Thursday, November 02, 2017

Getting Ready For Automation

Automation sounds like Science Fiction. There is an eerie feeling watching a Humanoid Robot on stage. It's indeed there, all over Facebook, but like the other strange things, it is easy to assume that this is distant, out of the ordinary and not going to come and live next door. The more it is hyped, the easier it becomes to dismiss. Until it arrives, not with a bang but in just everyday-way!

That moment is now, almost. One may dispute how long it will take for technology to become smart enough to replace humans in one specific role or the other, but the indisputable fact is that it would happen. That moment is not lifetimes away: Within our lifetime, and definitely within that of our Children, it is going to get there. Humanities great hope of survival can not be that Moore's Law may not hold. And, besides, it is not just the technology but also the financial will behind automation that will power us into the 'second machine age'. The challenge we should focus on how to deal with this future, rather than try to escape or postpone it.

Education is a part of the answer, and a big part of it. There are two ways Education can and will play a role. First, like it happened during the industrial revolution, expansion of schooling equipped a new generation of workers to take advantage of new technologies and therefore, raised labour force participation and productivity at the same time, unleashing an unprecedented level of prosperity and creating a new and much bigger middle class. Second, education also enabled innovation and enterprise - users of new machines finding new and better ways of using the techniques and discovering new possibilities of business in production, distribution or sales - that leveraged the technological progress and created a sort of positive feedback loop. In summary, education restored human agency and leadership in the face of unprecedented technological progress in last industrial revolution, and may yet do it again.

However, this time it may be different. This is not because the people are not sufficiently aware of the technological change - they are not because it is impossible to fully appreciate radical changes when you live within it - and, in fact, if anything, there are more conversations about technological change now than it ever was in history. Rather, this is because over the last century, Education has become an integral part of the political power structure and the Educational-Political Complex dominate our social lives and ideas. Once we have accepted 'merit' as the only legitimate source of power in a modern society, the idea of 'merit' has been defined, owned and controlled closely: Letting go of the idea of 'merit' and redefining it would seriously upset the power structures that we live within.

So, the Politicians and the Bureaucrats across the world, with a few notable exceptions, want to ignore the educational imperatives for automation. Indeed, they turn up at the conferences and play along the revolutionary possibilities of technology, but for them, this need to remain an elite affair. In the industrial revolution, the technological progress, playing over decades, allowed the emergence of a new kind of politics - Liberal politics - that held the middle ground of embracing technology, globalism, democracy and public education. This created a politics of progress, a sort of an 'abundance' mindset in which education was a necessary corollary, and allowed it to create a model of public education that eventually democratised the possibilities of technical advancement.

But there is nothing similar today: Politics is binary, and defined by historical pessimism of different kinds rather than optimism. Education is a multi-billion dollar business, with mature structures and entrenched interests. The narrative of technology, ring-fenced by intellectual property protection and evolved structures of commercialisation, revolves around brilliant breakthroughs rather than tinkering and adaptation - creating an illusory elitism. While everyone seems to say that education needs to change in the face of the new realities of automation, there is little conversation about what those changes can be or should be, and indeed, politicians and policy-makers remain singularly uninterested in such a conversation. Private sector innovation also remains limited, as everyone seems to buy the elitist narrative of technological progress, and there is little focus on democratisation of the possibilities (except for the furore about inequality, but taxes, rather than education, are seen as the answer).

In context, my little project about creating greater awareness about Automation and Globalisation, focused on a city in the unsung part of the world which is also an industrial wasteland, should be seen. The bigger battle for me is to make the beneficiaries engage in the conversation rather than getting resources for it. For the politicians from that city, automation is a distant drum which the developed world should bother about, and which, they assume, will become their concern only after their own political shelf life has passed. And, yet, this time it is different: The automation would hit those parts of the world that benefited from the globalisation of the 90s first and the hardest, wiping out the jobs and prosperity the current generation has come to take for granted. It is already too late to change through education, one may argue, but such an answer fails to offer an alternative: It is just too late to hope that life as it was would continue. 

The political indifference, though, has the opposite effect on me: I am seeing the urgency of private action even more clearly than I saw before. Instead of limiting our engagement in the face of apathy, I am thinking of expanding the scope of activities. Our initial ideas of being a platform for connection and advisory may need changing if there is no one on the other side looking for connection and advice: It is better to build structures for real education for automation rather than telling people about it.


Sunday, October 29, 2017

Building University 2.0: Beyond Platforms and McDonaldization

In an earlier post, I pointed out that the application of 'platform thinking' in education misses the mark, as it fails to understand how value is created in education. Since this apparently contradicts my earlier enthusiasm for the university as a 'user network', this statement needs further explanation.

To start with, Clayton Christiansen's idea that the universities of the Twentieth Century needs to evolve from its current 'value chain' model - wherein its value lies in its processes - to a form of User Network, where its value emanates from its community, still resonates with me. The Value Chain model, with departments, examinations, textbooks and degrees, that we know the university for, is very much a late Nineteenth/ early Twentieth century formulation. And, indeed, one can claim that the universities were always communities, and its value came from being a member of that community rather than its end product - the degrees - for much of history. It is only the late Twentieth century trend of Mass Higher Education that made the processes (and 'quality' that protects the integrity of these processes) become synonymous with the University. In a sense, the 'User Network' model refers to the past of the Universities as much as to its future.

However, the User Network model - or 'platform' as tech businesses will call it - can be easily misunderstood. Rather than the community, it may be seen as something like Facebook, a space and a toolkit, which allows the learners come and create value themselves. This is the vision that For-Profit education and its investors have embraced readily, because it resonates with the motto of 'platform thinking' - with infinite scalability and cost models focused on sales rather than delivery. 

And, this is now being carried to an extreme of self-service universities. The teachers and any form of knowledge are being discarded in favour of 'skills', the idea being no one needs to know anything because knowledge is dynamic. A character in a famous Satyajit Ray movie says, "It is pointless to learn as there is no end of learning", and this fallacy seems to be celebrated in the various neoliberal projects of 'disruptive learning'. Together, they aim for 'McDonaldization' of the University, ironically designing value propositions based on standardised processes and cancelling the community out. In their formulation, the new university is knowledge-free, devoid of any teachers, self-service, bite sized and often virtual: Learners can dip in and out, and create value by themselves for their own use. 

That I have come to see the danger of such an idea should be self-explanatory. And, what I describe is not a fringe phenomena, but the key proposition of what goes under the 'disruptive innovation' label in education. This is backed by serious venture investments, which love the scalability and content-free model, and these ideas are promoted by think-tanks and conferences the world over. Such models are tested out in developing countries, turning entire generations into guinea pigs, and failures, as they come, are swept under the carpet as failures of implementation rather than conception. Ideas, like Learning from Experience, are expropriated to justify the approach, though its proponents, people such as John Dewey or Paulo Freire, had meant very different things. The more recent ideas, such as Self-Organising Learning Environments, evangelized by Professor Sugata Mitra (who I worked with in NIIT), are celebrated, though Dr Mitra's thesis has the ideas of learning communities entrenched into it. The McDonaldized, 'disruptive' University 2.0 disregards such nuances to build education models that fit the spreadsheets, rather than inconvenient objectives such as the development of the person and developing a critical engagement with the world.


Saturday, October 28, 2017

An Update On Me

I have come back where I started. I decided to write this blog in a diary mode yet again. This is how I started anyway, but abandoned the banter as I got more people reading the blog. But I just feel too constrained to fit myself into a crusty professional self - this has been the bane of my career, I would suspect - and I found out that churning out wisdom on the blog is not my kind of thing. I tried and stopped, stopped and tried, and like now, and I am at another moment of fresh start.

A part of how I approach this blog is about my professional responsibility as well. When I am in employment, rather than being my own boss (I alternated between the two modes several times), these constraints matter more. I never wanted to write what I had for breakfast on this blog (I am not famous yet) but about ideas and situations that stimulate and make me think. And, some of these are disappointments: In fact, I figured out, disappointments stimulate more than a happy night out. Or, for that matter, being stupid is also an immensely stimulating affair, if one has the good fortune of getting back to senses not long after. The trouble is, of course, that one can not write about these publicly while also carrying out one's professional responsibilities, which essentially means being the 'role' rather than the person.

