Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Illusive Innovation: Technology of Education

The technology revolution in education is one of those things: Forever so promising, the kind of thing consultants cling on but something that persistently under-delivers. Despite the promises that technology will change the world, only a minority of the students who are brave enough to try out technology-led education actually completes the course of study. Despite the predictions that technology will dramatically improve educational access, technology-led education helps supplement lifelong learning for college graduates, but do very little in shifting the landscape in terms of access. And, despite the expanding power of technology and improving infrastructure, technology-led courses remain a poor distant cousin to campus-based education.

In fact, if anything, most educators wrote off technology as one of those fads. They still do, despite the buzz around the MOOCs. Some of this is about lazy comfort of somethings never change, or at least may only change slowly, such as people's urge to go to college. And, some of it is a genuine reflection of the poverty of technology-based education, its persistent failure to engage and retain students. 

If this is a fad, however, this is turning out to be an expensive one. Millions of dollars are invested in technologies of education today, and most institutions, whether they believe it or not, whether their tutors like it or not, put money and effort in technologies of learning, if nothing, for vanity purposes at the least. The governments love technology-based education, as this allows them a temporary reprieve from the discussion on the broken promise of educational access and opportunity society. Like good democrats, the love the promises of progress that technologies of learning may bring, notwithstanding the current costs of unthinking implementation, which buy them some time, at least another term. 

The signs are, however, that the technologies of learning are becoming serious, life-changing, finally. This isn't happening where one would expect, the cosy corners of conferences in London or New York, but rather in dusty rural corners of Asia and Latin America. This is not happening with the smartest and sleekest of devices, but with recycled PCs and feature-impoverished mobile phones and stripped down tablets. This is happening not with predictive learning software but with that other technology that undelivered for ages before coming on its own: Video. And, this is happening with social innovations, the efforts such as Open Courseware, which allows the educators a new way of thinking about content, and new educational thinking, which deconstructs the teachers' role in the age of ubiquity of information, and transfers 'granny functions', as the education thinker Dr Sugata Mitra calls it, the role of encouragement and support, to a local mentor, whereas keeping the knowledge critical areas technology-delivered and scalable.

The point then, as the technology of education comes of age, the successful models look decidedly less glamorous than the consultants made you believe. And, in the forefront of this revolution are not the global conglomerates who try to fit uncomfortably into the digital age with their very industrial age mentality, but nimble start-ups and crazy social reformers. The real revolutionary learning technology isn't the supersmart Google Glass (though it may become one day) but the rather unremarkable Google Search. And, while the traditional educators are running for cover and complaining endlessly about this technological invasion (how many times I have heard that plagiarism is due to all things digital), the others have accepted that the non-digital education is meaningless and moved on. 

This is not meant to be the swansong of fancy learning technologies, but the starting point of their getting mainstream.

Friday, March 29, 2013

A Game of Mirrors

I try again to start. Life moves in circles as usual, and these are moments when I say - stop! These are strange moments when the past comes back to me, and as with a circular life, I see future at the same time. 

I am not off the mark if I say I feel like standing in a hall of mirrors, where I feel like being in an endless passage, a passage to the future, built entirely of stories of the past. Once I start believing it, indeed, I feel weightless. All the baggage that I accumulated over the time, all the fears, all the emotions, fall away. I feel like staring firmly, solely, solemnly into possibilities. Just that, and nothing else - I feel creative.

I am too restless to be anything. I am too much of a dreamer to make money. Or even stay. Or love or be loved. In this life of mirrors, illusions, dreams and words, my emotions are that of a constant journey, of movement and not of anchoring. And, this may reflexive, as people I loved and those who were my anchors, left. Since then, I took everything in life for granted, just like a mound to shape my dreams with, and not the other way round. So I did with my words.

So, here are my desires and dreams, experiences and expectations, loves and losses - all lined up neatly in a hall of mirrors. The past and the future fused, the me of suburban Kolkata somewhat immersed in me of the City of London, that boy who dreamt of an idyllic life on an winter morning lying in the bed in the family house still alive and well inside the cocoon of a globe-trotting dream. Here are all the photos, indeed there has to be photos, of all the people who touched a bit of my life, all real, all that made me myself, everyone who objected that I took them for granted but did not see how they really meshed with my life and became a part of me. This journey of stories, they remain alive, still loving, living up every, ever so rare, moment. With a life usually destined to indifference, I feel special every time I stand in front of each of those mirrors, and as all mirrors light up with me on them, and invite me with their unending pathways and immense possibilities.

Here is to you, all of you, who still live in those mirrors. You know who you are. All those moments that we kept in ourselves, to take out sometime and to look at, moments of possibilities and moments of regret, a word spoken or a song sung, a desire fulfilled or an expectation denied, all that time could hold forever. Those who left, and those undeparted; those who live and those who are lost - but mirrors, mirrors, who will come back again. 

This journey of mirrors go somewhere I don't know. I stare but I still move. The closed room come alive with possibilities, bends, corners, passageways, light and shadow, all that; just as my life, me, indifferent, mediocre, just another life and person, lit up in thousand and one stories as I step into this hall of mirrors. 

Everyone has this, the hall of mirrors. Everyone would sometime enter them, and life will light up for them. I am a mirror too, some of the time, when my mirrors enter their own halls of mirrors, and play this game. Those are times I am remembered, I become alive, I am loved again. Those are times when my past becomes meaningful, an afternoon somewhere, a word spoken somewhere else, a deed done or a disappointment intense enough to live all those time, all better than the anonymous mediocrity that we live our daily lives with.

So, this game of mirrors, however idle, is better than not playing at all. Not remembering, not being remembered, suit some, but not me. It is preferable to a life of faceless consumption, even if this means staring at the emptiness of being. Indeed, the reality switches - imagination creates the world what could have been - and I play the Artist, with The Artist. His canvass is the mirror, and so is his colour: He paints with people and dreams and they become real; he creates stories that I live. And, I hope to live in someone else's stories too, told or untold.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Minimal University

The universities are grand things, or so they have come to be. The image of an university is constructed not just of manicured lawns and grand buildings, but also of an unhurried lifestyle and leisurely pursuit of sports or intellect or romantic interests. They embody, typically, privilege and power, and getting through the university and earning the credentials have been, and remains, the rite of passage into socially privileged realms.

