Saturday, June 27, 2015

Competency-based Higher Education : Which Competencies?

Competency-based Higher Education is the new mantra in the United States, something that the For-Profit sector loves to talk about. The reaction to this is bound to be ambivalent elsewhere, particularly in Europe, where Competency-based Education has a rather long tradition, though not in Higher Education. Whether this is a new idea or an old thing packaged anew, the old questions persist - whose competencies and who gets to define them.

The answers are less obvious than it appears. An offhand answer may treat a sector or an industry as the starting point, which was the traditional approach followed in European Further Education and now being copied in the developing countries. While such competency frameworks may have some merit, we are also aware of their limitations - that the individual employers may not necessarily follow the same competency frameworks (in other words, company culture plays a dominant role regarding which competencies are valued) and these are highly dynamic in any case. Also, sectoral competency mapping often falls short because they are outdated even at the conception, given how long such a complex activity, if it is done adequately, usually takes. 

Indeed, an useful shorthand for the sectoral skill requirements is to benchmark the requirements of the leading employers. Usually, these requirements are sufficiently detailed, tested in practice and mapped against the local labour markets and take the supply-side factors into account. However, educators usually detest being beholden to any one employer (or a group of them) because they think that this can lead to non-transferable skills. Besides, it is also difficult to identify, and indeed engage, employers to be the benchmark for any sector, because the largest employers may not reflect the emerging trends and the most innovative practices usually remain at the fringe.

The ideas about Competency-based Higher Education have therefore converged on soft skills. The reigning assumption is that the technical skills, dynamic as they are, should remain in the domain of employer sponsored training, and the education sector should primarily concern itself professional abilities. Such thinking is indeed grounded in the idea of the whole-person development, the core proposition of Higher Education, which is somewhat being replaced by the new generic professional skills demanded by employers, such as collaboration or communication skills.

Appealing as it may be, there are three specific problems with this argument in favour of the focus on soft skills. 

The first problem is that this is not what the employers (or the industry) expect. Traditionally, Higher Education has delivered two things for the employers - basic technical skills, and at a higher level, evidence of character. Someone coming from a good university was expected to know his stuff (technical skills) and be good at it (persistent and resilient, honest etc.). The employers made elaborate arrangements to provide for the missing piece - professional abilities like collaboration, problem solving etc. Now, as the Competence-based Higher Education focuses on Professional Abilities, it often end s up duplicating what the Corporate Learning and Development teams are set up to do. While this is welcome - indeed employers keep complaining about the lack of professional skills in students - a new paradigm of education built solely on this is less so. The employer expectation from Competency-based Higher Ed is basically Higher Ed Plus Plus, and not just a different focus.

The second problem is that the soft skills need a much longer time to develop. In fact, one can not possibly ever be certified having achieved a soft skill - say teamwork - even if they demonstrate a high level of it. Besides, these skills are a combination of habits and behaviours, rather than measurable knowledge, formed inside practice and contained solely within it. In a framework where (in spite of the rhetoric) education is a time-bound activity and employment is what one does till one retires, the reversal of roles in educators taking up the soft skills and leaving the technical ones to employers is counter-intuitive.

The third problem is that these soft skills are essentially contested concepts, laden with cultural significance. What is communication skill in America may not be that in France, the German work ethic is very different from that of the Indians, and collaboration may mean two different things in Britain and Japan. Often, endeavours to construct models of soft skills education are laden with value judgements, and out of sync with the supply-side dynamics of the labour markets. One may indeed argue that competency-based education is all about the demand-side, but even employers are people with different ways of seeing the world in different cultural contexts.

In summary, then, Competency-based Higher Education may not be about changing the traditional mix of Higher Education, that of knowledge and character, but adding a demand-side focus along with it. Additionally, this demand-side focus needs to go beyond anecdotal engagements, and delve deeper into labour market realities, taking into account not just the current demand but also the emerging ones, and the supply-side factors (for example, any competency-based education proposition in India should include English language training). This new model of Higher Ed is supposed to pose a higher level challenge to the educators, and not make things easier for them to sell courses. This is a brave new world, and only the most agile could possibly win.





Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Education-For-Employment: Rethinking The Employers' Role

One of the missing pieces, a big one, in the Education-to-Employment conversation is what role does the employer play. 

We know that a large number of graduates come out of school and can not find a job. Educators, in some cases resistant to the idea that a job should be seen as an outcome of education, are being held responsible for what is becoming a big social problem. Policy makers and Media are leading the conversation and demanding greater accountability, for a successful outcome defined by productive economic engagement (job or enterprise, whatever), from the educators. Several new-age Education institutions are exploring different educational models tied more closely to the outcome, including more responsive curriculum, pedagogy that mirror workplace practices, intensive career preparation for senior students as well as setting up facilities such as incubation centres connecting students with Capital and networks to start their enterprise. In summary, despite resistance from some quarters, the educational institutions are increasingly open to the outcome expectations placed on them by everyone else.

What about employers though? The dominant idea is to treat them as consumers of education. I would tend to think that this is broadly shared by the employers themselves. We have a business to run, they tend to say, and educators must prepare the students so that they find work. This is commonly accepted, and we see the Education-to-Employment as a value chain, students come to school, schools prepare them and employers hire them. We expect the employers to be meritocratic and only hire the best candidates, and hence, place the onus on the schools to meet the requirements.

The question is, though, whether the Education-to-Employment problem can be solved this way. It is a problem to be solved, because graduate unemployment erodes the legitimacy of education, and in the end, of the whole middle class society. While educators have some, even may be the primary, responsibility, can they really make a dent without active participation of the employers? Is it okay to see the Education-to-Employment as a value chain, or should we view this more as an ecosystem, with employers playing a more engaged role? Can one really design responsive curriculum when employers are not really responsive? Why do we accept that the employers must be meritocratic but education must be democratic? And, if we do, and allocate education a more crucial role in maintaining democratic societies, why would not this preference reflect in our policy-making, where we would put the interests of the 'Job Creators' first? Do employers really create jobs, or merely consume Human Resources?

If we eschew the socialist rhetoric, which may put the interests of business owners and everyone else in opposing, conflicting terms, we should see that there should be a common interest in educating people from all quarters. We are all beneficiaries of an educated society, and employers themselves are products, not just consumers, of the same. There should be no essential irrationality in employers getting engaged in education (though the stock markets may not think so) and in fact, every strategic reason to do so. 

However, despite all the common sense appeal, today's employers may be too de-materialised, too wedded to the stock market, and disconnected from the community to care. The common conception puts them almost outside the society, a sort of independent economic agent which should be exempt from all sorts of public accountability, including paying taxes in some cases. Imagine, particularly, the role the large multinational companies play in developing countries, such as India or the Philippines. They are usually invited by the governments of these countries, with tax exemption and other sops, to set up shop there, so that local people can have the jobs. They operate completely outside the social dynamic, without the responsibility to change anything in these countries. If the education system fails to deliver and they can not find educated people, they leave. And, these are only extreme examples. The cold logic of business applies to all sorts of companies. Today, the stock market logic will drive an American manufacturer to send the production to China, and even a start-up would rather hire programmers in a low-cost location. The business of business is business, as Economists will say, and we have surely accepted that.

This may indeed be the core of the education-to-employment problem. This logic would surely lead an employer to automate operations and incur capital expenses, rather than engaging themselves into education provision (other than hands off CSR, which is often too little and too disconnected). As we know with other pesky issues such as the climate, ecosystems fail when one constituent starts to assert its divine right to consume. The education-to-employment problem may indeed be quite similar.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Conversation about Character

Character is back in conversation.

It was one of those Victorian ideals we came to discard. It reeked of elitism, somewhat, and of an irrelevant valour from a time past. The IQ, which came to replace it somewhat, was far more democratic, at least in theory. We loved those stories of smart people coming from unlikely places, and they became our new heroes.

But, as it seems, character is back in conversation, with a vengeance. As IQ peaked, and observing all the craze about tests and test preps, one would tend to think this can't get any crazier, cognitive psychologists, economists and educators started talking about the value of the non-cognitive skills, such as work ethic, self control, integrity, grit etc. We now have masses of data and all sorts of interesting research proving that these things do indeed matter, and character building is now back at the centre of educational discussions.