As one could perhaps guess, I am at the end of one such life and starting another. My silence over the last couple of weeks, and my resolve to find my voice yet again, would testify that I am at an inflection point. This is the end of the three year period I spent working around the idea of Experiential Learning. I took this on as my attempts of building a global collaborative learning platform through my own start-up faltered. It was a very interesting journey and I had the chance of working with some of the most brilliant people I have ever met. However, three years down this road, it is time for me to start out again, and explore the ideas that I have developed in a more independent manner. That indeed means an all-change moment for this blog: I feel more free, and, at the same time, I have more to write.

Of course, not for the first time, I procrastinated before taking this final leap. This is because I have put relationships ahead of the cold, hard logic of career progress or financial gains, and people I worked with often became my friends (I did refer to them as friends, prompting one colleague to remark that I have 1.2 billion friends in India). This made what should be a rather mundane and procedural affair - leaving a job - a complex human project for me, one involving relationships and commitments. This is perhaps another bane in my career, that the distinction between professional and personal isn't as clear-cut as it should be. For me, therefore, changing a role is almost like leaving a family, and frankly, I can never leave fully something I was so deeply and passionately involved in (as most people who I worked with in the past would testify).

However, I decide to move on based on a professional consideration, the realisation that the Education to Employment problem in developing countries is hard to resolve within the current For-Profit frameworks and mindsets. There are several layers of mistaken assumptions and structural issues which come in the way, and this is not the place or the time to dwell on the details. However, there is one key issue that I take away from the current experience, and I hope that this would become a key thing to deal with as I move to the next projects.

The reason why I think the For-Profit approach, which underpin all the currently fashionable venture investment in the Education sector, falls short in achieving anything transformational is because it misreads how value is created in education. It borrows its model from Technology industries, where 'platform' is the new, cool thing. A 'platform' - Facebook is a great example - essentially offers a space and a toolkit for its users to create value. This is immensely scalable, as the businesses themselves don't have to create content and even direct its purpose (other than maintaining the social norms and legal requirements) and invest all its energies in expanding its user base (sales) and the scope of its tools. The users create all content and connections, and willing allow the business to monetise the value they create for its own profits.

The 'For Profit' approach wants to bring this into Education. It is easy to see how this translates to the education context: No content, only platform! The For-Profit approach feasts on all the sleek theories of self-learning, though they conveniently ignore the caveats and only take the bits that fit their own world-view. For example, no serious education theorist (including ex-NIITian Sugata Mitra, who is the favourite guru of this camp, as he speaks about self-organising learning environments) would ever say knowledge is not important in education: But this message is conveniently lost in translation and at the For-Profit end, education means only skills and experience. Again, someone like John Dewey would highlight the Centrality of Experience in Education, but his caveat, that Experiences are of whole life and not of some bottled exposure, is conveniently ignored (see my previous post on this). The platform approach, therefore, takes what George Ritzer called 'McDonaldization' (see here) to a new extreme, to a self-service model where the learners become the new, digital, sharecroppers.

This is the opposite of rote learning that goes on in many schools, and indeed, I have no sympathies for that. But, the content-free education doesn't look anything like freedom from bad education or promise any transformation, despite the tall claims and loud promotions. It, instead, builds an education model totally subservient to pre-existing commercial models. Education - as the meeting place of Experience and Knowledge, as an opportunity to develop an independent and reflective identity - is totally ignored, and instead what one is left with is a superficial model of social interaction, underpinned by oneupmanship and self-promotion. Superficial communication, in this model, takes the place of understanding and engagement, experience is vulgarised into universalising models and knowledge is projected as a baggage. Despite the claims of careful, evidence-based approach, these educational approaches are usually based on learning designs made on a spreadsheet with dollar figures, and ended up hurting more than helping - and indeed, it hurts the most vulnerable most severely.

I have spent last five years, ever since I walked out of my job in the UK private college in 2012, exploring various models of Education-to-Employment transition. I recognise this as an urgent problem, and I remain totally committed to the cause even if I have to take a different road now. The 'Digital Sharecropper' model (Nicholas Carr's term) is not going to solve this problem, and will only make it worse. It needs more substantial, and sustained, involvement on the ground, with greater engagement with the stakeholders and greater respect for local cultures and norms, than anything I have done so far.

So that is really going to be my agenda going forward: Enabling socially committed institutions in building robust educational models. This may have to happen outside the VC mindset and needs to enabled by other, more enlightened, sources of money. The other part of my agenda is to expand my work as Historian of Global Education and write more often and more widely, as this would reinforce my work in the more practical arena of building solutions. This is the conversation I shall turn this blog into now, and I hope that is a change for the better.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Reinventing The High School

There is not much we agree upon these days, except that more and more people should go to college. This has become the self-evident truth of the late Twentieth century, and achieved the status of a divine revealation in the twentyfirst. Contrarian views, voiced from time to time by a few elitist conservatives, who believe college, along with the privileges to govern in perpetuity, should be preserved for a small group of people, look dated and out of place even among the political right. Countries speak of knowledge economy and equate it to the size of college-educated population. Technologists speak of automation and artificial intelligence and see college education essential for producing, consuming and living in the world they wish to make. Economists speak of productivity and equate it to the level of education. Everyone everywhere seems to think more college would mean more progress and well-being.

This, without any real evidence! College, historically, has been a system of manufacturing privilege, a part of the system of symbols that the governing classes govern with. The out-of-date observations of the elitists, therefore, have a ring of truth about it. The expansion of college has been a cruel joke to many - deferring the Labour force participation and leading to acquistion of useless knowledge - and developing countries, buying ideas unquestioningly from their erstwhile colonial masters, often went down this dead-end road of skullduggery. The college fetish has created a huge population of uselessly educated, unemployable population, 

I can anticipate people jumping in defence and explain how great universities make great countries, but no one is discussing Research Universities here. Indeed, they have a function, but the claim that more than half of young people of a country should go to institutions to do advance research is the modern equivalent of tulip mania. And, then, there is that great deception of 'college premium': It discounts the college-educated who doesn't find employment, and plays a game of averages where a few big earners crowd out everything else. These claims are not just wrong - they are harmful! They can undermine the productive capacities, particularly of a young, developing country, such as India or the nations of Africa, by subverting the priorities and let the State subsidise wrong kind of education, which, rather conveniently, benefit a narrow elite at the expense of everyone else.

There is one aspect of this wrong model that I want to write about, and that is the de-emphasisation of High School. Originally conceived as a preparatory stage for young people to enter productive work, High School in its modern version has become merely preparation for college. For a young and emerging economy, where college is not free and deferment of work is not an option for many people, High School is where social divergences play out in the earnest. This is where the apparently democratic claim of universal college shows itself in its true elitist fervour, by separating those who could afford special preparation from those who can't.

But, apart from the private tragedies, there is a public cost. The academic studies that 'mass' Higher Education offers in these countries - obsolete curriculum, unprepared teachers, minimal infrastructure - represents a colossal waste of time and money: Never before, I shall claim, had so many done so little over such a long period of time. Apart from the waste of public money, it is not just the deferment of work participation: It is also about wrong attitudes, wrong expectations and a misplaced sense of entitlement which has to be dealt with.

What's the solution? I am not advocating denying anyone college, as I am as aware as anyone who would really be denied if such a monstrous proposition comes into play. What I propose instead is a reinvention of High School, an acknowledgement that this is not a mere appendage of the college but a valuable preparation for entering into workforce. This plan needs to have several interconnected elements: Recasting of existing High School infrastructure, reinvention of High School curricula in line with the modern labour market, compulsory engagement with employers and social work at High School, acceptance of High School diplomas for a number of jobs and lastly, Expansion, rather than reduction, of college options allowing the employed and mid-career people pursue college as and when they think fit.

I am aware that just the opposite happens in developing countries. The High School is reduced to the point of irrelevance, governments suffer from college fetish, useless colleges abound and yet, options of distance learning and college credit are tightly regulated. The story here is one of misplaced assumption of copying the Western models and western rhetoric without critical thought and contextualisation. India's recent emphasis on Skills Education somewhat recognises this point, but descends into an outdated binary of education or skills conundrum. This is because High School falls within the Education box, and the government went on to create a parallel infrastructure, at a great cost and with a good deal of corruption, and built a system few people wanted to use. It did not discard its college fetish, and kept sending young middle class boys to dead-end careers and fast-disappearing jobs. No wonder India is facing a job crisis for the college educated, while at the same time, its skills training centres struggle to fill their seats. 

