Friday, November 29, 2013

Waiting for a Future in Kolkata

It's a slow city. One can notice this as they watch the taxis mill around, somewhat slowly pulling over when waved at, declining a fare if that would make them late for lunch; one can hear that in the art of making conversations, bringing up things which may not be of any immediate or practical interest, but would just fill an empty time; and indeed, feel this when one goes around the city, as if it is frozen in time, in its degenerating buildings, unkempt roads, lazy policemen, people loafing around endlessly. 

One can see that Kolkata's attempts to catch up with the modern and the fast is somewhat out of sync, somewhat comical, in fact, if one cares, mostly tragic: One could take personal stance about how to view the Office Secretary spending a day at South City Mall peering into the branded clothing all day, but, unlike as her counterpart would do in Oxford Circus, never really having the courage to buy anything that would max her credit card out. It is melodramatically sweet to take someone out to Peter Cat, with its Raj-era dressage and dimly lit interiors, and to enjoy a signature meal which originated in Ottoman Harems as an aphrodisiac. It is also deeply erotic to walk the gardens of Victoria Memorial, a Raj era museum mostly forgotten, which display a collection of company memorabilia, and have beautiful gardens which allow couples a chance to steal a kiss and the assorted policemen a chance to harass them to earn a bribe. And, in conversations with the modern office worker, one can hear the eternally emerging Kolkata dream, the lure of the 'flats':  The idea of happiness away from the past and the responsibility of the crumbling family homes, to the bondage of a mortgage and sweetness of anonymity within a gated community. 

My visits to Kolkata are always full of such melancholy. Watching a 93 year old relative cry as his family home has now been sold by his nephew and has to be vacated in a few days is somewhat anachronistic to the general merriment of the celebratory feasts inside these new communities. True, if you are a middle class Bengali living on a meagre income, you never get to own one of these flats, but rent them.  True, you get a 'T' ticket, representing your tenant identity, which gets you an inferior meal than those holding 'O', owner, tickets, in the community gatherings. But it is still better to live in a community where you are defined by income, because income could rise and you can change, rather than in a community where you are known as someone's son, or brother, because it is hard to change those identities. Being nostalgic about the past is a good-natured Kolkata amusement that newspapers indulge in and modern Bengali art celebrates; but denying this nostalgia and being practical is equally the hallmark of a Kolkata professional, who treat the insensitivity towards such attachments as the badge of being modern. 

In this setting, it is only fitting that I get to see 'Achorjo Pradeep' ('Magic Lamp', as in the story of Aladin), a Woody Allen-esque rendering of the City, a fantastical narrative of a Bengali professional coming to fortune. This smart film, adequately displaying the best acting talents, sharp editing and brilliant cinematography, escapes the 'golden age' thinking and rather attempts to portray the disenchantment and bleakness of the middle class life. Its evocation of melancholy comes as a shock, a sudden, rude exposure of the downside of consuming lives, rather than the steady decline and trivial sadness that really marks Kolkata. However, despite the technique which reminded me of Woody Allen, this fantansy is deeply Bengali: Despite the attempts to avoid nostalgia, there is a deep attachment somewhere, a belief that the centre still holds, an illusive quest of love. It is also very Bengali because it is very male, its aesthetic defined by the morality of magic, celebrated over the degeneration of work: Its story told from the vantage point of sudden fortune rather than the murky world of dehumanising work, that represents its inescapable other half.

That, in essence, is the life in Kolkata: An irreversible dream alongside a hopeless life; a past without a future, which we have no time to live but no space to abandon it into; a quest for an identity without the roots, but a fantasy of love that must survive such a leap; a City, uncomfortably at ease, living modernity in a slow motion, reliving its festivities on Facebook, recasting its old narratives within a new fantasy. Every time I go to Kolkata, I lose a little part of myself: The paradox is that this makes me belong there even more.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The New Humanities Education

Humanities education needs to be reinvented.

