Monday, August 29, 2016

Beyond Project-Based Learning: Towards An Open System

The problem of connecting educators and employers is not a new one. There are many organisations and institutions working at creating this interface, some more successfully than others. The field is full of well-meaning individuals and fascinating ideas, some more workable than others. However, one key lesson, a common one, has perhaps been ignored by most of the people: That no closed, proprietary solution may actually work.

This should have been obvious in a field where the key problem arise because of the closed, proprietary approaches. The Educators mostly believe they are doing a great job - at least, the best possible one - and the degrees and grades they give out, under the full authority of the state and with the gravitas of their quality assurance, should be accepted at the face value by the employers. The employers, in turn, believe that the people they require should appear, with right skills and attitude, a perfect understanding of their cultures and customers, and they are always in the chase to find that perfect candidate. This is a classic case of two closed systems trying to co-create a value chain without ever speaking to one another!

Enter the solution providers, disruptors and dent-makers: There are many, ranging from those who believe more education may make the learners more ready, and those who believe that one should aim for less education, some practical training after high school should do. And, indeed, they together create closed boxes of all shapes and sizes, all providing end-to-end solution, promoting their secret sauces, magic formula and proven methodologies. The solution - they claim in unison - is known, "Trust Me"! 

The problem though is exactly that: In the viewpoint that there could exist one single solution, one single method, one business model, one approach to create an universal solution. Einstein's message, that it is foolish to try the same methods that failed and expect a successful outcome, is totally lost here. Despite what is obvious with some perspective - that the problem lies in the closed systems - the quest is always for a 'better' closed system, an educational methodology or a new kind of degree that speaks the employers' language.

It is perhaps easy to see why this problem arises and why solving it may be the biggest step forward in the Education-to-Employment conversation. Most, if not all, Higher Education systems are closed systems, where outcomes and languages are defined by insiders and whose legitimacy stem from state-appointed regulators. It is a system founded on a closed system of knowledge, on the assumption that the 'experts' indeed know best. And, this has defined the 'business model' for Higher Education - one that of a Value Chain, a process that the learners have to go through to become 'qualified'. This process is defined in terms of learning - an inexact phrase whose meaning is still indeterminate - and assessment - defined in the context of standards, state and regulator-defined. Most attempts to create a better Education-To-Employment interface stay firmly within this paradigm, and try to build new solutions, by expanding the definition of 'experts' to include 'practitioners' and by installing the employers on the same pedestal as the regulators and the government.

Common-sense as it may sound, this type of solution ignores a number of issues that cause the education-to-employment gap in the first place. First, this assumes that the employers have a clearly defined standard that could be integrated into 'learning': If such a standard really existed, and existed in an easily translatable language to make sense in the academic world, the problem would not have existed in the first place. Second, this assumes that the employer requirements remain relatively stable, which, as any employer would perhaps tell you, is as much fiction as the first one. Third, it is based on the incorrect assumption that while educators operate with a closed paradigm, the employers are more open: In fact, candidate specifications defined to the every last detail is as much a cause of education-to-employment gap. Fourth, this is also based on a vision of a 'benevolent company', the idea that large enterprises are focused on creating social value by participating in education: They are not, and see themselves as a 'consumer' rather than a participant in Higher Education in most cases (though not in all cases, and engagements of employers in high end research and development are often cited, out of context, to maintain this myth). 

However, the single most important reason why the hope that an efficient closed system can be built to solve the education-to-employment problem has persisted is because it works, when attempted in a smaller scale. In specific situations, for specific industries, with the support of a small number of executives, with a charismatic founder, a closed system solution, an education that puts the employer requirements at its heart and employer language as its style, can indeed work. This is how it works in some remarkable small universities, as well as in Research Labs in eminent institutions. That this is the dominant model of Higher Education, and that some examples of close coordination between employers and educators exist, are the essential reasons why so many 'global solutions' are being built around closed models of education and employment.

The alternative, an Open Systems solution, would need to be built around a different set of assumptions how Higher Education works. For example, the starting point of such thinking, as Clayton Christiansen suggested, may be to see Higher Education as an 'User Network Solution', which frames the process of education as membership of and involvement in a community. In this view, Education is not about a defined process, with a well-defined start and end, but an ongoing engagement in a community (which may have different status and honour levels) with a commitment to explore and develop. This may conjoin various closed systems - indeed, it could be built as a network of closed systems, such as employers and universities - focused on evolving a common currency for education-to-employment transition.

This common currency should be something more wholesome than 'soft skills' (see my post on Soft Skills) and more solid than 'Competences', and yet more practical than University Degrees which bears no meaning outside the seal of authority from the state (see my note here). It must also be more than 'Experience', as experience is context-dependent and often limited to specific circumstances and cultures. The absence of an obvious common currency is indeed why various closed systems continue to exist, hawking various proxies for abilities and attitudes. This is where, however, an Open System may have an unique solution to offer, built out of portfolio of performances, validated by 'trust protocols' (as Blockchain could be), situated in the new Internet of Value (I owe these terms to Don Tapscott). This is what I am now working on - constructing an Open System to connect the Educators and Employers, that allows the learners to build a Portfolio Self as they engage in learning and experience real life, learn from and give back to their communities and participate in a global ecosystem of emergent knowledge.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Beyond Project-Based Learning

I have been working on Projects-Based Learning, and recorded my experiences and reflections on this blog as I went along.

Through this engagement, I have learnt the following things:

1. Content is over-rated. Because it costs money and effort to create, content owners believe Content equals Learning. Yes, the learners use content to learn, but they do not learn from content. It is the baseline, not an end in itself.

2. Teachers make a lot of difference, but not through 'teaching'. The relationships that underpin teaching, rather than the process of teaching, as in delivering lectures, is fundamental to learning. A good teacher knows the learners - not just their 'strengths and weakness', but their fears, aspirations, what inspires and intimidates them, what they love and loath. The act of 'teaching' is more about inspiring, empowering and connecting, than delivering, disciplining and evaluating.

3. Because the way we have come to see learning, as a process, we under-rate the impact of its environment, both the physical setting and the emotional context. The way the classrooms are built - rigid or flexible, room or an open space, dark and damp or well-lit, artificial or natural - impacts the engagement, as does whether the teachers themselves feel safe, connected and inspired to think. One can not run a regimented workplace and expect creativity, discipline the teachers but expect them to inspire, put them on zero hour contracts and expect them to engage.