I have written about this in the past (see here) and looking to direct my Education-to-Employment work more to the High School segment going forward. I am already keenly aware that High School is not meant to be anything else but a time of prolonged suspension, years of anticipation for the college, of no value to itself. This is the barrier my work will be up against: To create meaning where none is sought, to create value in itself. But, I have always worked on things that I thought meaningful, and I am convinced that this is the most meaningful work I have found yet.



Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Hiring To Fit 'Culture'?

It only seems natural to hire people who fit the organisation's culture. In fact, the most common excuse for executive failure is the inability to fit into the culture of an organisation. We all have our own stories about colleagues or bosses who were complete misfits and caused havoc.

However, a recent post on Linkedin presented the downsides of hiring for culture and that is this: That it breeds conformity. Seen from this perspective, hiring for culture is another 'corporate creep' that at least the Start-ups must avoid, as the objective of a start-up as an organisational form is to confront the status quo.

I have observed in my life with the start-ups that while many, most of them, want to change the world, they don't want to change themselves. While their motto is to upturn entrenched industries and introduce new ways of doing things, organisationally and structurally, many start-ups are derivatives of some defunct organisation of the past. This is human: We all tend to equate 'golden age' with the time when we were twenty, and it is not a surprise that the start-up founders often dig up the nostalgia in attending to unimportant things, like organisational culture and practises, while they direct their revolutionary fervour towards more important ones, like the Website design and sales commissions.

This somewhat explains why some Silicon Valley VCs wouldn't back older entrepreneurs, but this still is a problem for the industry I am focused on - Higher Education - as it is difficult to make meaningful innovation in Higher Ed without appropriate chalk-face experience. The cultural baggage is almost inevitable in an education start-up: That is perhaps why the hiring culture is of even greater importance. That, and nothing else, can help one escape the oxymoron of 'global' companies made out of just one kind of people, the caricature of innovation with the same-old culture.

But this still leaves the practical aspect of hiring 'culturally unfit' people. Isn't that too much of a disruption? However, clearly, no one is suggesting that one should hire disorderly people, just different people. And, hopefully, an organisation can differentiate between culture and values: You don't hire someone who is rude, but at the same time, who may be able to see customer service in a different light.

It makes abundant sense to me, as I have sought out people from different cultures to work with. I have founded three start-ups in the past, and in two cases, the Co-founders were from entirely different cultures. I knew them for several years before we started, and respected them, but they couldn't be more unlike me in their approach and thought. I saw that to be a great advantage. We disagreed a lot while working together, but with respect and understanding, could always resolve things and do things better than what we could have done by ourselves. And, indeed, one time - first time - I worked with people completely like me, things went wrong quickly and I left after six months into it.


Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Can India Export Higher Education?

The inspiration behind this post comes from several conversations with my colleague Pratik Dattani, the former UK Director of FICCI, an Indian trade body. Pratik, in a regular column he writes for Dainik Bhaskar, pointed out India's meagre tally of 30,000 odd foreign students, against 450,000 in China (which is growing at 10% annually), is a huge missed opportunity, in terms of foreign currency earnings, 'soft power' and diffusion of foreign cultures and ideas. And, besides, number of foreign students in India may be going down rather than up, and several factors, not least anti-African sentiments in some Indian cities, are contributing to it. 

Pratik and I have collaborated on a number of projects over the years and I have been closely involved in a Conference, now in its fifth edition, that he organises on Education Innovation in London and in India. We both agreed that India's continuing weaknesses in attracting foreign students is something we want to put on the agenda in this year's conference (in London on 23rd January and in Bangalore in March). We also agreed to begin working with a select number of Indian institutions to help them develop a global vision, build appropriate service levels and communication strategies and implement it across several key markets in Asia and Africa. This post, hopefully one of the several I wish to write on the subject, is about setting out our general approach to this work.

At the outset, I agree with Pratik that not having foreign students in India is a huge missed opportunity. My ordering of the dimensions of the loss would be quite the reverse - lack of foreign students not only mean lower revenues and slender soft power, but, most importantly, parochial classrooms and student experiences for Indian students - but I acknowledge the important role a country's education system plays in forging global affinities and defining diplomatic relationships. Bollywood stealing the march over the Chinese film industry is a matter of immense pride in India; but, strangely, similar aspirations are not harboured about India's Higher Education.

This is a tragedy. Indians proudly tell the tale of a global India of antiquity, of those Arab scholars carrying Indian number systems to Europe, of the deep connections between Egyptian and Indian medicines and the fascinating journeys of monks and scriptures through the High plateaus of Himalaya to China, Korea and Japan. It was trade as well as knowledge and education that connected India to the world. As Indian seafarers traded with farthest corners of South-Eastern Asia, the Indian universities of Taxila, Nalanda, Vikramshila and Vallavi attracted students from all over Asia. Even as India turns inwards with a revivalist spirit, this globality is an integral part of the Indian golden age, real or imagined. The global culture of India only somewhat receded when India came under Colonial rule, and its Education and Commerce was subverted to serve the imperial interests above all else: For those two centuries, India was torn out of its global context and served at the pleasure of the bosses in London. India was still global, but the scales of globality was tipped - and it remained tipped since - as the country settled in a subservient relationship and developed, internally, a deep suspicion of global.

In trade, Indian companies and professionals have become global. India is making its way through ups and downs, and through rivalry, is following China's sterling example to the global top table. Through trial and error, the Government has started unshackling the entrepreneurial energies and innovativeness of Indian companies, and a different model of engagement with the world has emerged. Just when the Western countries are rejecting globalisation, India wants to embrace it - or, more specifically, Indian companies want to embrace it. They believe their moment has come. Trade has made India global again.

But, in education, it is a completely different story. Here, the trend points to the opposite direction - inward! India has steadfastly kept 'foreign education' out, despite thousands of Indian students heading abroad. It has kept Higher Education tightly regulated and strictly parochial, and as a result, its reputation has collapsed. The land-based vested interests were allowed to dominate, and the spirit that built an Infosys or a Wipro were denied in Education. The old fear of the global defined Indian Education, even when Indian companies showed Indians can compete at par, and benefit, rather than losing out, from global interactions. 

And, within these stifled conditions, India achieved a near-miraculous expansion of the Higher Education system - between 2006 and 2012, every day, 10 new Engineering Colleges opened and 5000 new seats were created - mostly through public funding. In play was the domestic demand, the millions of young people demanding access to education and an opportunity of middle class life, which encouraged private investment, but, at the same time, created a situation of excess demand, faltering regulations and detoriating quality. This is what is biting back now: The domestic demand stabilised; with anti-globalisation and automation biting back, the lack of quality has become apparent; colleges are closing rather than opening; and the need for new thinking has become pressing.

In my view, this is the perfect juncture to start speaking about a Global Vision. The crisis will close the institutions which should not have been opened in the first place, and it would make competing on quality an imperative and the surviving institutions stronger. It would also bring home the need for Blue Ocean thinking. The Indian Government has also come to appreciate that it is hard to build a modern global economy without an higher education sector to match, and have started several initiatives encouraging greater autonomy for institutions deemed excellent. 

The market for International Education is changing too. Rather than a few, metropolitan, countries dominating the sector, and taking a lion's share of the international student flows, a more decentralised network of regional hubs are now emerging. Malaysia, China, UAE, Mauritius are now all important education destinations. True, they have a long way to go to match the Global Four - USA, UK, Australia and Canada - but the politics of immigration, based on a mistaken view of the realities of international education (that it's a mass market phenomena, rather than for the best and the brightest), works in favour of the growth of the regional destinations. In many cases, the institutions in these regional hubs are campuses of renowned global universities, or local institutons offering courses from universities from UK or Australia (North American Universities don't do partnerships well), but nonetheless, such campuses and partnerships are augmenting their domestic capabilities and building their place brands.

As far as place brands are concerned, India has many things going for it. Its culture and heritage are well known, and India is viewed favourably in many African countries for its political and economic engagement. But, more importantly, the achievements of IITs and the spectacular rise of Indian IT industry gets a lot of attention, as other countries want to emulate the record. The success of Indian expats are also noted, and that the current CEOs of Google and Microsoft were born and educated in India certainly adds to the country brand. Its tolerant culture (recent violence against Africans is still an aberration rather than the trend), universities teaching in English, and lower costs of study all contribute to the attractiveness of the country.