Most of the conversation about humanities education today, led on by the Professors of Humanities, is defensive: It is about the value of humanities and why it needs to be protected for the sake of a democratic society. While the proposition is possibly correct, the style of reasoning creates three problems: One, it denies the obvious need that we must interrogate humanities education as it is done today; two, it somewhat projects that humanities subjects are somewhat superior than other subjects in fostering democratic values, which makes the argument elitist; and three, it overlooks the needs of the individual middle class students, of the kind of flocking to the universities today, and forgets to establish the link between humanities studies and jobs and careers.

The flaws mentioned above makes the case for humanities elitist and fails to appeal to people thinking about university. That it is important for democratic society will be appreciated by middle class students, but they will indeed be thinking that humanities should then be the preserve of those who can afford an education for the sake of social good, those who don't have to worry about a job afterwards. 'It must be a good thing, but not for me', would be their response.

Indeed, the point of this argument is less to impress the students and more to appeal for state funding: But this in turn misses the point how state funding priorities are, and should be, decided in the era of mass education. If the students are not wanting to do humanities, it is even less likely that the state will want to fund it.

However, an alternative view of the case for humanities education could be made on the basis of the need for judgement in modern professions: As we move from industrial to post-industrial professions, progress from process orientated decision making to more creative challenges, the ability to deal with complex information sets and make judgements, deal with things such as ethics rather than laws or rules or processes, and accommodate aesthetic imperatives alongside functional ones, become critical. A training in humanities can indeed further these abilities: This is not just social good, but also for better employability, and professional success, of the learner.

Surely, humanities is not the only way to do this. Sciences can do the same. No one should claim that creativity only lies in the realm of humanities, because great scientific creativity has got us where we are today. However, the point is to allow creativity and judgement to flourish, and variability to accepted and established. Sciences in our education system is too often too closely associated with technologies, and humanities present a viable alternative to nurture these creative instincts and abilities in the learner.

So, we need humanities education back in the agenda, but indeed, in the context of the changing requirements and the aspirations of the students. The new humanities education should embrace technology and not treat this as an enemy. It should step outside narrow disciplinary boundaries and treat the students' aspirations as the start point. It should indeed embrace the learners of today, often from a different social background from that of yesterday, who are driven by the aspirations of living a better life than their parents rather than taking the previous generation as the benchmark. The new humanities should ready the students for the uncertainty, the changes and the dilemmas of globalism, rather than putting walls around their thinking and rejecting these developments as a devious conspiracy.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Limits of Jugaad

We have duly celebrated Jugaad and made it part of the management canon: It has now come to be seen as the ethic of Indian business, perhaps Indian life, where one has to make do with less. What seemed once an awkward thing - visitors to India would often wonder about the Bamboo scaffolding used in the construction sites, for example - has now been accepted as evidence of Indian ingenuity.

We should celebrate Jugaad, and even see it as a precursor to things to come. The life of abundance, afforded by the industrial revolution, may soon face significant constraints as natural boundaries of our civilisation get exposed. And, even if this is an unreal fear, there may not be enough for the middle class millions in Asia and Africa as they aspire for good life. Improvisations, with a scene of constraint, the spirit of Jugaad, may indeed define the ethic of modern living at the periphery.

However, at the same time, we must be cognizant of the effects Jugaad ethics may have on India and Indians. There is a risk that once it becomes institutionalised, as it seemed to have been now, we may start taking this too seriously. While the point of Jugaad is about working things out within constraints, there is a risk of it becoming an ethic of short cuts.

The Jugaad ethics may indeed significantly undermine the concept of skills and one may suspect that is happening in India. It may have become a fancy term to celebrate poor workmanship, and informs the way the country has come to view skills. Jugaad entrepreneurship is the new official term for buccaneering. The idea of Good Work and Commitment may have been its greatest casualties.

While Jugaad may make waves in the corridors of business schools, Indian businesses preparing for the future must look beyond Jugaad, therefore. Their consumers, once satisfied with the philosophy of something is better than nothing, may have arrived at a stage of aesthetic maturation as they got wealthy. The young may be impatient to accept things as they are, and their life ethic may be standing out rather than subliminate.

