial icons. The entrepreneur's job, however, remains to create, to solve problems, problems known and unknown: Increasingly, these days, this means solving problems that are only emerging but not known yet.

There is a certain beauty of Jobs' life that makes him stand apart. He was the purveyor of beautiful computers, beautiful movies, beautiful phones and mobility devices in our life. He fused the form and function, he helped embed aesthete within the practical. But his failures are more important than his successes, as they seem to give a sense of beautiful desires: He was ahead of his time and failed, but never gave up. He, to quote himself, stayed hungry and foolish, and only a great sense of discipline and duty can make one do that. Like a true entrepreneur, he was not merely practical, but an idealist, a dreamer of things that must be brought to life to make a world a better place.

In a world where things are increasingly alienated from people, Jobs made technology looked humane. That alone makes him a really big deal.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

University of Wales Scandal: British Higher Education's Moment of Shame?

BBC Wales claims that they have discovered that students can buy their University of Wales degree. They ran the documentary last Wednesday in their Week In Week Out programme on BBC Wales, claiming that students can just pay their way through. In the programme, the reporter made many bold comments, and claimed that Wales' national institution has brought the entire nation, presumably Welsh nation, to shame.

BBC was fortunate in its timing, as they broke the story just as a new Vice Chancellor was starting at the university. He was apparently unprepared for such a breaking news, and when confronted with the claims made by the reporter, he immediately ordered that University of Wales will stop validating other colleges' programmes, as it did earlier. His stance looked like the admission of defeat even before a single shot was fired. Admittedly, this may have come not prompted by the BBC documentary at all, but from soul-searching and other usual stuff that happens when new Vice Chancellors take over. In that case, this was disastrous timing, because this announcement confirmed what BBC was claiming, that University of Wales degrees conferred through partner colleges are indeed questionable.

However, if someone actually watches the documentary, they will have more questions about British journalism than British degrees. The journalist discovered cases of fraud in granting diplomas from two British qualification bodies, NCFE and ATHE, not of University of Wales. These diplomas could have earned the students some credit waivers towards the University of Wales MBA, as it could have done for many other courses in many other universities. These diplomas were offered not by any University of Wales accredited colleges, but small-time companies offering classes in rented premises. There was no direct evidence that the University of Wales, or any of its partner colleges are involved in any wrongdoing.

It is indeed distressing for me personally as one of the programmes we run in our college is validated by the University of Wales. I have been actively involved in diversifying the college course portfolio over the recent months and introducing other programmes, but I am aware that the University of Wales programme was run with integrity and great effort. Besides, there are thousands of students in colleges in Wales, which study for an University of Wales degree. It is a tragedy that a politically motivated BBC programme and a rather hapless PR team at University of Wales have managed to undermine all the efforts of all the academicians and threaten the future of all its students so callously.

I am fascinated by the fact that NCFE and ATHE can get away scot-free. They accredited institutions without fixed offices and questionable people which were selling these diplomas, and they can get away with suspending these colleges as if they were exceptions. However, since the University of Wales accepted these diplomas for advanced standing entry, the whole University validation has to be dismantled, and everyone involved with University of Wales must hang their head in shame. However, what about Ofqual, which validated these qualifications in the first place, and allowed them to be mapped against University entry? We know why BBC Wales will not expose the scam that goes on in British diploma market: It does not fit their agenda. But that's where the scandal really is.

British HE is at a crossroad and this scandal does not help. Most importantly, this story will confirm the popular view, created and sustained by motivated journalism, that most HE institutions are just conduits of visa fraud and most international students in Britain are nothing but after a work permit. Both of these perceptions are false. The government is currently systematically undermining the British HE, and they would be delighted with this programme.  The government's grand plan of making HE limited to Oxbridge and disenfranchising the British Working Class from having a shot at middle class life has worked so far: They would need more such great journalism from BBC to keep their demolition campaign going.