And, yet, Indian institutions do a poor job. Partly, this is the curse of excess demand that I mentioned before: Auditing the institution websites, I see them completely inwardly facing - fees in Rupees and Lacs (100,000), no references to visa and international student support services, no multi-lingual interface etc - and the institutions do not actively seek out International students. They still get some, and this is a testimony for strong international demand and India's attractiveness as a study destination, but the institutional engagement remains opportunistic, rather than strategic. When Indian institutions, such as Amity University or a S P Jain, open overseas campuses, they do so solely to service Indian diaspora, or to make themselves more attractive to students in home campuses. In summary, the Indian institutions lack global ambition, and consequently, any coherent approach to global markets.

In the scramble for differentiation in the domestic market, this should now change. The Indian institutions can take heart from the brilliant example of Indian School of Business, which went from standing start to a global brand, in the space of only a few years. True, it received a lot of investment, but it is ambition, rather than money, that defined ISB's success, and relative underperformance of others in the global market. But there is more to learn from ISB's example than just ambition: It is that the Global Vision is not just a smart marketing ploy, but a strategy of completely overhauling the operations, creating a complete global experience and then going to strategic markets. 

So, coming back to my opening question, India can export Higher Education and well, if only its institutions would have the ambition. We are looking to put this back in the conversation about Indian Education.



Monday, October 02, 2017

A Homage to Catalonia: The Political Turn

It is possible to see the recent history as an interplay between Politics and Economics, and 2016 as some kind of inflection point that made politics interesting again.

Allowing for a broad generalisation, my point is that the narrative of harmonised economic interest keeping the status quo, which effectively meant a professional political class indulging in risk-free politics, is no longer the only story in town after 2016. The broad consensus that kept emotions out and interests predominant in public affairs has taken a serious beating in Brexit, Trump and myriad other political changes around the world. This includes the failed bids too, as Marine Le Pen reaching second round or AfD entering Parliament make politics something that all intelligent people should be engaged into. 

And, yet, if the 2016 was only the beginning, the events in Catalonia yesterday mark a political turn that all the preceding events pointed to. Whether or not this really leads to a Catalan secession, this opened up questions about globalisation and democracy that need to be answered. Indeed, this has become a bigger story than it necessarily was at the start by the arrogance of the Spanish government, which failed the first principle of democracy - that it is not just a License for rule of the majority but a system of governance by consensus and accommodation - and unleashed a Chinese-style repression on its own citizens in full view of the world. But this is still a big story, as the muted reactions in European capitals prove: Despite the obvious problems of double standards, the British Prime Minister will be thinking of Scotland and Northern Ireland, for example, before calling stupid actions by the Spanish government 'stupid'.

All over Europe they know, the referendum genie is out of the bottle.

True, the Scots lost their bid, and the Catalan one would have been a non-event if the Spanish Government had imagination. But there is a reason why the Spanish government did what it did: In a few months of 2016, the world has indeed changed. The fears of roiling the financial markets may have swayed Scots in 2015, but since then, the Rubicon was crossed by British voters and then the Americans. In this brave new world, the voters have woken up to the illusions of democracy and started demanding greater transparency and accountability. After many decades of keeping busy with economic lives, they have now discovered that they have been left out, and the political decision making have become at once too important and too distant. They are no longer ready to let the bureaucrats and bankers lord over their lives from the safe distance of Washington, Brusells, London or Madrid.

The narrative of Brexit - and of Trump, and others - has so far been interpreted as old Nationalism rearing its ugly head. And, surely, Le Pen, Geert Wilders and AfD very much fits into that narrative. However, I think the Catalan moment in world politics should underscore a different possibility: That of a Liberal, Globalist localism. This was very much the story of Scottish referendum, when Scotland wanted to be part of Europe but not of the London-dominated UK, and this is also the key story behind Trump's victory or the Corbyn surge. And, further, this may indeed constitute a viable motive for people voting for Le Pen, Wilders or AfD: Not xenophobia, but a desire to have more control over one's life, and a more engaged politics of community. 

The Liberal outrage about the reprehensible (for them) outcomes clouded their view that many Liberal-minded people were voting for these candidates or causes. Liberal voters in Netherlands, for example, voted for Wilders to protect what they saw as Liberal values, which they thought, and rightly I think, are being undermined by the immigrants who are importing their authoritarian and conservative values with them. The Catalan vote, I hope, gives the Liberals something to sympathise with, and that understanding may just afford them opportunities what has really gone wrong: People are tired of smooth-talking politicians lording over their lives with high-sounding platitudes and spreadsheets and policy papers, and want to 'take back control'. And, with this, they could possibly understand how Brexiteers won the day, why Trump still marches on and why Corbyn's politics still makes sense.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

The New Education Credentials

This has been the best and worst of the times for Higher and Professional Education. While people pursuing Higher and Professional Education has attained a new peak globally, new questions about its relevance and cost have arisen too. The expansion of formal education has crowded out the ecosystems of informal learning, in effect depriving societies with one of the tried-and-tested coping mechanisms for social and technical change (see my earlier post on this), but it has offered little in its space. Its claims on the territory, in various avatars of Lifelong Learning or Massive Open Online Courses, have underachieved, being too structured, too bureaucratic, too content driven and too top-down. Finally, its claims of being able to assess everything overshot its capability, and created dissonance with employers as they struggled to work out hard measures of the 'soft' skills. 

However, among all these debates and questions, one that attracts maximum attention is the one about Degrees. Degrees are the tools that Higher Education monopolises, and through it, structure the market for education and skills. Over the years, with the sponsorship of modern state, degrees have become essential for an ambitious person. They have become undisputed proxies for knowledge and expertise, even for ability. And, with so much prestige vested into it, the credibility of the degrees were fast challenged as the ability of the college to cope with the changing requirements of skills and jobs came into question. The automatic assumption that degrees lead to a job and career had to be abandoned, for good empirical reasons. The degree question - whether degrees are worth anything - has, therefore, come to the forefront of the debate.

Now, the universities have responded to this by pointing out to the 'degree premium', the amount of additional income earned by a degree holder over that of a High School graduate. This rationale is flawed, as this shows the stagnation and contraction of the wages of High School graduates more than wage increases of degree holders. Besides, this is one case of misleading averages. One of the key economic trends right now is that a few top graduates, aided by more capable IT, is earning more and more. What is called a 'degree premium' is really an IT premium. This may tell us that a top-end university degree leading to those winner jobs are becoming more rewarding, but this does not explain anything for those students joining nameless universities for pointless degrees leading to a hopeless future.

This 'degree premium' claim is typical of the territory-grabbing rhetoric of college: It undermines all other forms of education. High School, which was invented for work skills, become a mere appendage to the degree train; vocational qualifications are seen as poor alternatives and misconceived notions about awarding PhDs in Plumbing (I heard someone say this at a conference speech, for real) come about. While the employers become more weary about the lack of practical skills and life exposure of the new recruits, the Universities, driven to desperation by their increasing and unfilled seats, sell the snake-oil of degrees as an end in itself, creating more debt and despair among students who find out the truth only too late.

What makes this situation even worse is that the degrees are essentially closed phenomena. Despite all the claim of 'credits' and 'transferable skills', it is hard to move from one institution to another or one degree to another. Mixing degrees with actual work is horrendously difficult; taking breaks and coming back to education is tremendously costly. All these difficulties are imposed purely to keep the mystic of the degrees, the prestige that sells it. And, indeed, rather ironically, the less prestigious universities cling to these 'processes' even more earnestly, hoping that the students will equate these roadblocks as rigour and treat their pretencions as prestige.

However, once the very proposition of degrees come into question, these irritants become more and more obvious. At a time when even Central Bankers are being asked to become transparent (as the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, explained in her speech this morning at the Bank of England), Universities can't hide much longer. Increasingly, the public purse they depend on forcing onto them greater disclosure requirements and accountability for outcome, and this is raising all the different questions about the processes and promises of a degree.

So far, the universities have responded with degree-lite credentials, handed through the MOOCs and other platforms, but these are typical cases of old-stuff-new-bottle. The key questions of relevance in a world of dynamic knowledge, recognition of practical work, engagement in real life, inclusivity and flexibility remain wholly or partially unresolved. But, in a way, cracks that appear in the fortune of degrees provide opportunities to create new education credentials. The biggest opportunity here is Mixed or Open Degrees, which co-opt the existing Vocational/ Professional credentials and offer degree pathways in a flexible manner. Admittedly, this is not a new thing: This has been discussed ever since the 70s, and there are a number of arrangements that exist today, particularly in the European context.