Within this changing context, it is necessary to explore the limits of Jugaad: While we may celebrate the ingenuity within the constraints, this may breed lethargy to challenge the constraints as one must. This may become the excuse for second best, sloppy work, muddled ethics and muted ambitions, manifested in opportunism rather than change making. The celebration of Jugaad may help perpetuate mediocrity, and establish value systems that are contra-innovation eventually.

In the end, therefore, Jugaad should be seen as a transient phenomenon, not a way of life: We may celebrate the ingenuity of human spirit but must seek to remove the constraints.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Building An Alternative to University

It has always been difficult to build an alternative to the universities in the modern times. Even if any innovation in learning happened outside the universities, the system expanded to absorb the new areas: Medical Schools, Business Schools, IT Schools, all started outside universities and prospered for a while as private initiatives, but then the moment university system expanded to absorb the new areas, the challengers withered. 

However, at this time, we are approaching a point where these venerable institutions look increasingly open to challenges from outside, and look vulnerable. There are several reasons for this: The universities have less resources to keep expanding, for a start. And, new global possibilities are emerging which publicly funded universities can't do very well. Technologies, not just of learning delivery, but of community building, of measurement and management, are emerging, making 'open source learning' possible. And, besides, universities themselves have become too attached to the 'System' - in a way, they have been consumed by the bureaucratic Higher Education systems, and have somewhat lost the claim of the community they wish to be. 

Also, the universities have mostly become a credential factory, drawing legitimacy from the recognition by the sponsoring nation states than anything else. Its role isn't defined by learning any more, but just by the mandates from the omnivorous 'Higher Education System'. Instead of building successful lives, which they claim they are for, all too often, they indulge in language games, making people failures and making them feel guilty for their failures. Its credential mechanisms seem to exist solely to justify layers of social privilege and exclusion. In a way, the system has devoured all the ideals of an university - a community of learning, the safe place to find an identity, a social place to produce knowledge - and what's left is a caricature of brain-programming machine, a tool to engineer and maintain a social order.

The universities are indeed terrifyingly effective in this, indeed, but the context is shifting. The nation states sponsors of the universities are as weak as ever, and will continue to weaken as the shift of power from states to financiers continue. However, there are other pressures that undermine the universities. The link between the education and employment seems to be broken: Whoever may be responsible for this, the net effect is that this undermines the need, and the value, of the credentials the universities hand out. And, finally, and more ominously, people wanting just the credential and nothing else is on the rise, creating huge incentives for pseudo-universities all over the world, which exist in the twilight zones of the system, but nonetheless exist and are even successful.

It is more difficult to spot a pseudo-university than one would think: These are no longer one room entities handing out fake degrees, but large operations with building and staff handing out perfectly legitimate degrees which involve no learning. The markets, which seem to enjoy supreme confidence of all our policy-makers, have decisively valued 'credential for the sake of credentials' over 'learning for the sake of learning'. The result is indeed those legitimate operations which satisfy the needs of the markets, but have a corrosive influence on the core proposition, reconfiguring the student expectations and eventually undermining its own construct of degrees-for-jobs.

It is on these ruins of the ideas of the university new alternatives will be built. The 'System' will continue to exist and exert great influence, till it crumbles one day under the weight of its own unfulfilled promises. We are not yet sure what the new alternative life-forms will be like, except one thing: That they would be diverse. The diversity of aims, the diversity of aspirations, the diversity of methods and possibilities - all point to a diverse future, where more than a single idea of university can successfully exist. One would expect this will lead to the construction of employer-led entities which will focus on economic productivity and further away from traditional activities that we know the universities for; on the other end of the spectrum, there will be learning communities united to explore and converse, and to create alternate possibilities from simply surrendering to the employer-mandated world. Acceptance of this diversity will be a challenge, but an imperative, for all educators: Each constituent will no doubt claim to provide the 'final alternative' to what has come to be regarded as a broken system. However, there may no longer be one solution after all: The days of the 'system' may be truly over.

Monday, November 18, 2013

An Argument about Public Higher Education

During my current tour of India, I got involved, somewhat against my will, in a long discussion - argument is a better word perhaps - about the necessity of public funding of Higher Education. This is one debate I usually seek to avoid, because, on this issue, there is little opportunity to have a nuanced position, and I do have a nuanced position. In this particular case, my correspondents were committed defenders of Public Higher Education with a 'you are either with us or against us' stance, and indeed, my reservations about the bureaucratisation of Higher Education (combined with my background in For-Profit education) immediately made me a target of vociferous attacks and compelled me to defend my views. This post is a short summary of the arguments that I made.