Which should be good news, I should think. I am on to a little project to go beyond the rhetoric of 21st century education, trying to figure what really matters and what is really going to matter, with a different kind of globalisation, combined with automation and micro- and smart-manufacturing, and environmental constraints coming into play. And, this encompasses deeper questions about what is the secret sauce of human civilisation and how to sustain progress when the world as we know it turns upside down. And, Character, broadly defined, captures what may need to be there at the core of educational enterprise.

I notice this talk of character is spreading everywhere. It is no longer just a Western European thing, but beautiful books are being written in the US and the Chinese are talking about it (admittedly, they always did). Even the Indian employers, the most transactional ones, are talking about hidden skills, as they all-engineering civilisation they were building teeters at the brink. Education for character building, rather than just jobs or even developing smarts, is cool again.

This renewed focus on character should not make the religious ones sit up and make any I-told-you-so claim. This is not about being religious, but being human. This is also not about genteel birth, character is not about manners and accent (as it would be in Britain), but rather things like integrity and compassion, which may come from most unlikely places. While we are using an old word - character - we are in a different world. We indeed have to reimagine what this means, and how we educate for this. The current discussion is anyway a great start towards that effort.

Monday, June 22, 2015

My Adventures in Indian Higher Education

If the title of the post sounds cheesy, it was meant to be that way. I am about to complete an intense year of working on a project to introduce a new kind of Higher Education model, one that brings the educators and employers closely together, and this experience has allowed me new insights and ideas, apart from all the airmiles, a permanent state of jetlag and a number of new friends and correspondents. So, there must be an afterword, which I intend to write now, which captures both the journey and a sense of arriving somewhere, only if to embark on another journey.

To tell the story, I must start with the assumptions that I had. The most crucial one perhaps is that India is ripe for education innovation. The rationale is simple - India has a growing young population buzzing with aspiration, an education system which is struggling to catch up and a large services sector which needs millions of workers but can not find them - and therefore, there is space for new educational models, bridging the gaps. An easy one perhaps, given that Indian public institutions are not doing a great job and the private ones, except very very few, are even upto scratch! 

Apart from this key assumption, which underscores why India must be on the agenda, there are other assumptions to be tested as well. One, that India has a large number of English speaking students, which creates a market ready and available for foreign qualifications. Two, that Indians prefer foreign qualifications as they know that the qualifications from Indian universities are often not good enough. Three, that if one could, using the online technology, create an innovative model which makes available a foreign degree at an affordable cost, most English speaking Indians would love it. And, finally, with all this abundant and emerging demand, expanding marketplace and tech-savvy young students, Indian Higher Ed sector is on the cusp of several innovative breakthroughs. 

My on the ground involvement, adventure as I call it, was a great opportunity to test these assumptions. I was indeed aware of the nature of India (being of Indian heritage myself) that if anything can be true for India, its opposite would also perhaps be valid. So, my approach was more to reflect rather than conclude, to come up a new set of testable assumptions rather than one final strategy, and to decide what I do next rather than where the Indian market, as a whole, will go. 

So, here is an update, which, given the nature of the beast, is a work-in-progress. 

The key assumption that India is a key market for education innovation is true, because the underlying numbers are certainly correct. However, as one prominent Indian Education investor pointed out to me, there are important social and economic factors to be taken into account. For example, Indian Higher Ed sector is not as competitive (because of its highly regulated nature, the funding structures and underlying corruption, which I wrote about earlier) and the additional demand due to growing young population and available funding through the banking system, and therefore, the incentives for innovation are low. And, this is not just the supply-side phenomenon. The Indian job market is still dominated by public sector and publicly supported enterprises, or businesses which deal with the public sector, which introduces a conservative approach to educational decision-making. So, while there are many forms of popular non-degree propositions - some of the largest IT training companies came from India and MOOCs are increasingly popular - Indian formal education market remains as conservative as ever.

It is also important to understand the nature of the Indian service sector businesses. Most of the employment in Indian service sector is focused on the internal markets, requiring a certain level of skills which the foreign offerings often overshoot. The export-facing sectors, such as the IT and IT Services, which often are more visible than their relative economic size (and particularly in terms of jobs), are often locked into low-skill jobs, which do not appeal to the more aspirational segments of the middle class. So, contrary of business strategy assumptions that one would really love to have a job with IBM in India after doing an MBA in an UK university, the students who can afford an MBA in an UK university would aspire for a job in the UK, with a start-up perhaps. Besides, the salaries these large scale IT services employers pay, typically $400 - $500 a month, do not justify the expenses one would have to make to acquire a foreign qualification. 

One can extend these observations to test the other assumptions. For example, in India, the English ability, financial worth and global aspirations correlate very well. Every segment of the Indian student market may be large, but the one most education innovators are aiming for - people who would prefer non-traditional education (foreign degrees delivered online), can speak and write in English, have the money to pay for a foreign qualification and in the end, prefer to stay in India and take an Indian job - is actually fairly small. 

This is not to say there are no opportunities of education innovation in India. There are several. There is a great gap within the formal education sector, and the Indian government is increasingly willing to allow private businesses to create campus-based universities. The opportunities to create new and innovative offerings within the regulatory structure are enormous. Here, the mindset is conservative as far as the acceptance of the degree is concerned, but the willingness to pay and openness to curriculum innovation is very high.

There are also great opportunities in the non-formal sector, where Indian students are increasingly willing to take chances. Many people acknowledge that the formal education does not get jobs - in fact, they accept it to be that way - and they are willing to pay for additional training. Most offerings in this segment are rudimentary, and there is a great opportunity to create offerings at scale. This is where the Education-to-Employment message is most relevant. The cost structures do matter here, because Indian jobs paying Indian salaries are what these offerings aim for, but the openness to innovative delivery methods is high and this is the great opportunity for online education in India. The regulations and award do not matter much, but the connect with employers and jobs do. Employers are also willing to accept this as legitimate - in fact, several employers I have spoken to already employ agencies to make graduates employable - more than any innovation inside the formal education.

There is also a great opportunity to build something aligned with global aspirations of the traditional middle classes, something like Minerva which combine Liberal Education, global exposure and leadership roles. Like any segment in India, this is a large enough segment - something like the whole of the population of Vietnam looking for premium education - and one could build offerings at scale even at this very niche. These are opportunities for brand-name global institutions, or innovative global companies which work with them. Global Professional education is also in high demand - I just met a company which gained quick traction by offering training for CFA and CPA in India - and willingness to pay is high.

And, there is a vast opportunity in the opposite end of the spectrum - the lower middle class, people in small towns and villages, is where the growth really is in India - where skills education can transform lives and service the domestic service sector industries (Retail, Telecom, Insurance and Banking). Here, the cost structures matter and most international offerings are out of sync, but one could perhaps visualise solutions that combine online technology, Indian services, world-class quality assurance with global capital. 

At the turn of the year, therefore, my assumptions stand modified. If I was to start today, I would not construct a start-up offering British Higher Ed Qualifications with an online delivery mechanism aimed at India, as I did in 2012. That model may work in other countries, but not in India. If I was to construct a proposition for Indian Higher Ed today, I would pick one from the four different kinds of proposition that I mention here. 

And, indeed, I have also learned a thing or two about the business of customer segmentation. As I reflect on this experience, I understand the flaws in my imaginary, middle-of-the-road student. The student I imagined, young, tech-savvy, speaks English, have the money, want to experiment, want a foreign qualification and would want to stay in India, do not exist because I super-imposed some data-driven assumptions (coming out of all the different market reports which aggregate people into models) on an imaginary Indian student acting rationally, but overlooked the social realities (like the value of a degree in the marriage market, that visa temples exist in India, that employers are products of the same social reality and do not operate with the cold logic of business strategy all the time). These social factors are often ignored by the flat-world business theorists, who assume that the world is going to converge and these peculiarities (the very fact that we treat these as peculiarities tell the story) are going to go away. However, such assumptions not just lead businesses to wrong path, they often obscure the opportunities. Getting a sense of these opportunities is really my take-home from this one intense year, and I would tend to think, worthy ones.


