Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Does Higher Education Need Disruption?

All investors love disruption. This is the new mantra, a sales pitch that can't be denied: The dot-com era's 'dent in the universe' has lately become 'disruption'.

Clayton Christensen should be worried. The history of management ideas is replete with examples of oversell. And, indeed, oversold ideas die quickly thereafter. The insight of disruption is a great idea, but when it is slapped around on everything, it loses its meaning. One would suspect that such a disruptive moment has now come to disruption.

One case in point is the discussion about higher education. Everyone wants to disrupt higher education. Even the great and the good have caught up with the 'D' word. But wasn't Christensen's original insight about low quality, low price products disrupting the market leaders because they had overshot the customers' requirements and become unnecessarily expensive? Anyone for low quality education? Can Silicon Valley beat the price points education is available in the developing countries, where 'non-users' really are? 

One can say that you don't have to use 'disruption' in strict academic sense, but that's where the problem starts. An idea stops being an idea when its contents are emptied and the word is used as a label. That's what is happening to the 'D' word, and nowhere more than in Education. 

The question to ask therefore is : Does Higher Education need disruption?

There are lots of complaints about higher education - that it does not serve the professed goals (whatever they are), it perpetuates privilege rather than creating possibilities, the infrastructure is often poor etc. But, indeed, all these complaints point to a need for improvement, rather than disruption. In fact, the problem of non-use in higher education is closely linked to underperformance - if education delivered what it was supposed to, the problem of non-use will perhaps go away.

This gets more complicated when the For-Profits of the Western world attempt to 'disrupt' the education in developing countries. There is some justification for 'disruption' because there is evidence of non-use. There is not enough capacity in some countries, and other places it is plain crazy, like the entire country of Liberia (more precisely, its students) failed to get through university admissions examination in 2013 (see story). Indeed, there are people who can't go to the university. This makes a good case (at last!) for disruption.

However, this disruption must come from within than without. Disruption, if we stick to what we know of it, comes from the lower end of the spectrum, when someone comes up and offers a solution to mop up the demand at the lower end. This can happen in these countries through their non-higher education training providers, who may create a cheap and accessible solution, but not Higher Ed, and serve these students. The way 'disruption' is supposed to work is that once these providers have got the mass, they climb the respectability level and start challenging the established players. However, the current Wall Street formula of disruption, that some Western University will descend on the masses with an overpriced course and turn the non-user into users is stretching the idea too far.

The disruption in Higher Education in developing countries, therefore, may not come from Western For-profits, but their own low priced providers who are trying to offer alternatives to Higher Ed. Often these are low quality providers: In fact, in most cases, they are fairly low quality, which is indeed the hallmark of disruption. The potential disruption of Higher Ed is supposed to come from its fringe, from the likes of Notting Hill College (website), which offers a plethora of programmes at a very cheap cost across the gulf and middle east, which is really an Egyptian entity with an improbable English name [or, Eton University (website), its sister entity, a non-existent university, offering degrees no one will recognise]. Of course, all players with disruptive potential may not disrupt, for lack of vision or strategic sophistication. There are some who will give in to the easy charm of selling certification and will not have appetite for global conquest. But the others, like UTS Global (website), which does online skills certifications outside university programmes, may eventually go on to become more serious players once they have sorted out the quality of their programmes.

One can possibly argue that the disruption idea isn't applicable in education. This is because the degrees are often the markers of social privilege than any commensurable measurement of ability. Its social value makes it a luxury good of a sort, which may operate under slightly different norms than those which offer pure utilitarian outcomes. This is a subject to be debated, but from a pure business standpoint, higher education and degrees may be considered two different product categories, one of which may be less susceptible to disruption.

Christensen Institute's latest paper (See here) does not make any such distinction, indeed. But this may be a detail worth debating about, rather than slapping the label of 'disruption' on anything and everything.

Conversations 17: An Update on My Life

I am currently in Manila. It is good to be back here after almost four years, and meet old friends and new people. Most of the people I meet here, I met them first time for business reasons (I met others through them, so that was business too). However, now that I have no obvious business proposition to meet them, I still feel like seeing them - and they do too. I would like to believe this is a very Asian thing, but perhaps not, because the same thing happens to me in England too: I meet people without business reasons, or at least, without ones that are apparent. While this may sound incredibly pointless to some of my more business-minded associates, I have come to realise that this is my style. I don't meet people to do business, I meet people and then may end up doing business with them.

For those who may wonder why I am not very successful in my business career, this should be an easy explanation: That I don't begin with an end in mind. If I appear to lack a sense of urgency, or not focus on closure, this may be the reason. I have become all too aware of it too, after my initial attempts to get my business off the ground came to nothing. And, struggled internally, indeed: There are days when I would get up and want to be business-like (I do play such silly games with myself); and indeed, I am reminded of this umpteen times by my family, friends and colleagues, those who sincerely care about me, that if I can achieve this, I shall be very successful.

Yet, after the occasional bouts of self-awareness, I get back again to my usual ways. And, this is not about laziness - I put in more hours at work as anyone, and involved in what I do to the point of obsessiveness - but about being comfortable with myself. I have lately developed a thesis - I treat people as ends in themselves, never as a means to something else - but this thesis is only new, and as one would suspect, comes from my recent exposure to Immanuel Kant. The attitude is indeed older than the thesis, and this may have come from my growing up years, spent not in business-like environment, but with lots of relatives, cousins and people: Then, even if I wanted to be business-like, I wouldn't have know what business I would have out of them.

This confession, surely, would disqualify me from being an entrepreneur, and fail me any qualifying examination Venture Capitalists take these days of prospective investees. They want those who sold candies to their brothers or wrote up essays for their seniors to make enough money. I have always shared candies with my brothers, just like all the other mere mortals, and shared classnotes with my friends because they did the same for me. Only lately I realised that even those fairly commonplace actions are not valued in my chosen path - that of being an entrepreneur - and I am indeed wholly unsuitable. I have, therefore, rather lately started developing my thesis - people as an end - almost to counter the onslaught of a different kind of morality aimed at drowning my very average ways of doing things.

But this also gives me the realisation that I am living someone else's life. The only reason I even bothered to try to be an entrepreneur because I wanted to change the way the world around me works. I bought into the idea that it is possible. It is literature and politics that made me interested in such possibility, but given my standard middle class life, I sought to find the change through my work. Being early on the Internet, enjoying the connections and camaraderie that came with those early, imperfect, technologies, I really believed that this is a new frontier where people could matter again. I enjoyed connecting up with people who I wouldnt meet otherwise, and learning about things I wouldn't learn otherwise. I started dreaming about traveling the world because of Internet, because suddenly the far looked near. If I developed the idea that my life will be spent in an quixotic enterprise to change the world, as it looks like right now, it came from those days of green command prompts. All I was after is to expand my suburban universe of friends, conversations, ideas and passions - to include everyone! This was before people made a lot of money on the Internet and turning it into a technology thing.

But, back to the future, because those pasts dont matter because they were never really there. Just as people looking into the working of atoms to understand the wonders of the universe never realised that those paying the money wanted to unleash those terrible energies for a different purpose, to use it against humanity and nature, and those utopian ideas about Internet was just that, utopian (which, despite the techno-visionary zeal of our age, still is a hate word). I have moved on, got wiser, did and failed in dotcom, and tried and failed again. I guess the two things that happened to me in these saga of failures is that I have traveled quite a bit (if my friendships in Philippines is any evidence, I traveled on my own terms) and I have got wiser to understand that lots of what we hear isn't really true.

Like, the entrepreneurs change the world! That is a sales pitch, and as honest and material as any sales pitches. It matters, because people buy into this - but it does not change the world, because that is not the objective. Buying my groceries online and getting it delivered at home by some underpaid worker is not changing the world (as a dear friend used to say back in the 90s, when you buy potato online, that will be the day of the Internet): the world changes when everyone can have a square meal a day. Entrepreneurs don't change the world, they just change what changing the world may mean. And, people like me, too cowardly to do anything more significant, too comfortable with our middle class life, too sensitive to what other people around us will say, just console ourselves by joining this crowd, who would expropriate all the dreams of a better world just to make it worse!

One may say this is the rant of one that failed. I shall deny I even tried - and that has always been the criticism I received - but even if one comes to realise this through failure, that's good enough. In fact the problem is that people don't, they can't: The greatest thing about the traveling I am doing now is that it allows me to escape, not just my failure but also my comfort, and lodge me in distant places where, even with all my friends and contacts, I have enough discretionary time to think about what the past has come to, and what the future should be.