My first problem with the high pitch defense of public funding of Higher Education is that this is hardly an honest stance. Most of the advocates of public funding represent themselves to be in opposition of marketisation of Higher Education, though they are acutely aware that these two are completely separate issues. The marketisation of Higher Education is happening, has happened, within the public sector Higher Education. So, the logic of money is quite blind to who funds and runs the institutions. There is indeed a need to debate the marketisation of Higher Education, but this is not one and the same about public funding of Higher Education.

My second problem is that the defenders of public Higher Education decline to answer the charges against it. I shall give one example in the Indian context. This is a college local to me, though I didn't study there: It was set up a local philanthropist in the 1950s to serve the local community and one that got integrated into the Public Higher Education system at a later date. In the 1980s, however, our local community was fundamentally transformed due to a massive infrastructure project (the Second Hoogly Bridge in Howrah, West Bengal), which displaced hundreds of Bengali Middle Class families from the area: The gap left by them was soon filled by thousands of migrant workers, often from other parts of India who didn't speak any Bengali. Instead of sons and daughters of educated families whose main breadearners worked for the government and wanted their children to 'at least complete graduation',  the college was left to serve first generation college goers who spoke in Hindi and other languages, which most college teachers were not used to. The Vice Principal of the college wanted to recruit a Hindi-speaking History lecturer. There was a vacancy but the publicly funded colleges in Indian States have to go through the College Service Commission. This unusual request for a Hindi-speaking lecturer in what was presumed to be a Bengali Middle Class area from the bureaucratic safe distance was immediately and duly refused, and the College Service Commission chose to send someone they thought would be suitable. This may have resulted in many tears and frustrations in the History classroom and surely a few more alienated students in the process. While this story may be anecdotal, this is representative of the problems of public funding of Higher Education. 

Fundamentally, the debate about public higher education - an important one, no doubt - has become one about entitlements rather than education. This happens within the context of a teleological view of the university, that this has a timeless nature and purpose mandated by God and it must carry on doing what it is doing regardless of the social changes: However, the reality perhaps is that we have arrived at a Nietzschian moment of re-imagination and one must seek to 'will' an education that serves the society that we live in, rather than the other way around. I am not trying to make a case for For-Profits or any such thing, but pleading to change the debate from being one about entitlement and privileges to one about what kind of education we really need and what can best serve that requirement. My default position on this issue is that we need variety, both in terms of education and types of institutions that provide them, and closing the debate and taking a moralising position that the state must remain the only provider of Higher Education is inherently counter-productive. 

Monday, November 11, 2013

An Education for Indians: An Alternative Narrative

While I have been studying and thinking about the political dynamic of the Foreign Education in India, I wrote about the past of English Education in India, which helped to create a new professional elite, the vanguards of the eventually independent Indian state. I have been somewhat critical of this development because consolidation and continuation of the privileges for English educated in Independent India has been one of the stumbling blocks for the country's development, vested interests pooling subsidies and resources towards itself and away from development efforts. Besides, in a subsequent post, I also questioned the rhetoric emanating from foreign providers, as they rest their great hope for access to the Indian market on the dissatisfaction of the Indian employers with current graduates: While this dissatisfaction is certainly real, it is situated very much within India's labour market context, I argued, and simply having a foreign education provision wouldn't going to solve anything. 

From the above arguments, some of my correspondents came to the conclusion that I am arguing in favour of a traditional Indian system of education, to be resurrected and protected, based on Indian values and traditions, including the Sanskrit language and its ancient sciences. It is a reasonable conclusion in the context of the discussion about the limits of Western education, and the emergent confidence in the future preeminence of the Indian economy. However, I believe such thinking is somewhat misdirected and I was not, despite being critical of the current options on offer, advocating a return to the past or revival of traditions. This position needs clarification, which I intend to provide here.

