Friday, October 31, 2014

Conversation 19: My Own Asia Pivot

Time to make up my mind! By 2015, I wish to complete a very personal 'pivot' to Asia. 

I am one to dream but not set up goals. I like serendipities, chance connections, even drift. And, life has so far been exciting, full of unexpected twists and gifts, full of meeting great people at unexpected places. I have done crazy things and got away, more than once! I have moved from one continent to another, gone back to school and started businesses. I have lived knife's edge as well as creatively and contently, at the same time.

And, now, it is time for me to conjure up my next big thing. 

I went to England exactly 10 years ago because I wanted to have experience. This I certainly have had. Many things changed - I have got wiser by making many mistakes - and I feel prepared now to graduate out of this 'prep' phase and do something significant.

Which, in a way, means doing less things than more. I have lived a life of drift for a while, primarily because the business I started lacked scale and I was trying to do too many things to keep myself afloat. Eventually, I took on a job, somewhat disillusioned, somewhat confused, closest to a mid-life crisis I have ever been (and will hopefully ever be). However, few months into it, and indeed, as I complete all the legacy work (the marking that comes with teaching and some of the commitments I have already made), I feel confident and connected again. This allows me to think beyond the present and to look into the future - and to imagine what I may really want. And, that is clearly to get back to Asia.

It may be a cliched expression, but I feel ready to move to Asia. My sense of preparation comes from my many experiments. I see Asia as a place of excitement and energy, as distinct from the increasingly inward looking societies in the West. My own interests matter too: I want to work in Education and Education Technology, and I can't possibly find a better place than Asia to do this. And, besides, I want to be hands on and build something ground up - Asia is the perfect setting to do this.

My one big issue with this plan is whether to get back to India. The energy in India attracts me. But, in education, India is indeed the world's most difficult place to innovate. The demand is astounding in India, but this is also one of the most conservative in the world: The education sector is plain criminalised, and political interference is rife. While I want to stay engaged in India and work with people who are trying to do good things, I am unsure whether India is the best place to come back to.

Instead, I may look to live in Singapore, or perhaps, Philippines. I see this City-state as the meeting place of all of Asia, particularly India and China. Being there may give me easy access to both, as well as the West which I want to remain connected to, and South-East Asia, the region I feel most affinity with. In that sense, Singapore is at the center of the world as I perceive it. My current work and future aspirations both play out fairly well from Singapore. 

I am older and wiser though, than I was in 2004. I am not packing my bags and leaving like I did then. My approach this time is to consider all the options, and most importantly, decide beforehand what I am going to do.

My current work may indeed be good if I move to India - I spend most time in the country in any case - and I can perhaps do it better if I am based in Singapore. However, I am yet to figure out whether this is for me long term: It is indeed interesting and engaging but my role so far has been pretty transactional and limited in scope. While I would most certainly remain engaged in Education and Education Technology, I am yet to figure out what I shall be doing long term. My interests indeed are in building a 'disruptive' education proposition, in line with my belief that the Facebook of Education industry will perhaps come from India. However, at the same time, education in India is a perfect 'market for lemons', where unscrupulous operators do fairly well, and it is perhaps very difficult to create something which is globally competitive while having the scale.

This is perhaps where South-East Asia holds the key. The education and skills training environment in the region is more mature and Singapore is taking the lead in technological innovation in Education anyway. A model that combines a SE Asia based operating structure with the Indian market may eventually be the disruptive proposition I am after. However, so far, most interventions from Singapore or Malaysia, there were a few, has failed, because they were unable to manage the complexity of the Indian market.

This is exactly the big thing I am after. I wish to break away from mere tinkering that I continue to do. That is the rationale behind my pivot to Asia. 

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Studying Global Education

I study global education. 

However, I am not one of those who are studying transnational education and the rise and fall of international student mobility. Or, for that matter, not one who believe that the world has become truly flat and the phenomenon global education is about the creation of huge global multinational educational institution(s). 

For me, the study of global education is the quest for an idea, a study in the tension between the idea of unity of all human knowledge and the essentially local nature of all human activities. In a way, my obsession with global education reflects an interest in direct opposition to the globalisers: I use education as a sector where the global-local tension is perhaps the most prominent, and I want to learn the underlying intellectual history of the idea of global education.

This, I acknowledge, means many things, but I believe the essentially technocratic obsession with the 'tools' of global education - institutional partnership, branch campuses, student mobility - is informed by an implicit post-imperial view of the world, the assumption that knowledge is still created in the metropolitan centres and disseminated in the post-colonial societies through these tools, and fails to interrogate sufficiently what global education might be for. And, by limiting itself to this simplistic structure of production and distribution, such discussion fails to see the dynamics of desire as created in these societies, the power equations that such education sustains and consequently the resentment it stirs. 

The celebratory views about transnational businesses in education are equally motivated. Coming out of the global education consultancies, who stand to gain when investments are made in internationalising education, the rallying call for this camp is for dismantling the regulatory barriers that exist in different countries. The proponents of this view, guided by own interests, seek to gloss over many inconvenient facts, such as the apparently burdensome legislative barriers may actually be doing a good job of protecting students and taxpayers from predatory practices, and project only a simplistic view affirming the superiority of metropolitan centres in producing knowledge. Again, the tone of these discussions is mostly technocratic today, limited to the mechanics of global brand expansions, disregarding any nuanced analysis of the impact on the host societies.

My interests are, however, exactly that - what impact does 'global' education have on the host societies? This is closer to the discourse on globalisation itself, indeed, and if we stay within the same paradigm, this will mean some of the host societies becoming overwhelmed by those metropolitan centres of the world who have 'comparative advantages' in knowledge production, save for the regulatory barriers. And, would that be desirable? Or, is the empirical case really the opposite, that the regulatory barriers impoverish, rather than protect, a country's educational system, as the globalisers claim?

Overlapping this discussion around the impact of globalisation, there is the question of the nature of knowledge. We have come to accept, at least for now, that knowledge grows through connecting rather than protecting, and therefore, those barriers should hamper knowledge creation in host societies. However, the empirical case may point to the opposite: That the fetish about the knowledge coming from the developed world hampers, not helps, the independent inquiry in many societies. In fact, this seems to happen more in the societies which has embraced English language, the language of global expansion of education, than those which stayed outside it, but that is perhaps further proof of impoverishment of knowledge activities through connecting.

Further, the final element in my thinking is about the human agency, or the human subversiveness as one may call this, that the students create their own path to knowledge anyway regardless of what the institutional climate may be. That opening up to global education will or will not improve the knowledge climate in a society is somewhat limited discussion because this is informed by a view of the world that ignores any role that the student may play, with or without the aid of information technology. In a society where global education may be prohibited, the student may access global information sources through the Internet; on the other hand, the students' local experience may be intensive enough to keep him interested in local lives and cultures. One is tempted to think that this may even open up along the disciplinary boundaries - scientific and technical disciplines being of the footloose variety and the humanities more connected - but that too is perhaps too prescriptive a view and undermines the students' agency.

So, in summary, I study the culture of global education. My work puts me in the middle of the discussion about global education. However, my questions about the nature of knowledge - is it really a commodity produced at great cost only to be afforded by the developed countries - and a sense of violation - that such assumptions still relegate all other cultures, to one of which I belong, to an inferior status just as in Macaulay's ignorant quip about the Sanskrit and Arabic literature - make me continue to study global education from an independent standpoint from what I do. 

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"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

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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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