However, universities have been changing. They were changing as the societies change and knowledge work becomes more common: Suddenly, it was not just the diplomats and the bridge-building engineers who needed Higher Learning, but even a person who merely programmes a desktop computer and lives in a rented flat needed to attend university. The rhetoric of opportunity society, that one will have a fair shot at life's pleasures no matter where s/he comes from, also made universities central to democratic governance and public conversation: This meant more people going to universities, with diverse intentions and levels of aspirations.

Universities in the post-industrial society are therefore no more initiation places for a genteel life, but institutions of hope and productivity, one that equips the workers and sustains democratic participation. It is not for the few, but for most; it is no longer about privilege and power, but productive and expectant life. However, this is why the divergence of the ideal of the university and social expectations around it are most divergent: Clerk Kerr's vision of multi-varsity, a research institution which produces knowledge, hosts scholarly communities and reach out and influence the society through teaching, which shaped thinking about the universities ever since it was formulated, might actually have been outdated before conception. Kerr, just like Newman before him, might have been articulating the highest ideals that an university represented in his time, but an ideal which already came to pass. Indeed, the Kerr's vision influenced the policy-makers and university administrators, and shaped the rhetoric of college-making across the world. However, by this time, the imperatives, both of the policy-makers and the rising middle classes, have changed. 

This creates a mismatch, of vision and required activity, of the institutional aspiration and that of its stakeholders. Indeed, austerity and global recession gives this a crisis dimension, but the need for another university model was created not by the current pressures but the redefined mission of the university. And, the stripped-down version of the university, which is usually associated with profit motive and sneered at, isn't the aberration but possible the new alternative of Kerr's vision, a Minimal University.

Indeed, minimalism isn't consistent with the universality in the concept of the university. But, I shall argue, that the expansive view of the university is a phenomenon rooted in a certain worldview, and wedded to industrial society, and arguably, of the vision of industrial empires. It is the Headquarter of Learning view, which needs the pomp and the grandeur, steeped in mystic and magic, invocation of an imagined medieval aura, an often non-existent heritage and an exclusionary language designed to obfuscate than communicate. But, despite this mystic, the 'barbarians' were indeed knocking at the gates for some time, with their less-than-stellar expectations of 'just a job', a right to live a middle class life of indifferent happiness. This comes to a head as the subsidies stop and one has to turn to private, student contributions towards their education, either in part or full, either through state-sponsored loans or through dipping into family nest eggs.

The Minimal university isn't then just about profit-making, but about keeping the university relevant. Indeed, it is not about stripping all the great universities of their heritage; it is instead about stop the phenomenon of 'Harvard Envy' (a term coined by Andrew Rosen, Kaplan's CEO, which means the ever-upward drive of the universities to add facilities, star professors and other luxurious accessories) and on the other hand, clarifying the expectations and accepting the varieties of the university experience. The top universities will indeed keep doing what they do so well: Produce new knowledge, host communities of scholars and move the communities forward.

However, Minimal University will be designed and serve the rest, and do most of teaching. The Minimal University will do only what the university must do - ensure the standards of learning are appropriate, the students learn meaningfully and have a great experience and that the graduates have the right attributes to become productive workers and contributing citizens. This indeed sounds like the grand scheme of the great visionary, Clark Kerr indeed, just that this part of his vision was never too popular. No one wanted to be minimal, because, academic profession is too concerned about prestige and too little about the service they are expected to render themselves. However, it is in the spirit of service, in minimalism, lies the true heritage of an university, and its real purpose: This is indeed not a For-Profit debasement of the university ideal, but a reconstruction of the original idea and to bring it up to date with time.

At the time when the cost of university education is spiralling out of control, and the universities are failing to provide Hope that its constituents so desperately needs, the Minimal University needs a serious consideration. This thinking is at the heart of what we are building, re-purposing Open software and Open Content, using the existing infrastructure and facilities, connecting the dots between different accreditation agencies and country regulators. This may sound modest, even unambitious, but it is centred around the idea that works and enables, one that gives hope and confidence and not a life of indebtedness, one that frees rather than burdens one with a lifetime of pretension, one that's fit for our age of democratic meritocracy. In short, I believe, it is an idea whose time has indeed come.   

Saturday, March 23, 2013

U-Aspire: Educating Global Managers

At the core of what we do at U-Aspire is about preparing Global Managers. 'Intensely Global' is what we want our graduates to be, so that their ambition, vision and practises are aligned to the possibilities and challenges of globalisation. 

The term, globalisation, is indeed laden with value judgements. At one end, activists may see this an inexorable expansion of global capital, steamrolling the diversity and flattening the communities across the world. On the other end of the spectrum, there are flat world celebrators, people who see the undoing the curse of the Babel, the world unifying around the English language, and democracy with centrist parties who are hard to tell from each other. Either in its demonic conception or the dragon-slayer one, Globalisation evokes strong sentiments: It needs explanation if we are to put this down as the key graduate attribute of the U-Aspire education.

The rise of 'Global' in our lexicon is somewhat curious, tied closely to the dot com days and the notions of unified cultures and the dreams of the march of democracy, however ill-advisedly, during the Bush-Blair days. It is also tied to the decline of the 'International', a favoured expression before the rise of the Internet and the demise of the Soviet empire. Indeed, 'International' itself was somewhat usurped by the cold warriors from its original, humanist, origin, grounded in the various national/ local contexts and it signified a certain ambition to overcome the petty differences and achieve a common understanding. However, this was soon used in labels of various Soviet sponsored organisations, and became, with the advent of Stalin and the doctrine of socialism country-by-country, anything but international. The Global, in context, could be seen as a reflexive term, originating from the individualism of the Eighties, and the conception of an Universal Man (or Woman): With the turn of the millennium, this morphed into an unquestioned conception of an English-speaking, Suit-Tie-wearing, Election-voting, unsentimental capitalistic androgynous globe-trotting Homo Sapiens.