First, I question the wisdom of imagining the preeminence of Indian economy in predominantly western terms. There is an undoubted expansion of the formal economy in India and modern consumer goods and practises seem to be taking hold as a result to globalisation. However, this is a catch up, a process of incorporating the Indian economy in the global economic structure and not a shift of power away from the West to Asia, or BRICs, or any other groups of countries. In a way, this is a dynamic of integration rather than a route to preeminence. Indian economy may consume more and may supply a large proportion of world's workforce, but that does not mean it would define the rules and be in a driver's position: Rather, this discussion is all about hitching on to the globalisation.

Ironically, India's current attempt to redefine its nationalism on the basis of its traditional culture, personified in the collective affection for Gujrat's Narendra Modi, is also a part of this globalisation narrative, than a departure from it. The revivalists believe that they have found the vote-winning cocktail in traditional culture and neo-liberal economics, in an ideological equivalent of veggie burger, though this view discounts the inherent possibility that a globalised investment regime must transform the nature of cultural consumption: The innocent veggie burger is already making way for TV Gurus and saffron-white-green bikinis.

This revivalist trend then represent not an alternative imagination, but merely a submission to global norms, with the fetish for GDP growth, foreign investment as a panacea for all ills and dreams of a Ramayanised Disneyland at the core of it. This is not a moment for going back to the traditional Indian lessons of sacrifice, abstinence and toleration; presumably, the temples of this new Indian identity will be the shopping malls. In this context, talk of reviving traditional Indian education is a stillborn, a rhetoric and a pretense not to be taken seriously.

Also, going back to the past would hardly bring any resolution to India's persistent problems of exclusion. A Sanskritised education represent further disenfranchisement of the already disenfranchised communities: If anything, this will be a reactionary move stamping out the rudimentary democratization that the education by vernacular brought about in the last three decades. India's educational tension is signified by the tension between the over-riding aspirations for good life and constraints set by economic imagination - schools and TV have prepared a generation to start demanding access while the system is only concerned with creating jobs and opportunities in the limited context of global back-office and service industries. Within the current structures of global economy, it is indeed hard to accommodate a few hundred million aspirants: That is a problem which will remain unaddressed without a change of discussion. Going back to traditional education, in context, is a pathetic, and doomed, formula to put a lid on these rising aspirations, consolidate privileges further and put a lid on these aspirations. 

Having said this, I still believe that it is possible to construct an 'Indian Education', but recommending that the ideas for it should be grounded in India's social and economic reality of today and tomorrow rather than of its past. In this context, India must be taken as a new country and a federal entity, and not some timeless country inhabited by Aryans who spoke Sanskrit (which is a false image anyway: Even if we shy away from the debate where Aryans came from, there were always other people in India who were non-Aryans and who never spoke Sanskrit). This education must take into account this historical and persistent diversity of India, and the inherent idea of cosmopolitanism and toleration that make the country work.

If this is the opposite of the revivalist notion of Sanskritised education, there is more to break away from India's past. At the core of Indian education, even the English education of the colonial scheme, sat the tradition notions of caste; education was for a certain role in the society, for a certain privilege, which is essentially conceived as moving away from the necessity of physical labour, of the requirement of doing anything by oneself. The lessons of caste lives on in the very Indian aspiration that an education must make one a manager. Restoring the dignity of work, which is also somewhat undermined in the modern global education based on the mantra of service economy, will be one key departure that an Indian education must make. This is needed not just as a moral thing (the moral imperative of breaking away from the caste mindset will be there) but also pragmatic, because, as Richard Sennett will argue, skills are usually formed with patient work of a persistent nature, and alienation, which is one of the key impediments of creativity and imagination at work, can only be overcome with an identification with one's object of labour. In the Indian context, it is not the mechanics of industrial production, but the hierarchical notions of labour and work embedded in education alienates the person and impedes creativity.