4. Education, as far as it has become a business, has become a quest for efficiency, rather than effectiveness. The challenge that many self-declared Education Innovators are focusing on is how to make education more efficient. The consensus seems to be that measuring increases efficiency - a standard refrain of the businesses - but measuring also dis-empowers, puts a bureaucrat in charge, and disembodies, by putting a few faceless people - management, regulators, funding bodies - in power. Overt attempts to measure and control, in learning as in any other human activity, imposes a process but steals the purpose, and create a false rigour in place of relationships. 

5. Nothing engages more, and makes one more curious and eager to learn, than their own lives. If real life is the context, learners want to learn more. If we are solving real problems that they may face day to day, they want to be part of it. However, what we call Experiential Learning is a poor solution for learning from life, as the defined 'experiences' are often superficial and limited. This is because by defining an 'experience' to learn from, we are essentially delimiting the exposure and claiming that learning can, and should, happen within that limited context: This is precisely the opposite of learning from experience, which is about being open to learning at every living moment. Experiential Learning often does exactly the opposite it claims - it decouples, rather than joining, learning and life.

6. The current buzz around Education Technology concerns itself too much with efficiency and measurement, and too little with learning. While businesses today are trying to go beyond industrial-era processes and trying to reinvent themselves as campuses, educational institutions are too often being reinvented as a process-driven industry, redefined by clever pieces of technologies that seek to replace the human content and connection and replace it with e-textbooks and e-moderators. Apart from the inherent fallibility of technology - those who has seen Chaplin's Modern Times would perhaps recall the 'Lunch Machine' - the whole model is essentially counter-productive.

7. All learning is perhaps is essentially a local and a human activity, based on relationships, driven by curiosity and engagement. The current quest of global learning empires, by global finance capital in search of an increasingly illusory profit, try to subvert this by imposing regimes of measurement and control and by replacing its local essence with an ephemeral, global, consumer aspiration, creating superficial models of learning, more corrosive than liberating.

My quest, hereafter, is to seek a new model, that builds around the spirit of enquiry and that of being local, connected and responsible. This is not a world without technologies, but rather of the tools and processes that do not put the cart before the horse, but rather enable these core aspirations that must be central to meaningful learning. It is not 'projects' but life that I see as the wellspring of meaning, and where being human rather than being a worker remains the objective of all learning.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

A Conversation About Kolkata in the 21st Century

A lot of conversations about Kolkata is about its past; I want to talk about its future.

Most conversations about Kolkata is about its decline - its golden moments and how times changed; I want to talk about its rise, how its best may lie ahead and how we can change the times.

In place of pessimism, I seek optimism; instead of inertia, I am looking for imagination. 

It is not about catching up, I am arguing; it is about making a new path altogether.

It had, indeed it had, a glorious past: One of the first Asian cities to reach a million population, the Capital of British India, the cradle of an Enlightened Age and a new politics of Cosmopolitanism. And, it had stumbled - losing the hinterland that supplied its Jute factories, overwhelmed by the refugees that came after the partition, devoid of its professional class who chose to emigrate - the City's commercial and professional culture evaporated in a generation, and it transformed into a corrupt and inefficient commodity economy, that enriched a few but enfeebled a lot. And, yet, I shall claim, it has a future to be made: Despite, and because of its decline, perhaps because the 'development' of the last two decades that bypassed it. If only we can imagine! And, this is an invite to imagine!

If one looks out to the world now, the signs of change are noticeable. Call it the Fourth Industrial Revolution, an Age of Discovery or The Second Machine Age, or whatever you like, there is a profound shift in the global economy. There are many versions of this imagined future, Utopian and dystopian in equal measure, but the direction is clear: We are at the end of the globalisation wave that, starting in 1990s, led to the de-industrialisation of the West and created new industries and value chains globally. In a perfect storm of new technologies, attitudes, finances and business ideas, the supply chains are getting shorter, markets are becoming more local and the work is favouring the smart. The imperative of doing things cheaply is giving away to new ways of doing things smartly. And, cities and regions smart enough to anticipate and adjust to these changes, former Rustbelts and mining towns, are building new industrial ecosystems from scratch.

This is Kolkata's opportunity. This economic shift is generally seen to be favouring the Developed countries, with their knowledge, talent and entrepreneurial ecosystems, and away from the cheap manufacturing belts of China and global service industries of India. But, it is also destined to favour cities and regions in the middle of large consumer economies - Kolkata is situated in the middle of the corner of the world with highest population density and serve a rural hinterland with land ownership and increasing aspiration - which can get its talent, environment and enterprise right. And, indeed, one may argue that Kolkata may have problems on all those counts - Talent, Environment and Enterprise - but so does all the other cities in India. All it comes to is committing to this new future, fast!

The point is to change the conversation. The economic revival will not come through building large factories, as the past Governments tried, failed and paid for. It would not come by jumping into the IT services bandwagon when the industry is contracting and likely to lose most of its jobs in the next five years. There is no hope in the Handcrafts and Cottage industries, traditional arts of the region, as the current Bengal government sometimes argue. And, the Culture industries, something Kolkata is famous for, would not lead to the economic revival in scale, though they may need to be encouraged for other reasons. And, there is no point trying to seek redemption in Foreign Investment, and trying to steal cheap manufacturing jobs from China, the strategy of the Government in New Delhi.

Kolkata has a lot going for itself, and recognising these strengths is a good first step. It is one of the big cities with plentiful supply of drinking water - all other Indian cities struggle with water shortage - and its environment, for the lack of industry perhaps, is relatively less damaged. It has good schools and a Higher Education system relatively less tainted by corruption of money, though political interference has done a lot of damage. It has a relatively young population, people who emigrate and power the industries of Western and Southern India, and of those abroad. It has a diaspora deeply attached, and being more Cosmopolitan than other Indian regions, its people are less allergic to those who live abroad (though they fall short of the real curiosity and love the Chinese give to the Overseas Chinese). It is geographically well located, and could become India's gateway, and link, to South-East and East Asia.