With U-Aspire, we are trying to construct a new sense of 'Global', though. We approach this term not with the reductive individualism, but the original humanist sense, where it is about connecting with others rather than steamrolling the differences. Our commitment to Global does not come from the convenient assumption that we are undoing the tower of Babel and everyone will soon be wearing Prada, but that human connections are the greatest opportunity of our age and today's challenges, against climate change, diseases, nuclear Armageddon and Cyber meltdowns, all need global cooperation and understanding to be solved.

The starting point of training of the new 'Global Manager' is to recognise that we live in societies, and our opportunities and challenges lie in connecting and expanding, rather than being selfish and self-serving. The other starting point is to recognise the differences, that reaching out needs respect and understanding, and careful appreciation, and even celebration, of diversity. We shall explore management models and principles, but critique it with this nuanced, but more real, perspective. 

By design, U-Aspire education is to be global. The learners will interact with local mentors and global tutors, local peer group and a global one. They will study a common curricula, but it will be diverse at the point of delivery, supported, socialised and contextualised locally. So, the conception of global isn't theoretical for us, nor this is about a Business Lounge view of a different culture: The programmes are constructed to offer an immersion and engagement in global thinking and long term development of global mindset.

Indeed, we have carefully considered the elements of a Global Mindset, brilliantly conceptualised by Angel Cabrera and Gregory Unruh in their 'Being Global: How To Think, Act and Lead in a Transformed World', as a three dimensional development of Global Intellectual Capital (awareness of the world), Global Psychological Capital (knowing the ways of the world) and Global Social Capital (building worldwide connections and friendships). For many of us involved in this project, this is a lived experience, and we have embedded this into the curriculum design. Our learners, we expect, will have 'default' global stance, curiosity to learn about the world, respect for differences and urge to connect globally: We would be exposing them to global work and global thinking and expect them to work in global teams in solving the business challenges that we create for them.

I see our approach at U-Aspire to be different from usual B-School approach to globalisation: This is not about reducing all differences to measures of probability, but to make diversity a lived experience and inclusiveness the default state of mind. Like every education, establishing this, transformative, view of globalisation will be U-Aspire's mission.



Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Education Marketing: The Case for Change

Education Marketing is less about education and more about marketing. It stands almost external to the process of education, a discipline that seeks to import 'best practices' from famed marketers such as P&G, the guerrilla tricks of the trade, the manufactured love of relationship marketing, from consumer goods to education. The underlying belief is that educators don't market well and they need to take lessons from the more 'sophisticated' product and service companies, which have been marketing for scores of years.

On the educators' side, some people are revolted by the practise of marketing. Particularly the people who studied or worked at the top institutions, which sit with centuries of well-earned reputation, can't really see the point: For them, education marketing is something for gate-crashers, the For-Profit pretenders. It is indeed true that For-Profits spend an unusual amount of money on sales and marketing: However, this is not just because the competition is fierce in the For-Profit space, which it is, but also because they believe it is to be done that way. In a sense, they believe in exactly the same principles marketing consultants believe in - that educators need to learn marketing from consumer goods companies. Such faith is mutually beneficial: For-Profits spend the money, marketers get them.

There is nothing to worry about this convenient arrangement, top institutions thriving on their reputation, for-profits spending money on marketing and media owners and marketing consultants promoting a new discipline of education marketing, except that it is - as I stated at the very beginning - more about marketing than about education. Because of our blind faith in it, particularly on the For-Profit side of the divide, we let marketing define what education does: The problem is, this is not sustainable.

If anything, education marketing is overdone already. But this is even before someone could pause the conversation and explored what education marketing would mean. The marketing consultants often look pathetic when trying to sell education: Their toolkit is limited to big, shouting adverts about one or the other ranking tables or placement records, or cliched testimonials in which the students seem to say the same words about all the schools, or all the things about the same school. And, in the process, everything else, how the school looks, which degree does it give out, who may have visited the school last summer, what is the race identity of its teachers, how is the social life of the school and its placement record,  get discussed, except the fact that the school teaches anything at all. The conversation, if you call it a conversation and not cacophony, is about everything but the process and substance of education.

Which makes it problematic, even for the marketers. While they may have learnt from P&G that it is not the ingredients of the soap but its customer experience that should build the marketing message, they seem to mix up which is which when it comes to education. The degree, the placement, the social life, the food, the guest lectures may look very important, and seem to make up the customer experience, but they are not: They are, or should be, merely side shows, ingredients, of a successful school experience. It is what happens inside the classrooms, whether the students come out empowered, enlightened, emboldened, ready to see the world in a new light, is the customer experience of education: It is what this is all about.

This point is largely forgotten in education marketing. How many times a classroom photo features in an advert, or a website? Admittedly, good looking students, almost improbably holding a pen rather than a wine glass, make it: But how seldom this is about discovery, knowledge and empowerment, and how common it is to talk about placement, ranking and affiliations? It is easy to spot that education marketing has run out of ideas, borrowed ideas, and intent on changing the product itself. When it is only prestige that is being hawked, rival standards of prestige crop up. When it is only outcomes being compared, another clever bunch of marketers are employed to confuse the standards and turn the whole exercise meaningless. In the end, education marketing becomes a leap of faith: A couple of places on Google Ranking making or breaking an institution.

But, then, this is the lazy way, of marketing, of education. This is the business of making fools, not of creating sentient human beings. This path is not of knowledge, but of consumption, if we employ traditional rhetoric to describe the situation. And, instead of creating demand for education, it makes it phony and insubstantial, and eventually destroy demand. It re-affirms the snobbish British expression - Mickey-mouse Degrees - and makes it lovable again. But, more damagingly, it leaves educators brain-dead, engaged in games of climbing ranking ladders and pimping endorsements, and completely oblivious that they have a job to do inside the classroom.