And, in a dark moment like this, it is very tempting to buy into the Foucauldian vision that there is no point trying: Resistance is pointless, because even if one resists this structure of power, it only legitimises the very thing it is resisting. The monster changes shape: It is not like the stupid godzila tearing through the city, but the unjust world we are trying to resist is more like the ever-changing clayface. But the point is not battling, but resisting, as Gandhi would have realised: The evil that one is fighting in these modern face-offs is not really out there - there is no villain, just injustice - but inside, because we are all participants. As he would have said, once one realises, it is resistance to getting drawn into the same vortex of injustice and oppression - memorably 'being the change that you want to see in the world' - is the way to make one free. And, that is - freeing myself - an achievable goal!

Enough banter, but that's what I wanted to do: A change in life is warranted. A fundamental change rather than a cosmetic one, like a change of job (I have just changed one). My way of resistance is to cultivate a different set of values and stop looking for jobs, stop trying to be an entrepreneur and look for the next big thing in life. To be able to change, to imagine anew, to be able to defy, to be able to create - all those used-up, perverted rhetoric, dime-a-dozen thrown to us by the publicists of the silicon valley - have a different connotation, a truer meaning, one that I was in search of. I feel ready to be bold - I feel empowered to try to find it.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Meaning of 'Skills'

There is a lot of talk on skills in India. Its Prime Minister and other functionaries keep talking about 'skilling'. Indian policy makers have somehow convinced themselves, based on no other claim than managing to waste the largest amount of money in skills education ever in history, that this is one thing that they do well. They are further encouraged to think that way by the myriad skills education providers from around the world who want a share of the spoils and show up at various conferences to participate in the biggest skills 'mission' in the world. And, in this circus of the absurd, everyone have now convinced themselves that the job is already done and the rhetoric should move to the next level: The claim now is that India has the skills and it must now 'make'.

Yet, if anything, the availability of skilled personnel has reduced, not increased, in India. This is perhaps because the melee around 'skilling' - a quick capsule of training rather than patient accumulation of expertise - has undermined the value of doing a good job. The skills mission has developed an 'anything goes' culture, a sort of lumpen-craftsmen not seen anywhere else in the world, and a decline of the professional culture. The government's enthusiasm about skills, it seems, has managed to 'de-skill' India quite thoroughly.

But there is also another paradox to contend with. The biggest problem that many skills training providers report is in recruitment, which should surprise anyone who cared to look. Why would that be so in a country with millions of poor, young people in stagnant rural economies? One could partially blame some of the other Welfare schemes, the handouts given to those trapped below poverty line. This is an old argument between welfare and skills education, all too common in European countries; however, its persistence in the desperate wilderness of rural India, where the Welfare State only have bare minimum existence (where handouts are available, but safe drinking water isn't), should point to something more grave. One may need to go beyond this standard excuse and start exploring how 'skills' is perceived, by those who want to 'skill' and those who would need the 'skill'.

Looking at the Indian experience, we should be able to see that the word 'skills' has two distinct meanings. In common use, this means the ability to do something well. However, the word has been appropriated  to be the equivalent of the modern workhouse, a churning machine through which one could be fed into some big industrial machine, rescued from the idle pleasures of the desperate village life to the desperation of some urban slum. It is not about doing things well, or doing things one wants to do, but the capacity to participate in the modern economy, being some sort of proto-consumer and canon fodder in the middle class consumption machine! In that sense, it is a tool of social engineering just like the hated Stalinist collectivisation, or the experiments with sterilisation of the poor or the mentally deficient.

In short, there is no fun in being 'skilled'. It is not being 'empowered', becoming the 'subject' and being able to change one's life: It is rather like being acted upon, being told one's pointless existence outside the modern economy must be commuted for the rightful place at the bottom of the urban social chain. It is so because the idea of 'skills' is not coming from ground up, people who are being skilled don't have a say about what they may want. They are rather taken as ignorant, not knowing what they want - and are told what the good life is, for them.

Such an idea would be abhorrent in any other circumstance except when it is grounded, as it is in the 'Skills' missions, on the theory that poverty is a result of innate laziness of the poor and not of the circumstances. Skills is an assault on the inactivity of the poor, which, in an act of symbolic violence afforded by language, has been branded 'idleness' as if to equate it with the excess of rich life.

So, in this construct, skills is not about being good at something, and not even at being good at anything. It is rather about accepting one's station in life and capping one's life chances, in a roundabout way. This is about accepting the hopelessness and deserting the life one is born into, along with the family, the soil, and all that comes with it, and surrendering any intentions to change it. The skills, as practiced, is not about freedom and ability, but about dependence and slavery. It is no wonder that a large part of the Skills programmes, indeed the most effective parts of it, are funded by corporations wanting to appropriate land and resettling the inhabitants, and such funding comes with the condition that those trained must not be able to return to their place of birth. In a mirror image of Khmer Rouge, the skills programme is about creating dependencies and misery, not development.

And, in context, not wanting to be skilled is a resistance worth celebrating. Instead of vilifying people who are voting with their feet against those free training programmes they are enrolled into, this should be seen as a pragmatic rejection of a deeply authoritarian scheme: A cause of reflection and anguish, if we are still capable of such things. And, perhaps, the lesson for the rest of the world is that it is not government largesse that create skills, otherwise India's would not have been such a pathetic failure, but a social consensus built around respect for the individual, a professional society where expertise is valued over pedigree and class, and an inclusive model of development. This is perhaps the only lesson from India's skills disaster: That we failed on all three counts.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Being in the Middle when the Average is over

How does it feel to be in the middle when average is over? The middle classes know: They feel squeezed, and clueless, as the fusion of ubiquitous globalisation and pervasive automation push the economies to the tipping point of making people in the middle redundant. The middle class values, of moderation, patience, of deferring consumption and long preparation, continuity and persistence, are all baggage in this brave new world of superstars. Bragging, not modesty; consumption, not savings; street smarts, not preparation; opportunism, not commitment; the things that win are instinctively abhorrent to the middle classes - or, the old middle classes, more correctly. They have been left behind, comprehensively and irredeemably, in the world we created.

But this means more than just the decline of a class of a people: It may mean a change in the way of life. Civilisation is a big word, but it is not altogether inappropriate to say that we did build a whole civilsation around the emergent middle classes in the last 150 or so years, which now lay wasted. The reasons are far too numerous, though the global equalisation of consumption leading to scaling of production, hollowing out of the traditional organisation structure, process driven management leading to automation of great many tasks, and the value system that put corporate profits ahead of stable communities, have gradually led to a superstar economy: Few winners, lots of losers, and no place in between. In a world where 150,000 people Kodak goes bankrupt and 13 employee Instagram is ever ascendant, there is no place in the middle.

Besides, there is a political dynamic to contend with too. It seems that the death of petite bourgeois is linked with the death of its supposedly great enemy, state socialism. With the failure of an alternate state form in Soviet Russia, the roll-back of welfare state became politically possible in the West: All those middling professions which lived in the safe shadows of the great state started disappearing just as soon. In fact, the greatest prosperity of middle class in these modern times is precisely in the land of the cultural revolution, where a great state looks over intently over all activities.

But if the state made the middle classes, middle classes made the state it was, as they did with all the institutions we know: Our universities transformed themselves from bastions of piety or privilege to the factory of possibilities, a middle class mantra; the banks found nirvana in mortgages; the royal suppliers lost their place of pride to department stores; and paperback fiction and Coronation Street (and its likes) took over the high culture and dinner table conversations. The world we live in, all its artifacts, is steeped into a vision of middle class life: The same redundant, ineffectual, pervasive, boring life.

So, for the opening question - how does it feel like - the answer perhaps is that being middle class today is like observing one's own body after death: As a ghost, one should feel totally ignored and redundant, watch life going on without slightest trace of concern or consideration for the person departed, new relationships forming and old ones falling apart around the emptiness one left behind, so quickly that one may feel their existence made no difference. If such an imaginary position was ever possible, one would have watched their possessions taking a new form, an old favourite discarded, a silly junket taking over a vantage point in one's own room, a new life emerging almost in a vacuum. One may resent it with full knowledge that such resentment is as redundant as one's self; one may be amused but such amusement is also meaningless. And, while such ghostly existence is only an imaginary, that may be exactly what being in the middle is like today - to see one's own institutions, language, values and cultures moving on as if by themselves, morphing into something previously unknown, in a form whose only intent may be to make its own lineage redundant.

