Saturday, July 26, 2014

Student Experience in Higher Ed: Exit and Voice

I have written about Exit and Voice before (See here) but not in the specific context of Higher Ed. I believe this merits special mention as Higher Education becomes more business-like. As Businesses try to become more like Knowledge Communities (and build campuses, among other things), the talk in Higher Ed is to turn students into 'customers' and of reigning in costs and instilling 'accountability': This may indeed have an impact on how the students engage with the institutions, and Hirschman's mechanics of Exit and Voice may become as relevant in the classroom.

Hirschman's key point is that the organisations can exist and function at a sub-optimal level, something that is an impossibility in classical economics with its obsession with equilibrium and efficiency.  So, if a firm misbehaves or does not deliver, its customers will leave them and the firm will disappear, is the assumption which led mainstream economics to devote so little attention to sub-optimal situations. However, as we know now, markets are not perfect and inefficiencies and dishonesty can exist and thrive in the world of business: The customers often stay where they are, because they don't know, they feel powerless or the cost of switching is too great. Now this happens in Higher Education as often as it happens in business: In fact, the problem of information is ever so great, the students may actually yield very little power and switching remains almost impossible without a great loss of time and money. Sub-optimal Higher Ed is not only possible, it is indeed very common.

In fact, it is rather easy for a Higher Education institution to exist at the sub-optimal level, because the students can't really exit and they are less exposed to unforgiving market forces because of the regulatory barriers. Hirschman's point was that in cases like these, as Exit is difficult, the students would resort to Voice (just as Citizens do); and they indeed did so in the past. Apart from the negative reason (that Exit is difficult), this participation was governed by the nature of the Higher Education institution, a community: It mattered to the students if the community supported a supposedly immoral act, or repressed freedom, and the political engagement reflected a concern about the nature of the community that one belonged to.

Businesses crave for this kind of engagement. They don't want customers to leave silently, because exit is costly, but rather protest, which is costly too but perhaps cheaper in comparison to exit. Facebook would rather have customer outrages (which bring good media coverage) than silent inactivity of the accounts that killed MySpace or Friendster.  But I would still rather not waste my time giving feedback when I am overcharged at the Iceland Foods till, and not shop in the erring store instead. Because one does not really care about the moral health of a shop where one goes for convenience and economy: There are always other shops to go to if a particular one fails to behave properly.

Yet universities want to become their students customers, and themselves, providers of Higher Education. The fashionable discussion in Higher Ed is how to make exit easier - let's make credits portable and transferable and courses modular - and the relationship based on transactional, ensuring the student gets value for money. The universities are falling over themselves to outrank each other in various rankings, which dissect the educational experience in various component parts and using some opaque, opinion-laden calculus, come up with a score, which, being a number, looks closer to universal truth than the 'touchy-feely' notions of educational excellence. There is talk of 'deliverables' and 'performance', assuring students of 'value for money': And, indeed, the implicit invitations to spurn other offers.

Does this new engagement highlight the possibility of 'exit' more potent in Higher Education?

I think it does, in two important ways:

First, the incident of students exiting has become far more of a serious problem. It is yet to be established whether this is because of the expanding access to Higher Ed, changing demographic, poor schooling or the changing relationships in Higher Ed. 'Exit' is still treated as an aberration in Higher Ed, and therefore, linked to failure of educational attainment rather than a common response to a commercial transaction. While no one blames the customer for leaving a truant store, it is the students who become truant when they leave education. One could possibly analyse the incidences of exit with a perspective of the students' journey, though admittedly, this is a difficult kind of research almost no one has any incentive to do.

Second, it also changes the nature of the 'voice', with students protesting more to obtain better grades and easier curriculum, rather than the political stances of the community as a whole. Arthur Levine's trilogy on student life ('When Dreams and Heroes Died', 'When Hope and Fear Collide' and 'Generation On A Tightrope') help put things in perspective, as does the excellent enthnographic study done by Rebekah Nathan (not her real name) in 'My Freshman Year'. Indeed, this is reflected on the discussions on the student portals, where current students advise others to avoid one school or other like a plague, but rather remain anonymous and would carry on being a conforming student in her day to day life. The quality assurance systems in different countries want student participation, but frames this participation in the market-friendly terms of 'quality improvement': They would rather hear students advising that there should be extra copies of textbooks in the library than suggesting about opening a new LGBT section.

Finally, what does it mean for educational practice?