Indeed, the 'Fourth Industrial Revolution' needs a lot more than this. A research culture, strong scientific commitment, a great and cosmopolitan Higher Education system, Start-up ecosystems and availability of finance, political will and support (at least in terms of getting out of the way), and identification and cultivation of industries and sectors that play to the City's strength are all needed to be done, and indeed, the emergence of a Connector, persons or organisations with a vision that can build a broad coalition to commit to build this future. But, free of baggage, at a tipping point, this suits Kolkata well - a moment when imagination is needed and that is all it really has. 

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Secular Imagination and Indian Politics

That India has a secular constitution, seems to be a great progressive leap for many people. India was, and is, the world's largest Hindu country, with a long history and heritage. Hinduism, and its 'sacred geography', seemed to have provided Indians their common identity, despite being divided by language, castes, customs and preferences! And, Hindu (and Budhdhist, the other major religion that originated in India) icons are everywhere in the imagination of Independent India, from the invocation of the 'Mother India' to its national flag and anthem. It seems the secularism of India is a deliberate, progressive turn, a statement of aspiration to build a modern nation by leaving its religions and superstitions behind.

And, indeed, it was. The leaders of Modern India, particularly Nehru, was intent on building a nation based on economic independence (from the West) and technological progress. With the horrors of racialism in context and battling the 'two nation doctrine' that successfully won over Pakistan, tearing through the 'sacred geography' and peoples and families, the modern, technological, forward-thinking nation was the logical option. Not many Congress leaders would have stood by the ideology, but the politics made it a common sense option. Besides, the various groups and linguistic communities that needed to be united - one of the most contentious issues in the Constituent Assembly was to decide on the Official Language, and despite the insistence of all top leaders, English had to be left in its place for a number of years - and it would have been impossible to unite them for a Hindu country!

Then, there was hope! The moment of independence, darkened as it was by the Partition and the violence that followed (in the enduring words of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, this was not the morning they set out for), was a great moment of hope and opportunity, not just for India, but the entire colonised world, whose freedom was to follow. For the makers of Indian state, they were conscious of their historical responsibility, to be a beacon of freedom, as they saw India to be, within a continent of misery and servitude. And, many of them saw the partition as an artificially imposed mistake, a part of the Colonial mischief (which it indeed was), something that was to be healed with time, perhaps with a reunion. Their politics could not have been the inverse of Pakistan's. Besides, they were conscious of the many million Muslims who chose to remain in India, refusing to buy into the two-nation theory, or simply seeing through the absurdity of it. It fell on them to build an united, progressive state, whose minorities felt empowered and free, keeping the door open for Pakistan for a rapprochement one day.

It was then. But the historical context changed, and what appeared common sense then, it does not any longer.

Once India came into being and was moulded into a powerful state, we have come to take it as a given. The state's voice has obscured all the dissenting voices - of the displaced peoples, of Aborigines, of landless peasants, of those smaller minorities, of hill people - and steamrolled everything under one narrative of economic growth and national superiority in the league table of nations. Secularism was common sense, it was an essential glue keeping the country together, but this is no longer deemed a challenge.

More so as India failed to heal the rift with Pakistan, fighting three and half wars and becoming its geopolitical rival by succumbing to Big Country power-plays. The Pakistani elite and its army found the main justification of its continued rule in its 'jihad' for Kashmir, and with American money, bankrolled various conflicts till it came to bite them back. Indian politics, though, failed to rise above the narrative, and in time, became defined by its opposition to Pakistan. While Vietnam may have reunited, and even Koreans dreamt of coming together one day, Pakistan (and its offshoot, Bangladesh) and India drifted apart ever further, and memories of a common past receded in the background. It made no sense to keep the door open anymore.

Finally, even when the Indian state is powerful and ever ascendant, the question of Indian identity came to the fore. New melting pots in the form of big modern cities and IT services firms with their mixed gender workforce and 24x7 schedule emerged, and made possible what the secular constitution failed to do: Pulling Indians into marriages across caste, religion and even linguistic communities (the last one, I reckon, being most difficult), and yet, what is an Indian may have remained unresolved. This is perhaps because the shaky hold of Hindi in India - despite being the national language, more Indians do not speak Hindi than they do! Hindi movies, while popular, failed to reach a lot of Indians, and IT service firms linked India through English rather than Hindi. While the globalisation hit and Indians craved for an unified Identity, it found nothing: While the big city drawing rooms settled for the weak alternatives of cricket, Whiskey and hatred for Pakistan, for the people at large the 'sacred geography' and the ideas of a redemptive religion remained irreplaceable.

So, it has become much easier to argue that India is essentially Hindu and secularism was only a political stance that is past its sell-by date. In fact, Indians have invented a term and using it liberally: 'psuedo-Secular'!

The conditions that dictated Secularism - the diversity of the country, the need for a reconciliation with Pakistan, the need to build a modern dynamic 'opportunity society' - all exist and if anything, they are even more urgent and important today than they were sixty-nine years ago. However, the context the Secular ideal was presented with has changed. The Indian State, its ruling party (parties, one should say) used 'secularism' as a tool for political advantage and as an empty slogan (the meaning of 'psuedo-secular') and failed to supplant the ideal of secularism with a secular imagination. 

I shall argue that the time to do so is now. The secular narrative is truly broken, particularly in the economic stagnation of the last several years since the Great Recession, and a new identity politics of Hinduvta has arisen. The hope that this is a passing phase is mistaken, as, without a re-imagination, secularism may never regain its place in Indian polity. This is not about the electoral fortunes of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, but the power of the concept itself: The questions, is secularism integral to India, and why, need to be asked again.

And, its answer, I shall argue, is Economic and Political: The secular is not just about religion anymore, but opportunity. India's development, urgent as it may be, will not come through technocratic solution, as the current government and all those politicians advocating change from above believes. India has come to the point when the Government needs to step aside, concentrating its energies in restoring the rule of law: Curbing corruption, making Courts and police forces functional, reigning on black money (which drives corruption) and allowing level playing field for small and medium businesses. This can not happen within a state that wants to dictate social preferences, and runs on a majoritarian politics. The point of secular is to not to accept Diversity, which is anyway an inescapable feature of India: It is about making it a core economic strategy, an advantage, something that we compete on.