Change is good, perhaps. Nostalgia is a boring game old men play, perhaps. The ineffective but pervasive, intrusive but insensitive, repressively colourless middle class life is perhaps dead for good. But in the brave new world of constant change, there are not many winners: Rather, those millions of the middle are now dispossessed, not just of what they owned, but their dignity, just like that ghost who fell short of redemption and was forced to observe their own bodily demise. Indeed, such things happened before, an entire way of life ended, and the middle classes were the people ascendant then: Then, too, ghosts were invoked to describe the feelings (read Walter De La Mare) and the house of memories is still celebrated in popular culture (watch The Grand Budapest Hotel). However, it is time to turn a new page and write the obituary of the middle class now. It would be like walking through a grand house with many clocks all of which stopped working at various times for the want of wounding, or walking through a vast unread library whose books are dust-covered but untouched: It is time to start mourning what we all were meant to be.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Culture, Power and Learning from Experience

As I work on implementing project-based learning in different countries in Asia, one objection, that this 'idea' is not Asian, comes up all too frequently. Citing anecdotal evidence, my correspondents tell me that the Asian students are taught not to challenge and to ask, and that this approach to learning, built around a passive and respectful learner-teacher relationship, is too Asian to be swept away anytime soon. Correctly, they point out that the Asian students often behave the same way when they study abroad, at least initially, attending the lectures and displaying unquestioning respect for the teacher, trying to photograph every slide, note down every word. 

The usual argument is that the same students will start learning differently, if exposed to a different system of learning, should be investigated in the background of these observations. Because, this discussion is not just about teaching methods, but learning: A Different approach to inquiry may lead to a different outcome (see my earlier post here). In fact, observers report engagements based on discreet learning events and respectful engagement leading to a number of 'if-then' conclusions, but not enough of 'what-if' experimentation which ought to be the essence of experiential learning.

The challenge, seen this way, seems to go beyond mere structuring of learning experiences: In fact, recasting Peter Drucker's observation that culture could eat strategy for breakfast, one could say that the inherent cultural factors may produce unintended consequences from even the most carefully constructed experiential learning engagements.

Yet, I shall claim culture is the wrong place to look. That Asian students are naturally subservient and given to followership is a wrong conclusion, easily disproved by a number of anecdotal examples defying this stereotype. Many Asian students at Western universities amply demonstrate a high level of pragmatism in learning the ropes quickly enough to overcome the barriers of language and different upbringing. In fact, many Asian students acquire second or third languages quite adeptly and continue doing business in it all their lives, which should fly in the face of the theory of their being inward looking and not open to experiences. 

I shall, therefore, connect the supposed docility and linearity of Asian classrooms not to the cultural stereotype, but the power equations we consciously or unconsciously build in those classrooms. Particularly when we apply this to the emerging middle classes, the language of the classroom (often English), practices, the selections and admissions process (which reinforce the power equation), the projections of the world outside (global as well as the world of work), all establish a tilted playing field, where the student is at a disadvantage. Even when s/he is being asked to learn from experience, she is not being told to experiment with the experience: She has already been put into a highly structured environment with subjects chosen, credits assigned, activities selected and outcomes premeditated. Given that the student is coming from a highly unequal society, not just economically but socially, and into an education system which is an integral part of that systemic inequality, inspiring the students to get into the experimentation mode with the learning design alone is akin to believing in miracles.

Imagine a student who is coming from a family which was perhaps not poor but not rich enough to idle away their days, whose parents put their life savings into the child's education with the expectation of her having a better life than theirs. The student arrives at the school through a highly structured process, which reinforces to her that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity. She was given a syllabus and assessment criteria, and told that she has two chances of passing the examination. And then she was told to be creative and experiment with her experiences - and then blamed for her cultural DNA once she tries to take the sure path, pragmatically trying to choose only what matters to pass the examination and get to a decent job! The employers may complain that the kind of learning she did is useless, and indeed it is, but it is not the national culture but the equations of power deeply embedded in the classroom that makes learning from experience so difficult to achieve.

What should an educator do then? Being conscious of the power equation is perhaps the first thing: If one could create an environment to set oneself free, showing respect for the student's self, her sensibilities and existing knowledge (imagine a friendly conversation with a mentor to assess suitability and motivation replacing the admissions test and interview); a system which is tolerant of people failing and designed to prevent them from being a failure (where experimentation gets credits rather than results, for example); a curriculum that is based on one's life experiences and aimed at developing a wide range of behavioural and linguistic repertoire rather than unintelligible subject matters devised in another country and delivered in a language usually associated with rich people; and an outcome aimed at developing the whole person rather than giving a limited tool kit aimed at a limited number of situations, and the like! This will require a different institutional design and sensitivity to students' own persons, something that the whole discipline of learning design has constantly overlooked with its pursuit of industrial scale and focus on standard outcomes! However, if one has to get people learn from experience, there is no other way but to start challenging the power equations that hinder such learning.  

Friday, September 19, 2014

Conversation 16: The Alternative Futures

This blog has become my space to converse, learn and reflect about education. Education, however, is a forward looking enterprise: While I explore motives and purposes of education, which is what I tend to do, such ideas are invariably embedded within our view of the future. My sense of urgency to work for educational innovation comes from the sense that we are at a discontinuous point in our history, and the magnificent model that we have built over last two hundred years may have run its course. This sense of urgency drives all my work, my current endeavours to set up online competency-focused higher education, to organise conferences around education innovation, of writing this blog and my studies and conversations. But, all these, as I am as aware as anyone, are laden with assumptions about the future. 

While we may all anticipate a discontinuity - because our recent living experience has been a journey of continuous discontinuity - we may not necessarily all agree on the exact shape of it. Besides, it is difficult to imagine which parts of our world will exactly change, and this process, however scientific we want to be about it, is dictated by our own values and ideas on how we live. There is a view of the future which is emerging from Silicon Valley (and its offshoots in other metropolises around the world) - one of a 'power law' economy, in which a select 'information elite' dominate the world economy and take a disproportionate share of rewards, leaving everyone else with some kind of handout. While this is presented as obvious and inevitable, there are alternative visions which look equally obvious and inevitable from different vantage points.

The vantage points are important, because, as someone fighting for justice for poor peasants in India told me, the only future that matters to him is the one that applies to him personally: If he has to starve, he has to be ready for starvation. Education is, despite all our grand mountaintop visions, a deeply personal enterprise: One that is designed to educate me for someone else's future is inherently pointless. However, though it may seem so, we are not talking about designing education with a limitless number of perspectives, which will render the enterprise futile, but rather around a few key themes. Besides, the ideas about education should be informed by which vantage points are producing a misconstrued perspective - they are facing an allegorical rear-view mirror which makes future look like the past - and the job of an educator may be, first and foremost, to challenge such a view. 

With this in mind, we can perhaps all agree that the dominant theme of education as it stood for last two hundred years, aimed at preparing people for various kinds of 'process based' jobs, is fast becoming redundant. Whether or not Information Technology can change the world, it certainly transforms the office jobs. As files disappear, so do those who filed, kept track of them and fetched them when needed, along with those who managed them. This may seem obvious at certain parts of the world, and less so in others, but it is a mistake to assume that low-cost economies are immune from such technological effects. What carries this technology wave even to those places where labour is cheap is globalisation, at one level of trade and commerce which brings the prices and wages closer across the world, and at another of values and ideas, where the managers, trained in a certain way in business schools, all start thinking similarly and measuring the efficacy similarly. This disappearance is important because, as it stands, this is what education is for, right now: Those who think that they can continue educating for such jobs just because their economies will remain protected should be challenged, and justifiably so.

But does this automatically mean that we have to buy into the idea of 'power law' economy? This view is that the convergence of automation and globalisation will out wipe out the kind of low cost advantages that powered the emerging economies in the last two decades, and create production and service clusters near where consumption is. This view seems plausible - a natural extension of the technological disruption we already see in office work and yet deeply disruptive, at least for the education frenzy the last wave of global sourcing set off in the emerging economies. However, there are fundamental assumptions underlying this view. This is based on convergence and expansion of consumption, and technological triumph over environmental concerns. Its effect, creation of a global information elite, depends on a global consensus around fundamentally contested concepts like money, intellectual property, propriety, value of human life etc. In many ways, this view is rational, but in the past, human civilisation did not follow the most rational course available to it: It often created different possibilities.

