Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Past of The Future, and A Plan

August was somewhat the crucial month, with a both a week-long walking tour of Paris and a work trip to India, allowing me to the perspective that I desperately needed. It has been a year that I chose to take up a job after a few years of bootstrapping, and it was most appropriate for me to reflect on what happened since. Besides, I wanted to figure out what I really want to do, and travelling and engaging with different things in different countries was one of the best ways to figure this out. This allowed me to test the assumptions I had, about work and about myself, and while there are no definite answers in these kinds of things, I am much better informed now than I was only a year ago.

For a start, I know adult education is something I enjoy being involved in, and I would rather stick to this, despite some tempting offers to work for the technology sector. Even an education technology company is not an education company, I keep reminding myself, and nor an investment bank putting money in education. The joys and possibilities of education is still at the sharp end, in teaching, building and running institutions, which is what I want to do. If this was an idealistic presumption right at the start, when I pivoted into an education career, it is no longer - I have withstood the trial by fire of bootstrapping and eating the humble pie of going back to work. It is at least one thing I can leave constant as I try to re-imagine my future.

The other thing I figured out is education is a land-grab business with a distinct dynamic. Despite all the talk of disruption, education innovation is a game to be played one step at a time. Innovation is not a buzzword in education the way standards and quality are, and when people pursue Higher Education, there is an inherent pursuit of prestige and credibility. This is what drives higher education and therefore, good, small colleges may be more difficult to run than bad, big colleges. I have come to see how difficult it is to disrupt the existing education structure even if it is dysfunctional, because at the end it is growing - with masses of middle class - innovation is not the game. The middle classes want to be educated to emulate the upper classes, and for them, what is in demand is more of the same at a cheaper cost, rather than something utterly different. 

There are so many innovative education companies which believe, rightly, that the existing education system would fail to deliver what the middle classes want and trying to construct something different. Their failures, as well as of my previous venture, add to the evidence that middle classes are nothing if not conservative. The defining characteristic of middle classes is to pursue upper class lifestyle and aspirations at a cheaper price point - in one sense, that lies at the heart of many truly disruptive business ideas - and the real disruption comes from cheap, not better. My British venture trying to give a different type of education to Asian youngsters was doomed from the start - an online Diploma Mill giving degrees from non-existent colleges at a throwaway price always has more promise than the pretentious attempt to offer competency-based education that I set up - because the price point I was working with disqualified us from the pursuit of cheap degrees. 

This understanding provides the context for my next plan, which I shall embark on when I finish my current project. I have summarised all I learned during the last three years into a few principles, on which I shall build my plan. 

First, I shall stay out of competing with the existing education system and would rather work with it. This means whatever I do, my offerings would be to plug into the existing institutional structure rather than trying to create an alternate structure altogether. There is enough opportunity for this, as things can be done better. 

Second, this can indeed be a piece of technology, or content, or things that may enhance educational experience. These projects can be done well with limited financial resources, whereas anything to compete with whole systems of education and changing mindsets need an enormous resource base. 

Third, the pursuit of scale (and exit) are wrong goals to pursue in building an education venture, because they impose an unrealistic ambition, and create an unsustainable dynamic, not consistent with the goal of creating a memorable education experience. Good education remains, despite all the advances of technology, a very personal business, labour intensive and personal. While one could build efficiencies in the process, the current quest to MacDonaldize education. I have noted that many current education ventures are based on business models which seek to rationalise (this is the original sense George Ritzer used the term) education - creating controlled processes, equating measurability with good performance and emphasising predictability - and education is not as permeable to such models as the proponents of it thought it to be (it is strange that we fail to learn from the experiences of US For-Profits). Quest for scale does not make any business sense either, given that most successful universities are relatively small affairs, but it is often driven by globalising vanities of the investors and executives, a recipe for disaster. It is most sensible, therefore, to aim to create a small community knitted together around an excellent experience. Excellence, not scale, could be the only legitimate goal of an educational enterprise.

Fourth, there is a profound change underway at work, with new opportunities and job roles emerging, at the expense of many traditional middle class jobs. This is where the quest of scale becomes self-defeating too - the most popular areas of study today, law, business, IT for example, are the ones facing obsolescence, and the niche areas that will produce the jobs of the future do not promise the scale. There is great demand for plug-ins that would make the existing education system cope with the change, and this is perhaps where the greatest opportunity for a new education organisation is.

Indeed, all the above means that I am not in alignment with the current For-Profit education thesis, but that is a good thing, given the rate of failure of For-Profit institutions and their fast-disappearing credibility. I shall go back to my original plan, of offering a great creative education in collaboration with the existing education institutions, and do it through innovative technologies, content and experience. This may indeed play out over a period of time, several months at the least - and I shall record my progress here as I go along. 


Wednesday, August 26, 2015

MOOC Redux

The MOOCs did not save the world or changed Higher Ed, as promised. But Coursera's new round of funding point to a redefinition of sorts for MOOCs, and perhaps a firmer founding. It seems Coursera has found a new strategy in Professional Development, as did Udacity with their nano-degrees earlier. Instead of changing the Higher Education and emerging as replacements of college, Coursera, along with its partner colleges, have become an attractive place for people who already have degree level education and want to keep developing their knowledge and skills.

This is a new perspective in the Education Innovation conversation. The initial investor interests, which picked up around 2011, were driven by some sort of apocalyptic death-of-the-college thinking. Looking back, the trigger for this may have been the Great Recession, which brought out the middle class employment crisis in sharp relief, and made the US student debt look dangerous. However, in many a sense, that moment has now passed. While the spotlight shown on student loans crisis has been useful - the linkage of rising fees and student loans has now been acknowledged - the economic crisis reaffirmed the graduate premium (only if by the way of decline of non-graduate pay) and increasing use of technology at work made Higher Education equivalent to what High School was several generations ago, a bare minimum requirement. College enrolments have risen globally, particularly in the expanding middle class economies such as India, China, Nigeria and South Africa, and, instead of the apocalyptic ending, college has achieved a new high. 

This does not mean that we have solved all the issues with Higher Education. Far from it - and the expanding interest in Higher Education has only brought out a range of issues that need to be solved. While they may have been the same issues that prompted our end-of-college prophesying, of Access and Efficiency, our understanding of them has changed significantly within a few short years. It is worth looking at these to understand the new strategy that Coursera has adapted to.