This line of argument, thinking of secular as an economic, rather than moral, argument may be loathsome to some people. But I shall argue, while being secular is moral ideal for private persons (as it is for me), in Statecraft, both religion and secularism are strategies, that need to be adjusted with social and economic realities. Secularism made sense in India in 1947, and it does now. However, one needs to re-imagine secularism - as a precondition to opportunity society - rather than try to hark back to the world of the past that has irrevocably changed.

Photo Credit: Everystockphoto

Friday, August 19, 2016

Imagination of Conflict in History

One can, and often does, read history as a narrative of conflicts. The school-book history is designed as a sequence of wars and winners, its causes and aftermaths. Even when one wants to get away from the history of celebrities, which our stories of Kings, Queens and great men (and some women) usually are, our thematic narratives of Colonialism, Class Struggle, Revolutions and even Scientific Progress are usually built around conflicts - of powers, institutions and ideas - progressing and regressing in some sort of eternal motion. 

One may claim that all history, therefore, is history of conflicts. However, it is equally possible to see that our ideas shape conflicts. I have three favourites - the Iron Curtain, the Clash of Civilisations and the Thucydides Trap - ideas that defined our past, the present and possibly the future conflicts.

So, when Churchill was speaking at Fulton, Missouri, in March 1946, he conjured up the Iron Curtain, a dividing line from the 'Free World' running right through the middle of Europe in his imagination, marking the Soviet sphere of influence. He did not mention the fact that this is what he, along with other world leaders, agreed upon during various war time conferences - spheres of influences that would divide the world. He did not mention that he did his best to impose upon Greeks, for example, a king that they did not want, because Greece apparently fell in the Western sphere of influence, and he himself tried desperately to deny the Greek partisans, who fought the Nazis bravely and with great sacrifice, a seat on the table in Post-War Greece! And, indeed, he did not bother to say that he was only plagiarising - 'Iron Curtain' is an old metaphor but was only recently used to describe the East-West political divide by Joseph Goebbles, no less! But, he succeeded brilliantly - Iron Curtain was easy to visualise - and not just his side, but even the Russians eventually bought into the imagery by building the wall running through Berlin in a few years' time.

Same, I shall claim, goes with Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilisation thesis. It is an old idea seeing history in civilisational terms, except that in Huntington's vision, these civilisations would inevitably collide. He might be invoking the ideas of the Crusade, but overlooking more history than he was taking account of: The modern world has been shaped not by a 'Christian' civilisation battling against a 'Islamic' one, but rather, the conflicts of the Catholics and the Protestants (leading to the bloody Thirty Years War) and then conflicts of empires, nations and political ideologies. But, ideas of conflicts are powerful - and Huntington's thesis is proving self-fulfilling: Right now, politics and policies of many Western right-wingers are defined by the incontrovertible 'fact' of the Civilisational War (as for the imagination of left wingers, they have the 'humanity' fighting with aliens in Star Wars).

In contrast with the above two ideas, the Thucydides Trap is less well known, but it is increasingly in vogue: Named after the historian of the Peloponnesian War, this is the thesis that when an emerging power confronts the hegemon, it leads almost inevitably to bloodshed! Seen in the context of China's rise and the potential to challenge the global supremacy of the United States, this idea is already making rounds and influencing thinking. As in case of these theories, the reality matters little: The Chinese State is very much part of the American world, and the Americans go by, for a very large part, recycling the Chinese surplus! They are part of one, intertwined, global system - China produces and saves, America spends the money - and one without another may not thrive. This is very different from the competition for colonies at the turn of the last century, when the only route to prosperity was defined by the control of the resources. 

The point I am trying to make is that it is possible to separate the Conflicts of history from the history of conflicts, and see, perhaps more often than not, that imagination of conflict preceded the real ones. The way we talk about conflicts today remind me of an old statement I often saw printed on election posters in my native Calcutta, a bastion of Indian Communist parties (once): "Marxism is true because it is a science"! (perhaps unconsciously derived from Giambattista Vico's claim of 'True because factual' claim for his 'new science') This is the sort of circular reasoning, claims of being self-evident, that underpins our ideas of Conflict, and it is us, by believing these theories and acting on the basis, make them happen.

However, there is another way of looking at history, and that is, difference does not always lead to conflict. Our history is also a history of cooperation, however much we try to ignore it. It is also a history of collaboration, often between unlikely peers (Churchill and Goebbles, united by their piece of rhetoric and objective, as in the above example), and flow of ideas from one to another (like the Europeans learning the use of gunpowder from the Chinese, and Mongols learning the art of Alexander's seize from a self-congratulating Marco Polo). These 'histories' perhaps fit less into our idea of heroism, purpose and destiny, and are less useful to Monarchs and Presidents who wish to make people sacrifice their well-being and lives: No one indeed goes to battle so that the King can keep his kingdom, or so that George W can ingratiate his Saudi friends, but rather to defend the motherland or free world or something such.

Therefore, we can resist to fulfil the false prophecies of conflict that are thrust upon us. We can refuse to be civilisational warriors by getting to make Muslim friends (most Americans, self-declaredly, have never met any Muslim person in life) and seeing beyond the imagination of Conflict. Even if we are destined to make history in circumstances not of our choosing, we may shape some of it with ideas of our own.

Photo Credit: Everystockphoto

Democracy As Privilege and Responsibility

To me, democracy, of late, has been a disappointment. Or, to be precise, I have been on losing side of the argument all too often in the last couple of years. For example, the Indian electorate in 2014 voted overwhelming to bring in a Hindu Nationalist government: This was due to a combination of voter fatigue with the previous administration, which proved to be inept and corrupt at the same time, but I did not want a Fascist leader, which Mr Modi most certainly is, to be India's Prime Minister. Also, I was on the losing side of Britain's EU referendum, where the British electorate apparently voted for a closed economy and inward-looking society. And, indeed, like everyone else, I am now bracing for Trump victory in US Presidential election; whether or not that eventually happens, I wouldn't, like many US voters who will vote against Trump, feel elated about a Hillary Clinton presidency either, as she is only the lesser of the two hard-to-like candidates.