So, it is perhaps possible to imagine alternative futures even while accepting the preeminence of the machines. One may accept the growing powers of automation but reject the assumption that it will happen everything else remaining the same, i.e., within the context of the same value system that we live with today. Automation may fundamentally alter the value we ascribe to different things: Self-driving cars may make self driving a status symbol - a man of leisure! One may feel that the system of values that we live with is a given and unchanging: However, it is easy to see their social construction and know that they are inherently changeable. Besides, one problem that the economists have not solved yet in their grand vision of convergent consumption is the consumption itself: How to keep circulating the wealth if the power law economy comes into being. Self-driving cars are a great improvement, but they wont keep buying cars as cab-drivers do. The current proposals are based on tax credits, basically dole, to keep the wheels of commerce moving: However, one perhaps can see this more as an acknowledgement of the problem rather than a solution.

Finally, the emergence of the automated future also rearranged the resistance to it, and the shifting, malleable nature of this resistance, and the strange coalitions that this entails, perhaps indicate that we should not commit to any deterministic view of the future. The idea that the human beings are meaning seeking animals (rather than wealth seeking ones) should perhaps be taken seriously: Recent history may be read along those lines. Our assumption that all those who are protesting against the grand future are doing so because they are left out and desolate may only be partially right. One could clearly see that there are those among them for whom the protest, and the consequent misery, is only a choice - they have given up great luxuries to have chose the alternative paths! From the conventions of middle class life, such departures may appear inconceivable, but we may be approaching a point where middle class life become inconceivable in itself and the only conversation worth having is which departure one should opt for. 

In summary, then, we need reimagine education in the context of the technological progress, but not necessarily by accepting wholesale a deterministic view of the future. The future is likely to be ever-changing, creative and full of possibilities, just as it always turned out be all the time in the past. If not, it won't be worth educating for.


Thursday, September 18, 2014

Learning from Experience: Approaching The Future

I wrote about the contrast between John Dewey's concept of Learning from Experience and the conventional ideas of Experiential Learning (See here) and the limitation the latter may have, despite its popularity, as we climb into a future with smart machines and pervasive globalisation. I see Dewey's concept of creating engaged individuals to be central to the system of education we ought to build - and indeed see that the modern education system, with its focus on creating humanoid workers, is precisely its anti-thesis - and believe that we need to promote the concept of experience not as isolated special events but as an opportunity to interact with one's world. 

The key difference that this different approach to experience makes is in the idea of inquiry. Learning from Experience depends on the emotional engagement with the world and asking questions: This much everyone agrees upon. But it matters what kind of questions we are asking, because they shape our abilities differently.

If we take experience as a special learning event - fitting seats on a car assembly line, for example - our engagement comes through a series of questions around if-then thinking. Predesignating something as a learning event underline this model of inquiry. Besides, that experience is an outside event - something the individual needs to draw from rather than actively shaping it - encourage this approach. This has been very useful and millions of workers across the world has been trained through this method, and therefore, this is the model of experiential learning we usually think of when confronted with the term.

In contrast, if experience is our engagement with our world, where we are actors ourselves and experience is not any special event but the way of being, we learn through a different form of inquiry: This is the what-if thinking where one engages and explores. This form of inquiry is the catalyst that transforms lived experience into a learning experience, contends Dewey. This requires a different level of enablement than learning through structured experience - structured by someone else being the central point - and is at the heart of all the abilities that we seem to demand from the learners, critical engagement, creativity, imagination.

The question of power and control was not a fashionable discussion in Dewey's world and he did not engage in it. But from today's perspective, one could perhaps see the problem, and the point, of learning from experience being the unpredictability of the outcome. The learning objective, the well-defined, written down, descriptions that we want to impose on our learners, (and which they also love as predictable chunks of 'knowledge' advertised on our shop-windows) does not fit in very well in this serendipitous world of free inquiry and what-if journey. And, creating such education is deeply disruptive, taking the power away from the educators, the state, the privileged and the employers, and vesting it in the learner, letting him free from the bounds of the past and letting her imagine the future without constraints.

Yet, as we see the future of the rise of the machines, we seem to acknowledge that in such freedom, lies our humanness, not just humanity but human advantage. Education being a forward-looking enterprise, which idea of future one subscribes to becomes central to what one expects of education. That the world will go on as usual is the assumption behind our love for 'experiential learning'; that there could be discontinuity, and we may be standing at that inflection point may make us think differently about what kind of learning we may want.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Learning from Experience and Experiential Learning

Experiential Learning is the old hot thing. Not only everyone likes the idea - that learning should happen from practical life - it has a great pedigree in education theory. The new formula of competency-based learning, that learning should focus on useful competencies required at work, takes this idea further, and tightly weave all learning around experience, making all else superfluous. However, while this has become the new orthodoxy, one limitation of this conception is how to fit this into a rapidly changing world. When everything changes, and today's competencies may not translate into any future advantage, one would wonder whether experiential learning is enough. Besides, one ought to ask how to approach learning when change happens in our life and work so rapidly.

The answer may lie in learning from experience. I use the term in the classical sense, as used by Dewey, and as opposed to the idea of experiential learning. Dewey himself contrasted his idea of 'experience' with the conventional use of the term later in his life, and pointed out five important differences. It is worth revisiting them in the context of our very real problem whether experience can be a guide to our future action when the realities are ever-changing.

First, Dewey used the term 'experience' as a way of being (living one's life) rather than as an event which produces knowledge, which is how we see experience. So, learning from experience, in this sense, includes looking, feeling, sensing, being - not only knowing! It does not also mean to have to choose experiences which teach something and rejecting others which don't, but rather engaging with the world with an open mind and a spirit of inquiry. The pragmatists' project, which Dewey was advancing, was not to submit to any grand theories (as fashionable then - Marxism etc - or as we do it now, seeing the world through our religious denominations) but to treat experience of life and being as the origin of all knowing. It is the spirit of inquiry and openness in Dewey's project that turns lived life as a source of learning, with emotions confronting experiences and turning them into memorable events and a source of reflection and reference at a future time. In that sense, a sense of engagement with one's world is absolutely essential in this project, rather than looking out first whether there is any learning in it. 

Second, experience is conventionally understood as an inner mental process, subjective and private, whereas Dewey, and for that matter all pragmatists, wouldn't draw a distinction between the objective world and action and the subjective experience. When we treat experience as engagement, experience is a deeply a social process, indistinguishable from action and very much part of it. Experiencing is not just about reflection (and writing reflective pieces for academic credit) but participating and acting, because only by acting one could gain the 'experience', that of living and being.

Third, this follows from the two preceding ideas of experience as a way of being and as indistinguishable from action, that Dewey's conception of experience is not the something that happened in the past. Engagement and action rather than recollection is at the root of this scheme - as 'we live forward' - and experience is about being a sentient and sensitive being, fully engaged in social world and being committed to action and change. 

Fourth, 'experience' in conventional sense is conceptualised as isolated and special events, whereas Dewey would see experience as connected and continuous, as a way of being should be. It is the continuous nature of experience - made possible by the subject, the person, as the central and engaged part of the experience - that allows one to 'be' rather than just to 'learn'. 

Finally, experience in the conventional sense, an event outside our minds, is seen as beyond reasoning, whereas in Dewey's scheme, where experience is not outside one's being, no experience happens without reasoning and engagement. It is the forward-thinking all pervasive reasoning that turns life into a source of learning and knowledge, and human beings into engaged, sentient, alert beings.

This stands in contrast with the conventional uses of 'experiential learning' which projects experience as discreet, specially designated events, which must end with 'what did you learn' discussions. The implicit idea is that such past events, analysed with reasoning as existed in the past, can remain frozen in a person's mind, objectively and disconnected from all emotions and ways of being, as a source of reference for future situations. This, in many ways, imply a different sense of learning - 'a bucket to be filled' - rather than Dewey's project of making engaged individuals - 'a fire to be lit'. And, this difference perhaps become central as we approach, if the claims are to be believed, a discontinuous point in our history, an age of unprecedented globalisation and automation, when we enter a new age of the machines and have to rediscover our 'competencies to live' all over again. 


See Also: Bente Elkjaer, When Learning Goes To Work: A Pragmatist Gaze At Working Life Learning.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Education and Secular Morality

Education, to be modern, it is generally assumed, should be overtly technical and value neutral. The pursuit is not of values and beliefs, but rather of 'quality', which, in a self-fulfilling way, is defined to be meeting the proclaimed objectives. 

Morality, one could almost anticipate the argument, is not about day to day lives. It is one of those big things that the student-as-a-worker may not need to concern with. However, if one benefit of modern life is expansion of choices, the flip side of it is an expansion of responsibility: Suddenly, what we eat or what we wear, not to mention how we travel or where we bank, have a moral implication. The more control we have on our lives, the more power we have over nature - the very gifts of modernity we celebrate - expands our moral involvement. 