Access to Higher Education, and the related issue of cost, is an important issue not because the college is dying, but because it is becoming indispensable. Across developed and developing economies, the demand for college education has expanded rapidly. Developed countries, with their aging population and higher levels of Higher Ed access, have stopped public investment in institution building, but developing countries rapidly expanded its public infrastructure. India, for example, opened up several new Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs), once exclusive institutions, along with a host of publicly funded institutions for medical, science and legal education institutions. At the same time, it has allowed private investment in Higher Education in an unprecedented scale, opening, at least for the period between 2006 and 2012, 5 new colleges every day. A similar trend is noticeable across the developing world, except perhaps Sub-Saharan Africa, where the lack of investment, and other issues such as security and stability, has limited the expansion of college seats.

This unprecedented expansion, particularly in the developing world, somewhat negated the investor assumptions that the expanding demand for Higher Education can only be accommodated through Online Education, which was one of the key assumptions behind ventures such as Coursera. The expansion of Higher Ed system across the developing world has somewhat blunted the issue of rising costs, as experienced in the US. Rather, other, deeper, issues related to Access to Higher Education have come to the foreground, such as the Rural/ Urban divide, the language issues, gender issues etc. The original, simplistic, view of expanding access - making Higher Education available online and driving down costs - has now had to accommodate far more complex issues such as how to deal with language barriers, social stereotypes and geographical variation. 

Efficiency issues, always in contention, have also come to the fore. The original question - could Higher Ed be good enough when expanded - quickly morphed into something bigger, as the years of uninterrupted prosperity and expanding employment looked truly over, and the prospect of technological unemployment really real. The neat boundaries between Higher Education and Vocational Training, and Higher Education and Lifelong Learning, the structures around which much of the sector was organised - and investors made their bets - started falling apart. Instead, a mega-sector of learning started emerging, with a variety of providers complementing each other. The zero-sum view of college being replaced by some other kind of college looked stillborn, and rather the prospect of a endless zone of learning, built around collaboration of various kinds of educators and employers, became real. The old question whether education should lead to a job or status or marriage has been made somewhat redundant in the context of this emergent ecosystem and continuous pursuit of relevance in this more complex, globalising and technological world. The concept of College, designed to be a simple, time-bound, end-to-end solution for social position and career, had to transform with the changes in the middle class life - and become somewhat continuous, like the membership in a professional community that made continuous demands of upgrade and advancement. The question of efficiency, in this new context, became less of a defined outcome, and more of connecting and keeping pace. 

The original promise of MOOCs, changing college by making courses from the best universities available to everyone, was attractive but dated. Technology alone was not going to solve the problem of access, but rather, opened up the new, more complex, issues related to it. Efficiency in Higher Education, a question of outcome at conception, became one of belonging, once the changing nature of learning became apparent. Coursera, in its belated avatar, seems to have found its mojo within this new context, becoming a tool for learning communities and continuous advancement, a complement to the brick-and-mortar institutions who are better placed to solve the access problems and an option for college-educated to become forever-learning. In this form, it may indeed have greater chance of success.

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Problem with Religion

I look forward to read Karen Armstrong's Fields of Blood, which is waiting for me at one of the stops of my inevitable work tours. Ms Armstrong's point, as I picked up from the reviews, that religion can not be held directly responsible for violence, intrigued me, because that is precisely what I believe. I, therefore, look forward to engage with her argument and understand the other point-of-view. I am indeed not dismissive before I managed to read the book, but hoping that she has something to offer more than the assertion, oft-repeated, that no religious doctrine is actually founded on violence.

It must be noted, at this point, that while this is a common defense (that no religion encourages violence), it is, by no means, the common understanding. A large number of people in the world believe Islam directly encourages violence, given the acts of Islamic terrorists in the recent years. Indeed, a previous generation, having experienced worldwide bloodshed incited by imperial powers, would have thought the same about Christianity. And, if any Hindu, or Budhdhist, or Parsi, feel elated that they might not have such a blood-stained record, they should be reminded of their past, when they held the power, wherever they held the power, was guilty of similar violence. This is the record which, to my understanding, Ms Armstrong seeks to examine - and hopefully offer absolution to all religionists.

Personally, of course, I am unconcerned whether one religion or another preach violence. It would be expected that they would not, as any religion is meant to be a code to build a community, and this becomes untenable if founded on violence (this is where religions and cults may be different). However, violence is not just subjective, where someone murders, rapes or plunders others (though there is plenty of that going on in the name of religion), but also objective, where we use instruments of power and influence to undermine ways of life and values of other people. Even the perfectly peaceful men of faith, using the instruments of their faith, often commit such objective violence, and this lies at the heart of my problem with religion.

In an earlier post, arguing that education must guide, and be guided by, a secular morality (see here), I pointed out two particular issues with religious morality (and that we often equate morality with religion, disregarding any other alternative). First was the us-and-them thinking inherent in any religion, the inevitable claim of a defined way of life that that represents a superior way of life than others. Even the religion founded on tolerance and kindness must inevitably have a doctrine of enlightenment to justify its very existence, and this is the ground of objective, and in many cases, subjective, violence. The second problem was that all religions appeal to a higher authority, God or a prophet - that is why religions exist - and somewhat diffuse the sense of responsibility of our own actions, by either transferring it to the Higher Authority (remember Lord Krishna telling Arjun that he is merely carrying out divine will) or by offering absolution. 

Whether or not any religion may preach violence, by defining otherness and by diffusing the responsibility of individual action (either by transferring or deferring it), I shall argue, it creates the conditions for violence. And, if we are looking at the actions of even the most peaceful of the believers (Quakers or Jains), these two conditions exist - and it promotes violence of one kind of another, rejection of values of others or social exclusion of people not following the chosen path. Religion, of any kind, allows ideas to become ideology, and that underlies most violence that human society has seen.

I often wondered, when allowed to sit in dinner tables at devout Christian households, why people thank God for their daily bread. Regardless of the awkwardness of being a non-Christian and a non-believer amid people saying prayers, I often have the mixed feeling about the beauty of praying, how gentle and civilised it is to be thankful for the little gifts of life, and yet how monstrous it is to forget all those toiling men and women who have cultivated, preserved, carried, nurtured, and indeed cooked what eventually became our daily bread! These moments somewhat crystallise my problems with religion - the ethical nature of being thankful to others for our sustenance being directly undermined by a wilful disregard of others, including our own mother and sisters, who are more directly responsible for our well-being. 