Now, a marketer may turn around and claim that there is no way to market education other than by the outcome, but I shall disagree. The process of education is the experience itself, and immersing a seeker of education in the process, in the conversation or in the transcendence that good education brings about, is the best way to market education. This is why I am so enthusiastic about MOOCs, the brilliant EdX where I am now being able to attend Michael Sandel's Justice course for free, for example: I believe platforms such as this, rather than Google (metaphorically speaking) will become the primary marketing tools for education. Just as people are sceptical, with an overdose of marketing claims, whether education can deliver on any of the promises it seems to make, exposure such as these open up a different possibility. It brings knowledge back into the education, and transcendence, freedom and enlightenment, rather than placement, back into the mix. 

If my approach to education marketing looks terribly outdated, let me sum it up in a slogan to describe what I mean - We let you interview companies at our school! Once the institution appears desperate for placement, at this day and age where every major economy is facing a severe skills shortage, the message is clear: The education hasn't happened. Marketers may be trying their best to wrap this secret with the 9th P, pretension, but it is not working. It is time, therefore, to change the conversation, and make education marketing more about education.

Friday, March 15, 2013

U-Aspire: A Report Card

It is always great to see something that one long imagined come together step by step, as if by magic. This is what is happening to UAspire: We talked about this for almost five years, but in last six weeks, of which the three weeks since my return from India were most dramatic, all the elements started coming together.

Initially, when we were exploring raising money from private equity, we drew up a time line for this business. The plan was to raise significant investment by end of November 2012, and we projected to complete accreditation and all the elements to start delivering courses by end of March 2013: We were hoping to sign our first college partners by April 2013, and get our first students through the door by end of May. 

The first part of this equation did not happen: After initial interest, private equity houses that we spoke to decided to hold back till we are a fully functional entity. This did indeed sap our spirits for a moment, but eventually we decided to bootstrap and funded the initial activities on our own. This indeed meant living without salaries etc., and putting our savings into getting the business off the ground. The initial progress was slow, as we had to think twice before committing any expenses. Wherever possible, we had to do things ourselves: I had to cobble together our logo, business cards and website using freely available software, and Mike had to put endless hours on the business plan and documentation to get us going. 

Finally, in the new year, things started getting better with people from our own network showing some interest in investing in the business to get us off the ground. We raised our target amount of initial seed capital. This came from seven different investors, most of whom did it because they genuinely wanted to help us out, with a wide spectrum of skills and interests: Their queries and objections were all varied and possibly the best validation of our ideas we could get at the time. We got all the investment together by the end of January, took up an office and employed a few content and quality control specialists to get things going.

And, then, almost by magic - we could achieve all the targets we set for ourselves. As of today, a set of courses designed by ourselves are accredited by the Institute of Leadership and Management, with three more in the accreditation pipeline. We are also accredited by Edexcel to deliver a range of courses worldwide using our globally collaborative learning method. What's more, our model of global delivery is ISO 9001 certified. The technology platform, after rounds of testing and validation, is ready to go. We are negotiating Heads of Terms with three colleges in India, with a pipeline of seven more, which we visit in April. Everything that we hoped to attain by this time has happened.

Indeed, the student recruitment, and thereafter the education delivery, will begin now. Our focus is now on marketing, with a new logo, website and corporate identity coming in place. We plan to do marketing launches in India in a few weeks time, and expect to start delivering the first modules six weeks from then. I have now given up everything else, including the part time teaching work which sustained me through the bootstrap period, and focusing solely on UAspire. I am finally at that stage in my life where everything begins anew: I can already see that this is all-enveloping and is defining everything that I do and all I stand for.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Crest of Change: My Life in A Private College (Part 2)

The re-validation by the university, the event I signed off at in my last post, was a make or break event for the college. The university was rightly concerned about the lack of control mechanisms at the college, and the implications of the unfettered expansion. This gave me the opportunity to step in, primarily because the Owner needed someone who was outside the various power groups, to mediate between different groups: However, this was my opportunity to try to instill some discipline and create a small scale model. In the end, the re-validation was successful and the college was saved: This was primarily achieved through building of a new team of professionals and demonstrating to the university team that the college is serious and it has committed the resources to set things right. It was rather significant for me because it gave me a constituency in the college, a defined area of responsibility, which I did not have previously. It also allowed me to shape policy, at least at a business unit level, and try to establish operating practises which, when the opportunity arises, could be replicated at the college level.

Indeed, I won the easy battles - like getting a new set of people to support the post-graduate programmes, which ranged from a highly experienced quality assurance consultant to a very smart young design graduate to create and maintain an on-line learning portal - but the key one, to control the inflow of students in the programme, proved much harder to win. From experience, I believe that the private sector colleges too often treat courses as 'products' (a view that is now sipping into public sector) and sell them just as anyone will sell a commodity. The college I worked for was proprietary and small; but I believe similar mindsets are very common in large private equity backed entities too. The biggest problem in maintaining 'quality' in private sector higher ed is, therefore, to escape the commodity trap, in product selling which permeates to teaching and learning (as the students want the shortest path to the diploma). This would be the essence of my work in the post-graduate studies in the college, not just to change the team and how it is delivered, but to try to change the nature of the course and experience.