The fact that a technocratic education, which most people tend to receive, seek to leave such questions out - and yet those questions keep coming up - create two different realms, one of everyday practice and a separate one for religion. If the original purpose of a scientific education was to push back the theological hold on ideas, by denying the moral involvement, it has somehow achieved just the opposite: Religion has taken over the vacuum and become the provider of last resort for all moral questions.

This creates two different challenges. 

First, religious morality is structured around us and them lines, and it allows us to hold two standards of morality - one for the ingroup and one for the others. If one is perplexed how very civilised and kind civilians display extraordinary cruelty and indifference to people of a different religious faith, this is perhaps because we fail to hold ourselves to any obligation outside the religious morality.

Second, all institutional religion allows moral redemption, an easy after-the-fact way out. Such practices, which is what outraged Martin Luther in the first place, disconnects morality from every day life, just as the implications of choices we make become ever more consequential. 

Relegating morality to religion, therefore, have two consequences: It makes us increasingly parochial just when we are starting to live global lives, and it allows us to become more irresponsible just as we have more impact on our surroundings, both people and environment. The great failure of modern education is to develop a secular morality, and one could plausibly argue that this is the root cause of many of the civilisational problems we increasingly face.

The current conversation about education completely overlooks this question, in fact, avoids it assiduously. The idea of individual morality is ultimately subversive, as deciding for oneself, Enlightenment's rallying cry, perhaps vests too much authority on the individual. However, the alternative proposition, that one wants them to become consumers without a sense of responsibility may eventually become unsustainable. Besides, for all the enthusiasm about making education about competencies to work, there is an acknowledgement that we are missing out on competencies to live. 

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Next Wave and The Educators' Dilemma

The writing is on the wall: The next 10 years will not be like the last 10 years for jobs and work in the emerging markets.

In an insightful article in Foreign Affairs, Andrew McAfee, Erik Brynjolfsson and Michael Spence argue that the current convergence of globalisation and automation is fundamentally reshaping the world economy and altering the patterns created by the last wave of IT and globalisation. With the advent of World Wide Web, cheap intercontinental communication and expansion of global trade, there was a wave of 'outsourcing' which benefitted the low-cost countries and created a new middle class. However, with intelligent machines and an altered dynamic of globalisation after the Great Recession, this pattern is altering. Labour is no longer the biggest cost for a manufacturer, for example: Transportation is. So, manufacturing is coming where the consumption is (iPhones in Texas) and even China, despite its great success in manufacturing, has been quietly losing manufacturing jobs. Call Centre workers are at risk because the calling bots could replace them easily, all kinds of transcription work that paid handsomely in developing countries are at risk from the increasingly capable speech-to-text software, and even the every day grunt work done by Indian programmers in software factories are being increasingly done by computers. Joshua Cooper Ramo may see in this a reversal of globalisation (see here) but what's really happening is a global expansion of consumption with localisation of production. This, the authors argue, creates a 'power law economy', creating a tiny 'power elite' who controls the information resources that run this economy, and take a disproportionate share of its rewards.

But this is a digression of sorts, because what I want to talk about is how this should affect the education agenda in the developing countries. In a sense, the policy-makers in these countries are sleepwalking into this future: They are looking into a future where there is more of the same thing as we had for last 10 years. The talk is to create more educated workers so that the factories can remain competitive and BPO industries don't get strangled by the talent bottleneck. That these industries are going to shrink and that lots of the current workers will have to scramble for the few jobs that would be available, thereby shutting out the new entrants, is not an argument they are willing to take on board. Employers may be aware of this shift at the highest levels - India's top BPO companies are moving near their customers - but the executives on the ground are caught in here-and-now and aren't seeing any shift in the market. Indeed, it's not them who sees any shift in the market anyway, until they get run over.

Education policy is necessarily an exercise in the art of the long view. However, policy-making in education in most of the developing countries is only reactive - it is only catching up on the skills problem after the horse has really bolted - and forward thinking isn't the name of the game by any means. The fact that such convergence may mean a different kind of education - a shift of emphasis from process to creative work, a realignment of prosperity away from companies earning hard currency to companies serving domestic customers, a different kind of innovation focusing on bottom-of-the-pyramid customer rather than process efficiency - is still nowhere in discussion. It is also ignored that this oncoming convergence means, in a large part, the breaking of the false dichotomy between Higher and Vocational Education, and breaking of the regulatory walls that we build around education.

This is ignored not just because it threatens vested interests, which it does, but also because there is n clear alternative model. There is a lot of claim of education disruption, but one has to accept that if something does not really violate 'conventional wisdom', it is not really disruptive. And, given that the current wave of 'disruption' is being led by private equity money, i.e., with financial backing of some of the most privileged and conservative people in the planet, it is almost impossible for them to be disruptive. What is happening instead is a simple land grab - the public educators are losing out because of the public to private shift in education and new, more 'business efficient' models of education are emerging - but none of these models are truly disruptive because they are not creating new 'uses' of education. Rather, the claims of disruption were primarily based on pulling non-consumers to consumers of education, which is, as we have seen in the US, really the expansion of consumer debt, but not much about education.

This mechanics - which makes education even more static and conservative - along with the fundamental change of jobs and work create what I shall call, borrowing from Clayton Christensen's work, the 'Educators' Dilemma'. Indeed, Clayton Christensen Institute is at the forefront of the discussion about change in education, though, as I observed above, within a limited context of land grab rather than innovation. What's needed is an honest global conversation about how education is going to look like, and find new 'uses' of education.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

What's wrong with Western Education? : 3

Let's start with the outrageous: Why is it that a woman wearing a Niqab a sign of oppression while consuming umpteen bottles of wine and getting drunk a sign of freedom? While this may appear to be a question designed to irritate the French, what this is really about is a concept the French pioneered: Liberty!Liberty is central to the proposition of Western Education in the traditional societies - it is supposed to make one free - but when one is in a debate such as this, it makes sense to go beyond the rhetoric and what this stands for.

Western Education, which could be defined as a system of education representing the values and beliefs of the European and North American societies and which are usually imposed on societies of lesser means with superior financial and publicity support, draws its legitimacy from four interlinked philosophical claims: That it makes one free, that it creates refinement, that it helps to build superior and prosperous societies, and it enables agency and change. These claims are presented in contrast to what a traditional education could offer - and by implication, the traditional education is seen as one restricting individuals in a social hierarchy, confining them into backwardness and poverty, causing low economic growth and social deprivation, and dis-empowering the individual and binding them to a structure.

While the question of Niqab versus Alcohol is politically loaded and often used by fanatics of different sorts to justify violations of rights and freedom of innocent people, we may use it for a limited purpose to expose what the concept of liberty, as advertised to be a core proposition of Western Education, has come to mean. The freedom, as implied here, is the freedom to consume: Regardless of social norms, environmental constraints, and even financial means, as finding new ways of indebtedness is one of the great achievements of Western civilisation, one must be free to consume! Anything else, deviation from social norms of consumption, preaching restraint, all fall outside this concept of freedom: The idea that one could deprive oneself from being seen - and desired - is an anathema to this idea of liberty. 

The idea of refinement is indeed defined in these terms as well. The serene beauty of a traditional location must be packaged and presented to be counted as a worthwhile place to visit or to live in. Refinement may demand that one attains a certain lifestyle, ability to consume fine wine produced in a certain region of France among them, even if this means giving up one's family home and being an immigrant in search of economic means to attain such consumption. Refinement also means being able to speak in certain languages with the correct diction, even if this means accent training and neutralising one's own way of speaking. It means desiring certain objects and not others, and most certainly not the traditional, the obvious, the old and whatever came from one's grandfather.

That Western Education creates prosperous societies is supported by the claim that it had helped create prosperous societies in the West, though the other major factor that helped in such prosperity - piracy and pillage - is played down and other societies are discouraged from using it. Education, in this view, is seen as a tool, an external technical method, rather than a social contract that emerges based on certain ideas and values inherent in the host societies. The problem of such technical view of education is that it deprives its recipient from a sense of culture. If anyone wonders why an Indian Professional would spend a great amount of money taking a holiday in Switzerland but would do nothing to clean the streets in front of his house, and even throw garbage on it, is perhaps this limiting of education to imported technicalities, and destroying the links between an individual and his immediate surrounding. The flawed notion that the march to prosperity in the West was a smooth march of innovation and improvement of competence underlie this prescription, but the historical realities of Western societies, where the experience has been messy and often accidental and free of any imposed education system, and the actual experience of most traditional societies over the last half century give evidence on the contrary.