Despite these disappointments - and I did ask myself whether democracy is really worth it at the emotionally charged aftermath of the EU referendum in Britain - I find it difficult to accept the other alternative: A China-style Technocratic system! Dambisa Moyo, among others, argue that Africans should perhaps choose such a political model over the Western Liberal Democratic option, as if autocratic misrule would be a new thing in Africa. But, more ominously, many European states and even India, voted for 'Development' over 'Democracy' in recent elections. As Greece's Yanis Varoufakis would argue, while 'democracy' was a pretencion all along, the global Financial elite is now ready even to stop pretending to be democratic.

One could survey the world at this very moment and conclude that democracy may actually be on the back-foot and - Varoufakis may indeed be right. Even the democratically elected leaders like Mr Modi, and contenders such as Mr Trump, though they treat China as the competitor and perhaps the enemy, embrace the Chinese technocratic model. They, and various democratic leaders across the world, treat 'development' as the main goal. In fact, there is a consensus that the legitimacy of democratic governments come from economic prosperity of its people: Historical evidence seems to bear this out, right since the coup in Iran in 1956 which deposed the Middle East's first democratically elected government.

It is perhaps this narrative that Varoufakis is questioning, and we should too. Is democracy a means to an end, which is 'development' or even more ephemerally, economic growth? Or, if democracy is such a precious thing, should be an end in itself?

Now, while we casually equate development with economic growth, they are two different things. Apart from definitional differences, the most crucial difference between them is that economic growth is blind to quality of economic activities and whether they actually make life better. The pursuit of economic growth seeks to keep the social pecking order exactly the same, even if it is unequal, unjust or plainly corrupt, and in fact, any aspiration to change the social order, however urgently needed (think of India), is actually counter-productive in the pursuit of growth. 'Development', on the other hand, gives at least equal weight to qualitative aspects of economic life, and tries to measure, however imperfectly, whether life is getting better. The pursuit of development, in many cases, makes it necessary to change the social order, and, in the least, a mechanism to hold the elite accountable. And, that, if we come to think of it, is democracy. These rights to vote, of free speech, of holding the administrations accountable and various legal provisions that uphold this, were not given by God or some benevolent ruler, but were fought for and won: We must not forget that democracy, in itself, is development, and a precondition of a fair social order.

The leaders selling a technocratic vision equates growth and development, as do the media and academic literature making 'economic growth' the principal object of democracy. This sleight of rhetoric creates a self-destructive model: It makes growth the government's responsibility! While that may have worked in an industrial order, which was, at its core, extractive - it pooled cheap labour into processes to generate a surplus - but not as useful in the participative economic models which are emerging now. People like Mr Trump and Mr Modi are making promises of making lives better by executive action, and yet, in today's economies, driven by innovation and participation, they can not do anything unless the people themselves take the responsibility. And, indeed, this is why many technocratic solutions have failed, and even China, which may have performed a miracle of growth in building an industrial economy, may eventually falter in making the transition to the innovation economy.

Democracy - and the evolutions it has had in the last two hundred years - has been the greatest marker of human progress, but we have now taken it for granted. Not only we have forgotten that democracy is development, we have also missed that, in a democracy, nothing is given from above, but everything has to be worked for and earned. The elite may be doing what they have done always and promised salvation- now the earthly kind rather than divine - but being a democratic citizen is about being an adult: We should treat democracy as a privilege, a precious one, which comes with the responsibility of owning our futures and working for it.


Thursday, August 18, 2016

Creating A Platform for Global Higher Education

How to create a model of global Higher Education fit for post-recession world?

This is not about private equity initiatives spanning the world, the kinds that the American majors such as Apollo and Laureate do: That is about global finance capital buying out assets in different geographies. Nor this should be about what the Academic community dubs as TNE, Trans-National Education, which is essentially about exporting degrees from metropolitan centres to the hungry nations in the periphery. 

Indeed, global is, in common use, all about finance capital buying out assets in poorer countries, and extending the cultural influences of the metropolitan centres. But that model is coming under pressure lately: The 'Global' steamroller has perhaps gone too far. The richer nations are increasingly wary of the immigrants, and the poorer nations are facing existential crisis as its 'comprador bougeois', the ones that collaborate and benefit from global finance capital, has lost all sense of balance and making too many people disenfranchised. So, it is not just Britain that voted for Brexit and America is flirting with Trump, India has taken a jingoistic turn with Mr Modi, Russia appears nostalgic and China, while still enthralled with the dated doctrine of socialist extraction (which they do in Africa), is creating a doctrine of assertive nationalism.

Therefore, the benefits of globalism can no longer be taken for granted, and its claims are being questioned now. The euphoria, so real only a few years ago, about opening offshore campuses and digital higher education, looks well past its prime, and uncomfortable questions, real but so unexpected, about whether a degree from an university abroad is good value are being questioned. And, often the answer is negative, primarily for two reasons: Immigration is increasingly difficult and with export demands have ceased to be the job engine that it had been in the past. Local demands drive the enterprise, as it does in India and increasingly in China, and employers are increasingly wary of those people with degrees from abroad who grudgingly work in the home country and often resent the work practises there.

However, in theory, Global Higher Education was supposed to be more than global capital and fancy degrees from Western Universities. It was about a frame of mind, openness to experience, world class expertise. Those attributes are still in high demand, as they ought to be, even for jobs serving local markets: We may not be a flat world of production and distribution and globalism may have become politically toxic, but the intervening years have unified consumer aspirations, and technologies have raised the bar on skills even in the local markets. So, serving Indian market needs a connection to the Indian consumer, a sort of flexibility and humility global degrees may not easily confer, but an understanding of technologies of electronic commerce, digital distribution and the skills to service a rights-aware customer are all in high demand.

The model of Global Higher Education, in this context, needs a reset. This needs to go beyond hawking degrees and imbibing foreign habits and accents, but creating truly open, culturally aware and flexible mindsets, along with world-class technical expertise and networks. This is a paradigm shift, requiring a change of language from mere franchising of degrees, or student exchanges, or worse still, online diploma giving. This needs to be around creating a globally minded ecosystem on the ground in different countries, engaging the local employers, local and global educators, innovating a new language altogether and re-imagining the role of the university in the context.