On Books

I believe bookshops have fallen victim of books.

Why else, as more people read books and talk about books, bookshops keep disappearing? Recently, another grim report pointed out more high street bookshops went bust, and appealed, in a very British fashion, for more government support. It is as if subsidies will save bookshops, while books desert them.

I love books and bookshops. I spend entire afternoons, when I can, browsing through bookshelves. I buy a lot of books online, but that has no pleasure. It is not like feeling the book in my hands and knowing whether I can read the book, whether I want to read the book, before buying it. Amazon has done a lot - allowing me to peek inside the books - but still bookshops retain their charm. Amazon does not, even with its considerable resources and best efforts, give me the conversation I can have with a fellow book-lover at the counters of my favourite bookshops.

I think the worst enemy of bookshops have been the bookshop chains. They are usually quite good in finding and stocking the right titles, but they treat books as commodities to sell. And, when books become commodities, their innards could be stripped and digitized, and they could easily be sold, at a discount, on the web. The bookshops die, then, and with it, the book-loving, though book-reading may go on.

Books are, as I am trying to make the point, an object of love, a piece of identity of the person who owns them. It is only a sign of time that one believes that Kindle can become a repository of our personal library. Despite its great storage capacity and other numerous technical advantage, Kindle is good for books which the owners want to hide. Indeed, this allows a wonderful way to read Erotica standing in the middle of a crowded bus, but one wouldn't want to read an identity-defining book in that manner.

I have seen, in a different context, what happens when bookshops die and the government tries to step in. This is in Calcutta, my home city, where I spent numerous hours, during my college days, hanging around in College Street, a square lined with bookshops and cafes, publishing houses and second-hand bookshops coexisting side-by-side, a place full of smells and talks of books. However, when I returned there after two decades, on one of my trips home from England, I saw a place transformed: The once-proud publishers and bookshops are now desperately dependent on government purchases for state libraries. Again, this is stripping books of their character and identity, and equating them with what's inside them: The beautiful books of my college days are now all reduced to flimsy pages and cheap covers - it did not matter any more if anyone wanted to preserve them, but it is good business if the state libraries keep replacing them from time to time.

But I am an optimist and think that books are reaching a tipping point. They have sort of reached the heights of being impersonal and electronic books will finally kill off the ugly books and online bookstores will kill off the bookshop chains. Then, we shall, yes only a handful of us, ironically the long tail of book purchasers, the lovers of books, get back our bookshops and conversations, our books which will have a personality and be a piece of our identity, which will be a tool not just for quite reading but our connection with others.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Steve Jobs


Here's to the crazy ones. 

The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. 

The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. 

They're not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. 

You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify, or vilify them. 

About the only thing you can't do is ignore them. Because they change things. 

They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. 

Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do. (Apple Inc.)

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Sherry Turkle on Alone Together

Andrew Keen talks to Sherry Turkle on Alone Together, a book I am reading currently.






A Personal Note: Revisiting My Priorities

The late autumn heatwave in London, which means temperatures of 29 degrees and a clear sky, is having the most unintended effect on me: Melancholy. The sky looks exactly like the autumn sky in Kolkata, and the weather, too warm for a pull-over, exactly the kind people will complain about sitting in Puja Pandals next week. This brings out the sense of disconnection, of loneliness and of things lost, of moments that could have been and priorities that could be reversed.

This is seeing past as a possibility of future, which is always the starting point of melancholy. It is at moments like this, one becomes conscious that life is, unlike what it seems to be, full of choices, and the narrative of the past looks like one written by ourselves, rather than just being enacted by us. What could have been is a pointless discussion in our jet-set lives, but one must reach points like this, as real and full of possibilities as any other moment in life, to know what could have been as potent as what has been. This is because, as I think now of all those goals not pursued, friendships lost, places left behind, promises unconsummated, books not read and words not said, nothing is ever lost, and all those come back to construct the possibilities for future: A journey of yet more choices to be made and of the life to be lived.