Saturday, June 20, 2015

The Glass Cage: Automation and Its Consequences

Nicholas Carr is counter-intuitive, and therefore, must-read for anyone interested in talking technology. I followed his big ideas since his path-breaking 'Does IT Matter?' which was about Information Technology stop being a strategic tool and more like an utility, like Electricity. One could argue that this prediction did not materialise, as we put our hopes on Big Data etc to change the way business is done. However, the follow-up on this thesis, that IT would be available through a pipe rather than the strong-room like infrastructures in the past, certainly did, and today one could look at the Cloud Computing infrastructure as an utility, rather than a strategic asset. His later work, 'Is Google Making Us Stupid' (and the book that followed, The Shallows), created a whole genre of work exploring the effects of technology on our brain and our capacity to think, which bore out some of his early warnings about changing behaviour. In summary, he excels in making the Technology Utopianism look what it really is, shallow!

His latest book, The Glass Cage, is about automation, and what effect it may have on our lives. Like his earlier work, Mr Carr is full of foreboding. His basic point is that automation leads to de-skiling, even for the highly skilled professionals such as Pilots, Doctors and Architects. This matters, as contingencies do invariably occur, and when they do, the people left in charge are mostly incapable of handling such contingency. The reason for this is the role accorded to the human intervention in designing the automated system - that of monitoring and supporting, rather than being on control - which, humans not being very good at focus and passive watching, invariably leads to disengagement and deskilling. The way the technologies are designed generally discourages people taking charge (unlike the movie pliot Cooper in Interstellar, for example, who seems to grab the stick all the time), and the human error become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as deskilled humans fail to act when technologies fail to behave as they should.

The answer to this problem is indeed to build fail-proof technologies, but we all know that does not happen. Even the most ardent of the automation advocates would accept that we can not know all the eventualities in advance and plan for all kinds of contingencies. And, indeed, a more realistic appraisal would also acknowledge the fact that sometimes, we may not engineer for all contingencies even if we know them, because economics of production must take into account the likelihood of an event and costs associated. So, we would almost always build automated systems that can fail, and then attach a human operator tasked to act during such failure, but at the same time, this human operator would be, by the design of things, utterly incapable of doing so. Automation is, therefore, a self-destructive paradigm, unless we have learnt to think about technology in a different way.

Mr Carr really becomes interesting at this point. He is not a technology-averse exotic, but a sensible advocate of human-centred technology. His point is that we have got our priorities wrong in automation and we are asking the wrong questions. This is because technologies are not value-neutral, but a reflection of priorities of their maker. The automation technologies that we are designing are not about making lives better, but about displacing labour and human intervention in general, which is, using a popular expression, a project of the 1% against the other 99%. This is why we can not find a cure for Ebola but can boast about engineered babies, and send a mission of Mars but can not solve hunger problem. This is not the territory Mr Carr covers, but this debate about priorities are very central to his argument. Technologies, in the hands of workers themselves, are emancipatory forces, but in the hands of detached owners of capital, a tool for de-humanisation.

I perhaps stray from the argument of the book, but I am not reviewing it, just reflecting on my reading. And, this connects to my practice, in education. The questions we face are similar. How to put the teachers in control of technologies rather than trying to design technologies to replace or reduce the role of the teacher? How to transform the goal of using technology in education from cost-saving to creative engagement? How to move beyond the institutional or investor priorities in technology deployment, and make it a human thing? Mr Carr provides a persuasive argument of rethinking our ideas about technology and what it does to humans.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Education-to-Employment - Reassessing The Challenge

To paraphrase Dickens, this is the best and the worst of the times for Higher Education. On one hand, Higher Education was never more popular. A preserve of the rich and the privileged, it has now become the mantra for everyone aspiring to move up in life. The success of the Western Middle Class in the Post-war years of industrial expansion created a template that everyone around the world to follow, a life of suburban bliss (or an urban apartment), a family, a car, a good school for kids, all inextricably tied to going to college and getting a job afterwards. On another, Higher Education is also in serious trouble, because the equation does not work in practice. The middle class jobs are vanishing, the middle class incomes are stagnating, families are breaking down and state provisions of education and health (where it existed) are being whittled down to meaninglessness. And, most apparently, the Education-to-Employment linkage is breaking down. More than half the graduates, on average, can not find a job. Media is baying for Higher Education blood, as are the Policy-makers, who are squarely blaming the educators for betraying the middle class dream. 

Despite the apparent failure of Education-to-Employment equation, the conversation in the last few years was of more Higher Education, not less. President Obama had set ambitious targets for college achievement, as did other leaders in other countries. India and China started building colleges in breakneck speed (average 5 new colleges per day in India since 2006), and most countries mulled policies to open up higher education to private investment for expansion of capacity. For-Profit Higher Education, a pariah form for most educators, were allowed in, some cases through the back-doors (as in Britain), despite their chequered track record in the United States and the increased risks for the students (as demonstrated in case of Corinthian Colleges in the US, for example). Higher Education, usually a quiet scholarly pursuit outside the Public Debate, found itself firmly at the centre of it. Its role in developing and maintaining the nation states were finally recognised through its failure.

The discussion how to cure this failure has now began in all earnestness, and we have several different approaches on the table. Most are based on making Higher Education more directed, more employment focused. Curriculum innovation is in full swing, and rather than leading the public discussion, Higher Education seems to be catching up on every media fad as it appears, creating specialisations on the go. The For-Profits are leading the charge on transforming Higher Education, and this has become one of most attractive sectors for technology investors, as they seek to transform the sector through technology. 

Can these new efforts really bridge Education-to-Employment gap? Having engaged in this conversation for several years now, I feel that the current approaches do not take into account several important factors. I have listed the top challenges that we may face in our quest to bridge the gap.

First, the conversation about Education-to-Employment gap insufficiently acknowledges the changes in the middle class life and work. The new approaches are premised on a failure of traditional Higher Education to do its job, but overlook the changing nature of jobs, entry requirements, and the labour market structures. The hollowing out of labour market in the middle is undeniable, and promising to fix Higher Education to lead people to those jobs would not work. The job market today reward specific skills and higher levels of training, and may require a person to remain in education for longer, and not a shorter period of time. This may mean additional training after the First Degree, rather than a magic formula that can transform a person and make her employable.

Second, the conversation regarding Education-to-Employment, particularly in context of technology companies backed by venture capital, do not sufficiently factor in Country variations in terms of Educational systems and cultures, nature of work and wages. The work that a multinational organisation like Google or Amazon does in United States, Europe and India, for example, would be very different and responsive to local talent availability. A global solution to Education-to-Employment is, therefore, difficult to build, and any global model being completely blind to the needs of the local employers (and of students, because while they may have global aspirations, most have to find jobs locally).

Third, if we accept the failure to anticipate the dynamic and the diversity of labour markets as serious challenges of building global models for Education-to-Employment, a third dimension of the problem would emerge. Which is, education is, using a metaphor popularised by Scottish academic Tim Ingold, a wayfaring activity rather than transportation. The difference between the two is indeed that transportation is destination focused, whereas wayfaring is more about the journey. In the world where the destination is ever-changing and illusive, as we argue the nature of employability really is, focusing too much on destination at the cost of the journey may indeed be a big problem. The abilities that the student needs, for example, ability to adapt to unforeseen situations, can not be pre-packaged in a curriculum, or even measured in the predictable way as a skill. But, open-endedness is not a feature of the Education-to-Employment conversation, and is unlikely to be.

My own experience in the field now prompts me to think about some form of Employer-led Onboarding Process, after a certain level of educational achievement, to be the way of solving the problem. It is apprenticeship in a new package, a period where learning takes precedence at work but the learner is immersed in actual practice. This is outside the standard educational experience, which has its own value in developing important traits of character, an experience created with employer participation and direction. This is the Employer-varsity that stands outside the gate of the university, not as a substitute, but as a necessary complement.

Working in International Education - A Personal Note

I have been working in International Education for the last fifteen years. This has been an interesting journey as I have done various roles, right from teaching classes to establishing operations in different countries, selling courses as well as managing university partnerships. And, indeed, I was writing about this as I went along, using this blog as a scratchpad of ideas and records of interactions with people from different backgrounds and interests.