 Finally, an Indian education must be based on a realistic expectation and appraisal of India's role in the global economic system. The false rhetoric of India's emergence as a world leader should be discarded in favour of a practical quest for creating a good life for its own citizens. Abstract as this may sound, such quest may entail discarding the ideals of free consumption at the core of Western education system, because that may indeed be impractical, financially and environmentally, to provide for hundreds of millions of Indian aspirants, and finding ways of sustainable and productive ways of living a better life. And, to do so, indeed, one needs to take a global view, understand the economic, political and environmental challenges that we collectively face, and the common effort that one must pool together to create prosperity in the future (which will be different from the experiences of the industrial revolution).

So, in summary, India needs an education system which addresses its uniqueness, but this does not mean going back to the past. Rather the opposite, it will require overcoming the constraints imposed by its past and tackling its present and future challenges, such as fostering tolerance and accepting diversity, and developing skills and promoting the ideals of good work. An Indian Education system must also seek ways to ensure prosperity within the constraints set by the global economic system, and break away from the notions of a re-run of industrial revolution: It must seek to create a sustainable path to prosperity within the reality of a global late industrial civilisation. 

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Politics of Foreign Education: An Education for Indians

In the debate about Foreign Education in India, one question is left unmentioned: Why does India need foreign Higher Education? There is an educational response, or several possible different responses, ranging from it is desirable to have a global view of education (or that one can't have a modern education system without a global perspective) to various specific responses, such as the rote learning currently practised in the Indian system isn't good enough, and more must be done, arguably through foreign collaborations, to enhance skills such as critical thinking etc.

However, whichever end of the argument one starts with, there is a political case to be answered. Globalisation is a contested field, and its benefits may be more obvious to the readers of The Economist (and other Western periodicals) than those living in villages and small towns of India. Besides, the question of globalisation - and globalisation of education - is intertwined with the colonial memory in India, as the British Raj was more a Raj of the mind, rather than of machine gun. From a political perspective, therefore, it is a hard argument to win.

What this leaves us with is the educational reform argument: That Indian Higher Education has to raise its game beyond the culture of Rote Learning, and imbibe abilities of creativity, innovation and critical thinking. The major employers regularly state that they are not getting the graduates with right skills and abilities. This is seen as a clear case for induction of Foreign, primarily Western, ideas into the education system. 

However, this argument may not be as solid as it appears at the outset. To understand this, one may start with the business model of large Indian companies, particularly in the service sector where most of the new jobs have been created. One would see that most companies are engaged in the business of cheap labour, taking on unimaginative work from Western corporations and throwing lots of cheap Indian labour at it. This is not just the story of the Business Process Outsourcing sector, but also of the Information Technology companies, including the global ones which employs a lot of people in India. So, despite all the vaunted names and fancy salaries (in Indian terms), the business model of Indian Service industry has actually been hiring lots of people at cheap salaries, and keeping them at it at a low cost. Surely, they don't want an education which makes this workforce suddenly start asking questions about whether they should be doing these dead-end jobs!

When one talks to Indian employers, this impression is usually substantiated. While they moan about education, what they want is not critical thinking or innovation, but rather 'confidence', 'smartness' and 'presentation skills'. So, in a way, the job market is not requiring the students to imagine, but just to become better sales people than they are currently, having better 'work ethic' (another nebulous term which has a special meaning in India) etc. And, this is common sense: Why would the industry want a student who questions authority when their own business models and work practises are structured around unquestioning submission? The employers in India often wants not just their employee's work, but also their gratitude: A truly foreign education can really be quite disruptive.

Now, the other part of the education reform argument is that once the educational institutions produce enough imaginative graduates, the industry (or industries) will gradually move up the value chain. But this is perhaps a fairly naive assumption (one I am guilty of making myself, in some of my earlier posts). The education system, unless driven and funded by deliberate national policy, will be driven by the realities of the labour market, which is, in turn, shaped by the global economic hierarchy. Indian education system, currently, is driven by self-funded students and privately operated colleges, a structure which is unlikely to buck the trend and try creating capacity without a corresponding demand for graduates. 

Hence, the education system of India, in a sense, is already global: It is reinforcing the position of Indian labour market in the global economic system. Seen this way, the role of foreign education in India can only be limited: This could work as a marker of prestige, but can make little meaningful difference otherwise. There is indeed a case for improving the local institutions, and do something so that their graduates become more 'presentable', but this is not about thinking for themselves or the other exalted liberal education propositions that the Foreign Educators make their case with. 