That religious violence is not just about marauding armies or terrorist bombs, but about the subversion of our real life interdependence through faith in the metaphysical, needs to be factored in when we think about what role religion should play in public life. Indeed, I am not an atheist as institutional atheism goes, because there is nothing ethical about violent non-belief. Indeed, current atheism commits the same crimes that men of faith regularly do - engage in us-and-them thinking, justify means by the ends, commit objective violence in the form of social exclusion and disregarding other views of life and allow ideas to become ideologies - and therefore, fails to provide an ethical alternative. An ethical life is not an atheistic life - and the word Humanism has indeed been hijacked to mean exactly that - but one where one lives in the present, engages with the whole species with their differences and incongruities, take responsibility of their own actions. 


Why Do We Need Freedom?

I see this interesting debate in India that one may have had too much of freedom. The public, by that I mean of the urban middle class, attitude is that freedom to do anything and to obstruct is coming in the way of order and development. The model is indeed China, whose growth rates, wide roads and fast trains are seen with envy, and the attitude is not unlike the one Dambisa Moyo recommend for Africa - a Chinese model that prioritise development over liberties, even human rights.

To be more specific, one can talk about the land acquisition bill that is pending at the Indian parliament, which will make it easier to acquire land - by evicting people - for infrastructure projects, industries and mining operations. It is important for India to build infrastructure fast and cheap, and tenancy rights are often coming in the way. As someone told me, for an underdeveloped country, freedom is a luxury one can ill-afford - we can get freedom once we have got the roads.

We all know the usual arguments here and what really matters is what side one is on. From the airconditioned chambers in Delhi (or of other cities), what matters are those fast trains and motorways, and indeed, the rural poor can be compensated by an equivalent accommodation in urban slums. The other aspects, that they may be resettled in an area where a different language is spoken, where they will be actively discriminated, that the families may be torn apart, do not matter that much. From this technocratic point, the difference between urban and rural poverty is a moot one, and if anything, urban destitution may be preferable because it may present at least a theoretical chance to progress in life. Seen this way, at the core of this seemingly economic debate is an attempt to impose a certain set of values, a power play, that the rhetoric of development skillfully obscure. However, beyond this, there is still an argument for freedom ahead of economic growth.

This argument is to be found not in the activist pamphlets but rather in the mission and vision of those companies which are pushing for curbing of freedoms and for Economic growth. It is to be found in Business Schools, where these technocrats arguing for displacements have been educated. It is an essential part of strategic thinking nowadays - the ability of a corporation to renew itself by harnessing the creativity of its people! It does seem that we have a corporate state and accountants and bankers are all over public policy these days, yet this piece of corporate wisdom does not seem to resonate in policy making. What I am arguing, contra-Moyo, that freedoms matter because this creates space for continuous economic renewal of a society. Allow the powerful too much role in driving growth, and we would be heading towards stagnation. That economic growth is simply a matter of infrastructure is the same mistake that once powerful corporations have done by making themselves too orderly and process orientated, driving out the trouble-makers, the marginal and those who would want to pursue an idea other than the dominant one. In the global world of instant cross-border capital flows, unending competition between nations, footloose talent and corporations, the ability of constant self-renewal is a crucial, perhaps the most crucial, requirement for development. Take away the freedom, the democratic spirit, the ability to argue, and this ability is extinguished.

This is not to say that India, or for that matter, Africa, does not need reform. Unfortunately, the R word has been appropriated to mean certain things, and come to mean limitations to freedom, such as freedom to unionise, freedom to public actions etc. However, India is poor not because people have too much freedom, but they have too little. And, their freedom is limited by the institutional structure, by lack of education, by inefficient courts, by corrupt police, by black money that can buy influence. The reform India needs are those that extend the freedom - freedom from corruption, efficient courts, right to good education - and the freedom to hold the elite accountable. The societies that can hold its elite accountable, gain the ability of self-renewal, and progress, succeed and survive, and this has been the subject of many recent books. This is what is needed in Africa and India, and this must come before the roads (because otherwise, roads would be built with wrong priorities, with excessive cost, with poor quality and would ultimately not bring the intended economic benefits). 

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Teaser Loans - The Madness of Middle Class Economics

I am in India (again) and have the opportunity to follow a conversation about teaser loans, which, in my mind, goes on to show the madness of middle class economics. (Read the news here)

Teaser Loans are loans offered below the base rate (which is 9.70% for State Bank of India, for example) and which banks to want to give out. The idea is not to change the eligibility criteria in anyway (anyone remember subprime?) but offer loans at an attractive rate for the first few years.

The reason why this is back in conversation is because the Indian Real Estate market is close to breaking point. The transactions are at all time low and the inventories are at all time high. However, despite the lack of transactions, realtors refused to reduce the prices - so prices are at all time high - hoping for the Central Bank to bail them out with a rate cut.

The Central Bank (Reserve Bank of India, as it is called in India), under the very able leadership of Raghuram Rajan, has so far resisted the political pressure to reduce rates. Indeed, the RBI is fishing in very troubled waters, with Rupee declining sharply, the volatility of the international currency markets with the Chinese devaluation and its possible follow-up plans, and the food grain and other essential prices remaining high in India (and with an uncertain prospect of Monsoon). This is no climate for a rate cut, despite the decline of world oil prices, but it seems that the retail banks and real estate companies are making a case for it.

Dr Rajan stood his ground so far stating that reducing the base rate would only make sense if the real estate prices come down, because otherwise it would interfere with the market mechanism and help keep the prices artificially high. The retail banks, particularly SBI, is making a case for offering loans under the base rate, arguing that the home loans are the safest assets in their portfolio. The government is obviously keen on a consumer boom, and created pressures on RBI and started interfering with its decision making process.

So, here is the madness of middle class economics, as we should ask the following questions

1. Why do banks really think home loans are safe assets when they can see that there are real pressures on house prices and many of the inflatedly priced properties may soon start accruing negative equity for their owners?

2. Why does the government think reducing interest rates is a good idea, when the inflation outlook remains uncertain and the currency is volatile?

3. Why would anyone take on a teaser loan because their very existence may signal a downward price pressure on real estate?

4. Why dont real estate companies start reducing the prices and hope that the government would kick-start the market by reducing rates?

I find this conversation fascinating because this shows the intersection of politics and economics and where it really get murky. So far, the Governor Rajan is standing firm, but the political agenda is quite clear. The idea that monetary policy can be used to bail out irrational investment decisions is now an essential part of economic thinking, or what can be called the madness of middle class economics as we have come to know it. The old discussion - that real estate prices would be linked to middle class income - is passe. In fact, that link may now have been permanently broken, as developed countries continue to shore up the real estate sector with cheap money.  There are some important and rather scary bylines - the state of real estate sector in India and the prospect of a weakening currency - but the fascinating story of the base rate politics highlight how we fail to learn and self-inflict economic crisis, again and again.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Reflections and Interests : Uses of History

Reading history is one of my favourite pastimes. In fact, more correctly, reading history is my key professional development activity, if I take the view that writing this blog and talking about ideas are the most important things I do, and treat my day job as what really is - an instrument to pay my bills! Though my reading list may seem haphazard to some who only read on purpose, those lists - as I am becoming conscious of them recently - are around the big questions I labour with at the time, and most of these big questions, for me, have a historical nature.