I am not sure I thought of this as a career path in any sort of meaningful way, but it somewhat became one. Some of the things I did was deliberate, others less so. In fact, if anything, I discovered that a career in International Education is quite different from what I perceived it to be. Or, that there is no career in International Education if one remained Indian, by appearance and at heart. International Education, in more ways than one, is about promoting courses from Developed countries in the Developing, and this requires a different approach, and I must add, appearance, to be successful there.

Instead, my idealistic impulses, shaped by my life experiences as a student in India and then as someone building education networks across the country (and then elsewhere in Asia), made me think that being in International Education is about combining the best ideas in education with the needs and realities of the countries like India in order to make peoples' lives better. This is indeed the rhetoric of International Education, but the reality is quite different. There is nothing about responsiveness to local needs and wants. In fact, the business of International Education often operates with the assumption that if one seeks international education, then the local options must have failed. So, it is indeed, at least mostly, neo-colonialism in the new garb, a tool for subjugation of the mind than anything else.

Matched with this are indeed the barriers various governments create in keeping education local! Though such restrictions are increasingly untenable because of the spread of online learning, education must be controlled as it is the well-spring of power. The local elite wants to control local education as this is both the justification and the goal of their power over local populace (I sometimes question whether the developing countries truly want to expand educational access) - and they want to keep away the International Elite entering their backyard. I became a first hand witness to this culture war.

From the tone of this post, one would perhaps see that I am rather disillusioned about the rhetoric of International Education. I have tried, in vein, to talk about the lessons that the global corporations have learnt over the last three decades about International Business - that the time for Corporate Imperialism is limited, that global is really multi-local, that the market at the bottom of the pyramid operates differently than other markets etc. However, Education is not an usual business - it is Culture business! And, regardless of what is being said, education is about power, privilege and peoples deep-seated assumptions about the hierarchy of relationships. Working in International Education, in whichever role, is about buying into, and reinforcing, these power relationships.

One may claim that the new, disruptive, technology-led initiatives (such as MOOCs) are all about democratizing (the American spelling is deliberate, as this is a very American word) education, but this is just another form of cultural domination, even more so because of the embedded technology. Technology is not value-neutral, but it carries the handiwork of its maker. When one organises the MOOCs in a certain format, and arranges a certain activities, it reflects a set of cultural assumptions and a certain way of doing things. That one may be talking about reaching out to a global clientele but unable or unwilling to discard, or at least examine, their own parochial assumptions, is a reflection how the business of International Education operates. No wonder if one listens to educators and students in Global South, which I get to do perhaps because of the mixed-up nature of my work, the limitation of this approach is clear. They are willing to eclectically draw upon the International Education buffet, but construct their own solutions - partly due to their reverse parochiality and partly because they see the designs quite clearly.

I am at that juncture in my career when I have started thinking about these issues deeply. I love what I do. I have come to see education of a certain kind as the route to emancipation, because, indeed, of my growing up experiences in India and my middle class background. I chose to live in Britain and went to study in different countries and institutions because I wanted to access global knowledge and culture. As with many other people from Global South, I learnt to embrace the values of enlightenment but reject its very Eurocentric view of the world. The hypocrisy of 'All Men Are Equal, but some are more equal than others' have become clearer to me because if this exposure, and through my work in International Education I came to see the contemporary application of that principle. 

For me, such realisations should not lead to the rejection of internationalism though. Parochialism of any kind, whether that is top-down cultural imperialism that I am complaining about or the rhetoric of local fiefdoms, work against emancipation of the disadvantaged and opportunity for social mobility and creation of more open societies. There is a job to be done in creation of a new kind of International Education, which is not about lusting for a certificate from a Western university but one built around global exchange of knowledge, understanding between different peoples, and openness towards diverse ideas and cultures while appreciating one's own. 

From that perspective, I know my work is somewhat misdirected. I love the writing and advocacy part of my work, and I guess I shall do it more as I go forward. However, I shall perhaps do less of the usual For-Profit work that I have done in the past, and do more work with local institutions promoting knowledge exchange and other projects that promote bottoms-up internationalisation rather than the other way around. My work in International Education would continue, perhaps in a different form, most probably in working with institutions in Global South to build a new approach to Internationalisation.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Project-Based Learning Versus The Classroom - The Unfinished Argument

My first job ever was to set up corporate email networks. Yes, this was days before the Internet as a commercially available service, and I worked for the first e-mail service company in India. We would get corporations to buy subscriptions to our services, and then people like me would turn up at their offices to set up servers, modems etc. However, a big part of our job was to make people use the service to communicate with each other. The point was to save money on long distance calls and fax, because the subscriptions were sold precisely on that sort of cost-benefit analysis. But the users were all too reluctant in 1993 to switch over to a different mode of communication, and our system did not have its full benefit till everyone started using it. So, I would turn up with my comparison charts (this was before Powerpoint too) and explain to people how email may be better than Fax. And, as one would expect, it was not an easy idea to grasp, because most people were paralysed with the fear that the emails can be faked (whereas Faxes would be authentic)!

I think about this experience often these days as I have to argue in favour of Online Project-based Learning. The company I work for is trying to deliver an entire Higher Education curriculum through projects, eliminating the classrooms altogether. This is more than the common practice of doing projects as an add-on, the zero-impact summer jobs and internships that academic institutions throw in for the sake of industry relevance. This is, in a way, the real thing - a learning experience indistinguishable from that of work, just with more variety, fun and meaning. When the students sign up for the course, they start working in teams (just as one does at work, but never in an academic institution), get assigned a coach-cum-project manager, start using Project Management methodologies, and start working on live projects - short ones first and a long one later on.

This is indeed great for everyone who want to educate themselves to get a job. The students complete the course not just with  a degree but a portfolio of work, making it much easier for them to find work immediately after completing the education. Besides, this makes them world-wise, already exposed to working to deadlines, conversant with the dynamics of the team, familiar with the demands (sometimes unreasonable) of the clients, and conscious of their own strengths and weaknesses. In this format, the usual educational content, texts, theories, play a support role, to be accessed as and when the real work requires them, a sort of on-demand engagement with content just as we do at our own work and lives all the time. The teacher, ever present in this model, is the Coach and the Project Manager, facilitating, connecting, demanding and leading, but almost never lecturing.

Yet, evangelizing this format of learning often feels like my days of promoting the email. It is a conceptual leap most people are not willing to make. Today, the argument that Fax might be more authentic than email may seem ludicrous, but back then, when people were not sure what email was, the familiarity of paper-based document gave comfort. My arguments for Project-based Learning, and the stance that this is the only way to learn if the student is looking for a job (in fact, for doing anything practical, think of the Art Studio or the Medical School, but our projects are based on commercial workplaces), are often turned into an argument about Online Learning. Indeed, to create an environment where students are working on projects, we have to facilitate the learning, access to content and access to coaches, using online technology, such as Learning Management Systems, Project Management Tools and Conferencing Systems. These are, however, support mechanisms than the main method of learning, which is indeed Project-based. But because some of the engagement is electronic - just like the e in email - my conversations turn all too often about the merits of learning online.

But this is indeed the wrong way to look at it. Ted Levitt's point that the customers do not want a quarter-inch drill, but a quarter-inch hole, is so often forgotten, and we confuse the means and ends. If the point is learning, a word which draws its meaning not from how it is done (therefore, it is different from book reading) but what it is for (ability to do things, be productive, be participative etc). Any learning should mirror the actual experience of living, which today is a mixture of online, offline and hands on experience, learning on the go supplemented by reflecting conscientiously. This is exactly what we replicate in the learning environments we create, and this, therefore, does become unfamiliar. The email problem, where the need to communicate took precedence over paper, was similar - our debates were focused on what rather than why.

I may have become a believer, but I am unable to see how else one can construct an educational experience meaningful to everyday lives based solely on the classroom experience. One must note that the huge surge in popularity of Higher Education is correlated with the expansion of middle class aspiration, service sector jobs, economic participation of women and active promotion by policy-makers of higher education as the ticket to middle class life. There remains a few students with financial, social and intellectual security who may think of achieving spiritual fulfilment (though more often than not, the objectives are more trivial - remember Clark Kerr's three maxims for an university leader 'sex for students, sports for the alumni and parking for the faculty), but most students want to have a job, or an economically productive life after they finish education. 