So, imagine this: A network of learning centres across countries, backed by technologies of remote learning and collaboration, that connect local employers and global knowledge and practises, through online and hands-on work. I have been working on building such a model for last several years, first in my role in a private institution in London, then in my start-up that engaged with universities in China to set up learning centres offering competency-based qualifications and finally, for the last two years, engaging with local employers, primarily in India, to create global-local frameworks. Each of these experiences were valuable, but each, so I think, were limited in a sense, an evolutionary step towards what the model could be: Something that brings together local and global universities, local and global employers and practises, and the associated ecosystems together.


Monday, August 15, 2016

Towards A 'Natural' Strategy

Martin Reeves' TED talk, below, makes an important point: That there are other ways of thinking about strategy, business strategy, than the usual, mechanical, pursuit of efficiency. Whether or not you agree with Mr Reeves' point about building a business around the principles of the human immune system, you would perhaps agree that there is not much point in a strategy that crash and burn all too quickly.

As for me, I would want to see this conversation, though this is NOT the point of the talk, as a part of a broader conversation about making businesses 'More Human', the title of a book by Steve Hilton (his arguments summarised in the video below). This is not what Martin Reeves is talking about - he is indeed arguing about a cleverer way of making strategy and rightly pointing out that the current methods of optimising is getting us nowhere - but one should remember that Corporate Strategy is built and executed within an environment of ideas, which is mechanical and bureaucratic.

Unfortunately, 'Sustainability' has become a feel-good word, defined by bureaucratic government policies (which aims to define what is and isn't sustainable, while operating within their own pressure-group defined, often populist, parameters) and something that companies treat as 'antithetical' to 'shareholder value'. The point is, of course, the companies perhaps focus too much on those funds and traders who are looking to make money out of market movements, rather than those patient ones focused on dividends and real business performance. CEOs, with their two year lifespans, also couldn't care less whether the company lives or dies. This is why we should perhaps focus on the environment of ideas, rather than finding a smarter way of strategy-making.

One final comment about start-ups and strategy: Mr Reeves makes the point that they are perhaps most biologically oriented, making life not by seeking efficiency, but through adaptation and diversity. However, here too, the question of environment of ideas come up. Many start-up founders, carrying the legacy of their big company life, set up on a quest of efficiency from the word go. The current stereotyping that goes on in the investor circle, some funds would only invest in twenty- something founders, may have some justification: The college grads are far more used to the primal life of start-ups than those used to rules, systems and efficiencies. And, that, premature quest of efficiency, towards goals set up by a fantastical business plan, leads more start-ups astray than one would care to talk about. The 'Lean' start-up conversation, among others, seek to focus minds on this mistake - that start-ups are not small versions of big companies and rather, emergent organisms needing to explore and adapt - and yet, this advice, despite the hype, remains unheeded.

Monday, August 08, 2016

The Paradoxes I Live with

Here is a paradox that I see: There are too many powerful, smart, successful people who declare their love for the Capitalist, Free Market system, and yet, tries to rig its rules to their own advantage every moment. 

Now, a committed socialist may think that this Free Market talk is all rhetoric and no one really likes Free Markets. But, I have not yet reached that level of cynicism. In fact, more confusingly as it may be, those rig the rules think that it is okay to rig the rules as they are only protecting their self-interest. The Invisible Hand would make it alright because all other people are trying to rig the rules as well.

There is indeed a difference between protecting one's self interests within the marketplace and trying to rig the rules. The latter is to abuse the trust without which the invisible hand can not operate. 

Now, I hear that this is why democracy is important, institutions are important. They ensure that the rules are fair. The democratic system ensure that everyone has a voice, and the powerful are challenged from time to time. It allows the markets to work fairly.

But, isn't it a pipedream that the democracy operates outside the economy? The people who wishes the rig the rules of the market, do not solely focus on economics: It is actually all about politics, stupid! 

Looking at this, I know we got the story backwards. Free Markets and Fair Rules were not the state of nature. Rather, life may have been, as Hobbes would have seen, 'nasty, brutish and short'. Free Markets and Fair Rules is an ideal, a civilised state, rather than the default. So it needs work, and constant protection from human nature. 

Now, as you can see, my paradox is deep indeed: We want to create a space for human self-interest to play out without constraints, but to create that space we must reign in human self-interest first. All those political theories, including Hobbes', that we may have had a Social Contract of some kind to preserve the society - and agreed to live by this ever since! It is a really ancient thing, so old that it does not show up as a historical fact, but we all know this must have happened. And, yet, it is perhaps best to see history as a cyclical thing, we tend to go back as often as we go forward, we pull back as we reach the precipice, we work against our societies all the time and regroup just when our 'social contract' breaks down. 

Therefore, the Social Contract may not be a moment in history, but rather a description how we work. It is the Hobbesian Leviathan caught in the interminable Nietzscian cycles of time! Here is a paradox too - decline seems to be a precondition of progress - and the only lesson we may take from this is not that we have a social contract, but have a propensity to enter into social contracts and breaking it too.

Here are two propositions as summary then: One, the Market is not a natural phenomena, but a form of Social Contract. And, two, we enter social contracts consciously, as a guard against decline, and then break it as we start rigging the rules. Yes, the self-interests drive the market, but they also break them. There is no running away from it - such making and breaking is indeed the human condition - and therefore, while some players would always try to rig the rules, all of us must try to protect against it. 

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Innovation in Higher Education: Public-Private Divide and The T-Skills Question

I have followed the conversation about T-Skills, that a modern professional needs at least one 'deep' skill and several other interests and abilities to complement this - for several years (see my earlier post here). Over the last several years, the idea has gained considerable traction and now has its own 'Summit' (check the last year's videos and details here), as well as gained academic acceptance and popular support. Whether one uses the T metaphor or not, many people are advocating a similar approach. For example, Professor Howard Gardner, in his Five Minds For The Future, argue that the professionals of the future will require a 'Discipline', a native way of thinking and making sense of the world (the deep end of the T), as well as Synthesis, the ability to assimilate information and ideas from various branches of knowledge (the top of the T) - along with Creativity, Diversity and Ethics.

There are several reasons why we are having this conversation, but most important of all is the uncertainty factor, that we accept that the technologies and relationships at work would continue to change, and a person will have several jobs in a lifetime. This means shifting away from Processes and Specialisation - that vision of nail factory of Adam Smith (or of Time and Motion studies of Frederick Taylor, or the assembly lines of Henry Ford) - something that celebrated narrow expertise over everything else. George Bernard Shaw's warning that no one can be a complete specialist in something without being a complete idiot in everything else went unheeded, as breaking down jobs in tiny chunks and employing workers who screwed car seats all their lives, for example, boosted productivity and created opportunity. The Industrial Society needed skills in performing tasks as prescribed, and characters to neatly segregate the professional and the personal and the ability to commit certain hours unwaveringly to performance of a defined activity without necessarily imagining or searching for meaning.