But the architecture of these are still too archaic, bound by too many rules and limitations. For example, look at the Accounting Qualifications offered by ACCA in Britain, which allows an undergraduate degree option with Oxford Brookes University for those who completed a certain number of ACCA papers successfully. It is a great option, one of the most popular UK qualification options among the international students, with hundreds of thousands of students opting for it. And, yet, it has all kinds of administrative regulations - when you have to register for it, how long is the registration valid - which clearly indicates that flexibility is not one of the objectives of this exercise. Also, this is not yet an open system: ACCA qualifications are perfectly acceptable to employers, but the way universities recognise it for credits, vary widely. The way degrees are conceived, a closed proprietary product, explains why Oxford Brookes University may treat completion of certain ACCA papers as equivalent to almost three year studies but another university may not: But that is precisely the madness I am trying to draw attention to.

In conclusion, I believe new credentials need to emerge, and will emerge. There are opportunities for everyone, but most for the universities, which will face a crisis in confidence sooner or later. Some of my work now is directed at exploring Open Formats for Academic Recognition, a sort of Academic Middleware which connects Professional and Vocational knowledge, lived experience and academic abilities. I am conscious that Academic Recognition is ultimately a regulatory thing - there is that vast infrastructure of licensing that underpin it - and any private effort is really doomed. But, as I hope, it may be possible if the employers are brought into play, particularly in developing countries, where both the job scarcity and the skills gap are hitting at the same time. My engagements in India and Philippines over the last several years were very instructive, and eye-opening regarding how degrees really become a problem and leads to de-skilling the population. As I reconsider my career options and get ready to hit the road again, I am signing up collaborators for this next project of creating Open and Flexible qualifications.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Relevance Question: Questioning The Academic Research Methods

I wrote previously about the College Trap (see here) - how college can't be denied to anyone in a democratic society and yet, the prevalence of college may privilege one kind of learning over others and undermine democracy itself - and, as someone pointed out to me, this is quite antithetical to my own ambitions of setting up a college eventually. At this point, my broad point about the inaneness of college education needed more empirical justification. 

For a concrete example, I thought of picking Research Methods, that one thing that legitimises an academic degree, that magic wand that baptises a graduate. My choice is deliberate: I hated it and have long thought about why I hate it. And, the affectionate place that it holds in the academic imagination - in fact, it is itself the academic imagination - makes it a suitable candidate for interrogation. 

I shall provide some more justification in case you are wondering what the fuss is about. Let's start with the question: What's the difference between a vocational/ professional diploma and an academic degree? (My discussions are quite specific to UK, but many other countries operate in a similar way) The answer will be the initiation to Research Methods. Often, an university would recognise a diploma of suitable quality and length and allow its holder to gain an academic degree by learning Research Methods and demonstrating its mastery by writing a Dissertation. The Research Methods course (or call it a module or unit, if you like) is the bedrock upon which academic identity stands.

What is Research Methods? It is about a method of enquiry, particular to the discipline in question. It is the initiation to the disciplinary thinking, approach and exploration and disciplinary language. No wonder that it is treated as a magic wand, that gives the uninitiated ways of looking and speaking academically. The entire structure of degrees builds itself around this one thing - Research Methods! This is also seen as a panacea: Research-based Undergraduate Degrees have been the latest solution that universities offer when the relevance of what they teach is questioned.

Now, the idea itself is indeed sound: The learner should be able to 'enquire' and 'create new knowledge'. Someone initiated in methods of research should be able to adopt to emergent situations and identify new possibilities, adapt to new positions and learn in different ways, it is variously claimed. Such an approach indeed elevates someone from the mundane technicalities of a vocational qualification, which is grounded in static and practical knowledge, to the plain of abstract thinking and higher learning. 

However, the question of relevance should arise precisely from these two assumptions behind initiation to Research Methods. First, that a methodological enquiry disconnected from practical concerns would elevate the person to abstract thinking. Second, that an initiation to disciplinary thinking is key to developing an academic identity.

My first argument is not about the primacy of practical knowledge, as it may first appear, but the disconnectedness of abstract thinking from the everyday knowledge. The limits of everyday experience as a source of knowledge is well understood: It makes one prisoner to her own circumstances. But that the abstract enquiry should begin with an abstract or imagined problem is what I have quarrels with. For me, the research should start with the everyday, practical problem: the Empirical should be the starting point of the rational-positivist. Therefore, the ethos of 'research' and the arrogance of 'Research Methods' as a separate area of knowledge are therefore antithetical.

The second argument is that disciplinarity, which grew out of a particular social and technical circumstance at the end of Nineteenth century, and which was intricately linked with a particular stage of evolution of the University as an institution, is out of step with the current circumstances. This is evident in the current fashion of interdisciplinarity, which universities themselves advocate. And, yet, Research Methods classes are elaborate initiations in disciplinary language - countless hours are spent on how to do the footnotes - and about developing academic style. This stylisation, which is really about playing the games inside the university, raises huge questions about relevance of academic study outside the university.  

For me, the problems with Research Methods as it is usually taught is not peculiar, but symptomatic. Imagine the moment when a student is taught that she has to think about a new problem to research about, and not try to understand a practical concern of her own life; or that some tools and methods as prescribed by disciplinary practises are the only plausible ways of reaching at the truth; or that a particular language is privileged over others for the sake of that enquiry: All of these privilege style over relevance, and puts it at the heart of academic practise.

There are indeed exceptional colleges and teachers who are focused on context and relevance, but they are exceptional and sit outside academic mainstream. Besides, at the mass end of Higher Education, Research Methods have become a ritual, a rite of passage without a purpose or substance. And, yet, all these pretencions have a cost - the one I highlighted earlier - in shaping our views about expertise and 'right' ways of learning. For me, I would much prefer the intense public-spirited polemic of the Coffee House as a way of developing an idea than the rituals of Research Methods.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The College and The Coffee-House

Over the last several decades, the politics of college has reached a consensus: Everyone seemed to agree that more people attending college is a good thing. The usual conservative position, that college should educate a gifted minority who would assume the 'commanding heights' of the society, has been undermined by the proven link between 'gift' and wealth, as well as the claims that we live in a knowledge society. The weary refrain indulged in Britain's top universities - that the elevation of Polytechnics as Universities in the 1990s was not the abolition of polytechnics, but rather that of the universities - is considered an elitist view. People like Charles Murray, who complains too many people are going to college, are usually viewed as out-of-date and out-of-touch. What's fashionable is the commitment to expand public access to Higher Education, such as the one Obama declared, and the promises of eliminating college tuition fees, such as the one that made Jeremy Corbyn so popular.

The Liberal/ Left position on this issue is rather clear: Access to college shouldn't be reserved for a tiny, privileged minority! College Education - in the Liberal imagination - is seen as critical to democracy, of society governed by the rule of law, of progress. On this last point, they were duly joined by the new-age conservatives, who see wealth creation as a function of knowledge, and thereby, signed up for universal college education. The Left position is slightly more problematic. One of the first thing the French Revolutionaries did was to abolish the universities in France. But the Left's nuanced distinction of levels of education - Primary and Secondary Education as essential but the Higher Education as a bourgeois obsession - did not last the Twentieth Century, as they signed up wholeheartedly to the Liberal ideas of progress and productivity. The educational equivalent of the British National Health service - the Open University, a signature project of British Labour Party - drew upon the Soviet ideas of training Engineers through lessons on Radio as well as the American ideals of Great Books programme.

However, there is a dark side of universal college that goes unnoticed: That it wrecks a havoc on informal learning! Informal Learning is indeed the space where innovation really happens. The early movers and shakers of Silicon Valley were hobbyists, learning by reading popular electronic magazines and turning up at hobbyist clubs. The workers' consciousness was not forged in any university classroom, but in evening lectures and reading groups. The metaphor of emergent, non-systematic, speculative learning is, therefore, not college but the Coffee-house in the Eighteenth Century sense: Where conversations and innovation could happen. 