For example, consider the question that dominates my conversations, and readings, at this very moment. It is - how does a society fall under the spell of an autocrat? I know why this question troubles me. In India, my origin country, democracy is taken for granted - various television talk shows proclaim that democracy in India is irreversible because it is so chaotic - and various democratic institutions, both at the Union and the state levels, are slowly but surely, becoming more autocratic. In Britain, where I live, and where I consider democracy more deeply-rooted, I see a culture of hatred and blame - consider David Cameron's Swarm warning - mainly directed at the hapless refugees fleeing from chaos and poverty in Syria, Iraq and Libya (countries which, not incidentally, Britain and its allies helped destabilize), but then also to immigrants of all kinds and colour. Whether or not this endangers British democracy, this pushes me to explore how much we can take democracy for granted - and how afraid we should be about a relapse of authoritarianism.

Now, at this point, a clarification is due. There may be a tendency to draw historical parallels with Nazi Germany or Italy of Mussolini with today's India, and admittedly, I have done it occasionally. But studying history tells one that history does not repeat itself. Each new event have the knowledge of the earlier event within it - just recall how we responded to the Great Recession of 2008 - and therefore, each time, history takes a different path. However, it may also be apparent, with the hindsight afforded by history, that there are some general principles of historical development - and thinking about these general principles, or Forces of History, is perhaps the greatest benefit of studying history. 

So, going back to the previous example, there is no straight path from Mr Cameron's unprincipled and rather cowardly politicking to the emergence of a vile dictator, and studying history for making predictions is a futile enterprise. However, there are some principles at work here.  This presumption of blame, the identification of the other, for many like Hannah Arendt was the first step to the totalitarian abyss, and history affords an insight why this could be so. There may be lots of different factors at play at different times, including the emergence of forceful personalities and ideas, who may influence history as much as getting influenced by it, but those general principles seem to hold through time.

In science, plurality of anecdotes is not evidence, as Carl Sagan used to say. History is not a science - its findings are not repeatable or verifiable outside its own immediate context - and our knowledge of history is almost always anecdotal, and never total. So, while my statement that the developments in India and Britain are making me study history of totalitarianism may look like I am trying to predict what happens next, I am aware that history is not a study of causation.  Rather, I am seeking to understand what is happening around me, which by itself is an worthy goal. Studying the past to understand the present, I would claim, allows one not to predict, but to actively participate in constructing the future.

This is why the current disengagement with history - ranging from lack of attention to it in the schools to lack of funding for history departments and research in Higher Education - may have disastrous effect on societies, because it may end up making people mere onlookers to the future. A historically informed approach to the future allows people neither to be fatalistic - like in India, democracy is fate - or disinterested - as in Britain, it is a political game - but engaged and watchful.

One last thought. These statements may also appear pretentious to some, particularly to those who may treat history as thought concerning big subjects, and a tool for policy-makers than ordinary citizenry. This is, in fact, one precise principle that I am picking up from my efforts to study autocracy. That we may relegate history as big subject, not concerning common life and mere a policy tool, may be one of the tendencies that undermine democracy, as it follows that our votes should only be about our personal gains rather than our common goals, our desires instead of our responsibilities, and about the privileges that we seek rather than the sacrifices we are willing to make. From this angle, historical knowledge is the context of social imagination, and in ever-renewed social imagination, remain the future of democracy.



Sunday, August 16, 2015

How Humans Succeeded, and How They Could Fail

It was interesting to listen to Yuval Noah Harri's TED talk and the subsequent interview.

The last thing first. He paints a picture where the human species may divide into two, with the rich and powerful forming a different species with designer babies and long lifespans, and others getting relegated to the existence of useless people.

By no means, he is alone in this apocalyptic vision of the future. This is indeed a fairly logical view of the future, once one fuses the ideas of technological progress, economic inequality and political domination of the rich together. There is this rather fatalistic view - that future will be better because the past has been and the human beings found a way to better themselves - but this is not the only possibility.

Best to watch his TED talk then with this perspective. His central argument that the human beings did better than the other species because of its ability to cooperate flexibly, in a large scale and with imagination needs to be interrogated with this future in mind. Here is the question - do we need to think about our society differently as we reach a certain tipping point in technological progress? Or, may be more succinctly, should our social imagination dictate our priorities for technological development?

So far, we have been sleepwalking through technological progress. The 20th century idea of specialist disciplines removed all social considerations from technological thinking, and secular science quickly became the handmaiden of short term commercial interests. The question is whether we would be able to change our course at the precipice, as we have done in the past.

Friday, August 14, 2015

India 2020 : Fear the Caesar!

One of the great contrasts between India, the world's most populous democracy, and America, one of the oldest surviving republics, is the differing approach what, paraphrasing the Founding generation (of United States), should be called the "Fear of the Caesar"!

The American approach to this is perhaps best captured in the story of Benjamin Franklin. When a reporter asked, "Mr Franklin, what did we get - a Monarchy or a Republic?", while he was coming out of one of the meetings of the Constitutional Convention,  Franklin reportedly answered, "A republic, if you can keep it!"

That fear of a Caeser, a strong leader who would undermined the republic, persisted. Another story, later recounted by Jefferson (told to Benjamin Rush in 1811), described a dinner that Jefferson hosted for John Adams and Alexander Hamilton. Three portraits adorned Jefferson's room, and Hamilton reportedly inquired who those were. Jefferson said they were of the three greatest men ever lived - Lord Francis Bacon, philosopher of science, Sir Isaac Newton, the renowned scientist, and John Locke, the philosopher. To this, Hamilton paused for some time, and replied, "the greatest man that ever lived, was Julius Caeser!" Jefferson was recounting the story purportedly to make his point about the fear of the Caesar - Hamilton and Jefferson clashed frequently on how much power the Federal government should have. 