This indeed set me on a collision course with a number of people: First, with the COO, who wanted to get anyone into the course as he developed a side business of recruitment agency and would have earned money once the students are admitted. Then, I was at the loggerheads with the Head of Recruitment, who wanted to be the sole guard on the gate, as he had vested interests too. Then, sadly, with some of my early collaborators, such as the Programme Director, who failed to imagine beyond simple courses following university guidelines and treated innovation as extra work. And, finally, as the difficult task to changing the course played on, and the costs rose temporarily while we were saying No to some applicants, I ran into a conflict even with the Owner, who appreciated the long term nature of the project but lost hope of a market recovery which would have made such efforts worthwhile. This was primarily because the UK Border Agency was trying to close off UK private colleges (except those backed by private equity or large entities) and made it very difficult for overseas  students to come to UK. The owner, while backing the early restructuring initiatives, could not see the point of doing it because the traditional markets, the overseas students, were vanishing. This last battle is the one that I would eventually lose, but this was still two years away.

The broader point is indeed that the nature of the institution, a For-Profit one, where the students pay full cost plus a margin, changes the nature of the education proposition: Turns it into something that the students as consumers buy, and hence, have a greater say on the nature of the proposition. This is not necessarily bad - indeed, this is what is at the heart of the doctrine of student choice - but this puts an additional responsibility on the institution to educate the students about education: To build affordances in the environment to encourage the students to study and have a broader perspective, rather than finding them the shortest route to a diploma. Most tellingly, one of the persistent arguments I had to have during my time in the college is about a library. This was seen as a cost and was only assembled together at the wake of this revalidation event. Even then, it was consigned to basement, and had no full time librarian, only a receptionist attending to it during the office hours. The books available were mostly textbooks. Even the more academic minded in the team disagreed with me on the relative importance of the library, citing the lack of reading habit of the students (which was true), the limited time they spent on campus in a private college (true, again) and the relative importance of online journals and books, to which they had access through the subscription of the validating university. My ideas why a library was needed was not clear enough then: Today, with hindsight, I know the symbolic value of a library, which is to position learning at the heart of the college's proposition, rather than diploma giving. And, indeed, this is not just about having the library, but embedding it into the teaching and learning, so that the tutors encourage its usage and it was built into the timetables. We did none of those things in the college, but only managed to win the smaller battles of having a library, and upgrading it, with time, from its basement obscurity to a slightly larger and more prominent room next to the reception.

There were other, bigger battles to fight around creating affordances (environmental clues to encourages certain type of behaviour), and none bigger than one on plagiarism. The college indeed had all the tools, software to track down plagiarism, but it was still rife. My contention was that the system somewhat encouraged plagiarism, using the detection software as a tool to avoid detection. It was argued that all students should have an access to the detection software prior to the submission of coursework, so that they can 'change the text if necessary': My contention that you know you plagiarised if you did was seen as impractical and hard line. The practice of giving access to the detection software is indeed in line with standard 'good practices' of the British university system, so I didn't win the argument. But my contention that giving access to detection software in fact tells the student to plagiarise as long as they can avoid detection was right and this will soon lead to another crisis, which will define the next stage of my quick fire journey inside private college life.

After my 'win' with the revalidation, I was given the authority to manage the MBA programme of the college, which was an important but smaller programme, but not much else. I was acutely aware of problems with other programmes, and was trying to create a model in the MBA programme to persuade the Owner to change the practices. I was cautious and wanted to avoid all conflicts with the all powerful COO, who controlled most of the resources, all IT and most staff. However, I found myself thrust right into the crisis when a particular dissertation, submitted for MBA, turned out to be plagiarised: It was a clever piece of work designed to avoid detection, as the original dissertation was in Swedish and the student translated this with a translation software and fixed the language glitches. It was a few untranslated words, an oversight, which gave the game away to a particularly diligent examiner. The key problem, however, was that the student in question was a staff member himself, a blue eyed boy of the COO and the Owner, someone who was the Administrative in-charge for all programmes other than the MBA, which I started managing.

Though I wanted to avoid conflict, it would have been hypocritical for me not to act on this case when I was trying to send a message to all students that plagiarism would not be tolerated. Besides, I thought the person concerned had full knowledge of the consequences and knew what he was doing because of his position: In my judgement, he should have failed the module and be exited from the course without resubmission efforts. However, my view was only too well known and by then, my relationships with the COO and his lieutenants were too fraught for any decision taken by me to be seen as fair. Therefore, I had to step aside citing my personal views and not be part of the inquiry committee. However, this soon looked like a big Hamlet-esque mistake: The moment I let everyone know that I shall not try influence the outcome, the Owner and the COO sprung into action trying to save this student, speaking to every member of the inquiry committee, including the external examiners. It did seem, at one time, the student would be given a reprieve, as he cited, correctly, his difficult personal circumstances. I was indeed horrified, as this would have meant a resounding failure for all my clean-up attempts. However, I was greatly relieved when one of the most senior external examiners, who was a hard man and I had difficulty to get on with, adapted the zero tolerance policy I was following. With his clear view, and that of the examiner who spotted the plagiarism in the first place, no other member of the board had to take the gun in their own hands (all of them knew what's right, but some were weary of alienating the Owner of the college, who made a personal request to give the student a reprieve): The decision was to expel the student, a decision of huge impact!

Looking back, I treat this as one of the best moments of my management career. I felt sorry for the student concerned, as I was aware of his difficulties and liked him personally. However, it would have been completely hypocritical to have allowed him another opportunity, and would have sent out all sorts of wrong signals. But apart from what happened, I thought my decision to stay out of the inquiry panel while making my view known was hugely significant. First, since I had a given stance, it was only fair that I stayed out. However, it also meant the the Owner and the Principal of the college, whose views on the matter was also well known, was obliged to stay out of the inquiry. Indeed, if he was in the committee, he would have had a greater opportunity to influence the discussions and might have presented a clear 'compassionate' alternative to the hard line stance taken by the External Examiner. This was one unfortunate event which nonetheless advanced my agenda for change, and represented a victory, however minor, towards changing the environment. This was also an initiation in politics for me, and I did manage to do well. This would also eventually change my views of organisational politics: Today, I shall not consider this a dirty word, but an essential tool in complex organisations. I shall argue that the nastiness of politics resides in its goals, and sometimes in its methods, but t is perfectly plausible to be political for the sake of doing what is right.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

The Crest of Change: My Life in A Private College (Part I)

Between May 2010 and September 2012, that's little more than two years, I took on a job which was unlike anything I did before, or will ever again do: I chose to work for a mid-sized private college, offering professional and higher education in the City of London. This was unlike anything I have done before because, at the time I joined, the college was going through massive, even traumatic, change: I was brought in as a part of that change, and spent rest of my time trying to take advantage of the change to drive more change. I shall possibly never have to do the same things again, because, private colleges in Britain, at the time, was mostly proprietary, and small businesses in terms of sophistication and strategy, but was suddenly exposed to a massive market expansion due to the growth in demand in emerging markets: This was a combination of a rather immature enterprise into a fast-growing market, not a rare event, but one that usually occurs once in a while for a given industry and does not repeat very often.