Finally, the claim of individual agency is based on a dialectical relationship with everything else, most prominently with nature as worshipped in traditional societies. While we may have different views about whether man should see nature as a resource, and how far one should subject natural resources to one's own demands and desires, using up one's own environment for pursuit of a consumption goal set by distant metropolitan masters of the world is an act of self-destruction. And, indeed, individual agency in this concept goes as far as just that - submission to the ideas of human worth as defined by the masters of the universe - and denying all other competing concepts of existence. Such a journey is destined to end at Margaret Thatcher's point of no return of 'there is no thing as society' - and that end is messy and rather scary! We are anecdotally aware of the perils of the unrestrained individual agency, without a balancing idea of individual ethic: With an imposed education system continuously battling, and effectively destroying, the sense of ethic that arose out of either religious commitments or simple belonging, individual agency may not appear as desirable a goal. 

Questioning the value of an imposed education system should not be construed as a rejection of knowledge, which is a common human heritage, but rather an invitation to re-imagine: This imagination may follow the lines of the great educators, Western and Eastern - how to liberate human spirit, how to find beauty in one's own world, how to bond together with other human beings and how to initiate change - but not the prescription of those who wish to subjugate, restrict, divide and destroy human spirit to their own advantage.     

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

What's Wrong with Western Education?: 2

I wrote a note on Western Education yesterday. The immediate context was this film - Schooling The World - which puts many of the issues to the fore. While I mentioned two distinct objections to Western Education, its association with decline of the traditional societies and ways of life and the recognition of the imposition of a power structure implicit in such education, the film's argument is essentially that it is not one or the other, and the destruction of the ways of life is indeed because of the imposition of the power structures.

In a way, I do what the film is against - try spreading Western education. However, I don't think if I stop taking Western university courses to India and elsewhere, and choose to take courses from the universities in India instead, anyone will be better off. Because the 'Western' is no longer just where the system of education comes from, but a way of thinking, deeply embedded in universities in India as well. The points made by Carol Black, the Director of the film, that such education results in

"– The separation of children from nature.
– The separation of children from family and community.
– The enforcement of a sedentary lifestyle.
– The fragmentation of knowledge into “subjects.”
– An emphasis on text-based rather than experience-based learning.
– An emphasis on competition and ranking, which inevitably leads to some children being labeled as “failures.”

All of them will hold true regardless of which university we may choose to take the courses from. 

Yet, these objections also reveal another issue about 'Western Education'. Experience-based Learning is now a well established norm in western education, yet it is not in Westernised Education. This is an important distinction, because the 'Western Education' as delivered in developing nations is usually different in context and content than it will be when it is delivered in the West. One reason for this difference is the power structure, the very fact that it is being imposed on an alien culture and by that very act, proclaiming a superiority on what's native. The other reason perhaps is that Westernised Education is practiced with a limited aim - to produce a power elite in these societies and lately to produce an army of Westernised consumers - rather than spreading the knowledge and enabling thinking.

The other broad question that may arise out of this debate is 'Western Education as opposed to what?' Once we accept the broad definition of Western Education as not the education coming from Western institutions but all education based on Western value systems and performed in the developing societies with a narrow aim of maintaining power structures and enabling consumers, we have incorporated all forms of mainstream education into this definition. Anything 'formal' which needs financial and intellectual sponsorship from the elite and regulatory approval, is western or westernised in that sense - there is absolutely no escape. 

While this is a rather depressing prospect, one may also note that 'Western' education, in this sense, does not reside within the structure but in the context of engagement with education. One can't lead a crusade on subjects-based view of the world (rather than wholesomeness of knowledge) or dislocation from nature and society without questioning the objective of education itself and exploring the values and motivations that lie underneath.  

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

What's Wrong with 'Western Education'?

One strand of argument in many developing countries is that western education destroys local cultures and ways of living, and causes misery and destruction. This is at the heart of some of the most potent social debates that are going on, in India and in many other places. Both sides of the argument present this as a black-and-white thing: Either western education has brought all progress, or it has destroyed all good things that ever was. As usual, the truth perhaps lies somewhere in between.

Many well-meaning western academics and intellectuals, who have no intent to harm anyone else, perhaps see anything less than wholehearted appreciation of what they do as an act of ungratefulness. After all, 'western science' is primarily responsible for the great improvements in standards of living in the last three hundred years. What's called Western Education spreads the message of scientific progress and rationality, and this has been the argument for spreading it even for the most benign of its advocates.

While the benefits of such education should be self-evident, there are two sets of arguments which are presented against the same. Western observers, supremacist or not, tend to reject these out of hand - but increasingly, with new ideologies in ascendance across the developing world, they should perhaps be given some consideration.

The first of these is the revivalist argument. While Western Science may have wrought great progress, its spread is closely associated with colonialism. This is a time of decline rather than affluence for many countries in Asia and Africa. While it is easy to claim, sitting in one of the Western metropolitan centres, that life has got better, life has got worse with the spread of western education for great many people across these continents. Societies have broken down, norms have changed, and life has become miserable. For societies which were affluent before, such as India and China, it is easy to associate such decline with Western influence: It can be empirically observed, just like all the claims of progress made in Western societies.

The second argument is more nuanced, which does not deny the progress made by Western science and the need to learn about it. However, proponents of this view questions how Western Education has established the superiority of one form of knowledge over the other, and failed to create indigenous abilities to think and to progress. This view treats the progress made by Western science as a common human heritage, which needs to be celebrated, just as the technological and philosophical progress made by the ancient Chinese, Indian, Arabic, Inca and other societies. But the spread of such education was not 'organic', such knowledge was not assimilated and used to create progress and affluence: Rather, Western Education was used as a tool of power, to create divisions in society and create a tiny ruling franchise. It was imposed rather than accepted, and its aim was to trivialise and eventually destroy all social norms, not just superstitions as were claimed. 

The debate about Western Education in the developing societies is not just between the evangelists of the Western Education and those against it, but more so, between these two strands of argument. Indeed, the revivalists, with their simple but crude historical associations, get more prominence, and pitted against those public views in the West, which use an equally simple and crude empirical association. In this argument, it comes down to an argument about whose fault was it, and eventually an implicit debate about which race was better and more progressive. 

The second argument, though, which accept the common human heritage of progress but argue against the power networks and intentions that underlie the spread of western-style education, needs greater consideration from everyone, not just the people from developing societies. The history of progress can be read as a continuous tension between those in power setting the tone of conversation and the people changing the conversation: Science or philosophy or culture did not come top down as imperial edicts, but were nurtured by the amateurs, and was often suppressed by the authorities. More than a century of state-sponsored education may have obscured this fact in the West, but almost all progress starts from the fringe and happens through assimilation. Imposition of a better way of thinking, be it an exogenous imposition as on a traditional society or an indigenous imposition by the elite of any society (which may be the case for some revivalist traditions), serve to maintain a certain structure of power but hardly results in better lives for many. 

It is possible, therefore, to view this Western versus Eastern education debate not so much as a culture war but a fundamental question about what education does. The standard economic view, that it must produce the stewards of a society, can be contrasted with the ideals that it must enable freedom in thinking and in doing. One could argue that all education in the classroom inevitably align itself to the first, because of the sponsorship it must need, financial and intellectual, from those holding those resources in a society: For real freedom, one must find, perhaps found, an education without the classroom, a culture of learning, an approach to knowledge as a common human heritage. 

Therefore, the arguments against Western Education is really about what education is for. This is, at its core, a debate about the context rather than the content of education.   

Monday, September 08, 2014

Conversations 15: The Search for Home

The new phase in my life has well and truly began. Not that all the bits in the new life has fallen in place yet and some work from my past, mostly assessments related to the teaching works I have done earlier, is still pending, but the shift in my lifestyle is distinct. I am back in the UK for a few days, but in less than a week, I go to Madrid and then on a two week journey to India, Philippines, Singapore and Dubai. 

Such opportunity to travel should be fun, but this being the second time in my life, there is less excitement. In fact, I am wiser, with a clear view of what this life entails clearly in my mind.

