Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Saving Apprenticeships

Apprenticeships are all the rage, and rightfully so: There is possibly no better way to learn some of the trades without actually doing it alongside a skilled master. While this is universally understood and accepted, what's not so clear is that government funding this and colleges and training companies running it really works. Despite the talk around apprenticeships, many really end up with dead-end positions, with little prospect or pay, loads of work and little learning. The training often tends to be motivational fluff, just the kind one hoped to escape when choosing to go down the apprentice route, and instead of the 'master', one usually gets a failed practitioner as the Guru.

Call it modern apprenticeships, this has to nothing to do with what it was in its traditional form. The communities are all gone: They have been stripped away by our organized dislike of unionized labour. The pride of work has also been taken away: It is about the money one earns and often, this is about surviving than excelling. The modern work is too complex to understand, let alone love or to connect with. And, the commitment to the profession is often filmsy for the same reasons: In fact, there is a crisis of professional identity rather than the willing assumption of one.

Politicians keep preaching apprenticeships though. The liberals love them, believing this creates opportunity society. The right-wingers love them, as a low cost way of producing factory fodder. Throughout the Anglo-American world, everyone wants to import German apprenticeship system without importing its industrial relations. In the resentment against the universities, a costly institution which no one understands or loves, the lure of an imagined system where everyone learns through practice seems irresistible: Though, in practice, this is all about an impoverished education, which mostly leaves the learner with nothing but a set of factory regulations, health and safety checklists and a total dependency on a life of wage labour.

Learning through experience is to be welcomed, indeed, but there must be learning. Knowing to do a job is not enough by itself; learning must be involved the 'why' question and ability to answer that from multiple perspectives. I shall argue that the traditional apprenticeships, with master craftsmen at the centre and the communities all around them, imbibed a sense of ownership and pride of the profession, which sufficiently, if in an outdated way, answered the why question. Admittedly, that system was unsustainable: This denied innovation and therefore, was powerless on the face of industrial age. However, the modern, bureaucratic monstrosity we replaced it with has all the stagnation of the old system, and none of its belongingness; it is all about accepting one's station in life and going on to do something inferior than, say, the bankers.

So, it is time to rethink the apprenticeships. A good start will be to retire the qualification bodies, who impose an alien rulebook on the professions, from the field: It is not for big corporations to set learning outcomes and make this whole exercise a mockery of form-filling. And, one would wonder whether there is any easier alternative to restore respect for a practice other than respecting its practitioner, and start thinking that it is the plumber, carpenters, customer service professionals, auto and construction workers and electricians who create more value than the assorted accountants, managers and lawyers that run companies and take the rewards. The Trade Unions, which we love to hate, are the communities which hosted the professions: Is there a way but to restore these communities with all their pride and all their belongingness?

If we see apprenticeships that would rescue mass education and fight apathy and young people dropping out of societies, it is incumbent upon us to save it from the decline.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Going to India

I shall be travelling to India in a week's time. This will be my first visit in over a year and few months, which is somewhat strange. I used to go to India every few weeks, and though that was almost three years ago, I am still quite used to the idea, mainly thanks to the tools and technologies of constant touch, such as Linkedin, Facebook, Skype and the like. It indeed seems I never left, or stopped travelling.

However, in the intervening three years, India has indeed changed significantly. Outside in, the enthusiasm about India in the media and investment community has dissipated: The bad news kept coming and the promises, if always looked a bit rosy, failed to materialise completely. It is not just about pushing a reset button on the India story - it was about losing hope and feeling lost, which is worse than just going back in time. The debt-fuelled middle class prosperity, which a number of India watchers wanted to pass off for development, reversed awkwardly, not just wrecking the commentators' garden window, but a lot of lives and dreams.

Engaging with India after this gap of three years is therefore sobering. It is about going to a different country altogether, with hope giving way to rhetoric, intentions sounding hollow and the march of India seemed to be leading to nowhere. Just to take one example very close to my heart, the number of Indian colleges and universities literally trebled in the last few years, but Indian education seemed to have failed to lift itself from the morass, producing unemployable graduates and creating a class without future or hope. This manifests itself in the declining number of people going to business schools and engineering colleges, a strange anomaly in a country where the number of young people are swelling. In fact, it is the drop out numbers that are swelling alone, at various levels of school education and from school to college, and despite the stated intentions of paternalistic state, the numbers in vocational education remained stubbornly stagnant.