Jefferson, the Republican, had good reasons. The only republic to have existed in the comparable geographic scale of the 13 colonies of America was the Roman Republic, which was usurped by the Caesar! The French Republic, which would tear itself apart and then turn into an empire under Napoleon, was still in the future, but would add to the fear of the Caeser in the United States. This would come up again and again in the American politics - for example, when the rumours that Ulysses S Grant would be seeking an unprecedented third term spread - and despite all the limitations of the system, of all the antiques of the Congress in the past or in the present day, the American republic survived with the healthy fear of the strong leader.

The post-colonial republics, in Africa and Asia, were often very different. They would often seem to display a distrust of the abilities of their own people, the same people that was said to be founding the state, and seek a strong leader, a father figure, to lead them out of misery. Many of them were founded to democracies, but most of them looked up to the political model of the Soviet Union, led by a citizen elites and strong leaders. American democracy was respected, but its republicanism was not. A benevolent Caesar was an integral part of the imagination of these states, and many of them indeed fell into the hands of Big Men, as in Africa.

India had a slightly different path, and its democracy survived and prospered. It is a great source of pride for Indians, and a guarantee against instabilities, and justifiably so. However, Indian Republic never built enough safeguards against an aspiring Caesar or been paranoid about one lurking in the corner. Instead, Indian political debate was almost fatalistic, based on the assumption that Indias diversity would automatically protect it from the dictatorships, somewhat oblivious of diversities of other nations that fell into dictatorships (China and Russia are great examples) and the potency of division and conflict that could effectively put minorities in power (the plain old divide and rule, which kept the British in power in India for two centuries). When a Senior political leader in India made the point about India not having sufficient safeguards against dictatorial leaders (he made explicit reference to the one time, in 1975, when the Indian Prime Minister declared emergency and suspended democracy and its institutions), the furore was telling - of a Citizen Elite caught in the act, as it appeared!

A lot of conversation in India today is about development. It is an urgent issue for a poor country like India, where most people are young and looking into the future. It is also fashionable to see China as the model of development, and ascribe Chinas extraordinary rise in the recent decades to its totalitarian politics. But this is a simplistic and wrong-headed view, which overlooks many economic, cultural and political facts. India can not be China, and has never been anything like it. Indeed, nor can India be like the United States, but it is surprising that the history and polity of the early United States do not get attention in India. United States is indeed a great example of a country which freed itself from the Colonial rule, and created a durable Republic. This, more than the economic affluence of either United States or China, should capture imagination in India, because development of the kind India needs - one which will benefit a large number of people in a large and diverse country - depends on the rulers of the country remaining accountable to the people they rule. India should remain in fear of the Caesar, and there are lessons to be learned from the history of the United States.


Thursday, August 13, 2015

In Response to Tony Blair

Tony Blair says a Corbyn win would annihilate Labour. Failing to elect him as the leader would do so too.

Blair misses the point that the sanitized, undifferentiated party that he helped create in 1990s is now irrelevant. This is one of the problems with change - that it does not stop. Today, after 9/11 and its wars, recession and Greece, the world is a difference place than it was in 1990. The politics must be different, too.

The triumph of centrism, as witnessed in the decades since 1970s, was not the end of History. An opportunity was provided and missed, as the lack of working class activism was used by the powerful to advance their agenda of marginalisation, inequality and power-grab. The moment may be now, or in the future, but the push-backs have now started. 

It comes just after the Tory win in the UK, but it should not surprise anyone. We should be able to see beyond Tory win and Labour loss. The Labour lost for two reasons. One, because the Lib-Dems got annihilated - and Tories got their votes. Defeat for centrism, here! Two, because SNP routed Labour in Scotland. Defeat for centrism, again! Yet, all the Pundits and Rupert Murdoch are in agreement that taking a stance would annihilate Labour, though they see that not taking one has already destroyed it.

We also heard about the extreme discomfort in the surge of Labour membership applications in the wake of Leadership contest. Apparently, 600,000 is now entitled to vote, though the pre-election membership of the party was only 200,000. This has forced Blair to warn against Corbyn, because he knows what is coming. All those people joined Labour because Corbyn has made Labour relevant to them. The party Blair created on the 1990s soft-toy socialist agenda is bucking under millennial dream.

Having said this, Labour can not be trusted to do the right thing. One should not underestimate the power of reaction, and Corbyn is genuinely threatened by that. Historically, Trump-like right wing clowns have been far more effective in undermining the right-wing agenda than any principled effort on the side of the people, which Corbyn represents. Blair, with his dinner fees and Murdoch as his ex-Pal, is one whose endorsements various sanitised Labour candidates may not want. But he has still jumped into the fray and offered an opinion, desperate for his own relevance, not very unlike Mr Trump. Hopefully, that would do more for a Corbyn win than all the determined efforts of all his supporters put together.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The University of Practice : Rethinking The Role of Content

Graham Doxey, the Founder-CEO of Knod*, oft-repeats this one statement, that Content does not drive Learning Outcome. (Full Disclosure: I am currently employed by Knod) 

This is counter-intuitive. The usual conversation about education revolves around the title of this award or that, and the laundry list of topics that is covered by them. Course validation meetings are all about the details of what goes in the courses, and the related textbooks and library resources. The big story in educational innovation since we started talking about it with some urgency was about the MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), which were principally about opening the content from the finest universities in the world to general public, using digital technologies. Khan Academy, which is about learning videos, got headlines all over the world. Lion's share of private investments in education went into companies producing content, and the most eye-catching deal in the space in the recent years was the acquisition of, a website offering learning videos on various technical subjects, by Linkedin. 

Indeed, Graham does not mean that content has no role to play in education, only that our faith that better content, everything else remaining the same, would lead to better learning, is misplaced. This sounds common sense, but such an assumption indeed lies beneath most of the course design activities I know of (which are essentially content design activities), all those companies working to create better videos with cleverer features, across the mini-industry that was spawned to fit the MOOC videos to structured curriculum. The investors, though often weary of content businesses because they need continuous investment to keep updated, see these as sure bets, as they are driven by the assumption that people are essentially buying content when they buy into an education. 

This is not true, even if one disagrees on what education is for. On the narrow, For-profit side of things, one may see education for a job or a profession to be the main thing, and on the other, more aspirational middle class sense, it may be about finding one's way in the world (or more, as Amity University in India used to advertise, a place to study and make friends for life!). Buying into education, for the student, is always about the buying into the outcome of education. Indeed, one could say that the outcome of education is knowledge (though one may disagree, and use words such as competence or ability instead), but even knowledge is not driven by content. A better lecture does not automatically make one knowledgeable, competent or able. It requires a lot more, connection, motivation, relevance etc that creates the learning.