Also, consider the way we justify not changing our educational paradigm to something closer to everyday life experience. We speak about academic quality, which is a standard set by institutions themselves for themselves, without regard to the concerns of those it is for, the students. One of my colleagues has a very provocative way of thinking about academic quality - he says it can only be measured by the students' starting salary - which upsets a lot of people. But is it not giving people what they want, and more so, what the institutions promised themselves? Because our thinking about education is so much trapped in the paradigm that whatever happens with classrooms, textbooks and a teacher is education, we continue to weave social illusions for higher and higher education, as we fail to deliver on the key promises of an undergraduate education - a productive social engagement.

So, once we accept this paradigm - the goal of education is a productive engagement with life - we know the source of learning should be the life itself, and its methods should resemble the ways we live now. And, in this, there is a profound sense of déjà vu for me, as this is indeed the email debate, lived several years forward. My argument that the fax is not about the paper, but the information contained in it, resurfaces in my question what learning is, and my belief that we must find a better way to perform the essence of the task rather than being constrained by the institutional trappings (the fax may be stamped and signed, but that is no guarantee of its authenticity because both could be faked rather easily) inform my conviction about the project based method. The buildings and infrastructure, which most universities, devoid of any other meaning, make themselves about, are as important as the rolls of Fax paper (remember the thermal variety!) were in the transmission of information. It seems my entire professional life has been one long argument, and an as-yet unfinished one.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Greek Exit

It now seems possible that Greece will exit the Euro, and it is worth talking about what this may mean.

The Greek government is driving a hard bargain with its creditors, not giving in to their various demands, particularly on Pension and Benefits cuts for retirees, and higher tax on goods sold. While this seems unreasonable and everyone seems to be blaming the Greeks for the trouble, at the core, there is a fundamental difference of priorities. The austerity strategy that the Greek government is resisting is a failed one, and it has resulted in a contraction of the Greek economy and worsened the Debt crisis rather than improving the situation. So, the fundamental position of the Greek government, that the debts will be paid but not by crippling the economy for generations to come and not by causing deeper social unrest, is more reasonable than it seems. The creditors position, in line with the currently dominant worldview, is the one that dominates the media, but its time seems to be running out.

We know, Debts must be paid! This is one rule that we seem to think should apply to everyone, particularly the poorer nations. However, it does not seem to apply to banks, which may squander money and when convenient, just turn up for the bail-outs! It does not apply to richer nations, which can run debts to whatever unsustainable levels just by spending the money on military, and then demand creditworthiness - or, otherwise, send the military to other countries so that they fall in line! Surely, the underlying principle governing the national debts, what must be paid and how it must be paid, is political, and the Greek government is fully justified in considering its political priorities.

One can see the word coming - Populist! Anything that is done for the poor people in any country is always populist! Democracy is indeed a game of words, and words only. Because one could give all the money to the erring banks and let their executives go scot-free, and yet sound tough and patriotic, while if one stands for the poor pensioners and try to protect the little they have got, they get the populist label. Austerity, as we have seen in the recent years, is never for everyone, just for those who do not have much. Greeks are just being asked to do what everyone else seems to accept without questioning.

Greeks have a big problem if they have to exit, as their economy will collapse and capital flight would occur. However, they may have weighed in all the options and this alternative may not look too bad compared to the others on the table. For Alexis Tsipras, the Greek Prime Minister, accepting the alternative deal means political suicide, letting down people who had voted for him and who trusted him to get the best deal for them. If he acts like the other left politicians (like the British Labour party), he would be forced out of office fairly soon, both by the disillusioned voters but also by those bankers and industrialists who he would have saved (like the Labour Party). And, this is not opportunism, but the very Churchillian politics of doggedness that we have come to admire so much. He has a mandate, and if he does anything else, just because The Economist or the Murdoch Press say so, he would be betraying his mandate.

But, then, here is his saving grace - the Greek exit is not just a problem for Greece, but the whole world system that came into being after the Second World War. This would be a nightmare for the EU, and the worst failure of the Bretton Woods institutions, particularly the IMF. The Keynesian common sense of allowing growth and saving the Greek economy would have been abandoned in favour of the narrow Monetarist dogma, and its rejection by the Greek people will be a first, and indeed not the last. Greek government would survive, and the country would move away from Europe and closer to the world of China and Russia. This may indeed become a big rescue act for the nascent BRICS Bank, which is far more amenable to Keynesian ideas of growth and development (because they have to). In the end, this is political twist at the tale of this economic saga, and the European leaders perhaps know that they can ill-afford such a situation.

There may be some in America and Britain who would quietly celebrate this as the end of EU, but this is, in effect, the end of the world they know. While this may not be the start of another catastrophic war, this is an institutional failure in the end, a classic case of post-war institutions not being in sync with democratic public opinion. We have had several systems in history which was constructed to maintain the world as is, and they broke down to give way to chaos and war. We have arrived at such a point. The choice is not just for the leaders of Greece, but for all those on the table who has an interest in averting a wholesale breakdown.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Skills and Automation

If my work is about creating an education offering ready for the 21st century, two forces count the most - Globalisation and Automation. The question how automation alters the educational requirements of a common citizen and average worker keeps popping up in my engagements, conversations and work. I spend a great deal of time traveling and talking to people how education must change, how we must look for a different set of skills than the ones we hitherto talked about, and how we must get ready for a tipping point globally when the economic and social structures change drastically under the weight of these two forces.

In this context, it is important to think how this change may look like. For this post, I intend to focus on automation, the ubiquity of intelligent machines and how that may alter the nature of skills, and leave globalisation for another day. I have indeed made several blog posts about this in the past - it is indeed central to what I have been doing for several years now - and all this, in summary, look like an ongoing attempt to reconcile my natural enthusiasm about technological progress with my concerns about what it means for everyone. 

We have been at similar points in history, Industrial Revolution being the most obvious example, when automation changed the way of work and of arranging society. We are in the Second Machine Age, as Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson claim, and the middle class is in serious trouble. While the policy-makers and the economists are celebrating consumption growth through an enormous monetary expansion, the underlying middle class jobs, careers and incomes have stagnated. 47% of the professions we have today are in the risk of obsolescence, warned Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne of Oxford University (See the earlier post). This makes most of our current models, of organising our society and politics, and our lives, at risk. Indeed, our education systems are at risk as it stands squarely on the promises of middle class jobs and incomes, particularly so in developing countries (See my note titled The Sleepwalkers). The breakdown that we see in different parts of the world, but particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, has direct correlation with this breakdown of the middle class proposition, partly due to automation (and partly due to the other forces of globalisation).

The most reassuring thing one could say, when faced with the concerns about the disappearance of the Middle Classes, is that we have been here before and our concerns have been proved wrong. The Economist points to great expansion of education during and immediately after the industrial revolution, gradual upskilling of labour and indeed the creation of the middle class as a result. There is even a name for the concerns about Technological Unemployment (a term coined by Lord Keynes, who saw it as a future event) - the lump of labour fallacy! The broad point here is that automation creates its own kind of occupations, and with education, todays pilots will become the drone operators for tomorrow. It is a mistake to be overtly concerned about the loss of half of our jobs, which will surely happen, because there will be jobs and occupational categories which will emerge. Who could predict that we would need SEO Experts and Data Scientists today?

This rather optimistic thinking is ingrained in all I say and do. The point that we need a different kind of education, with emphasis on independent thinking, creativity and imagination, is somewhat self-evident. A number of educators and thinkers, Howard Gardner among them, have been making the point for a number of years. The playbook seems simple - we are facing an unprecedented level of automation and middle class jobs and careers are changing, and hence, one must educate oneself differently, be more entrepreneurial, creative and imaginative, and be ready for the future.

This model works, up to a point. Technological progress is not value-neutral though. What gets made and what does not depend on the choices people make. The people in question here are those very few people who control most of our economic resources in the very unequal societies we have built. For them, the intelligent machines are not just about enhancing human capability, which the techno-utopians would love to see, but about replacing human labour. It is so because creating new capabilities may alter the nature of power, but replacing the need of human labour helps to perpetuate it. The aims of technological progress may not be building better lives, but more power in the hands of a few. We have enough evidence to worry that this is indeed the case. This would call for a different kind of education.