The problem with our college obsession is that it does not merely coexist with other forms of learning: It projects itself as the only worthwhile form of learning. The point that access to education is not equal to access to college gets obscured, and the need for formal accreditation undermines all sorts of informal knowledge ecosystems. The first attempt of the college to grab this territory - Lifelong Learning - was somewhat a failure: LLL was mostly a turn-off for its intended audience, an official intrusion in what used to be driven by needs and interests. Where there was sponteneity, now there was prescription. And, so it was in its second avatar, the MOOCs, which was college education's second misguided attempt at the territory. It came with all the baggage, that structure, content and assessment are the key elements of learning, not interests, needs and motivations. Implicitly, it was a carry-on from the various previous assumption that college is the sole legitimate source of higher learning. In its wake, more and more informal learning practices died.

This creates a big problem. College, the way it is imagined today, is either exclusive, or meaningless. It is no accident that the advent of mass Higher Education was accompanied by the popularity of College Rankings. This is indeed a trap, because if college exists in the current form, there is no way out for a democratic government other than pushing for greater access, either by pouring public money or by liberalising approval system, both of which create huge numbers of uninspired educational institutions, handing out degrees and grabbing territory from the non-college alternatives. However, this formal learning ecosystem is, by definition, incapable of dealing with emergent needs of learning and non-conventional knowledge, because one can't build a regulatory system for such purposes. Besides, they may pretend to create 'scientific' assessments for every human capability, but by definition, such pretences undermine the development of many key abilities: The name 'soft skills' gives away this limitation, and yet, no formal provider would actually admit soft skills are 'soft'. This privileges conformist knowledge over emergent ideas, and ability to play the system over the development of real human abilities. Predictably, its products struggle when automation and globalisation alters the cosy picture of progress that all this is rooted upon.

So, my argument - and I would believe this is quite distinct from the neo-eugenicist ideas of gifted individuals deserving special treatment - is this: To deal with the world of automation and globalisation, we need an education system, which seeks to avoid the college trap and privileges the Coffee House Learning. This is less esoteric than it sounds: This is the idea behind Hackathons as one would easily recognise. However, the debate needs to be properly framed, and move away from its current divide between exclusivity/ inclusivity of college, and the college as the sole enabler of a democratic society.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Self-Colonialization of India

I came across the term, 'self-colonialization', in a news report on Arundhati Roy's recent speech in Berlin. She was speaking at the launch of her book The Ministry of Utmost Happiness in German. The news report only mentions the term cursorily: Ms Roy was speaking about the violence the Indian state unleashes on its tribal and its poor and being on the front-line of the battles for the rights of tribal and villagers, such a characterisation of the Indian state is only natural for her. Besides, coming at a time when India has drowned a few hundred villages by making Sardar Sarovar Dam operational, and fighting mini-civil wars in Central India in the name of 'Development', 'self-colonialization' sounds like an appropriate term.

Surely, this would be greeted with derision in India as unnecessary bad-mouthing of India by one of the pet Hate Figures of the Indian establishment. But this has nothing to do with the validity of what Ms Roy is saying, and rather, this is about the peculiar adolescent self-concept of Indian Middle Class: Unsure of itself, it bristles in any criticism abroad. Particularly a person of Indian origin speaking anything critical about India is treated particularly harshly; after all, India only wants its expatriates' money, but none of their opinions. Ms Roy should be treated differently, as she is an Indian citizen living and working in India; but, rather peculiarly, her English writing and global fame makes her 'foreign', and the establishment commentators would both summarily dismissed her views as 'liberal-elitist' and harshly confront her conduct as 'trecherous'. Indeed, she is neither: She is closer to the ground than any of the foreign-educated Corporate Bosses or Upper Caste Babus would ever be; and, her commitment to action, her work with the poor, at the cost of a life of celebrity and fame which she could have otherwise lived, makes her anything but treacherous.

But I write this not to defend Ms Roy - she needs no such defence - but to reflect on the idea of 'self-colonialization', which resonated with me. For me, self-colonialization in India is more than just the obvious manifestations of State Violence - the uprooting of tribal, the unchecked army brutalities in Kashmir, the martial law regimes in North-Eastern states, the civil war in Central India - and includes the various acts of objective violence, the everyday intrusion of a bureaucratic state in the lives of people, its laws which are borrowed from the English and are still at odds with Indian ideas of culture and community, its ordering of economic lives through brute state diktats and its cynical manipulation of a vast number of repressed citizens through a combination of identity politics and hand-outs. The British colonialised Indian minds through various means other than the 'Hard' power of the Military - the number of British Officers and Personnel present in India was always very small - but by subtle manipulation of patronage and privilege, cloaked in the rhetoric of modernity and progress, which made a class of Indians foot-soldiers in the imperial project. Today's slogans of Development are direct derivatives of the Colonial scheme, the assumptions that villages exist to serve at the pleasure of the Cities is a carry-over of the Colonial mindset, and that the natural resources are there to be extracted and monetised is an unquestioned belief passed on from our Colonial masters.

One could argue that such repression is not new or novel, and it happens in every society, including the developed ones. However, there are distinctions to be made. The developed countries, take England or France for example, have come through several revolutions and war, experiences that shaped political consciousness from below and codified demands of the commoner in the laws of the land. India has had no such experience: Its moment of truth in Gandhian activism was enveloped in the broader Independence movement, and ended in bitter disappointment of Partition. Gandhi was assassinated just in time for his revolutionary credo to take hold, and the Gandhians since then remained on the margins of political action in India, as the figure of Gandhi himself was taken over by the Indian state. Gandhian cultural revolution remained unrealised, no one fasted in Delhi after his death, and the Colonial State was inherited and continued, in spirit as well as in letters, by successive generations of Delhi politicians, business bosses and the Babus of various kind. And, it is important to underscore that the Indian State models itself after the Colonial one - and not the British one - as the Home experience of the empire took a different trajectory. 

In that sense, Colonialisation is not foreign to India, but its very own. And, indeed, it is no surprise that the Independent Indian state did not try to establish a new capital, such as Washington DC, but rather conveniently continued the British Capital, complete with Lutyen's palaces. And, this continues: The current ascendancy of Hindu Nationalists, who are following the fascist playbook to effect a social revolution and erase out periods of Muslim domination from India's history (for them, this part of Indian history was ejected out to Pakistan, as one of them helpfully explained to me), is not trying to get rid of the Colonial past. Rather, they are reclaiming the Colonial instruments with its full power to impose a culture and a way of life from above through a powerful modern state. 

So, 'self-colonialization' is an useful concept for India today. This would have limited appeal, for sure, as this critique would not only be directed to just the Hindu Nationalists, but to the entire experience of Independent India. It would confront the claims of nationalism and progress, which underpins the idea of India as it existed since 1947; and indeed, this would open up the possibilities of new conversation which no one speaking English really wants to have. But it is an interesting possibility, and I would return to this when I get to write about the competing conceptions of India, which I shall do someday.


Thursday, September 14, 2017

Knowledge Or Skills?

It may seem a strange question, but this is one of the key debates in Education: Should Education be about acquiring knowledge or developing skills? 

One side of the debate are people like E D Hirsch, Michael Gove and advocates of Common Core; on the other a diverse group of business executives and left-leaning educators, from those who think education should be about skills business needs to those who think what goes on as knowledge is really the dominant culture and it discriminates those from poor or minority backgrounds. Yes, I generalise, and there are many shades of argument on both sides. At the core, however, is the debate about the purpose of education along the lines of knowledge versus skills.

It is important to remember in context that this is not an idle debate: The objective of both sides is to affect some sort of complete transformation of the education system. Besides, it will also be a mistake to think that both sides are starting from scratch and fighting it out in the realm of ideas. Rather, it is more like this: Both sides agree on the state of the education system, that it is not working. They also agree that the education processes have changed gradually over the last several decades to give primacy to Skills over acquisition of knowledge. The disagreements really centre around how to fix it: One side argues that too much emphasis of skills is a problem and we are creating disconnected individuals whose skills are fast outdated; the other side argues that we have not gone far enough in focusing on really key skills, and the baggage of mastering knowledge is holding us back.

Surely the arguments as framed reflect the world-views of its proponents. Gaining knowledge as the purpose of education is a traditionalist argument, and those who pursue it often define 'knowledge' as one of national culture and heritage, as in Common Core, Michael Gove's reforms, or the ideas of curriculum change to reflect traditional Indian culture as being debated in India. On the other hand, the skills argument is promoted by the Corporate Globalists, who see the world as an integrated system unified around a single goal of prosperous life and a common value system of efficiency and commercial intent. 