I have had several, good and bad, experiences while in the college, which gave me an insider's view of the change in private sector education. I have spent most of my working life in Education, in India and South-East Asia, working with a sophisticated IT education (not Training, as the courses used to be two to three years long, and gave people diplomas which got them jobs) company, which was world-leading in its business achievement and management sophistication. But a private sector college in Britain was a completely different ball game. In more ways than one, it was an adolescent in the adult territory: A business form, led by a charismatic owner, which was suitable for a small scale, personalised operation, suddenly exposed to a huge global demand which completely overwhelmed it; and, limited process sophistication and academic capability, reliant mostly on tutors moonlighting from public sector universities, but dealing with high intensity Undergraduate and Masters degree courses from UK universities. So, this was completely different from the orderly life that I was used to, where one had the capacity before the students came in and one has to carefully plan marketing to attract students and compete in the marketplace; walking into this college in 2010 was to experience a groundswell of students who kept coming regardless of marketing sophistication and education capacity. Coping with it, and putting it into a structure while dealing with several conflicting interests and demands, was the most exhaustive hands-on change management work I had to do, ever. 

It was not glamorous: It did not give me the track record or awards and medals. But I couldn't have asked for more because I joined the college to 'learn about private higher education': I learnt what could go wrong and how to set it right (and how it could go wrong again). Also, I did not win in the end. Apparently, my two years effort came to nought when the owner of the college decided that he had enough of the private education business and sold the college, against our advice, to another private college, which seemed to me at a lower level of process maturity and educational commitment. I was offered a role in the combined entity, along with some of my key colleagues, but we treated this as a failure of what we were trying to do - transform the business and turn it into the hub of a global network for higher education - and left to try to turn our plan into a new business. However, this failure was fascinating too: It offered us a reverse reassurance about how big the job of transformation really was and that if we did not change the college as much as we wanted to, that was not for lack of our efforts. 

I am writing this story today because, after six months of cooling off period, I feel more comfortable with what happened. This is partly because the business we set up has started to gain traction and I have started feeling comfortable that there was nothing wrong with the plan. This is also a moment for us to dive deep into the lessons learnt, because the logic of private education makes a number of things that happened in the college fairly plausible for any business unless one is reflecting and learning all the time. Also, some of the wounds have healed: I don't feel angry about the episode anymore. Besides, I have started discovering how this somewhat chaotic experience of driving this college through the huge changes in the marketplace has contributed to my own learning - I have done this in different contexts in different countries, but this was an unique problem in an unique sector, one that I am engaged in right now (therefore, the things I learnt are more relevant). Finally, this story can be a useful part of my own academic research - whether market mechanisms introduced in education changes the nature of education itself - and recounting this as I see it is an useful device to assess the events with hindsight and perspective.

To give a sense of how it started, I should begin by saying that I used to know this particular college and its owner for a few years before I went to work for it. I tried to explore doing a few deals together, but never actually signed off anything: However, I personally liked the owner, who was personable and charismatic, and the environment of the college, which was friendly, informal, relaxed and accessible. One could turn up at the college and see the principal without an appointment, which I had myself done a few times, and a small team of people, which was mostly recruited from former students, seemed to treat the owner/principal as a father figure and gave the place a very closely-knit feeling. The students seemed happy: In fact, I spoke to some of the students in the college's only overseas branch in Poland, and they were full of praise and suggested that this was the most highly regarded Accountancy training operation in the city of Krakow. This happy story was how the college looked in 2008, which gave me a very promising picture of what private sector education could look like, and I was very keen to build a global network (my obsession for a decade now) around it.

It indeed changed well before I joined as an employee. I remember visiting the college with an education entrepreneur who was visiting London in the Autumn of 2009: I wanted to introduce him to the owner of the college and turned up, as usual, without a prearranged appointment. This time, however, we couldn't step out of the lifts on the usual third floor of the building where the college's main office was: The lift and the corridor was crammed with people and there was simply no space to get out. We had to go up another floor and took the stairs. It took us time to wade through the crowd, which looked more like a train station during rush hours than a college reception, and the usually friendly receptionist turned down our request to see the Principal, as he was too busy. She explained this was because the college had admitted 3500 new students, up from its total capacity of 1200 students only a few months earlier, and was having difficulty to cope with the number. I apologised profusely to my guest as we stepped out of the college: He was excited and wanted to invest in a campus in London instead.

This unusual high point in student demand for private sector colleges in UK in 2009 was brought about by many factors. Indeed, there were horror stories about bogus colleges and migrants pretending to be students abound, and was true to some extent. But, there were multiple factors at play and ignoring them, as we often do, make us miss the narrative about the global demand for higher education. The surge in demand that I am describing now came about for this college due to three reasons: The demand shift from Australia to Britain, the British Home Office deciding to take the opportunity and grab student market share and a readiness from British universities to experiment with formats of partnerships and courses, which happened around the same time. For this college, which was never a bogus college but a small specialist accountancy college with a happy environment, the key markets in South Asia suddenly exploded, as students suddenly stopped going to Australia after high profile incidents of racial violence and a hard line stance by Australian government towards immigrants; at the same time, the British Home Office was adopting a stance of allowing students in without stringent English language checks or fund requirements. Added to this was that the college was now offering pathway diploma programmes, which were considerably low cost than an university degree, and could lead the students to a direct entry into the third year of an undergraduate degree programme. This quickly became their best-selling programme to the middle class students, for whom doing a degree from Britain was suddenly plausible. 