Poverty Jet Set: A group of people given to chronic traveling at the expense of long-term job stability or a permanent residence. Tend to have doomed and extremely expensive phone-call relationships with people named Serge or Ilyana. Tend to discuss frequent-flyer programs at parties. (Douglas Coupland: Generation X)

For me, rather, this is an opportunity to connect to India. But this is perhaps more than (or less than) going home. This is one of the things one gets to learn when living abroad for a long time: Not to call a place home too easily. A migrant waits for home - home grows on him - rather than let it be set by some kind of accident, such as just being in some odd place at a given time. For them, us, home is something we make. My engagements with India is an attempt to make a home, rather than just going back.

This is a very strange undertaking indeed - to let the country one was born in become itself home. This may sound arrogant to those who never left, but once one has escaped the accident of being born in one place, and constructed an identity elsewhere, home means something else. This means a set of relationship that gives meaning to one's work, and life. This sense of belonging, for those who left, is not to be taken for granted. This comes out of love, a love that needs to be discovered. In that sense, I am in that quest for love.

This is a far cry from the world of jet set though. But, paradoxically, I find belonging in India just because I live a life otherwise. In work, people seem to value me just because I don't live there. Ditto in life: My value comes from not being there. Someone even told me - don't come back as we can talk about you because you are abroad. As I search for home, the quest is for a place where one is valued for his own person, without having to do anything, without having to be anything. This, by definition, though, a never-ending enterprise.

Writing helps. It is almost therapeutic in the elusive quest of home. I change what I write about - how I write too - and also what I read. I rediscover literature as I travel, a lost love. I get back to the novels, after many years of devoting my reading hours to all kinds of serious books. I say, I am not trying to be one up anymore. I am not seeking ideas anymore, I am not looking for arguments. I kneel down to myself, broken, unfit, melancholy, confused me, after coming around the world in search for home and not finding one: Then, sink myself into a beautiful book, a carefully crafted story. Words take me by hand and they don't ask questions: They ferry me to a different time and a different sensibility, one of honour, of belonging, of a story. And, in that illusive world of words, I belong: I find home. No qualifications, anyone is invited there. I stay.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

An Invitation to Think Asian

Traditionally, the modern Indian education, instituted and shaped by the British colonists, have developed around 'the temptation of the West', built primarily around the English language and the values and attitudes that come with it. Even the attempts at indigenous education have almost always been shaped by European revivalist formula, looking backwards to draw inspiration from an imaginary past, based on a fantastical idea of racial purity and exclusion of the others, expressed with a triumphalism devoid of content and context. And, this whole idea was to be played out within the bubble of a modern consumer economy - Levi's celebrating 'Khadi' is perhaps symptomatic - a doomed approach to fashion an identity devoid of commitment, values and connection. 

This affects education more than anything else perhaps. Uneasy with the identity question, Indian education has developed an escapism, resorting to blind technocracy rather than a search for answers. This has not just allowed the development of a disconnected elite, but also development of fundamentalist thinking on the fringes: There are two value choices of an Indian student, either to join the ranks of an elite class where nothing else other than self-interest matters, or to sink in to an identity based on everything modern, and construct an identity based on rejection rather than tolerance.

This is an old conundrum which some Indian thinkers grappled with at the turn of the nineteenth century and their answer was to look for a greater Asian identity. This was their way of escaping the European nation-state thinking, which, at its core, was based on exclusiveness rather than inclusiveness. For these thinkers, the idea of India was not to be based on any kind of 'purity' - racial, linguistic or religious - but rather than cohesiveness and inclusiveness of a disparate identities. They defined this conception of identity based on tolerance and harmony as deeply Asian, as a fundamentally antithetical concept to the European conception of identity. 

Such a notion may sound 'idealistic' contrasted against the 'practical' notion of identity based on race, language etc., but such judgements are based on convention - that I shall think of someone with a different skin colour to be different from me because I accord greater emphasis to skin colour than humanness - and an alternate conception is indeed possible. One of the reasons that an exclusionary concept of identity took hold in India, and the idea of Asian-ness and harmony became marginal, is indeed because of the colonial education system.

This is not just about India though. Across all of Asia, in the early part of twentieth century, nationalism, a concept of European origin, spread and made the 'pan-' identities less relevant. This system of thinking soon led to destructive wars, and a strange twist of irony, Pan-asianism was blamed for the war rather than imperialism and the nationalist conception of identity. And, in the national liberation thereafter, the nationalist system of thinking and organising, precisely the system of values that caused so much misery, became ascendant. This system of thinking was inherent both in the education systems of the newly liberated countries, and even those who opposed it - like the Hindu nationalists in India - accepted its fundamental premises. 

It did not matter that this caused enormous strain and conflicts, human miseries at an unimaginable scale, all to the profit of assorted arms makers and bankers. No one sought to revisit the Asian dream, as the masters of our mind told us this was responsible for the destruction wrought by the war: However, we continued to fight national wars and even the tribal ones, to establish purity and dominance of one kind over the others. And, even within our nations, we continued to battle to establish a 'true' identity though it was apparently not true because these needed to be established.

We have now come to a tipping point that these exclusionary ideas that dominated our thinking through the three hundred years of industrial expansion and western supremacy look less potent than ever. The idea of India is now open for debate, as it seemed that we have finally abrogated the founding concepts and started imagining anew. Geopolitical considerations are resulting in new alignments, and within them, lies both the possibility of a destructive conflict or a harmonious coexistence: Which path we choose is dependent on which values we are guided by. There has never been a better time to revisit the idea of Asia and that of tolerance, harmony and coexistence inherent into it.

Because this must start with education, the Indian educators should take up the project of thinking Asian, by revisiting those ideas of Asian values and cultures, reconnecting with greater Asia as well as imagining new identities based on harmony and connectedness. This is not about rejecting European ideas - in fact, this is an idea that rejects nothing - but about imagining a future by embracing diverse and being open to differences and possibilities. This is about not letting the past define the future, but rather recreating the future with a respect for the past and the nature that nurtures us. This is not about turning our back on human knowledge (as revivalists do) but rather finding our commonness in the heritage of human progress and civilisation. This is a lesson overlooked, and an invitation to rethink is long overdue.


Saturday, September 06, 2014

Education For Employment: Getting Lost in Translation

Two conversations in a space of a few days give me an aha! moment: A vexing problem seemed to have become clearer. This is what I intend to write about here.

The first of these conversations happened in Delhi. I was speaking to a senior official in one of the large employer organisations. The Indian government, after blundering around with vocational training and wasting huge sums of money on it, has recently asked this employer organisation, along with other similar organisations and trade bodies, to set up sector skills councils. The idea is to focus on the skills needs of India's most promising industries, and draw up some kind of list which the education providers could follow. Such specifications, concluded the policy makers, will remove the ambiguity that educators face, and hopefully bridge the education-to-employment gap. 

The person I was speaking to, a senior Director of the organisation leading one such project,  recounted to me how difficult it is to draw up such a map. His point was that the industry did not know what it wanted. There were job descriptions, yes, but no skills map. It was impossible to translate the employers' requirements into some kind of model which could be followed by education providers.

The next conversation happened in London, on my return. When I recounted this experience to one of my senior colleagues, someone who has worked at the Employer-Educator interface for many years. Recounting my conversation in Delhi, I presented this as a particularly Indian problem, stating that Indian employers did not know what they wanted. My colleague, however, disabused me of my misconception immediately. Almost preempting my full description of the problem, he pointed out that in his experience, gathered over the years in many countries across the world, employers almost never had a skills map: They had job descriptions. The employers' life is full of vexing real life problems, which need attending to using a variety of approaches. It is not their job to come up with 'skills specifications', a task bureaucrats want them to do. 

Every employers he had ever spoken to, my colleague said, wanted about five things in their potential employees. They wanted them to be good communicators, good with customers, organised and motivated, problem solvers and able to learn on the job. These are generic skills, and every employer may have a slight twist on what they exactly meant. But the employer requirements were almost always expressed in these terms, rather than any detailed skills maps. 

I recount these two discussions because these were enormously instructive to me. I have gained several insights from these:

First, what I thought to be a peculiar Indian problem isn't really an Indian problem. My colleague never interacted with an Indian employer before. There may be peculiar Indian slants - the 'good communicator' in India may mean good spoken English - but the problem that employers don't know, or don't care much about, skills and competencies is perhaps universal. 

Second, the reason the policy-makers drive enterprises such as 'skills councils' because they are thinking 'like a state'. As James Scott argues, this is why most bureaucratic arrangements fail. The bureaucrats automatically assume that the life of the employer is planned and organised in a certain manner, perhaps in the way their own lives are. However, the employer is out in the field dealing with ever-changing realities full of agents that they don't control, not something the bureaucrats can comprehend even remotely. The employers don't know about 'competencies' because it keeps changing: Besides, they often have to make do with competencies they have. Competencies, from the bureaucratic vantage point, are something to be planned and created; for the employer, this is something that emerges.