What drives learning is the Experience, which is greater than the sum of its parts! While I am still quoting Graham, this is something that has been emphasized by education thinkers over and over again, and has a distinguished lineage that would include Dewey, Friere, Kolb, Donald Schön, to name a few. Patricia Cranton argued for careful design of learning experiences even for adult learners, and Diana Laurillard, in her excellent Teaching As A Design Science (where she explores the possibilities presented by Digital Technologies), sought to reframe the role of the teacher into a designer. However, these voices, arising from inside the academia, were often taken to be arguing for better design of content (as is the case Gilly Salmon and her excellent books about Online Learning), rather than the whole learning experience.

Graham's Equation puts Relevance as the principal driver of this experience, which is a reflection of the priorities of his business - that of bridging the Education-to-Employment gap. From that standpoint, the big issue with content-driven education is the relatively slow-moving nature of educational content as contrasted with rapidly changing requirements of the workplace. One could possibly argue that the focus on relevance, and the context of fast-changing nature of knowledge, is an overtly technocratic emphasis. However, even if one is designing an education for a different goal than technological employment - say, social leadership - relevance would still need to be a part of the equation that creates the experience (how often we hear the refrain that school was not relevant!). One could also argue that relevance is really an attribute of the educational content, rather than a factor of its own contributing to experience. However, this would miss a central point - and this is precisely why the issue of relevance is not limited to technological field - that relevance is the learners' own validation of the educational content, and may arise from his/her life experiences. In that broader sense, it is about opportunities to apply the learning - in case of learning for social leadership, actually meeting people and connecting with them (think of supervised psychoanalytic practice, an example used by Schön, or rounds in the hospital for trainee physicians).

In a sense, the limitations of language is apparent here. The word Relevance obviously have narrow, technocratic, connotation, and it is easy to believe that it is only needed for certain disciplines with technical knowledge - but it is not central to educational experience. On the other hand, in the broad sense - the opportunity to apply - the most common word is Experience, which leads to the apparently nonsensical expression of Experience being a function of Experience! This is not just a word play, but something that has implications of learning design, and something that was regretted by Dewey himself towards the end of his life. (See my post on Dewey here) Despite the growing realisation of centrality of living experience in learning, it still remains an outside discussion, primarily because of our search for a particular kind of truth in learning (a rather pristine Cartesian truth, as C S Pierce would call it) - and, if I am allowed to add, the particular assumptions of power and privilege that we ring-fence learning with.

So, here is my big conclusion - we want to allocate the central role in learning to content because we really do not want to democratise learning. The whole Higher Learning ecosystem that we have built is driven by the fact only certain people, in certain professions, need to think. Yet, such assumptions are challenged by trends such as globalisation and automation, and while our initial formulation of Knowledge Society was based on the motto "knowledge is power", we are increasingly pushed, by the intelligent machines and global trade and associated discontents, to understand that a certain kind of knowledge, tacit, ever-evolving, local and emotional, is what makes us human. There is no content that can prepare the students for this world. Hence, the big conversation in education needs to move on beyond content.

* While I usually attribute statements without clearly identifying the person concerned, this stance is distinctive and called for an unambiguous attribution.

Monday, August 10, 2015

About Paris, Culture and Speaking English

As the Eurostar emerged from Channel Tunnel and the train announcements switched to first English and then French from the other way around, I had that feeling of being back at home, which is paradoxical. I have lived in England for 11 years now and familiarity is a factor, particularly after being reprimanded at the Left Luggage facility at Gare Du Nord for not speaking French. But then, English is still not my first language, and my schooling was not in English - it is a language I have learnt much later in life. But, as it seems, my worth today is defined by English I speak and write - as I make my living as a rainmaker and enjoy my occasional Warholian 15-minutes on this blog.

But, before I get to the point about an English-speaking Indian, let me say a few things how it felt in Paris, where I spent a week (which should explain my silence on this blog). I took off to Paris for many reasons, one of them being able to reset the clock back in my own mind - I once spent a particularly lovely few days in Paris which changed my life in many ways - and to start again. Having seen the sights as all tourists must do, I had no particular imperative to climb up the Eiffel Tower, or to jostle with humourless tourist groups for a selfie in front of Monalisa. However, Paris still meant walking endlessly on beautifully laid out roads, and watch the couples lost in their reverie in beautiful gardens and riverbank, and to turn my own creative self on, something that I needed desperately at a time when, not for the first time in my life, I feel like drifting.

But, then, I am older and I saw something new in Paris. All those beautiful sights had a message which I missed earlier - that at their core, there is oppression. Sacré-Cœur standing on the very grounds of the initial revolts leading to Paris Commune, the beautiful Winged Bull of Louvre or the Egyptian treasure being a legacy of the Napoleonic or later imperial campaigns, the destitute beggars on Champs-Élysées waiting for the guilt of the Touristy heart, all the grandeur of Paris, and its beauty, appeared to me, this time around, with its oppressive abandon. Indeed, this is about me losing my innocence, though I shall claim to retain my sense of wonder, and may even be the proof of pessimism that I was looking for in the first place. But, the point that I was not bitter or resentful about the oppression, but was rather thinking that all beauty and grandeur pre-require oppression - not morally justifying it, but seeing this as inevitable - might have been the key point for me to take-away. In that sense, my particular calming moment was inside Pantheon, somewhat more peaceful without the tourist groups, to stand in front of the grave of Rousseau, whose words - that all civilisation is barbarity - I am perhaps repeating. However, I did not come away with any righteous rage, but rather a frame of thinking about culture, including that of my own English language.

The point of Paris, for me the older man, is not another outrage about imperial looting and reparation, but the truth of all cultures - that it is dead creativity! We are supposed to marvel at the museums on the assumption that the artifacts are the ones which made humanity great, but the institution of the museum, and the act of collecting and curating, is an action supported by power and wealth, not creativity. And, this is not just about affording the artifact - the procurement and preservation needs money - but also selecting the artifact is guided by the same assumptions of power, which makes the institutional form of museum some sort of a modern Pyramid, a palace of dead culture, ritualistic and ready for consumption. This is great for commerce, all those miniature Monets and Van Goghs on handbags, but the creativity remains outside, on the fringe. The stunning display of Impressionists at Musée d'Orsay or Musée de l’Orangerie may be doing great work in making those great painters available to posterity, but the act of curation is very different - one of power, privilege and approval - than the real act of creation, which many of those destitute painters indulged in, with little outside acclaim or support. That latter act, of creation, of drawing inspiration from inside oneself, doing what one wants rather than looking for social (or commercial) approval, that makes humanity great. And, in that sense, the museum is the wrong message - the hallway of Orsay was abuzz with how much the Monets would be worth - and in many a sense, the regression of human culture.