Indeed, you may simply say that I am having a mid-life crisis, but I brought it upon myself. For me, such crisis is the core of a sentient existence. This melancholia, in short, is not about the life lost, but a discovery of the inherent limitations that life must be lived with. Like, I came to England seven years back to see the world and learn: But I gave up in return things I dearly loved: Enjoyment, in workless bliss, of the wintry mornings in my family home in Kolkata, or the quietness of vast grounds that surrounded our house in Bolpur, a small university town a hundred mile away, where we would sometimes go for weekend breaks. Indeed, I have previously derided the tendencies of people to remain in their zones of comfort, but I am not sure, having left mine, that one choice necessarily turned out to be better than the other.


So, as I return to look at the future as a blank slate, I know what I wish to do: Return. The return is, again as I have written before, as much a journey as leaving home was, and demanded somewhat greater courage as this would require reversing most of what I am about now. I am fully aware that life-after-return is unlikely to be as idyllic as I visualize now: Nostalgia always gloss over unpleasant bits of the past and remind only the sunny bits. However, the idea of return is, in a way, part of a never-ending journey that a traveler must undertake, and a promise which remains unfulfilled most often, yet remains the keystone of a meaningful life if one has to be lived.

My journey has given me a lot: I have discovered a purpose of life. I now know that I wish to build an educational institution where the learners learn to live with our new, global, world, explore its technological and human possibilities, and know more than mere numbers and try to make it a better place. I know such education can only be achieved through learning and traveling, as I somewhat did, and I wish to open similar opportunities to people everywhere around the world. My plans to set up a global education company, therefore, remains fully reconciled to my idea of return: I wanted to set up an office in India in any case. I have become, irreversibly, a global citizen: It is time to go see the world one more time.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Kindle Fire and Mobile Learning

Kindle Fire will be the technology Mobile Learning was waiting for. Plausibly.

Cheap and pocketable, Kindle Fire is an exciting opportunity. Here, Amazon is trading off the lure of a bigger, iPad like screen with its deep reservoir of content. One would think they would actively pursue the education market, leaving iPad out to the lifestyle users. 

Whether or not this will happen would be determined by whether or not Amazon tries to redefine the Academic publishing business. This is already under serious threat from Internet and Open Access movements. Amazon may want to position Kindle Fire as a sort of panacea to academic publishers, as they tried to sell the idea of Kindle to the book publishers and newspaper groups earlier. So far, Apple and Samsung looked the other way as far as Academic journals are concerned; Amazon indeed has a bit of game-changing opportunity.

I have previously said that I would not buy a Kindle as I did not want to surrender my book-reading to one single platform. Printed books were an wonderful open platform - shareable, something you could physically own yet not exclude other people from using - with which I am in love with. I did not believe, despite Kindles popping up all over in British Rail and Tube, that people will give up on books. Indeed, Kindles are easier to read from while on the beach, and Kindle is a nifty little device to make your latest Mills-and-Boon look like Bible, to be read with impunity on the train. But books are meant to be more than just reading material: They are to be owned, part of a person's identity, a constant companion even at the loneliest moments of one's life. Kindle was unlikely to take over that space.

But learning is different. Yes, I preserved my text books even when they are out of date, but one can see text books less emotionally. Particularly if they can be made cheaper through this alternate model of distribution. They should be, as one of the big cost components for many textbooks is the need for updates and revisions, which can be done easily once everyone has migrated to a digital platform. The linkages between lectures, text books and reference materials can be nifty and time-saving, and the allure of being able to buy a copy of a book referred to in the bibliography of a scholarly paper with a touch of a button is really alluring. This is the ultimate 'App'-ization of knowledge, and Kindle Fire seems to be poised to deliver this.

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How To Live

"Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."

- Theodore Roosevelt

Last Words

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

- T S Eliot

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