Sunday, August 19, 2012

Making Knowledge Count

Yesterday, for me, was a day of fascinating conversations, particularly on the state of Higher Education in India. This is with two senior executives from an Indian Higher Education institution. We talked about a number of things, including the changing mindset in India and the the regulatory regime, as well as the possibilities, and pitfalls, of collaborating with British and American institutions. For me, forever an enthusiast of global education, it was insightful, if dispiriting, discussion. Importantly, it gave me yet again a clear sense of the private higher education space in India. We agreed on most things, except one perhaps, and that is the role and importance of knowledge in Higher Education.

The Indian Educators were quite clear: Knowledge is no longer important. Commercially, they did not think it made sense, as the students don't care about knowledge: They want the degree, as easily as they can. The parents don't care what the students are learning, they said, as long as they get a job. On another level, they highlighted the importance of attitude, the commitment to work, adaptability and even spirituality, over knowledge.

The assertions certainly rings a bell, and could actually be universally true. In fact, this discussion is important to me as it opens up a new line of enquiry in my studies on For-Profit Higher Education. My thought is that the trivialisation of knowledge is possibly the most important change happening in Education, and this is the whole reason of existence of the For-Profit education as a whole. But more on this later.

Whether or not students care about knowledge, one thing is clear: Knowledge is now abundant and easily accessible. Therefore, one does not need to go to school to know anything. They can plainly fire up a browser and access most of world's knowledge, either through Google or some other database. 

Besides, there is little point in teaching 'knowledge'. In a rapidly changing world, knowledge is no longer contained in stone tablets, great books or even in the heads of wise men, but somehow, it is out there, being produced everyday, as people stretch the boundaries of what is known.

Indeed, I differ. First, I disagree that knowledge is freely accessible. In fact, it is as obscure as ever. This time around, the challenge is not the method of finding, which has been made easier by tools such as Google, but knowing what's valid, as Google reduces all knowledge to commodities, stacked in shelves next to each other, undifferentiated. In the Googlized world of knowledge, only the ranking, bestowed by a commercial organisation, Google, the organiser of world's knowledge, matters: This ranking is indeed based on citation, propriety, and as we know now, the diktats of different governments of the day. Wisdom of the crowd is a form of wisdom, but not the only one; therefore, it is more important than ever to engage with knowledge and knowing one's way around. If an education institution disengages from knowledge, they will be doing a great disservice to the students, their employers and the community in general.

Next, while the body of knowledge is dynamic, a wheel is not invented every day. One, like Newton, needs to be able to stand on the shoulders of giants to be able to see. At a more mundane level, knowledge frees students from the limits of their own experience. Doing practical things and knowing from that is all very good, with one important caveat - that you think there is only one way of doing the task that you just did. 

My point indeed was that the only task that an institution of Higher Education has to make a student, a student: That is to shape their relationship with knowledge. As for the point that the student does not want to know, it is a rather desperate stance most education institutions take today. Indeed, when I go to big department stores, I may keep my hands inside my pocket and do not want to buy anything, but they still manage to squeeze a few hundred pounds out of me. The point is about affordance: What is the institution telling them? I remember being engaged in one institution, which, being conscious of the value of space (and the business model being dependent on use of capacity), relegated their library to a dimly lit, rarely used, part of their basement. The economics aside, this is an institution signalling what is and isn't important. And, this is not about the space, but all the processes and conversations that an institution is made of. In summary, if the institution thinks knowledge isn't important, it wouldn't be.

Finally, on the question of whether the parents, who, in countries like India, are paying for the education, would value knowledge, I have two inter-related points. First, as it occurred at a different time during yesterday's discussion, knowledge is key to building institutional reputation. This is because it is the one of the key differentiators, other than selectivity, which a new institution can ill-afford. So, if you can't choose the best students, you must be seen as an institution with a purpose, that purpose being equipping the graduates with some kind of special elixir, which is most likely to be a form of knowledge. Second, if parents care about jobs, and in this case graduate jobs, they are not a function of motivation, but knowledge. Everyone claims that they are motivated and can put in hard work, and may be they can, but as an employer, I shall always choose the person who is most likely to do the same, who seems to be the smartest, who knows. So, indeed, even in the world of For-Profit business schools, knowledge remains terribly important.

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