Indeed, the communities are rather unforgiving to those who leave them, but as universities recast themselves as businesses, they may need to have a different approach to exit. They are trying to emulate the businesses by putting processes in place: The consultants and software makers, who claimed to have provided the panacea for the problem of exit for the businesses but failed, are delighted to find this 'new market'. However, if the universities want to learn from businesses, they would be better off looking around not for past practices which apparently have failed, but emergent ones with promise: Because if they do, they would see that successful businesses are trying to discover the community which the universities are so readily trying to abandon. Just as these businesses try to create the emotional bonds, the universities are framing their relationships as transactions. Just as these businesses are trying to be part of the customers' identity, the universities are busying themselves with being a 'value for money' commodity. Businesses have learnt from universities because they were so successful in the last half century; universities are failing to learn from businesses, because despite what they do, they are so averse to learn anything.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Conversations 8: Searching for A Model for New Education

If there is a purpose in what I am doing in Education, it is to develop and implement a model of education fit for the modern economy. This is not just rhetoric, but an article of faith: Despite most of my day-to-day work sorely concerning itself with the industrial era Higher Ed formula, packing students in a classroom studying a pre-defined curriculum, I believe firmly that the days of this kind of education is over. The model is living on borrowed time, sustained by a collective lack of imagination, vested interests and government largesse.
In fact, this model of education may already be past their sell-by dates because its inherent rationale, that one could prepare students for middle class careers through education, is now suspect. The sole reason this lives on is because it is so difficult and uncomfortable to change anything in education: So it must come crumbling down rather than being systematically reformed.

The object of my work is to explore what could replace it.

That is a bold claim, but I have some qualifications. I have lived and worked in different countries, seen and explored different forms of education, taught at different levels, designed courses, deployed large projects with learning technologies, debated the politics of education and seen first hand how education could change lives. I have also been a student in different kinds of universities in different countries. And, all these besides, I watched and observed, and chronicled some of the conversations and experiences I was having on this blog, and looked out for a better model of education over a long period of time.

I also saw the effects of technology from close quarters. My software training and a promising career in an Email service company were rendered redundant by Internet: I survived as I switched and became a Netizen early (before the World Wide Web, I love to say). Then onwards, I learnt to anticipate the waves and move early: This meant some painful early adventures, but never one to be crushed by obsolescence and pointlessness. This is exactly as I feel now: The time for education as usual is over.

What comes next is anybody's guess. Most solid middle class careers are on their way out. I get silent apprehension when I talk about an impending technology revolution making obsolete most of our assumptions about work and career, but that is hardly surprising: I used to get similar responses when I talked about emails in the early Nineties, then about the Internet in the mid-Nineties, and then about E-Commerce even in the early years of the new millennium (a dear friend challenged me that Potatoes can never be sold on the Internet). Just as it happened before, people sleepwalk into technology revolutions, more like a frog in warming water. This time around, though, I believe this transformation will have more acute consequences than the other changes, and this would perhaps be a civilisational tipping point rather than just a better way of doing things. This is because the technological change comes with the brute force of globalisation. Imagine all those young middle class students who are joining the world's universities in millions, preparing for the careers which are already being made obsolete: By the time they graduate, they would suddenly face the impact of such technological change, and nothing in their educational experience would have prepared them to deal with it.

However esoteric it may sound at this time, I have focused my work in joining the search for a model of education for this challenge, creation of able individuals for a world where globalisation, technology and a dynamic and unpredictable configuration of work, life and society all come together. There are many interesting experiments are being done all over the world, but they sit firmly outside the mainstream and mostly ignored. I wish to explore these, write about these and talk to the proponents of these experiments, because they are, in my mind, are like those early Internet pioneers, whose work will have enormous impact on what happens next.

The problem in this search is less than obvious. Most educational institutions and people who work in them are so consumed by the 'system' that it is hardly possible to have a meaningful conversation with them on how education may indeed change: They don't want to know. On the other hand, the technologists' zeal of changing the world is mostly blown up rhetoric, and so is the Education Businessmen's: They have no time for education, and would rather squeeze the dollars out of the industrial model till it falls apart. The meaningful conversations about the new education is happening inside the education sector, by the educators, but not its most visible, successful, established ones: These are happening in the margin - indeed that's where creativity always happens - and they are being carried out by educators who are upsetting the other educators. The ideas how education can change are hardly evident in the glossy research reports handed out in private equity circles, but rather in new experiments done with old ideas, coming out of the playbook of Ivan Illich, A S Neill and others: It is about setting the students free, creating a safe environment around them to explore and to learn, and for facilitating a nurturing creative space where the possibilities of life could be examined. These radical departures from the industrial model of education have come alive now that the rationale for the big school looks bunk.

In my work, I have set in motion a pivot for my original business plans: Instead of setting up a 'college' as I initially tried to do, I am trying to transform the business into a platform for nurturing disruptive ideas for education. This will no longer be about developing and delivering courses, but more of facilitating entrepreneurial ideas and projects among the students, and making them aware of this impending 'climate change' in careers. In my day job, I am giving up teaching and taking up a business role which will focus me back on India: Not that this is what I want to do long term, but this is possibly my most apparently marketable skill. However, there are some benefits of taking on such an assignment: Engaging into the world's most challenging education market and seeing the action first hand would enormously help my quest to chronicle the search for alternative models. This will also help me to find my way back to India, which I am committed to doing, and to participate in the country's education, which remains my ambition.

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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

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