Indeed, this means chaos, but it was hard to resist willing customers for a private business. I am sure someone with a little perspective would have seen the catastrophe around the corner, but this was more like the Internet sites that go down for a sudden surge of users, which feed folklores rather than horror stories, and for everyone involved, being overwhelmed was perhaps a deeply pleasurable experience. From inside their cubicles, this was as if the whole world is recognizing their genius, that sweet moment of reckoning every start-up always wait for. Such carelessness did shock me at the time, but I was outside rather than inside: I was using conventional measures of risk to a business which was not a Plc or had any government backing. The biggest risk on the table for an owner driven company is not to have enough customers and going out of business: Oftentimes, they are not even prepared for the opposite catastrophe.

Unlike my guest on the busy day, the surge of students did not enthuse me. Truth be told, I was put off by the chaos and the disarray I saw. My notions of high quality education led by a Guru were all wiped out, and what I saw resembled, well, a peak-hour train station, hardly a place where one would enjoy working. Yet, when I heard, only a few days later, that the college's recruitment has been suspended by UK Home Office, apparently for recruiting too many students within too short a period of time, and this had thrown the entire team in a mad scramble, I volunteered to come and work for them to sort out the mess. This, I thought, was my opportunity: However counter-intuitive this might sound, I saw the strong core could still be restored, capacities created and the chaos managed. It sure turned out to be harder to do than I thought, for reasons which I had no foreknowledge of: But this was a perfectly opportune moment for me to jump in.

Truth be told, jumping in was not easy. I did not see the power structures inside the college clearly, but once I engaged, I started discovering the complex relationships that ran this college (and was common in the sector). Indeed, since the college's commercial success was brought about by its recruiting agents, and the college had one 'super-agent' in India, most of the key decisions were influenced by the owner of the agency, and his brother, who was functioning as the Head of Recruitment of the college. Indeed, there was a clear conflict of interest: The more applications the Head of Recruitment accepted, the more money his own agency based in India (and their sub-agents) would have made. To make matters more complicated, the IT Technician of the college, who was the owner's confidante and helped him link up with the university, the key to recruitment success, was competing for influence, and this man also started a parallel recruitment business on the side, where he converted the website inquiries into commission-paying admission deals. My mistaken pitch to become a Marketing Manager for the college, with the objective of 'repairing the brand' and 'creating a global network', unwittingly upset them both. So, it took me four months of convincing, several meetings with the owner and others, to get in: I was somehow convinced that I could build my global education network on this platform and was ready to keep a low profile to get started.

So, I started - as a marketing manager without portfolio, without powers to touch the website or any of the courses, without people reporting to me or resources, non-threateningly enough for powers that be. The practical lessons in the politics of the college prepared me enough not to raise my head above the parapet, and in honesty, I decided at the time to try build a subsidiary entity, using the college's platform (accreditation, partnerships etc), rather than cross swords with the management team and get involved in the operations. But, in an instructive case of unintended consequences, a coalition of interests suddenly formed around me: The person who ran the Professional Education in the college, a good-natured person who was serious about education but was not courageous enough to say no when something went wrong; the Director of Post-graduate Programmes, someone with a decent academic background but without power to influence events or resource-allocation; Academic consultants and tutors who were horrified by the chaos and abuse but not close enough to do anything about it; and lastly, a section of new employees, who came from outside and despite being more capable, were outside the circle of former students and privileged in-groups, who wanted to have more order in their work. While I kept a low profile and avoided conflicts with the two powerful men in the mix, I spoke my mind and made it a point to address any abuse or mistreatment of students if I came across any: I could justify this citing my marketing brief and that this would be 'good for the college'. The fact that I could go up to owner and speak my mind (whether or not that resulted in action), allowed a number of people seeking a channel of expression coming close to me, and support me in some of my clean-up endeavours. Indeed, my risk was that of being used, and I was cautious about personal agenda etc., and only too aware how dysfunctional the workplace was at that moment. But, I did steer through the maze well enough, and managed to survive without major conflicts and consolidate my 'constituency' in the first few months of living dangerously.

Then, in July 2010, another crisis presented an opportunity for me to do something meaningful for the college. It was an ugly crisis, the University validating the Post-graduate programmes of the college got concerned about resource availability and teaching infrastructure, and suspended the recruitment in their programmes till the problems were sorted. This was a time when the college just addressed the Home Office suspension and started new recruitment: This second suspension nearly drowned the college and put it out of business. It was clear that the conflicts between the Head of IT, who grew in influence and became de facto COO of the business, and the Director of Post-graduate Programmes, a well-meaning but marginalized academic, were driving the whole college, through this suspension, into a crisis. I was put in charge, somewhat unexpectedly, primarily on account of my serendipitous friendship with the Programme Director, who was deemed critical for saving the partnerships. I was not sure whether my brief was to save the Programme Director from the disruptive interferences by the Head of IT/ COO, or if it was just the opposite, to secure re-validation from the university and eventually replace the Programme Director myself. However, I was clear about my goals of building the global network (and not that of becoming a Programme Director) and wanted to seize the opportunity of creating real change leveraging the crisis, which was what happened next.


Saturday, March 02, 2013

Dr Sugata Mitra at TED 2013

About Start Up Higher Education

These are lean times. Gone are those days when capital was plenty and start-up was glamorous: More so, when people believed in the ideas of an world constantly getting better. The start-up revolution has muddied the waters so that changing the world has become so commonplace that no one believes in it anymore. Besides, there is simply less to go around, with one funding cycle coming to an end and everyone has to do with a little bit less. So, lean is the buzzword: Getting started through bootstrapping is glamorous, even heroic. Getting paying customers from day one, rather than the fantastic business plans predicated on losing money for a decade, is more in vogue. Start-ups, therefore, are what they should be - a struggle for existence to prove that they fall in the fittest category.