In a post on this blog in April 2011, I echoed the sentiments of The Economist, which called India Education's Wild West. The label is still appropriate, but the implications are changing. This may no longer be about gold rush and chasing dreams, but the simplistic sense that The Economist used the expression with - a lawless territory. Indian education, with its mix of extremely tight regulation and completely lax implementation, remained a den of corrupt practises and misplaced intentions, a business of money laundering and parking unsaleable real estate. The conversations about education practises and models remained rare. Despite the rapid expansion of educational institutions, teacher training or any research on teaching practises did not happen: In fact, any commentator would wonder how so many colleges sprouted up without any significant expansion of the training and practise of adult learning or education. But this is typical of progress in India - what commentators may eventually call Jugaad Education - though despite the pride in getting on with nothing, one must bemoan the lost opportunity and essentially destructive nature of incomplete education, the kind that gives you the pretence without substance, and therefore inflicts damages through the years and generations.

This visit is my facetime with this wild west, and I am garnering up courage for the encounter. The boring, grey, unimaginative but diminutive education of my own student days is now firmly a thing of the past: What we have is the art of salesmen, cleverly camouflaged as a mixture of arrogance and disregard for patience and processes, clearly a new thing in a country which defined education as the path to humility. Knowing, in this lexicon of middle class pride, is clearly commoditised and apparently finite, a thing rather than a process, and a vast majority of schools would proudly advertise being diploma mills if they could. I fear my feeble attempts to discuss education may be met with sheer disconnect, and my optimism about India's future and youth may actually be misplaced in the cynical context of easy money to be made with cheap diplomas and something that could pass of as education.

But, then, as I pack my bags, (boots and horses) I know change is coming to India. The students voting with their feet is a good sign: The number of colleges closing down and selling off their assets is a good sign. The days of easy money coming to an end: The real experiments in Indian education is about to begin. The besieged government in Delhi may be unable to do anything, but that may not be a bad thing: They may be totally incompetent to initiate a change, but so are they in stopping one. The groundswell of aspiration in India is ever so real, and the hunger for good education is so basic for a household which can take nothing else for granted. It is as if I can see again now, after being blindsided by the short-cuts and street smarts; the space is clearing out and real opportunities are only arising out of debris of lumpen-capitalism. As they say, India always wins, and I have only been baffled by my lack of habit, and lost sight of the country's ability to reinvent itself again and again.

As I set off for India, my favourite quote will be one I picked up from 'The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel': "It will be alright in the end; if it's not alright, it is not the end".

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Coursera's Lessons

There are lots of people who think MOOCs are game-changer, and others who think it is just a passing fad: I just like the classes I am doing on Coursera and Udacity, and believe this is a good thing. But, lately, I have discovered that there is more than just access to great learning through these platforms: They represent a way to meet great people. And, more than ever, this community is global: I am doing a course on Small Business Growth, and the community has over 60,000 people from all over the world, including a handful in London and the Home counties. And, I would like to believe that this is indeed something unique, and need to be celebrated.

If there is one defining thing about our generation, that is our faith in human progress. Everyone, right or left of the political spectrum, seem to have accepted that human history will move forward, and we would find our way out of even the most intractable problems, such as global warming and worldwide recession, through human ingenuity and innovation. This faith, presumably arising out of lifting of the threats of global Armageddon at the end of Cold War, is justified. But, I am not sure taking it for granted is the best way to make progress happen: If anything, our progress seems more fragile than ever.

This fragility can be observed, more than anywhere else, in the closing of the 'Knowledge Commons', the global shared pool of knowledge and information. If anything, this progress that we celebrate is largely about the progress in knowledge: Our understanding about our universe is far greater, far more nuanced and more pervasive than it ever has been. And, despite the enlightenment myth of Newton's apple and the works of lone geniuses, we know that the progress in knowledge is a social thing, it grows through connections. Knowledge created through collaboration and sharing is what got us to the modern age, and this is what sustained the progress that we celebrate. However, we can not take this for granted anymore.