It is a conflicting thought. Louvre was made to set art free, from private collections to the world at large, a function it, and the other museums, serve. This conflict, however, does not nullify my other thought about all culture as repression, but exist side-by-side. The Parisian dream, that of an attic and tuberculosis (as a Woody Allen character succinctly mentions), is less about the culturally sanctioned grandeur and more in the realm of those destitute migrants locked up in Calais, and that is what makes humanity great. Every cultural flowering is preceded by a revolution, where street creativity overwhelms mummified culture of the museums, be in the 1870s France followed by belle-epoch, or the Counter-culture that preceded the Silicon Valley (which Fred Turner writes about). A cultural epoch, in my mind, starts with people changing the conversation (an expression Theodore Zeldin uses) beating the powerful in their own game of Culture with a big C. And, then, history proceeds - of enveloping the creativity and transforming it into the culture of the next generation - all those evaluating Monets in financial terms are live examples! But that is the point of death of creativity, death by culture is such a great expression, a middle class disease and symptom of decay that we are currently afflicted with.

Which brings me to own conflicts with English language. At one level, I have learned the language and live daily with it, so much so that it feels like home. On the other, I know that this comes loaded with those assumptions of power, that selects a few and divides all, and I see this in my day-job, where, concerning mainly with developing countries and India, articulation trumps accomplishment. English language, in context of India and Indianness, is like the Museums of Paris, full of grandeur and beauty, a place of culture - but selective, a code between the powerful, with its own code of hierarchy and access. It may be a tool to access the outside and bring the world knowledge into our doorstep, the precise dream that set me into the journey of learning the language and living in England, but a more common use of it as a sieve, of keeping many out. And, yet, the creative energy outside is what defines humanity, and it eventually overwhelms the sanitised world of culture and official language, just as it did many times in history. In many a sense, Paris sets me free again - this time around, it was from my own assumptions.


Sunday, August 09, 2015

Enterprise Culture and The Entrepreneur

There are many different types of entrepreneurs but the Enterprise Culture, the official celebration of enterprise that dominate the media and our talk, highlight just one of them. And, this, a culturally biased version of the enterprise, is not just counter-productive as it does not fit into the context of many societies, but also regressive, it prevents rather than promoting possibilities of enterprise and innovation.

The dominant tale at the heart of enterprise culture is what I shall call the Pioneer Narrative. Think of the Wild West, the Gold Rush, the Unattached Man in search of jackpot, a sort of rough, manly version of creation. Played out in the United States, the primary exporter of enterprise culture narratives, this lies at the heart of our portrait of the entrepreneur as an young man, tough, unconstrained, stops at nothing, up against the nature but offered its bounty, its abundant land that lay there to be claimed. 

Enterprise existed much longer than the Wild West and it played out in different forms in different societies. It was often about creating possibilities within constraints, it was often about social sensibilities, it was often about connecting people with people, and it was often about kindness rather than toughness. That either-or version of enterprise culture, that there were feudal lords and then there were the entrepreneurs, the version so popularised by Marx (or a limited reading of what he wrote), overlooks all those traders, amateurs, pre-professional professionals, who carried on trades within constraints, social and natural, and yet performed services that kept life going and made progress possible. 

This version of enterprise, constraint bound and socially embedded, is not something that the enterprise culture, and its elaborate ecosystem of media promoters, venture capitalists, incubators and accelerators, take into account. And, hence, it does not fit in certain communities of societies. So, the French become lazy, Arabs garrulous and Bengalis nitpicking. They fall outside the enterprise narrative, so to say, and they fall from grace therefore, labelled for subservient existence in an world of enterprise triumphant.

Or, not, because the enterprise culture, dualistic, disconnected, and disruptive (in the real sense, and not as a badge of honour that modern entrepreneurs treat this as), does not sustain societies, but rather aims to tear them down. Because the enterprise culture puts individual pursuit of more at its heart, it aims to disregard all the surrounding influences that made enterprise possible, creating a sub-plot of entrepreneur as the superman, which is, at the least, misplaced, and at worst, destructive. Being an entrepreneur comes with an automatic disregard for the unfortunate, a triumphalist notion of being special people, of claims to a legitimacy through morality of giving jobs, of entitlement not to pay taxes or bearing any social responsibilities. 

But this undermines itself. Enterprises stumble as they fail to promote values beyond the immediate opportunity of money-making. The enterprise culture become an elitist thing, instead of the claims that anyone can do it. Whole societies sign themselves out, and the marauders become the flag-bearers of enterprise. The big business, the enemy of enterprise, become its poster-boy. And, as consequence, enterprise becomes status quo, waiting to be swept into the dustbins of history as the next wave of progress arrives. 

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Humans Are Underrated - Hope in the Age of Machine

Geoff Colvin's Humans Are Underrated is set to come out in the UK in September and I would look forward to read the book. From the snippet published in Fortune magazine (Read here), Colvin seems to make an interesting argument. That it is time to rethink what it means to be human. In the race against the machine, it is futile to try to figure out what the machines can not do. Very smart people have tried and failed before, as the logic of Moores Law caught up with their prediction. With the Arrive-By date of Singularity set in 2029 (by Ray Kurzweil), even the tasks we think are beyond technologies, will soon not be. So, the point is not to try to outsmart technologies, but to figure out what really matters.

The answers he provides are not dissimilar to the ones we already have had. His list of five big 21st century skills include empathising, collaborating, creating, leading and building relationships. These are similar to what we hear from other people trying to think about The Second Machine Age, to use a popular expression, but there is one key distinction. The skills Colvin lists are not really skills, and indeed, many of the endeavours professing to prepare people for the 21st Century, like the ones which focus on entrepreneurship, often focus away from these key themes. It is more likely that an entrepreneurship curriculum will teach how to exploit social themes rather than being socially sensitive, the so-called finishing schools will rather teach communication and art of looking smart rather than being humble and empathy, and the presentation skills often mean ability to project ones superiority than being able to listen and learn. 

Here is where the Underrated bit is right on the money! In fact, many of these social sensitivities are laughed at in the professional circles, because the last two hundred years of European/ Western industrial civilisation was built on the cult of the individual, with belief in human genius and personal accomplishments, with attendant bragging rights. The advent of the machines, even though engineered by the humans, is one supreme achievement of this civilisation, and its end too! At the very moment when a machine could think - the Chappie moment, say - the industrial culture would triumph, and be doomed. The things that would matter then is empathy - and indeed, Chappie, if you have seen the movie, is powered by empathy while the humans around him are driven by envy, greed and hatred - and all the other stuff we have chosen to ignore, degrade and laugh at, for many years.