However, it is not as bad as it sounds. Because opportunities of disruption keep coming. Big incumbents keep getting sloppier and sloppier. Technologies change quickly, opening up opportunities that were not there before. Lean times also mean good people looking for opportunities, everyone, particularly the landlords, giving away deals all the time, and the policy-makers encouraging start-ups hoping that they can pick up the jobs slack after all their other efforts have failed. So, in a Dickensian way, this is the worst of the times and best of the times for start-ups.

New industries also keep opening up for start-ups. In a way, Education, and now Higher education, is the best thing that happened to start-ups in a decade; it is also the other way around, start-ups are the best thing that happened to education in about hundred years. Education gives a real chance to start-up entrepreneurs to change the world, even more substantively than people sharing music. The technologies make it possible - the manicured lawns and Gothic arches are replaced by a www when it comes to education start-ups. It is just a different life form, but growing rapidly. And, with all their objections, students are going used to it too. No wonder that the Economist picks Education as one of the only two industries with a positive outlook in 2013 (the other being Construction) in their The World in 2013 publication.

Also, as much start-ups needed higher education, higher education needed start-ups too. The sector is close to the breaking point with rising costs, failing education and graduates without future. Peter Drucker may have been half-serious when he suggested that the universities will disappear in thirty years: Twenty years on, the business models of the sector is certainly under siege. And, this is not just public versus private battle, where unions and inefficiencies are ailing public bodies and privatization is the answer. Some of the big education players are private organizations, big publishers of textbooks and journals, the software providers which dominated educational software, and they are as sloppy and as out of date as their public counterparts. The journal publishers, who made handsome profits out of privatizing knowledge, are now at the receiving end of disruption themselves. The textbook publishers, mired in eternal confusion with the electronic form, are building warehouses (perhaps) to store these and battling the customers on rights and wrongs of usage. The industry needed a digital disruption, and the incumbents, despite their corporate structure and billions of dollars of war-chest, were wholly unsuited to bring it on. Start-ups, therefore, are the best thing happening to education.

Indeed, this is early days of start-ups in higher education, but some are clearly getting traction. The excitement is noticeable, with new business models that challenge the assumptions and ways of doing things. And, this is clearly where the challenges for start-ups come from. The technologies are all ready and even the customers too, with a new 'digital native' generation waiting at the gates who will instinctively find our current models of education limiting and too top-down. However, it is the start-up founders who must construct the new assumptions and business models, and convince the investor community, most of whom is so used to a certain, old, idea of a college and tend to view everything else as an aberration, that time for change in education has come. And, to do so, they must bootstrap their way into a minimum viable product, something that works but can work without much investor support. The big question for education start-ups is, therefore, what this really looks like.

There are a number of ways education start ups are different from other start-ups, and one needs to appreciate these differences to be able to construct a start up proposition in higher education. To start with, an education institution must be recognized, which is different from accredited, to offer value for its students. This is a step which takes a great amount of effort, and start-ups are thinking differently about recognition. Some, who could afford it, have offered courses free, in order to acquire reputation and following: They have also used big name professors from recognized universities and leveraged the name recognition. Others have taken a route which will take longer time, and have gone for full accreditation. This route indeed needs full investor backing and patience, as this may take years before a start-up could be fully recognized. Some, and we fall in this category, had to take the middle path - accreditation to get real students, but a stepped approach to accreditation because one needs to get to market without waiting for years. This is therefore the first ingredient of the minimum viable product - recognition in some form - that an education start-up must secure.

The other key issue for a Higher Ed start-up to consider is that whether they compete or complement the existing education models. The current model looks broken, but to overhaul it completely needs significant investment and commitment, which is difficult to raise. So, many of the interesting new start-ups are designing themselves to complement the institutions, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel. And, the business model so far is to apply technology and build platforms to create value which was not hitherto possible, and leverage the content and expertise already available in the institutions. It is indeed content which is the expensive bit, and creating platform businesses, with content flowing in from the institutions which have it, is what the education start-ups can do well. Indeed, this not just about creating a technology platform and selling it to universities - that business is dead and buried: To be successful, the start-ups need to create a flexible, scalable and innovative business model that the public and private sector incumbents can not create, primarily because of the self-imposed restrictions of quality assurance, territorial licenses and simple myopia of being too focused on content.

Finally, education start ups must resolve, in their own minds at least, whether how to deal with the 'reputation question'. There are far too many start-ups trying to create the reputation hallow, and education entrepreneurs seem to believe that what ailed the previous generation of education companies, the 'For-Profit' ones, is the lack of reputation: The fact that they were too downmarket, publican, in their appeal. But, one could equally argue that there is no point in chasing 'reputation' for a start-up, because what most people refer to the R word as a proxy of social prestige and exclusivity. There are enough provisions for prestige seekers already and no space for start ups there: Higher Education's problem is relevance and productivity and this is the problems start ups should address. Besides, the current model is to try to rent reputation rather than going through the patient process of creating one, and arguably, this is counter-productive: Not just one can't just live in reflected glory, but that such short-cuts undermine the very process how reputation is built, through a patient acquisition of successes over a long period of time. The current game of reputations, putting on the wall plaques of some well known universities, reduce the incentive to develop a coherent vision and commitment to do things well.
So, Start-up Higher Education is a different kind of Higher Education, which may not replace our colleges and universities, but complement them and bring a much needed twenty-first century update. They perform a useful social role when they extend good quality education to those who the traditional higher education fails, and they can do this by building innovative delivery and accreditation systems and leveraging the power of technology and globalization. It is a mistake for them to get sucked into the social prestige game, that is not their role, and to try to rent reputation: It is time we get start-ups who know what they are doing, and which build a system from ground up that drives education innovation.

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