This is because technological progress in the hands of the few would not create the need for higher level skills, but would aim to deskill most of the population. Nicholas Carr makes this argument brilliantly in his new book, The Glass Cage, where he cites the work done by Harvard Business School Professor, James Bright, who studied the effect of automation on skills. Professor Bright found that all automation is not the same, and while the skill requirements tend to increase in the initial phases of automation (think Industrial Revolution, universal education and making of the industrial middle class), it decreases with advanced automation when the machines can own the processes. Such a thing may indeed be underway currently, partially because of skewed preferences about what we want technology to do for us. Michael Spence, the Nobel Laureate Economist, writing with Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson, sees the emergence of a Superstar Economy, where a few earn the most, with the rest increasingly left to do nothing. This indeed seems real. Combine this with the stigmatisation of the working class (that they are benefit scroungers) and one starts to see the slippery slope to the end of democracy and as some observers call it, The Dictatorship of 1%.

The education one needs, therefore, is not just about creativity and independent thinking, but there needs to be more. It needs to include a certain level of political and social consciousness, a democratic commitment and the ability to think about the future. All the talk we have about 21st century education tends to exclude these things, because they are truly disruptive to the homogeneous idea of technological progress we have bought into. That we need to make value judgements about the priorities of technological progress has been discreetly overlooked, and instead, our education systems have become a desperate attempt to create a few successes when the overall democratic consensus is sinking. However, for technological progress to be sustainable, and really beneficial to all (instead of just being of benefit to a few with money), one needs this democratic imagination that can reconcile human needs with technological possibility.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Undoing of Nestle in India

Maggi Noodles was a great success story in many ways. When it arrived in 1983, the Indian concept of snacks did not necessarily include Noodles. Its timing was great - just as television and cricket were conquering Indian homes and middle classes were looking beyond government jobs - and its communication was perfect, the 2-minute food! It combined global aspiration, motherly love and emancipation of women into one, the perfect combination for India. The traditional Indian snacks, all those Puri-Subji and Dosas, gave way - none of those could be made within a few minutes and without great skill and preparation. Maggi even tasted modern, always warm and alien to any taste one has grown up with. This was, in a way, one of the first stirrings of culinary globalisation!

As it falls apart in the wake of the nationwide ban on Maggi this month, this makes a cautionary tale. One regional authority first discovered unusual amounts of Lead and MSG in Maggi, and then the panic spread nationwide. It was a domino that undid a Billion Rupee brand, at least for the moment. It was fascinating to watch Nestle reacting to this, as one of their main brands in the country fell apart. Their silence almost confirmed something was wrong all along! They moved between denial and callous disregard of Indian lives, and only started withdrawing the snacks from store shelves a few weeks later. And, as if to save face, they moved to Mumbai High Court quite late in the day, implausibly claiming that their own, and independent tests commissioned by them, found that Maggi is fine! The notion that anyone would believe them at this stage should tell us how little they cared about what Indians think.

But it gets worse. In this rather sordid tale of one multinational trying to save its name after it has realised it was caught red-handed doing something wrong, Nestle started making claims about India in general. Stories appeared in Western Press, no doubt fed by Corporate PR, that banning Maggi is nothing but the traditional male domination reasserting itself, as they want the women to lose their freedom afforded by 2-minute food (see here) When the American regulators caught up and banned the snack from entering United States, Nestle claimed that the exported batch may actually be fake. What started as a food having inappropriate level of Lead and MSG, has now become a full scale Nestle versus India battle, so that the company can save its image by making India a male-dominated, inefficient bureaucrat-led, fake product exporting country! 

This is almost a classic lesson on how not to handle a crisis. All the textbook lessons that the Marketers learn - act swiftly, decisively and honestly in the face of a crisis - were defied in this case. There was no action, no decision and indeed no honesty. As if they were counting on the poor level of consciousness of the Indian consumers, Nestle was silent and it did allow Maggi to be sold till the time ban was really enforced and it became news nationwide. By the time they did anything - tried to withdraw the snacks from store shelves and move court simultaneously - everyone was convinced that they were trying to get away with murder. It became a classic setting for a new episode of Multinational versus the Market, where, one must note from experience, while the former may have more power, market always wins in the end.

So, the brand is dead - at least, for me. So ingrained was the brand loyalty, the snack found its way in my weekly shopping basket, even in Britain. I have now thrown the unused packs in the bin, and regretted using it ever. Whether or not they clear up the mess, Maggi is dead in water. Even a rebranding, which would surely come in a while, would not convince me to buy another snack from Nestle. 

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Obsessive Branding Disorder (OBD): What It Is And How To Avoid It

Recent discussions with a couple of start-up entrepreneurs brought up a topic that used to be my favourite: Obsessive Branding Disorder (OBD). This was the title of 2008 book by Lucas Conley which made it to the Best Business Books list of Strategy&Business that year, with a simple and powerful idea that you can indeed brand too much!

This was a difficult idea to grasp for anyone involved in marketing, because our worldview can be summed up as, Brands eating the World! Our job, we tend to think, is to claim every piece of estate, real or virtual for the brands that we are custodians of. In the rush to better competition, we intend to leave nothing, urinals to the sky, if we can afford, to imprint our brands. We want to claim words, how cool is when someone talks about Googling something, and even emotions - feeling very Apple, anyone? The idea that we can overshoot the mark is indeed quite unsettling.

But, if we look to others, it becomes quite obvious. We suddenly start noticing all the merchandise strewn on the floor, all those banner ads and television commercials that irritate us, those free sample that leave us feeling tricked, all the jokes that fall flat and all those invitations that sound  pretentious! Worse still, we come across mystifying words that tell us nothing - McFlurry anyone - and leave us, alternately, diminished, confused, bemused and disconnected. It is, as if, we just needed a mirror to see our work - Disorder is therefore the right word for the disease - to understand when we overshoot the mark.

Brands are meant to be symbols, combination of visuals and words, that represent our messages and ideas to our audience. They are to be immediately recognizable, and simple conveyors of what we stand for. Therefore, our Disorder, we plaster our brand everywhere so that no one can miss it, but forget that it is not the brand, but the underlying message that we are trying to convey. Instead of communicating, we mystify. It is nice to be in a position like Google but it takes a few things become a verb, and Google did not achieve that by plastering its sign everywhere. It achieved that position by telling a story, stories really, and those symbols came to stand for those stories and ideas. Those stories and ideas really matter, not how many times you saw Google on the roadside.

The surest sign of OBD for me is when one starts changing the words, twisting them to create an intonation that resemble the brand. We may get the sound but start to lose the meaning. We complicate, rather than simplifying. We pretend, rather than relate. We sound childish, not playful. The words obscure, rather than communicate. And, yet, we feel good, as we hide in our echo-chamber, because we keep hearing ourselves intoning our brands again and again.

That the brand is for the audience is completely forgotten at this point. It becomes a narcissistic act, visual or verbal, rather than one of reaching out. It starts and ends with an insecurity about ourselves and our messages, as we reassure ourselves that others are seeing (or hearing) our brand by seeing it ourselves.

How do you heal this then? Honesty is perhaps a good place to start, and that usually means tearing down all that obscures, all that overwhelms and all that distracts. Simplicity is the objective, we should tell ourselves, and not vanity, which the pseudo-comfort of over-branding is designed to provide. Once we peel off the pretension, we start engaging with the story, it is what matters, and see the brand for what is, a device to connect. 

How Higher Ed Will Change : An Unified Theory

There is consensus that Higher Education must change, but many views on what it would change to. 

This conversation about Higher Education change are usually carried along two parallel lines. The first, Financial, is closely linked to the decline in popularity of the Welfare State, and of the doctrine of publicly provided education in general. The second, Technological, stems from the dematerialisation of communication and contact technologies, and the emergent possibility of human relationships (and, therefore, instructional contact) without the constraint of physical facilities or the availability of learner and the tutor at a specific point of time and place.

However, there is a third way to approach the shape of coming change in Higher Ed, and this is to approach the conversation from the changes in the nature of knowledge and work. At this point, the conversation about educational change becomes a conversation about education, not just limited to policy wonks or venture capitalists, but those who had come in contact with the unaddressed creature, students, and the undefined objective, knowledge. At this point, one starts questioning what education is about, and how would this transform as the work changes and social relations transform.