Finally, one important assumption in Colvins view of the future is that humans will remain in charge. This is a plausible assumption, but not an uncontested one. Our current debate between utopian - the world of abundance - and dystopian - the world of Robot overlords - is really a debate about ourselves, as highlighted by many recent commentators (see my earlier post here). We set the priorities now, of what technologies we develop (should we develop vaccines for Ebola or invest in cars that drive themselves, for example) - and the choices we make are driven by the same power play that made the industrial civilisation industrial, or so not human. It is that same power-play - whether a few will rule or we would continue the human civilisation - that determine what we do today, and by extension, what happens tomorrow. In that sense, we need those underrated skills today, rather than later when the machine age has arrived, presumably with wrong priorities. 

Monday, August 03, 2015

Imagine A University of Practice

Despite the success of the universities around the world - there are more students going to them than ever - time has come to think about a new model. The universities work wonderfully well for a few, as they have always done. More precisely, few universities work well for few people, but they are unable to become the drivers of social mobility and the magic potion for the middle class dream, as they were slated to become. Part of this is of course about the change in the nature of work, that we have technologies that limit the number of middle class jobs, but the model has failed to adapt to these changes, or, in another way, to influence the changes to have more broad-based benefits.

These changes, globalisation and automation being two prime-movers but there are others too, must be taken into account in thinking what kind of education we would want now. Sending more people just to get degrees, as politicians keep talking about from time to time, is not a solution. Thinking about what kind of education will kick-start the social mobility again, create jobs with meaningful income, should be the priority. And, instead of thinking about employers as the sole Job Creators - a job is not created unless a position could be filled - we need to encourage innovation at the universities as well, because only that could complete the circle.

Hence, imagine an University of Practice! A new kind of Higher Education that builds on real work and happens in the context of real life! One may scoff at the idea of an university without research at its core, but that precisely is the departure from the university of the enlightenment age and one of our time. Indeed, this idea is not to replace all other ideas of the university, but to add to the diversity of institutional forms that is a feature of our time. 

The University of Practice will be a place to learn through doing. The middle classes, which, in its urban form, is disconnected from all forms of creation, need to train the mind and the hand, and this institution will seek to connect them to making, redeeming them from ever greater alienation from work. The University of Practice will restore real work at the core of our being, as learning, and one better of our idea of leisurely abandon. It would be a place of practitioners coaching practitioners, with the safety of being able to commit mistakes, with the commitment to learn at every step. Instead of the search for one single true answer, at the heart of this university will be a journey to the indeterminate zone, a search for uniqueness, uncertainty and value conflict (as identified by Donald Schon as the core issues of practice). The point of such education would be competence and relevance, along with the humility, cooperative commitment and adaptability that come with real work.

At a time when machines are challenging humans at work, we must urgently rediscover what it means to be human again. We have a false dream - a world where machines do all the work while human life becomes one of leisure - as work makes us human in the first place. So, this University of Practice, instrumentalist as it may sound, is essentially about recovering humanity. This greater goal, the universal ambition, would justify calling it an university, rather than a job-shop. It would restore the middle class dream of a better life, but will do so without stopping at job interviews and salary cheques. At a time when we need an urgent reconfiguration of our lives, the University of Practice will be the alternate institutional form that recovers our connection with the world and puts us in charge of our lives again.

Saturday, August 01, 2015

The Architecture of Disruption - University As User Network

Uber crossing $50 billion in private valuations, taking two years less than Facebook to get there, should focus minds on a new business model - that of User Networks! If it was unthinkable that an algorithm-led business can dramatically change things even in the most regulated industries and in most unlikely places (India is its second biggest market after US), this is fast becoming all the proof one ever needed. Whether this valuation will sustain (part of it may be due to the asset price inflation due to loose money), it is already a formidable business globally - and indeed, more than a fad! 

Entrepreneurs everywhere are already studying Uber and how it got there. This article, which I was introduced to recently at a meeting, makes some interesting points about billion-dollar companies. There are many salient points worth noting here, but for me, the most important aspect is perhaps the delayed monitization, and made up through strong product/market fit or creation of network effects. It is the latter which is of great interest to me, as I explore the business model of a new kind of university, which I call the University-as-User-Network.

I have been writing about this for a while (see these posts in 2009, 2010 and more recently) inspired mostly by Clayton Christensen's work. The traditional universities, so deeply wedded to a Value Chain model and under no great pressure to disrupt their business model themselves because of the regulatory protections, disregard such conversations altogether, usually painting this as a conspiracy of sorts to undermine their privileges. It is, however, important to note that the very source of legitimacy that the universities draw upon - graduate premiums - could become the source of their discomfiture, because of two reasons. One, if the universities are the source of value-add that makes graduate premium possible, one would ask why such publicly funded opportunity may not be available to wider population, indeed everyone. Two, and if such broadening of opportunity results in some people failing to earn the premium even after going to the university, and we start talking about inherent abilities, then there would be two follow-up questions. First, does the university add any value? Second, if the university value-add depends on prepared minds, and schools are really equipped to prepare these minds, should not more public money be directed at schools at the expense of the university?

There is significant private investment is still directed at creating universities, the traditional value-chain ones. However, these questions should inform the investors about their limits - and that, creation of employment, which is the source of graduate premium, is really a connecting activity. If I learned anything since transitioning into a Higher Education career from training and recruitment sectors, it is that the connection, greater understanding of the world of work, is far more important than the learning content in making a candidate employable (see my post on Unlocking the World of Work). And, for those who think this will trivialize the grand objectives of education, my claim is that doing so is most democratic, because the current system of education and then choicest internships, the way it is done now, is one of the sources of social inequity (see this post here, drawing on a Brookings Institute report). 

What brings all of this together then is a new kind of institution, which is based on the sole value proposition of connecting students to work by unlocking the world of work to them. The point is to build this model as an User Network, which allows the employers to participate with minimum of hassles and costs to disrupt their existing recruitment models - and indeed, for students, to create an alternate job search. This is where the modern education technology is useful, not as a tool to deliver content but to connect people and enable learning based on real experience. And, one can enable the Network Effect - one needs to enable the Network Effect - to create meaningful value proposition out of this model, even if by delaying monetization of the customers, just as Uber and other billion-dollar businesses have done.

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