If anything, the death of Aaron Swartz signifies the fragility of our progress. Aaron Swartz, regardless of how the law enforcement agencies saw him, was not a felon: He was a highly intelligent architect of social knowledge, a contributor to the development of RSS and founder of Reddit, someone who deeply believed that knowledge should be free and shared. He did what he believed in - set free research papers, funded originally through public money but expropriated by big publishing companies and databases, onto the cloud. He was hounded for his 'crime', far more severely than an irresponsible banker playing with LIBOR rates and threatening livelihoods of millions of people will be treated. His suicide, if anything, is about privatization of the knowledge commons and the biggest threat to our progress.

Since the corporations have caught on to 'intellectual capital', knowledge as the source of prosperity, the efforts to privatize, in order to monetize, knowledge was relentless. The gift economy inherent in knowledge work has been replaced, ineffectively but irreversibly, with transactions and contracts, eventually subverting the nature of knowledge altogether. The research spirit has been tamed to be result driven; the universities, the sources of knowledge production in a modern society, portrayed as idle and places of 'pie in the sky' thinking effectively dismembered of the 'gift' spirit that sustained them.

Coursera is a private initiative, even For-profit. The business model of Coursera, if pundits are to be believed, is to collect data on how people learn by observing and collecting data on millions of learners, just like Google does. But, the lesson of Coursera is really in the impromptu meetup groups that spring up everywhere in the world, the ones without prompting and tracking, the kind of communities universities originally hosted and were designed to nurture. And, this is where it may have a lesson for our universities: If the universities fail to play their role in creation, maintenance and growth of the knowledge commons, they are likely to become obsolete, fast. Peter Drucker said the universities might disappear in thirty years (and he said that in 1997) and some people are prophesying that MOOCs will hasten that demise: It seems they may, but in an inadvertent way, and only if the universities fail to imagine and live up to what they are really for.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

U-Aspire: What Technology Does?

The conversations about U-Aspire are teaching me something: How people actually see learning technologies and why E-Learning so far failed to deliver on its promise. 

Education is one of the hardest things to disrupt, because the mindset is so conservative and education experiments considered an oxymoron. The 'commandments' of accreditation are usually set in stone, and the accreditation bodies are mostly there to keep away any new thinking. So, what was possible in e-commerce, to employ the power of a new technology of connection and transaction to transform the marketplace and with it, the art of marketing, is harder to come by in learning technology.

So, the greatest mistake I tend to make when taking about U-Aspire is that I try to fit this into what people understand. People understand 'Distance Learning' though they treat this as the poor cousin of learning. Some people also know about 'online learning', which is usually limited to their own experience of it, usually e-publishing, where one can read a few pages online. When we talk about online learning, the best case scenario to most is that an on-camera classroom session is being streamed across the world, costly but still impoverished.

The point that is usually missed is that 'the medium is the message'. Each technology has its own 'affordance', patterns of behaviour that they encourage, or even create. The online learning technologies, apart from all those things like e-Publishing, streaming videos, etc., make learning social. One could complain about the poverty of technological interactions and reiterate Charles Handy's 'Touch means Trust', but then that would be undermining the possibilities of human connection and collaboration that plays out on Linkedin, Facebook and various private collaboration platforms. Some of my best friends, the most trusted ones, are on Facebook, some I have never seen, a possibility totally denied by this strand of thinking.

My tutor at UCL had an expression - 'everyone has a golden age, usually when they were twenty' - and I think that's absolutely true. However smart we are, the hardest thing to escape is our experience. Particularly within a learning culture which glorifies experience over thinking and imagination, it is hard to challenge this golden age thinking. One way to deal with the problem is to allow the age of Facebook to persist for another fifteen years, when people who grew up with Facebook start leaving school age and get into decision making positions, but that means wasted opportunities and lives, if we are talking about education. 