This model is now broken, and we are well into the age when those process jobs have been passed on to robots, who can perform without distraction or emotions. The roles of human beings in work context has changed, and this has now gone beyond factory work and permeated into solid professions such as Accounting (see my post on educating the accountants) and even the new age occupations such as programming. We have a new version of Murphy's Law - All that could be automated will be automated - and this is redefining the common-sense notions of Skills, Professions and Work.

This presents a great opportunity, as well as a great challenge, for Higher Education systems today. Great opportunity, because Higher Education, with its focus on abstract thinking, should be uniquely ready for the emerging needs of broad imagination. This is indeed the reason why various national governments want more people to go to college, and the premium earned by graduates over non-graduates in terms of lifetime income is increasing. But, this comes with a great challenge too, because, over time, disciplinary boundaries have only become stronger in Higher Education, and the cult of publishing has encouraged super-specialisation. The government-mandated imperatives and rewards have encouraged research for the sake of research, and disciplines and sub-disciplines have evolved its own languages and ways of thinking, limiting the space for cross-fertilisation of ideas and conversations.

More importantly, this problem has become worse with the spread of private higher education. Though the rationale behind encouraging private participation in Higher Education is built, apart from expanding access, around innovation. But the thinking in private education, For-Profit education more specifically, is more conventional than the public education system, and the schools are often built around the values of the industrial society - efficiency, process and mass marketing - and unable to shape themselves for the T-Skill world. For example, many For-profit universities built themselves around the good business logic of 'Core competence', building themselves as Business or Technology schools, rather than cross-discipline spaces of conversation and interaction. They have also focused on industries and employers - the holy grail of private education is to be 'demand-led', meaning with a job waiting at the end - which made them narrower still, not on technologies or disciplines, but on languages and idiosyncrasies of the employers in question. While many research universities may have had a specialisation over-reach, For-profit institutions often committed themselves to the other end of the spectrum - superficiality - by shying away from foundational issues such as language and ethics of a discipline (for example, while the University College London would pride itself for teaching 'Jurisprudence' and not Law, the For-Profit University of Law would mostly limit itself to Graduate Diploma in Law). 

The current conversation about T-Skills targets, more often than not, the obscurity and disciplinary confines of the Research Universities. This is because, from the vantage point of top employers and pioneering thinkers, this is the only part of the Higher Education system that is visible. Therefore, the conversation focuses on the limitations of such a system, and urges innovation. The unspoken assumption there is that introduction of private education will change the scene, and Private Investors in Silicon Valley and elsewhere enthusiastically embrace For-Profit Higher Ed as a way to innovate in Higher Education. In reality, however, For-Profit Higher Ed, which is important as many more people go to For Profit schools than ever before, is driven by industrial era business model, and focused on efficiency: Development of T-Skills as big a challenge to its business model as we claim it to be for large public universities.

In fact, one sad outcome of our public-private stereotyping in Higher Ed is that we tend to overlook great innovations happening at public universities. We tend to overlook new thinking coming out of public universities because it does not fit our mental models. My favourite example is the development of the whole discipline of Big History, which seeks to view human history in a holistic way, combining natural sciences, social sciences and humanities as a whole. While this work was carried out by historians based in traditional universities, it is catching up quickly with private sector work - The Great Courses released a popular course and Coursera has now put it on the catalogue - and philanthropy, Gates Foundation is using this for its American High School Experience, coming together. One would indeed think that models like Big History is absolutely essential for learners seeking to build T-Skills; whether or not you agree with the approach, T-Skills would be about a holistic view of knowledge and Big History is an attempt at it. However, the conversation that innovation and disruption is an exclusively public sector affair blind us from such possibilities.

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Educating The 21st Century Accountant

Accounting, as a profession, is as iconic of the middle class as it could be. Its making had all the classical elements of emergence of a profession: Granting of a monopoly of a practise to a set of people competent in a standard of practise who forswore to adhere to a code of conduct. Becoming an Accountant was a task that demanded commitment and competence, and being one meant a prospect of lifelong employment, respectable income and a middling rank in the society. Alongside Medicine, Teaching, and Engineering, Accounting has been one of the pillars that held the Middle Class economy.

However, its very strengths may be turning into disadvantages at this point of time in the 21st century. The high stakes assessment that qualified the Accountants, like all high stakes assessments, focused minds and skills on mastering the system, rather than serving the wider world. The standards of practise evolved into rules, something that a programmed machine could do, at least for the most part. And, the socially contracted code of practise came under heavy pressure as the incentives were skewed - as in most other professions - with the emergence of specialised languages and practises that distanced the profession from everyday life, and somewhat emphasised its commercial imperatives at the expense of its social role.

So, implausible as it may sound, Accounting is facing a crisis in the 21st century. Its professional credibility is in question, its tasks are being automated, its deficiencies in communicating in common language are being highlighted. However, there is something yet more profound that is really testing the profession: Its inability to think synthetically, rather than the analytical capabilities that was the hallmark of the profession, is being viewed as a major handicap. This is indeed because at this moment in time, a time of great social and technological change, the risks most businesses have are strategic, something that most accountants are blind to, competent as they are in spotting and dealing with financial risks. From the high pedestal of being designers of the commercial world, today's Accountants face the prospect of being demoted to mere technicians, fighting to keep their jobs secure from encroachment of automation and off-shoring, something unwinnable.

However, this is a perfect moment, because of these challenges, to reimagine the profession. The 21st Century Accountant will be very unlike the 20th Century one, more in the front-line of business than at the back-office, more of a strategic visionary than the financial plumber, people savvy rather than wary of relationships and conversations, creative and imaginative rather than rule bound, and a master rather than a slave of information technology. This means change everywhere: That high stakes assessment must accompany high engagement practise, working with other people must go alongside working with numbers, the view of the business must transcend the imperatives of compliance to strategic sustainability and standards of practise must be redefined as one of commitment and care, one that prescribes a more wholesome view of costs and responsibilities. 

