Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Breakpoint: Towards A New Model

We barely started, but already experienced a pivot point: In the last couple of months we are at it, our idea of the kind of college we want to build has evolved already. We learnt, as we liberated ourselves from the constraints of practise, that there is a bigger opportunity out there in connecting, rather than recreating the wheel and trying to deliver, educational experiences. The metaphor for what we are creating is no longer a college - we shall work with colleges rather than create a new one and compete with them - but a global network based on shared values and commonly agreed frameworks. This is so much closer to what we believe adult education should be, an enabling mechanism to connect with the world and collaborate with the like-minded, and our technology tools and business model are fast evolving in line with this education ideal.

Initially, when we imagined the learning environment, we imagined the students will come to a portal offering various services, just like a college, and then access the course micro-sites just as they do when they go to classroom. It made sense, but only for a few weeks when we were still entrapped in our brick-and-mortar college mindset. It was logical, but constraining; it made the same mistake that colleges often do, treat the adult, self-motivated learner as a child. Rather, we needed a social space built around learning and intelligent conversations, a coffee shop set up with some membership rules and etiquette, minus the coffee. We needed to induce the openness and the fun, and we almost forgot that in our paradigm. So, after working several weeks on building a course management platform, we pivoted, settling instead for a more open, more social environment, where learning is about sharing and conversations.

What we stand for has somewhat changed too. Initially, this was about taking British qualifications abroad. We saw the big opportunity as UKBA was wrecking the prospects of the whole higher education sector, being an insensitive and irresponsible regulator, driven by an electoral agenda but completely oblivious of the role of the regulator in a modern society - not the lord or the master, but in service of creating a more efficient sector. Our model was designed to connect UK Higher Ed to students in growth markets more efficiently, and this was the primary rationale we presented to the investors. But, soon, as we started our conversations with colleges that we want to partner with and students that we wish to recruit, a surprising possibility started to emerge: What people valued abroad is the quality assurance system underlying the British Higher Education, this is where its prestige came from, rather than the degrees and diplomas themselves. Again, we possibly overlooked the fact being a prisoner of our experience, within a private sector college. Suddenly, it is deja vu - people care more about educational quality and whether they learn something useful in the end than the government regulators, university bureaucrats or financial analysts believe - and we felt liberated. We were always fearful of falling into the Diploma Mill trap which so many other private sector education enterprises fall into, but our first conversations pointed us to a way to build something meaningful.

In fact, we quickly learned that students, when taking a British qualification, worry how relevant it is for the local job market. In fact, for all the neo-liberal dreams of global education, this remains the most difficult challenge to solve. What Pankaj Ghemawat calls 'Globaloney' (watch his presentation at the TED here) pervades higher education: We believe world is flat and teach the students skills that are often at odds with their own native beliefs (which remain strong and strongly influence actions) and mostly irrelevant in their own home marketplaces. We needed to do more than just to create a platform to deliver British qualifications abroad: We needed to create a framework to create global-local education. As we are now calling it, it is a mix of global confidence and local comfort: No one can deny that being global is essential in this day and age, but keeping the local context alive and skills grounded is of key importance for the students we intend to serve.

This experience, all these challenges and changes, is already giving us what the entrepreneurial life can best offer, a wealth of learning. Many of these new lessons, as I mention above, are so liberating. Another example of what we thought about teaching. I have been exposed to the very best, doing my Masters in Education in one of the best universities in the world, full of intellectual challenges and unrivaled rigour and aha moments: I could see how best teachers can inspire and wanted to create the same experience. But, having lived the other life in equal measure, I also know the teaching in private sector is often too narrowly goal-focused, assessment-focused is the right word, and often devoid, for students, of any joy of serendipitous discovery. Indeed, the theory is that today's students don't want serendipity: They want the degree or the diploma doing the least they need to do. Which is a correct statement, I can vouch, just that this does not automatically mean that one must lower the bar. In fact, if anything, this means that one must raise the bar and make the students do more, so that they discover the joys of learning new things. I went to UCL to get a degree first; but once I was exposed to the joys of learning and pride of creating something great, I never wanted to leave. In our business, we want stickiness: In education, that would mean an alumni network that values the experience. We see stickiness as the only way to build a sustainable education brand, and we know that we can't create the stickiness with the diploma mill mindset. But it is so uplifting to be able to come to this conclusion.

More, the Open Social environment that we are building, and the framework of technology-led learning, is creating a different model of teaching. There will be a dis-intermediation in terms of the teacher's position: The automatic authority that an older man sitting at the head table (or better still, on an elevated platform) could assume will no longer be that powerful. Besides, teaching in this context is a design exercise and the teacher needs to be a skillful designer, aggregating experiences and activities, blending face time with independent research, and balancing teacher-led communication with reverse feedback and peer-group conversations. The teacher's authority will be incrementally built, more like the way one builds klout scores and less like how a government minister enters the room with a 'you-know-who-I-am' look. But at the same time, in this truly learner-centric environment, the quality will be in achieving the expectations of an 'optimal' learner (not just any learner, but a successful one, which needs be defined and benchmarked against) and delivering success. I am already toying with a new measurement of success - alumni stickiness - rather than the tried-and-discredited measures such as pass rates, student satisfaction scores or employability percentages. Living within the new model of Higher Education, I believe that the only goal that we should have is to build a lifelong relationship with all our alumni. 

So, making sense, learning - that's what we are doing now. And, I believe, we are getting a glimpse of the future: Our lives are suddenly more meaningful than it ever was. 

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