So, the answer to my very rhetorical question, to me, is disappointing dull: Technology changes the game. Allow enough technology into something and it changes: Shopping on Amazon is as different from going to Bazaar; with technology, Cricket is a different game than it ever has been; and even traveling somewhere is so different from what it used to be. However, we are only just allowing technology to do anything with education, and, just like all the other vain efforts that have gone before it, we are mostly trying our best to fit it into our golden age thinking.

With this realization, I am changing my role at U-Aspire. I am deliberating shedding the focus that I had on course development and teaching - that's the role I wanted to do and will go back to someday - and becoming its full-time evangelist. I don't think the U-Aspire concept, its global-first, network-centric model of education, is complex; it is just too obvious and it does not fit into patterns of people so used to golden age thinking. Indeed, there are challenges - it is no cakewalk to put something together which is big and complex and culturally diverse - but one needs to reminded that profits are, by definition, proportionate to the complexity of the problems one solves.

Friday, January 11, 2013

U-Aspire: Challenging the Education Mindset

My new year has been busy so far, as the silence on this blog testifies. I am living through the most exciting times in my life: Step by step, the business we wanted to create is coming into being - with the first round of investment from friends and family - and the elements, accreditation, technology and content falling in place. Indeed, it has all the elements of an adventure: That scary feeling that this may still all come apart, the disappointments of being turned down all too often, and the very frequent realization that the big boys are also in the same game, do knock us down at times. But, one of the reasons we get the rejection is because what we are talking about do not conform to people's expectations about an education business. Hence, this post intended as a clarification - three areas where our proposition is different from existing models, therefore, counter-intuitive perhaps:

1. Reverse Legitimacy: Frequently, we face this objection - global operations are for the big boys. The business model everyone understands is the one you establish first at your home country and then grow slowly, first to Europe and then elsewhere. That's how things usually work, and particularly in Education, which is always nationally embedded. However, we are global first, and this is only natural. The business was born in the crevices of a globalization, at a point when students, more than ever before, were crossing borders to study, and knowledge, more than ever before, was being produced and shared across the borders. Following the usual Born-in-Wimbledon model would have been going back in time for us. But this makes us atypical, and the business receives more than its fair share of scepticism.

2. It's A Network:  For us, 'education' does not reside in a campus. We see this to be the factory mentality of education, where the student goes to campus and gets educated, being so last century. For us, the knowledge is out there, particularly in an international context, to be constructed, to be discovered and to be realized. We see our business to be not an export business of British degrees but an enabler of conversations and connections, and us, not as a college but a connector and facilitator. So, our business model is a network: It is not content being produced in one place and channeled through the outlets, but a constant flow of knowledge and ideas where we create value through interactions and exchange, and our value is 'proportional to the square of the number of connected users' (Metcalfe's Law). But this is counter-intuitive, and as some will say, perhaps undermines the concept of authority so integral to our models of expertise.

3. Co-Production: Our international outlets are not distributors of knowledge, but they will be co-producing them. The we-know-better arrogance has bedeviled international education like nothing else, and an impoverished version of home country offering is usually available for students who can't afford to travel. This is always problematic, because regardless of the claims of convergence, differences still matter, and hugely. Today, the biggest opportunity in emerging markets like India isn't about global export, but in harnessing the opportunity inside the country. We want our students to have global perspective and local expertise, together. And, to do this, we are creating a model of co-production, where the students are taught by two tutors in sync, and are embedded in constant conversations and explorations of finding a better way. 

The secret sauce that we are rooting our faith on isn't technical wizardry, but humility. Education gives you humility, the Hindu sages claimed, and we are back in the Ground Zero, as education became a path to privilege and such inconvenient lessons were forgotten. In fact, humility can be a potent strategy, because it is uncommon. We are hoping that never-in-short-supply humiliation that a small company like ours have to go through will give us our lifeblood, humility, in abundance. That way, it can become a self-reinforcing model, surprisingly easy to achieve, but ever so absent from the entrenched institutionalism and faux heritage of the higher ed mindset.

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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.

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