It is easy to see the problem with the focus on acquisition of Knowledge: What knowledge? There is a prescriptive root of this idea - the existence of a canon, a body of knowledge, great books - and it inherently contradicts the current dynamic, contextualised knowledge. As a good politician, Michael Gove stands on the both sides of the argument as he is also the most iconic doubter of the idea of Expertise, which is currently in vogue. In more than one sense, the knowledge argument looks like hankering for a lost time which was perhaps never there, a celebration of an illusory and majoritarian culture, and a project of exclusion of diversity and dissent, which are the wellsprings of innovation and change.

Equally, the Skills argument is flawed, particularly as its proponents push for 'knowledge-free' skills. Their argument that the education process should concern itself with skills development as the acquisition of knowledge is a person, contextual and continuous process, misses the point that skills without knowledge may be meaningless. Can one be a good communicator without having good knowledge of language, cultural contexts or psychologies? Can one think critically without understanding the languages of the concepts? Can one negotiate well without insights of cultures and characters? Besides, the Skills argument is based on an assumption of globalisation apocalypse, that we are moving into - irreversibly - a flat world, something that was definitely negated over the last couple of years.

My point is a predictable one: Not only I think that Knowledge versus Skills is a false dichotomy, I also think the whole debate is misdirected. But, equally, most debates in education today are not really debates about ideas, but entitlements; it is not about being rational, but about taking a position; not about irrefutable arguments, but protection of interests. It is so in this debate too: The positions are taken up to direct public money, and battles are fought between different political positions. Even seemingly congruous concepts such as Knowledge and Skills become battle-cries of different camps, and the balance keeps shifting from one to the other. What one believes in, in this situation, becomes an act of faith, and a function of where the great chain of educational funding the person discovers himself to be.



Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Sources of Education Innovation

Earlier, I claimed Ed-Tech is over-rated: It promises too much and delivers too little. Worse, the noise of EdTech obscures Education Innovation, which encompasses lot more than gadgets and apps. My point was that the Education Innovation happening away from the limelight of twenty-somethings, venture capital and conference circuits deserve attention. (See here)

The question is what innovation is really there in Education. Raphael's School of Athens makes a popular slide in Conferences, as the speakers often claim that the classrooms today look exactly as they were in Ancient Greece. That statement is symptomatic: It is instructive to pause at School of Athens and reflect on the claim - what counts and does not count as Innovation in the Conference Circuit.

Surely the classrooms do not look anything like Raphael had painted them. Raphael's school is an Open Portal, and don't have rows of chairs and tables, people seating in neat rows. There were no black, white or smart boards in Raphael's imagination. Jan Comenius created the textbook after Raphael's death. Besides, Raphael's school was also metaphorical (Virtual, we should say): He had philosophers from different ages all together in the same room. People were discussing, brooding, conversing, rather than listening to lectures or writing examinations, unlike a classroom of today. So, except for the fact that the School of Athens had people talking to each other, rather than staring at handheld devices, it is hard to understand what the Ed-Tech crusaders see and why Raphael makes the meme they love to hate.

Apart from pointing out a humourless cliché, my point is that education has changed and continue to change, and the best place to look for innovation is within the educators' practise. Even if we are to see innovation purely from a commercial vantage point, focusing on elements that can be commercially exploited rather than those that improves the engagement or outcome, the best place to find such innovations are within the educational institutions rather than outside. Just as a Historian can't hope to design the next CDO, the Financial whizkid is not best placed to design a better way to teach history. The art of education innovation needs more than plugging numbers on a spreadsheet, and the local innovation emerging out of practise from educators at the chalk-face needs to be taken into account - more, given priority - if we have to meet the educational challenges that we face.

This brings me to another myth - a rather obvious point in context - that Educators don't innovate. There is this stereotype of a bureaucrat when we think of a teacher. Some people will insist that educators don't want to change because they refused to buy into half-baked IT solutions or Online Assessment methods designed by someone who never ever stepped inside a classroom to teach, or because they advocated caution against schemes designed to turn students into lab-rats. But the teachers' insistence that education is a high-stake, human enterprise, has nothing in common with the bureaucrats' insistence on stability: One thing a teacher can never ever be is faceless. The risk-avoidance of a bureaucrat is utterly different from the care of a teacher. In fact, good teachers always know that education is about risk, as they inspire and motivate, push someone to their limits and challenge the learners to do more. For educators, the procedural limits are almost always the minimum, whereas the bureaucrats live their entire lives in holes of procedures.

And, finally, there is this pointless objection about scalability: That the innovations Educators do are too personal, not scalable. The point perhaps need repeating: Education is a personal enterprise. Education is not, as John Ruskin would say, about buckets to be filled - but rather about fires to be lit! If that very essence of education does not fit someone's business model, then the business model is wrong. But that does not mean innovation can not and does not happen.

Therefore, here is my unified theory of Education Innovation: We must engage with Educators' practise to find the new possibilities in Education. All meaningful innovation in Education will be practise-based and locally rooted, and will not be imposed top-down. Ed-Tech's noise will change very little, but technology, employed and tailored to purpose by educators, would indeed create new possibilities in the classroom. And, for investors, particularly after the current private valuation bubble bursts, the task will be to find educators who are changing the education, with vision, passion and commitment, even if they are older and even if they don't want to disrupt - only educate better!


Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Nature of Education Innovation

I hope some people will agree with me if I say EdTech is over-rated. It's a nifty term, much broader than the older, nerdy, E-Learning; it is also a conscious claim to affinity with its famous and richer cousin, FinTech. What one gets to hear in the EdTech conference circuit is boasts about how many millions companies are raising, which is really meaningless in a world of loose monetary policy and inflated private valuations. The other most common refrain is how Educators don't get EdTech, which really means that this may be a set of characters in search of a play. Most of its boldest claims - Clouds of Schools, Self-directed Learners, Universal Access - remain forever in future, and only companies dealing with boring stuff - compliance training, video content, Learning Management System etc - make any money. 

However, the overselling of EdTech creates bigger problems than sub-prime investment and pointless conferences. It crowds out the conversation about Education Innovation. There are a lot of things that need to change in Education - Institutional Formats, Curriculum, Pedagogy, Credentials and Methods of Financing among them - and there are different things happening in each of these areas. But the noise surrounding EdTech drowns the other conversations. Besides, the other types of experimentation are often happening at the unsexy corners of the education ecosystem, in village schools, in university departments and education research institutions, in the works of offbeat educators, away from the conference circuit. These are being led by experienced educators - not the twenty-something types that venture world toasts - and are based on traditional methods of observation and data, rather than the bold and blundering method of spreadsheet assumptions and scatter-fire implementation (we have a name: Pivot). 

Moreover, this other innovation raises questions of the type that the EdTech entrepreneurs loath to face: What happens if the method is wrong and a person is wrongly educated? In the bite-size world of EdTech, the learner is a consumer, and learning is like a meal at a restaurant: If it's no good, you move on. The slowness of educators, who tend to treat the learners as human beings and education as a life-event never to be repeated, infuriates the EdTechers (the pun, if noticed, is intended). They see the learners as share-croppers and lab-rats, those who will try out untested methods and generate data, give out their time and perhaps their own chance of education, creating value in the digital and financial universe. The pesky ethics questions are distractions, to be steam-rolled by the boasts of disruption, justified by the inbred multiplication of valuation. No wonder that this creates little value in the real world and such little impact on the way education is done.

And, yet, education is changing. Government policy has finally caught up with the centrality of education in economic development, and huge money is being poured in. Bureaucrats in their own blundering way shaping a twenty-first century education that touches more people than ever before. Companies, forced by rapid technological change and ebbs and flows of globalisation, are leading the search for new methods, new medium and new credentials. Education entrepreneurs are pouring over ideas of education that stood the tests of time and building new institutions. Education researchers, not slavishly reverent of technology nor selfishly motivated by promises of 'exit', are questioning the use of technology, critically and constructively. Innovation is happening in education away from the hype and without the hyperbole.