One result of technological change is that the process-based work is getting done technologically. Lately, we are thinking about this in terms of automation and robots, but this has been happening for last two hundred years and this was the basis of what we now call the Industrial Revolution. The financial model, that of education for private gains funded by private means, is aligning educational outcomes more and more with post-education productivity gains, and therefore, with this reality of knowledge and work. The essential idea, which is manifested in a variety of rhetoric, 'knowledge workers', 'critical thinkers', 'leaders', is that any education must lead to outcomes consistent with this changing nature of work.

If we, therefore, must propose an unified theory of educational change, we should try to look beyond the usual financial or technological discourse, and talk about the knowledge and outcomes in these terms. And, in this, a big departure from industrial era education, which has been more or less our model for the last two hundred years, is apparent. Since process based work can be technologically done, the outcome of education must be to develop tacit capabilities of an individual. And, as we know, Tacit capabilities are difficult to teach, except through the laboriously doing the work and reflecting on the work done.

The explicit knowledge, something that can be taught, has become widely available. The tacit capability, how to find what is needed, has become the essential human capability to trump over a machine. The objective of human education, therefore, should now shift away from the industrial era model of content-driven (read Textbooks) explicit knowledge to a new engagement, based on real work and real life, built around inquiry and reflection, rather than absorption and instruction.

So, we must move beyond classrooms not because we can not afford it or there is a better technology, but simply because it is inefficient in producing the kind of knowledge and capabilities we need. Thus, project-based and experiential learning must be at the core of our educational vision, and the financial and technological aspects of the debate are just enablers of this.

Online Talent Platforms - Enabling The SIM Model

McKinsey Global Institute is predicting Online Talent Platforms (see here) could have significant overall benefits, adding $2.75 trillion to global economy by 2025. For this, they define talent platform in a rather open-ended way, combining the traditional recruitment websites like Monster, the social platforms such as Linkedin and the Gig economy enablers such as Uber or Handy together. The central thesis could be read as thus - a fundamental restructuring of the labour markets is under way, and these online platforms could remedy some of the effects of that change. The scary figure of 850 million unemployed in the major economies, some of which induced by technological change and labour market shifts, jumps out of the report, and its optimistic vision that technological tools would solve technology induced challenges.

In many ways, this affirms my thinking about the Skills-Information-Mobility model (See SIM Model of Employability). The broad definition of the Online Talent Platforms was indeed warranted, because it would be more than just connecting people with jobs. As is happening with Linkedin, one would perhaps see a convergence between Information and Skills aspect of the equation, and it would surely be an attractive model for the Online colleges to look at. The educational institutions have always found it difficult to combine the educational and recruitment activities together, but with the transformation of work (not just Gig Economy, but other enablers such as Workflow solutions), it may have become much easier to combine the two together. 

Friday, June 05, 2015

India and Bangladesh: Let The Future Matter

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will arrive in Dhaka tomorrow. His is a historic opportunity, to reimagine the relationship with Bangladesh, and to unlock the prosperity cycle that can transform Eastrn India and beyond.

To do this, a focus on the future will be needed.

Almost all the discussions in South Asia, all the time, is about the past. This is one region caught in endless cycles of memories, revenge and retribution, as if the time never moves forward. This would be the challenge that Mr Modi must overcome.

Bangladesh matters. Many Indians may think of it as a poor, weak, insignificant country, pale in significance in comparison with Pakistan or China. But with its 156 million people, it is the 8th most populous country in the world, though that fact does not seem to count much in this very crowded corner. It is a poor country, but despite a lower per capita income compared to India and Pakistan, it betters them on measures that count, higher life expectancy at birth, lower child mortality and even literacy levels. But what matters even more is its entrepreneurial culture and vast diaspora, as well as its generally tolerant ethos. A friendly Bangladesh, which is possible, allows India to break out of the Hindu versus Muslim conversation, and its troubled legacy with Pakistan. And, finally, Bangladesh is critical for prosperity of Eastern India, India's poorest but possibly the most diverse region, and particularly for its Northeastern states, a cluster of seven states that chronically suffers from insurgency problems. At the worst, a Chinese base in Bangladesh upsets India's military strategy, and therefore, if not a friend, India definitely does not want a hostile government in Dhaka.

India, on the other hand, matters to Bangladesh in more ways than one. Fair access to Indian market can galvanise Bangladeshi Private Sector, which, in turn, would create jobs and growth for its largely young population. An agricultural economy, Bangladesh depends on its rivers, all of which flow through India, making it dependent on Indian goodwill (and causes the most angst). Its common culture with West Bengal makes the travel restrictions particularly painful. Bangladesh needs a friendly India to leapfrog its economy and transform its politics.

However, while good relationship is common sense, the past proved to be a barrier. Indians commonly resent Bangladesh at two levels. One, there are Bengali Hindus, who are influential in West Bengal, who lost property in the partition - and therefore, resent the existence of the country. Second, more generally, Indians seem to remember the role Indian army played in Bangladesh's Liberation War, and therefore, expect a debt of gratitude, and feel somewhat aggrieved when Bangladesh behaves like a normal sovereign country. Bangladeshis, in their turn, feel insecure with India's posturing with water, and allow its suspicions of the big, indifferent, neighbour to become a divide drawn along the religious lines. Its old elite, many of whom sided with Pakistan during the war of liberation, harbours deep dislike of India, having fought it to make East Pakistan (successfully) and to keep it that way (unsuccessfully).

This past will be present in the meetings, conversations, deals and understandings Mr Modi engages in. It is like that ever present spirit in Indo-Bangladeshi engagements, and show up, as we have seen recently, even in Cricket grounds. And, the key to transformation, of the relationship and of the two countries, is to let the future matter more. It may sound like common sense, but it needs political courage. In the past, most engagements, therefore, faltered, and the politics of poverty have overtaken good intentions. Mr Modi, with his overwhelming mandate and continuing popularity, has one historic opportunity to change the conversation.

Rethinking EdTech Investments

TechCrunch reports a slowing of EdTech investments in the first five months of this year (see here). The period in question is perhaps too short to pick up a trend, but this may allow us to think through some of the issues on the table.

For example, what kind of EdTech is really going to change things? The EdTech business is a slow one - someone told me that you will need 36 visits to an university to sell them a piece of technology, and make it 72 if it is a new idea - and indeed, most investors and entrepreneurs, believing the trade press perhaps a bit too much, are already feeling disappointed that the things do not change as fast. In fact, not just this piece of news about slowing deal flow, but also the big successes - like - tell us a story of continuity, rather than change. 

The big investments in EdTech going to video perhaps tells us that while technology is being adapted in the classroom, and people are learning themselves, the ways of doing so are changing only slowly. Content remains the biggest attraction in EdTech - and video is coming of age - followed by tutoring solutions, which one can perhaps still see as content. Third on the list would be assessments, which has large international market. But the other popular ones with entrepreneurs, such as end-to-end delivery frameworks, or smart pieces of technology that seek to disrupt things, are perhaps still out of favour. An Angel investor recently told me that all his investments in scalable businesses do not grow, but one he did in a face-to-face tutoring business, one that is not supposed to scale, has returned him many times the money. In summary, in more ways than one, Education continues to frustrate technology investors.

Which, in itself, is not a bad thing. Education, a separate sector with its own dynamic, needs its own specialist investors. Right now, it gets lumped with Technology, Media and Telecom (TMT) because the investors are not sure what it really is. However, we are starting to some specialist Education funds, some of them focused on social impact, which is really good news. In fact, the Technology Investors getting into education, while it brings a lot of money to the sector, muddies the pond quite a bit, and subverts the dynamic. The nature of Education, a service that requires relatively less money to build but has a long gestation period, one that continues to depend on people (think Content and Tutoring businesses) and is not really a Consumer Technology business (can not be used twice a day, using Larry Page's analogy, but rather once in a lifetime commitment), is ill served by a technology mindset, where the most important metric is the one related to customer acquisition, because the rest can figure itself out. The investment models based on instantly scalable customer acquisition and efficiency-driven delivery cost savings subvert the personal nature of education. In short, education, while it can be a business, needs its own investors and investment approach.