Third, the generic competencies that the employers want don't translate well to specific educational objectives, because these are often behavioural traits that need more than just classroom intervention. They often concern the general approach of the individual, not something educational institutions want to get involved into. They are sort of 'graduate attributes' than 'learning objectives'. The way education is sold, a laundry list of various 'modules', can not capture the employer requirements well - except for one motherhood module of 'personality development', which, in any case, obscure more than it says. 

Indeed, these problems are well known. This is why several ill-fated 'finishing school' programmes get conceived, which acknowledge, if inadvertently and as an exercise in self-defeating, the limitations of the educational institutions to provide what the employers want. The primary reason is that these 'finishing school' programmes are conceived mostly superficially, based on assumption such as doing some powerpoint on what to wear may make one dress smart! But even if they did things more sincerely, the model is based on flawed assumptions - and this is really the reason why even the most committed educators also often fail. 

These flawed assumptions, my colleague pointed out, are based on misunderstandings based on the languages educators and employers use. They are often using the same terms - like 'critical reasoning' - but meaning different things. In that example, the educators may develop 'critical reasoning' as an approach to question the status quo, whereas the employer is using the term to mean a pragmatic approach to resources and constraints. Same may be said about 'communication': The educators take great pains to develop rhetoricians, skills to persuade through superior rationality, whereas the employers are looking for empathy, persuasion through understanding of others' point of view.

Indeed, one can endlessly argue the superiority of one approach over another, but that would be missing the point. Indeed, the employers' limited goals may not replace the educators' goals of developing the whole person, but the whole person can't be complete if she does not have the wherewithal to deal with the commercial and material realities of everyday life. Besides, if we put the poor learner in the middle, who is anxious about paying off his debts and make life better for herself and her parents, one needs to pay heed to all the things on the table, and can't afford to ignore what the employers may want. There is a lot that gets lost in translation, and the bureaucratic intervention, based on flawed understanding what the employers want, makes things worse rather than better. This is where innovation in education must happen and indeed, this needs to be more than listing out a few skills which would be outdated sooner than they were even put on paper.


Wednesday, September 03, 2014

The Great Indian University: A Rejoinder

Since writing the post on The Great Indian University earlier, I received an email from Mandeep S Bakshi, a valued colleague and co-traveller, someone who is interested in Indian Education, both as a concerned citizen and a parent of someone taking career decisions. These views were put on an email because it was longer than the word limits allowable for comments on posts, for some reason which I don't understand. However, I thought it was appropriate to publish the email in full for public consumption, and make a separate post, as this email enhances my understanding and previous statements regarding the issues involved.


Hi Supriyo

With reference to your blog on A Great Indian University on August 5, I would like to pen my thoughts. These are based upon my understanding and appreciation of the issues involved.

If you recollect, in one of our earliest interactions, I had expressed my intent to get meaningfully associated with the education sector. Unfortunately, this interest could not get converted to a full time involvement – either as an entrepreneur or as an employee. This is not so much as my interest in the sector dwindling, but more because of not getting an entry point that would satisfy me –lesser from the financial perspective, but more from getting that “Eureka” moment that serendipitously would tell me that it is the right time and opportunity. All my interactions in the sector, either to identify business opportunities or as an employee in management cadre were, to say the least, disappointing. All I could see was that it was the same rat race of getting more revenue, opening up more units and getting more enrolment. Nothing wrong in these objectives – but these could not be the ONLY objectives – without any focus or commitment to address the quality issue or, most importantly, the core issue of churning out graduates with degrees (or should I say competencies) that had no relevance to the corporate sector – or even, the society at large. So, I continued in the rat race in the sector, where, at least, I had some domain knowledge.

However, this did not mean that my interest diminished. I tried to keep myself abreast with the happenings in the sector by reading (including your blogs - although must confess, not regularly and not all of them), helping my daughter & nephews who were finishing high school / graduation in their search for higher education and jobs – this gave me the student perspective, and undertook few teaching assignments as a visiting faculty in a couple of “B” level management institutes in the country – this gave me the academia perspective.  So penning my thoughts on, what, I think are the key issues for this sector in India. Before I start, would like to mention that these thoughts are at the best an outside – inside view into the sector.

1.       The Indian higher education sector has 3 players – Government: that has the job of policy making, regulating and ensuring that the education reaches the masses; Educational machinery: Universities, colleges with its infrastructure- passive (buildings, equipment etc) & active (Teachers, content, softwares etc); and Industry (corporate & social sector) - who consume the output of the education system- the students and provide feedback to the first 2 entities. Needless to say, all 3 have to work in tandem – but easier said than done. Enveloping all these 3 is the technology that is changing at a pace that adds a totally new and critical dimension to the entire sector.

2.       Technology is the piece that is running much faster and ahead of the entire ecosystem. Picture it like the 3 pillar ecosystem being in a box and technology is the wind, or should I say  hurricane, that is blowing the box away and the 3 elements inside the box are all turned upside down and disoriented. Developments in content aggregation and delivery methodologies & mechanisms are running far ahead of other elements.  One can see the active infrastructure catching up, but what is really struggling to keep pace is the passive infrastructure, the policy framework and the industry – academia interaction platforms. While, there is plenty of work happening in the areas of policy formulation and facilitating industry – academia interaction, although limited by the government’s inability and probably, unwillingness to implement these, it is the way forward on passive infrastructure that is the piece that does not fit in. In this regard, I would refer to one of your posts, where you questioned the continuing relevance of universities as they way they have existed till now in wake of growth of MOOCs (notwithstanding the challenges) and building of online learning communities. Not that the physical infrastructure will lose relevance, but it will have to change and move towards sharing of infrastructure (more like it happens in telecom companies).

3.       Another area that requires urgent attention is the industry – academia interface. Today there is just not enough of it happening, with both blaming the other for lack of interest and understanding. I have interacted with the academia in a few institutions, and can say while there is a good amount of appreciation of the need to have much greater interaction with the industry, there is an appalling lack of urgency in driving initiatives to do so. They are still content on just filling in seats for their courses and churning out graduates. There is almost, a shocking gap between what the graduates perceive their place to be in the industry (in terms of job content, salary package, position) and what the industry thinks of their capabilities. Result is just a ballooning number of unemployable graduates, which is getting highlighted in study after study. The problem is that the culmination of this gap is going to be felt most by society at large, and could, in its extreme form, be in shape of social unrest.

While in the above comments, I have highlighted what is not happening right, I must also mention, what I think, are  encouraging trends. First of these is the just developing trend of liberal arts program. This program, at least partially, aims to address the issues of employability as outlined in your blog of 7th August.  While evaluating various options for my daughter (post her completing 12 grade from Mumbai CBSE board), I went into this in certain depth. This course differs from other “mainstream “courses in four aspects. Firstly it is a 4 year course as against 3 year graduate course, with the first year being devoted exclusively to foundation courses required for every student, irrespective of specialisation he/she chooses. Secondly this course allows the field of specialisation to be decided in 2nd year, thus allowing more time for student to decide away from the influence of parents ‘choices.  Thirdly the program builds in internship program and actual industry experience as a part of curriculum- thus attempting to bridge the industry – academia gap. Fourthly it allows the students to mix and match courses (double major, major-minor etc) thus allowing multiple skills to be acquired in line with changing industry requirements.

These programs are still very exclusive with a course costing anything between 3-5 lacs per annum and offered by institutes like Symbiosis, FLAME (both in Pune) and now being offered by Ashoka University and OP Jindal University. The last 2 are starting off this year. (Was quite impressed by Ashoka University for variety of reasons – but would leave an exclusive discussion on this to when we meet later this month). 

Another exciting and related development – which subsequently turned out to be a big disappointment, was the 4 Year under Graduate program (FYUP) of Delhi University, that aimed to provide the very frame work of Liberal Arts to the masses, which none of the universities mentioned in previous paragraph could.  Unfortunately, this initiative was scuttled, thanks to political interference. (We have already exchanged views on this in earlier interactions).

Notwithstanding the collapse of the FYUP, this probably shows the framework of a program that may work and could be developed further to convert an idea of higher education into an implementable venture that could have the backing of all concerned – academia, Government and Industry with meaningful participation from all.

Look forward to your views and discussions on this when you are in Mumbai later this month.

Thanks & Best Regards


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