Setting the Tone

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

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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