Given the demand for education worldwide and its importance, education investment is here to stay. For all those who think education is not a business, they should note that education was always an enterprise - with personal tutors leading the game since the days of Aristotle through our very familiar Adam Smith and now all the SAT schools - and an opportunity to invest and grow. It is state-funded education which is a modern thing, perhaps necessitated by the Industrial Revolution, and state is retreating rather than expanding in scope in education. The point, of course, is that no one knows definitively what comes next. This is the job for the next generation investors, entrepreneurs and educators to figure out.


Thursday, June 04, 2015

University of Law in the Brave New World

Yesterdays rather innocuous news that the University of Law has been bought over by the Global University Systems means more for British Higher Education than it appears. It may be the start of a wholesale transformation of British Higher Education, for good or for worse.

For the uninitiated, the University of Law is one of the few private universities in the UK, and the only For-Profit one. It evolved from the College of Law, which was a Not-for-Profit entity, and which was bought over by Montagu Provate Equity, a PE fund with more than 4 Billion Euro worth of assets under management. Montagu buy-out eventually led to the transfer of University charter to a For-Profit entity after some hiccups, justifying the £200 million price tag. However, while this was one of the biggest PE deals in Education, it was also illustrative how little PE investors understand education. The valuation seemed to have solely based on the University license, which was not immediately available, but it ignored the fact that the market for legal education was collapsing at the time of the deal (in 2012) and the College of Laws core market, Graduate Diploma in Law (or the Law Conversion courses), was a pretty saturated market with limited opportunity to grow. So, their key calculation that the turnover could be doubled within a 3 to 5 year period faltered almost immediately after the deal was completed, plunging the well-regarded College into a strategic desperation of considering all sorts of unlikely options, including an MBA to save the day.

That Montagu has now exited after less than 3 years and it has sold the entity, now called University of Law, to Global University Systems, indicates that those strategies have perhaps failed, and what is being sold is the university license all over again. This should be particularly valuable to Global University Systems, which has grown out of an aggressive For-Profit provider who went through all sorts of regulatory troubles over the years. The school had perennial difficulty with accrediting universities, and its contracts were cancelled by all the universities it has ever worked with. It ended up with a high profile acrimony with the Quality Assurance Agency (who reportedly backed off from its even more critical report after a serious legal threat), a financial dispute with another university, and have been at the centre of at least two UK universities getting into trouble with Home Office regarding student visas. In 2014, all the universities working with the school decided to terminate the relationship, apparently fearing Home Office or QAA disapproval. Since then, its promoters expanded by purchasing other colleges (some of which have leveraged and perhaps abused the new student loan system to the extreme) and eventually leveraging the student numbers into building a war chest to purchase institutions to build a Laureate style conglomerate. In short, Global University System is the nearest British equivalent of American For-Profit.

While American Research universities top the university rankings, British Higher Education, as a whole, perhaps command greater respect. The reason for this, one would guess, is the unified regulatory system in the UK, and very high bar set for an institution to become an university. While one could celebrate American education, a no-name American university is justifiably viewed with suspicion. It may be a British Prime Minister who popularised the term, Bogus Colleges (an American President would not even know), but the universities in Britain remained above board because of the elaborate checks-and-balance system that regulate them. The new University of Law will be, if one could learn from track records, the proverbial elephant in the China shop! The fact that the British Higher Education policy needs a review, and sufficient safeguards and regulations that accept the For-Profit reality (rather than being in denial, a very British disease), is underscored further by this new acquisition. 




Breaking Into Indian Higher Ed Market - What Have I Learnt

India is one of the most complex markets of Higher Education in the world. It is complicated with multiple layers of regulation, with the States and the Centre having a say, and neither of them having a definitive say. It is a strange marketplace with a modern service economy overlaid on a middle class created by public sector careers, where conservatism and aspiration are in constant conflict. It is unusually corrupt, and this is one sector where Private Sector matches or betters Public Sector corruption (see my lament here). All this makes any new idea, and market entry for a new institution, global or local, extremely difficult. (see more here)

I have done several projects with global organisations trying to enter Indian Higher Ed market, and understand why they must try. (see my earlier post here) Despite the complexities, India is simply the biggest market for education. It is the arena where the big questions of education innovation are being played out, and to be a player, any Higher Ed innovator must win in India. 

Of course, such global companies mostly fail in India. There are some apparent reasons, or at least one reason broken into three parts.

First, many global organisations, when they approach India, they assume Indian Higher Ed market to be underdeveloped. Given the chaotic regulation, confusion and corruption, this is an obvious assumption to make. However, this is a mistake, because Indian Higher Ed is matured, and competition in India is fierce. This may be a contradiction of terms, but it is usually known that everything and its opposite is true for India. More specifically, in Indian Higher Ed, like everything else, one encounters huge institutional failures and a thousand ways of improvising around it. No wonder India is one country where employers report most satisfaction with Higher Education institutions, perhaps because there are many different layers of Higher Education exist side by side. This competitive challenge is usually underestimated, and the fact that a basic solution is not good enough is usually overlooked. In the quest to develop low-cost solutions - everyone knows India is a poor country - global players forget that cheap would not do, because Indian players will easily match it.

Second, unlike many other regions of the world (say, Sub-Saharan Africa), India does not seem to have a capacity problem in Higher Education, particularly after the massive, private sector led expansion in the recent years. So, whoever wants to go to an Engineering college, can more or less go to an Engineering college. This is another difficult conceptual leap, and only so because India is many countries at once. The parts visible to Global Players is the developed parts of India - the big cities - and the Sub-Saharan Africa hidden in India, where there is a problem of education deprivation, is not visible to any Global player. 

Third, and this is really a continuation of the earlier point, because the Global companies usually want to operate with their develop country cost structures, even if it is a scaled down version. That limits them to the richer parts of the population of India, where there is no educational deprivation and the choice is abundant. Besides, the global courses, offered in English, are self-limiting too. If one knows English, has the money and lives in a big city, there is no educational problem to solve for him. This is hardly understood by education investors and entrepreneurs, whose business models are often based on aggregate data and miss the granular understanding of the Indian education market.

So, is there a market in India, and how to approach it?

My strategy suggestion, after many years of working, few successes and some failures, is to create a differentiated offering with local inputs and great value. So, instead of hankering for scale, one should start by targeting the Upper Middle Class students and figuring out how to create value for them. They have a lot of options, but one can still create value with differentiation. A degree from a developed country is sought after, and if it could be delivered at Indian costs, it would be different. So would be courses in advanced technology areas, or for professions, which is still quite limited in India (but growing fast). Offering travel options, which an Indian competitor can not easily offer, may create further differentiation, as well as an opportunity to connect with global employers through internships or projects. 

All this, at an Indian price, which is basically to factor in the Purchasing Power Parity equation (a $ in India buys 5.5 times as much it would do in the United States) and the low per capita earning in India (which is about one-fifth of that of China), because Middle India is an extremely value conscious market. This could indeed be created with a combination of global frameworks and Indian input costs, though this needs deeper understanding of the country. 

This last bit, deeper understanding, is indeed the missing piece, which primarily comes from hubris that inform most global businesses (See, for example, Professor Pankaj Ghemawat's work on the subject). Following the logic of the market is business common-sense, but, as we all know, this is not always so when a company starts talking global. The strategies, then, are not defined by the usual logic one would follow, but some kind of top-down logic which misses the point. This leads to misplaced priorities and assumptions. One company I worked with wanted to incorporate a personal leadership framework in their courses, and assumed that it would be a great selling point. This leadership framework, quite well-known, was a Western one, informed by Christian religious thinking, something that was once popular in India. However, the conversation in India today is mostly about new frameworks and ideas about leadership, with various new models gaining huge popularity (see my earlier post, though it perhaps betrays my scepticism about all religiously-informed teaching), and this particular framework, popular in the 90s, is seen as tired and irrelevant. The fact that the company and the market were putting different value emphasis on this element of education is symptomatic of the disconnection that ails global companies.

This is indeed a classic global versus local dilemma discussed in International Strategy playbooks. However, my contention that India (and China in its own way) needs special treatment is based on the uniqueness and size of the Indian market. I am fully in agreement with the observations of Rama Bijapurkar, who calls India A Never-Before Market, and know from experience that most global companies completely miss the point. 

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