In summary, I shall argue that the discussion about foreign universities in India often gets too narrowly focused on what the government is doing or not doing. However, the realities of the labour market remain largely outside the discussion, perhaps intentionally so. The Western universities, which are themselves becoming more market driven (and, therefore growth is becoming important to them more than ever, as markets reward growth above all else), somehow fail to appreciate this aspect of Indian Higher Education: The Indian Labour Market is not what they really know and can service, and therefore, their scope of work is rather limited to the privileged classes rather than the multitude that gets talked about in the conferences.

Monday, November 04, 2013

In Defence of MOOCs

You can love or hate Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), but you can't ignore them. This is my cliched response to the equally cliched ritual that has become a feature of conferences about education: The designated speaker about education technology almost always seems to start with the sequence of questions: "How many of you have ever joined a MOOC?" and a few hands go up. And, then, almost invariably, "How many of you have completed any?" - almost no one responds to this one.

Almost no one, because I am getting used to being the only one in the room who has completed a  MOOC. In fact, I have completed five now, and enjoyed immensely the ones I completed. But, I raise my hand not proudly, but hesitantly, because I expect no kudos for completing courses that almost no one seems to bother about: I don't get any, expect a dismissive "well done" before the speaker moves on to make his/her point.

Which is, essentially, no one completes a MOOC. That keeps everyone happy, except an oddball like me. I carefully keep my HarvardX certificate open on my iPad before I raise my hand, but no one bothers to challenge me anyway. The point is made - MOOCs don't matter. 

Surely, one could skip the second question altogether. Because, usually in these exalted conferences, in the enlightened gatherings of university administrators, policy makers, education investors and businessmen, not more than 5% has ever tried out a MOOC. Before even we get to the point of completion rates, MOOCs are proved to be a damp squib. At least inside the Conference Halls where the future of education gets discussed, debated and presumably decided. 

But then one should expect this, isn't it? These discussions are for, by and of the people of the sector; any talk of disruption should surely be left outside. This has been the history of disruptive ideas, including the one which said - those who don't learn from history are condemned to repeat it. 

I am not suggesting that MOOCs will make Higher Ed as we know it obsolete. Far from it: MOOCs are essentially a conservative phenomena, a defensive move, I shall contend, of the Higher Education sector. MOOCs are, seen this way, an extremely clever innovation of some of the universities to protect itself from the disruption that education technologies, rising aspirations, disrupted middle class lives and bad colleges were causing to the idea of higher education. 

So why do MOOCs still have to be defended? Because not everyone gets it. While some universities and innovators are creating this defensive strategy as if from a Christensen playbook, the others are sleepwalking to oblivion. The fact that not even 5% of the education innovators or investors don't bother to check out a MOOC is telling enough. The further fact that one still talks proudly about completion rates, displaying a mindset which has not yet left the finite bounds of a classroom, demonstrate the disconnection. Rajay Naik, the Director of External Relations of British Open University, takes issues with this talk about completion rates, rightly: We should celebrate participation and stop bothering about completion, he contends. 

The disruption to Higher Education as we know it will come from outside Higher Education sector. It won't come from For Profits that play the game by the same rules. It will rather come from players outside the system, who are defining a new idea of education in different - vocational, professional, employer-led training - sectors. It would come from Open Education companies unaffiliated to universities. It would come from global players putting employer networks together. Most of the Higher Education sector does not see it, does not want to see it. This is why the discussion even about MOOCs sound so pointless.

If a parallel has to be drawn, it sounds like the talk about PCs among the big mainframe guys in the late 70s: This was to be a child's play, domain of the nerd, of the lonely looney. May be it is worse than that: But then if counter-culture always had a space in computing circles, in the starchy world of Higher Ed, it is totally unwelcome. However smart a strategy this may be, Higher Ed as a sector is intent on devouring itself and MOOCs may not be able to reverse that.

However, whatever its impact may be, MOOCs should be defended and celebrated, at least as long as it lasts.

Popular Posts

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

Creative Commons License

AddThis