My current work involves creating a new model of educating and preparing this 21st Century Accountant. The model would enshrine communication and collaboration at its heart, assess through high engagement practise, take a holistic view of the competence to include a forward-looking approach to business and its prospects and integrate technology as an enabler of imagination.  This would take a broad view of the profession, and involve Professional Bodies, Technology Providers, Accounting Organisations and Client Businesses, the whole ecosystem of the profession, across countries and industries. This would be built around global standards and best practises, respect the current regulatory frameworks and commitments of the profession, and yet, will take a long view of competences and aim at not just producing qualified accountants but employable ones who can reimagine their roles and lead their employers into redefining the profession.

In doing this, we are exploring a template for educating all 21st century professionals, as the powers of the State, the granter of monopolies, changes - and indeed, societies become more sceptical about experts and their cosy arrangements. We hope that this new model of professional education will prepare professionals to be more responsive, imaginative and entrepreneurial, who will take charge and be able to define the opportunities and obligations in step with time.

Monday, August 01, 2016

In Praise of Practice

Whether one is a technology utopian or a skeptic, everyone seems to agree that we are seeing some revolutionary technological breakthroughs and that these would change our lives inalterably (the disagreements, mostly, are about whether this would be good or bad). The focus of my work is to think what these changes mean for work and for education, and how educational innovations would be fit for this 'second machine age'. 

Fundamentally, I believe that we are entering a THIRD age of what we have come to call 'Higher Education'. And, by this, I mean the social functions related to creation and dissemination of knowledge necessary to define the relationship between the nature and us, and indeed, inbetween ourselves. I use the broad definition to stay outside various policy terms - college, universities, research and teaching institutions etc - and focus on the fundamental idea, that our relationships with nature and between ourselves is a knowledge process that requires continuous exploration and dissemination, and this is what Higher Education, in all its forms and functions, do.

Now, in terms of geneology of Higher Education (and I am taking an European perspective as this is the dominant model in modern Higher Education), we have been through two great ages of Scholasticism and Criticism. The first of these ages of Higher Education, I shall argue, was built around the creation of the broader worldview around Christian theology, mainly by incorporating classical thinkers such as Aristotle, mainly the work of Thomas Aquinas and others. The tradition of education built around this was about interpretation of texts, hermeneutics as it was called, through deep study and reflection. The second age, built around the Enlightenment tradition, came as a reaction to this, with the battle cry of 'dare to think' and to question everything, as Immanuel Kant would say it, and was built around Criticism. This is the tradition the Modern Research universities are based upon - at their heart, they are designed to be critical institutions powered by freedom of thought, free speech and secular faith. 

I generalise, but do so in order to focus the conversation on what may need changing in Higher Education. It is not about the form - from premises-based to online - or function - from preparing for ecclesiastical career to statecraft to life of a company man - of Higher Education, but its fundamental reason to be that needs to change. Whether or not we are destined for an age of Robot Overlords (or various dystopian scenarios), the expanding abilities of technologies are changing our relationships with nature and inbetween ourselves. The earlier imperatives of making nature work for us, alongwith some unintended consequences of Darwin's discoveries as the humankind came to think of itself as the winner of the species race and set upon to extract the rewards, are now being replaced by the urgent imperatives of care and preservation, as we fully recognise the shape of the apocalpyse and avoiding it becomes one, though not the only, of our priorities. And, indeed, relationships between ourselves have been transformed too, as we grew out of being in control of nature and to beings in control, at least partially, of our own fate - our initial triumphalism about rationality later tempered by our acknowledgement of fallability - and we are now grappling with all sorts of existential questions requiring new imagination and an attitude of 'care'. This is the broader question facing Higher Education, and I shall argue that the Critical Tradition may not have all the answers here.

One of the key failings of the Enlightenment project, as its critics were quick to point out (starting perhaps with Herder, Kant's pupil), that its audacity of ideas were performed on distant plain from human life and action. In this, the scholastic traditions of reflection subsumed the challenge of freeing knowledge: While we may have arrived at a point of questioning the texts, the critical tradition dismissed much of what we do and who we are as irrational and outlying phenomena. Today, we live in societies that distrust experts and scholarly knowledge for being other-worldly, for its disconnect with actual practice. After the triumph of philosophy, which Enlightenment indeed was, we have arrived at an age when 'philosophising' is derided as an useless, impractical activity, having no bearing with real life. And, this point is more relevant now than ever, as we seek to make the disciplines ever more obscure and ever more distant from real life, a kind of scholarly game to exclude the commoner and his practice from the higher plains of theory.

This is the fundamental change that needs to come to Higher Education, an invitation to practice. The THIRD age, I argue, will be the age of Practice, when the active life, one engaged with nature and other human beings, would take the centre-place of our enquiry and reflections. This is not, as I must emphasize, an argument for apprenticeships, internships, experiential learning and all that, as those methods exist and continue to exist in the broad context of Education. My argument is not about methods, but about the purpose: This is the equivalent of neroscientists arguing that our thinking is not just centralised in our brains, but rather distributed throughout our bodies, and the sensations and experiences of being human, rather than divine commandments and revealations, are the true beginnings of knowledge. 

This age of Practice is not a discontinuous development in education, but an evolutionary one. Just as the tradition of Criticism emerged from the dissatisfactions with Scholasticism, and yet, adapted its central values and methods - interpretation and reflection - to its own ends, the age of Practice, while changing the essential assumptions about origins and nature of knowledge, would perhaps utilise the tools of critical reflections, analysis and synthesis. But this would mean, just as the modern Research university was a break from the medieval forms, newer institutional forms, more distributed spatially and temporally, more assimilated with real world, more concerned with daily lives, and more equated with doing. This new education will help us to make sense of our cosmic and social existences, just as the technologies test and alter the natural boundaries and the social consensus built around industrial progress gives away to a new world of winners and losers of a different make-up. The schism that may invariably arise out of this may not be healed by the rational men in all their critical glory, but rather by the connections of our hands and emotions with natures and lives of our own and of others, and with values of care and belonging that came with it.

Popular Posts

How To Live

"Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."

- Theodore Roosevelt

Last Words

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

- T S Eliot

Creative Commons License