And, this will continue even after the hype-cycle of EdTech has come to an end. The new, shorter credentials - microdegrees, nanodegrees, employer-led awards - that create a whole new educational model, will continue to change the world of awarding organisations and universities: One big, omnibus degrees will give away to portfolio of evidences. Examinations to demonstrate acquired knowledge would continue to give way of continuous and in-work assessments, demonstrating a wider range of skills and abilities, including behavioural ones. Newer designs of learning spaces would emerge, and devices would find their appropriate space in the quest for education. The teachers will find more ways to connect. Governments will find more ways to pay for education, harnessing all the innovations in Finance and Credit that changed our world in last 40 years. And, education will emerge beyond its nationally defined character, and embed greater global thinking and social connections going beyond the spatial limits.

This is, I shall argue, the right way to think about Education Innovation. It is not about making apps and selling the snake oil of prediction of success. It is at once more than that, and less. It is about making education relevant, not just to the emerging world of work but for the new ways to live. It is less, because many of those would happen in quieter corners of education, not disrupting but improving, in quantum leaps (remember quanta is small) rather than as a leap in the dark. And, this innovation would be about the learner as a whole person, not as an impersonal carrier of skills. And, this innovation will appear tentatively and happen continuously, rather than being one big bang event.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Kolkata 4.0: How To Change A Culture?

It is easy to overestimate the potential impact of urban development initiatives, public or private. Because as high level concepts, we delve in a culture-free world, assuming that everyone will do what makes best economic sense; or, more accurately, we treat those who wouldn't pursue economic prosperity as outliers - oddballs - and keep them outside our calculations. But this is where culture gets in the way of our best intentions. More so, if a City needs regeneration, at the heart of the problem there is, more often than not, a 'culture trap', a negative feedback cycle of despair and denial. Any effort of new thinking must acknowledge the cultural challenges first and foremost.

But while culture is important, it is also hard to change. A culture emerges and solidifies over time, and it is inherent in assumptions and behaviours of a given people, hard to scrub out with a few conferences here and there. This is the other mistake well-meaning initiatives often make - they acknowledge the cultural challenge but undermine the true extent of it - perhaps because the alternative, accepting that culture can change only very slowly, makes the initiative itself look meaningless.

For a regeneration of Kolkata, 'culture' makes a particularly interesting topic. First of all, 'culture', as it understood in the context, is seen as a strength and not a weakness. And, even if we use the term in its broader, behavioural, sense, the lack of 'money-mindedness' (or business culture) can be seen as essential to the creative energies of the city. Those economists and researchers who study innovation know that outcome-orientedness hinders, rather than fostering, innovation. Many of the greatest leaps of civilisation have come from hobbyists, and at the core of creativity remains playfulness. And, in fact, the culture of playfulness and creativity may be of greater importance now than ever before.

The point is not to deny the importance of culture but assess clearly the difficulty both of defining what is desirable and of effecting real change. In fact, in an urban regeneration project, we have to be forward-looking, which makes the task more complex: One has to define what will be desirable several years hence, and look for ways to promote that.

From that perspective, we perhaps know what may be needed in Kolkata. One has to leverage the strengths of playfulness and creativity, but break the dichotomy of work and play, creativity and career. The sphere of work for Bengali middle class is narrowly defined: The early beneficiaries of English Education can not just let go the comforts of a Babu-life, even after the Raj has long disappeared. The minds of the generation of Patriarchs of today are shaped by that heritage, as well as promises and prospects of middle class life of the pre-liberalisation India; its memories, of predictable careers and genteel work, are still afresh. The new work - that of Brand-You, Continuous Learning and thrills and terrors of continuous change - has to be understood and celebrated; its promises need to be embraced and combined with the creative and generative spirits of the young and the curious.

We should be well-aware that there is no quick win here. And, besides, the path to cultural change is often oblique. It is more about building awareness and creating models. That soft cultural narrative that goes with Kolkata is only part of the story: In fact, it crowds out the other narratives and possibilities, like Kolkata's manufacturing tradition, the enterprise of Bengalis and Non-Bengalis of Kolkata, stories of migration of its people, not just to other Indian cities but world over. Making these stories mainstream, side by side with the cultural and educational achievements in the glory days of Bengal Awakening, would be an important step in the process.

And, indeed, one would have to go beyond this, though the limited scope of Kolkata 4.0 can cover this is debatable. Some possibilities we have discussed is creating a Leadership Boot-camp for school kids, and Industry 4.0 Camps in schools, which may be part of K4.0 or an independent business by itself. The change of culture starts with conversations and commitments: K4.0 would surely kick-start the conversation and create a platform where such developments can take place.


Monday, August 28, 2017

Kolkata 4.0: What's The Point?

Kolkata needs a fresh start. 

One of the first mega-cities in Asia, and $150 Billion economy, has fallen from grace, somewhat. It is no way a 'dying city' as Rajiv Gandhi, then Prime Minister of India, called it, but it has decisively lost its urban glory. The seat of a brilliant creative 'awakening' in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth century, now the city loses its aspirational young people as they migrate to other cities in search of educational and economic opportunities. 

Once the home of many of India's largest corporations and many of the big multinational corporations, the City experienced an exodus of business and talent in its dark days in the mid-seventies, something that never came back. 

Steeped in dreams of changing the world, this City lived through its street-fighting years of the late Sixties, something that was brutally crushed by the authoritarian Central Government of Indira Gandhi; the end of dreams meant degeneration, as the best and the brightest fled to exile, or joined the servile middle classes, ceding the political space to the lumpen and the demagogues. Once the cosmopolitan, creative heart of India, it swung to the opposite extreme - a commodity economy beholden to a few moneyed men who greased the wheels of politics.

This, along with the dated ideology of the Communist government that ruled Bengal for more than three decades, meant that the state - and the city - was governed by an 'extractive' approach to development: A closed-economy paradigm that is terribly out of place in a regional economy, the tax-and-spend indulgences, and an uninformed fear of technology and globalisation, that continued for much longer than the rest of India. While the rest of the country spoke about 'Knowledge Economy' (however meaningless the term can be), the politicians in Kolkata treated colleges more as recruiting grounds for cadres and hooligans, insisted that English language should be kept out of State School syllabuses for as long as they could, and blocked the expansion of the education system when new colleges were going up everywhere else. 

Kolkata missed the post-liberalisation transformation of India almost by design and intent. Even as its young people left for the private Engineering colleges and IT Jobs in Bangalore and elsewhere, the Bengal policy-makers - ironically for a State proud for its imagination and creativity - suffered a paralysis of imagination. Missing the Global Back-Office Economy, they created a Backwater economy, dependent on minerals and real estate, with attendant corruption and lack of opportunity. 

But it is still not a Dying city, because of its people, the very thing that the policy-makers decided to overlook for so long. The embers of the Bengal Awakening are still alive and warm. The city still has some of the best schools in the Country, and some of its best institutions. Its tradition of creativity lived on, and the flight - despite its disastrous immediate impact - gave Kolkata a global diaspora that holds the key for a fresh start. Its manufacturing expertise survived the onslaught of over-regulation. Closer and warmer relationship with Bangladesh meant the creative industries in Kolkata could prosper again, accessing the larger Bengali-speaking markets for its creative output. 

These things count, just as the post-Liberalisation economic model - that fuelled by the easy globalisation dominated by IT services industries - reaches a crossroad. Protectionism, automation, new economic configurations with China at the heart of the world economy, demand a new approach. The failures of the earlier era become less of a handicap when the doors of the new opportunities arise - it is open season again for economic imagination.

Kolkata 4.0, a private initiative, is aimed at harnessing the City's strengths for this brave new world, aims at harnessing the city's strengths, enabling the ecosystems, and aiming for the new opportunities. Yet, its ambitions are limited: Politics may have played a major role in shaping the City's economic fortunes (and it continues to be important) and some possibilities of changing the city remains in the realm of politics (like a special relationship with Bangladesh, and allowing Bangladeshi businesses favourable treatments in setting up businesses in Bengal), but Kolkata 4.0 is engaged in policy conversations only in a very limited way. Rather, our aim is to connect and foster individual initiatives, working in the realms of entrepreneurship, education and exchange of ideas and people. 

This may all sound very wonderfully naive, a Garden Party initiative true to the tradition of Bengali Bamboozle. However, here is the central thesis - that Kolkata's decline is primarily due to the disconnection of its professional elite and reconnecting them back is a necessary first step of a refresh. There is also, right now, an opportunity - a moment of breaking of the old models of globalisation, a wave of global politics of identity that makes the footloose Professional Elite reassess their assumptions, a stagnation of commodity and real estate making other opportunities appear attractive etc. - and creating cross-border and cross-functional conversations is more potent than ever.

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