Sunday, May 19, 2013

Building A Global Operating System for Education

The more we do it, we love what we are doing, and this must be a good sign. But even better is that we are learning as we go along - we have tested every assumption that we had and now have a fairly clear idea of the constraints and the opportunities - and I have learnt more in the last nine months about the business of international education than I did in my previous twenty years. There are several reasons why I feel that way, but chiefly because I can now push the boundaries and trying to do something which is truly ambitious.

Also, it is an important fact that we are really small, just a start-up with few people and quite finite resources, and this puts things in perspective. So, for us, ambition is not a fancy thing to be indulged upon, but rather a constant reminder of our limitations and an invitation to be innovative. Which means every new opportunity means revisiting the business plan, a temptation to meddle with the sacred Excel sheets that we got made through a friendly corporate financier, and often, a reconciliation with the obvious, that we are too small to change the world.

But let me correct a notion that may be building up here: We don't feel insignificant. Every such a-ha! moment, as we stumble upon insights and discoveries, we know we are onto something that the bigness of much bigger corporations obscure. Yes, we feel constrained, and sometimes frustrated, but never insignificant. There is something precarious about seeing the great global opportunity of education first hand, but it is never boring. 

We know what we are doing: We are building a global operating system for education. This is far away from the politically entrenched systems of Higher Education, with their inbuilt notions of national prestige and outmoded cultural assumptions; this is even distant from the great reductionism of Massive Open Online Courses, which relies on big data but cancels out the human variability somewhat. We are integrating, in a labour intensive way, partner by partner, country by country, classrooms on a common framework of a global certification, each providing a pathway to awards from universities in these countries but also from other countries, each constructed on a global-local framework. We are using technology, but not to deliver education cheaply or to collect data on learning behaviour, but to enable the connections, learner to tutor, tutor to tutor and learner to learner, all at the same time. We are celebrating the two possibilities of education that were hitherto obscure because of the welfare state systems of education: One, that a different kind of education, knowledge creation and dissemination, become possible when conversations across the borders are enabled, not as an exotic feature but a default mode of education; and two, that a competency-based core - an education system focused on what learners can do rather than what they know - can serve as a common base for any education system, and is inherently attractive for any university squeezed by the employability question, as long as there is enough flexibility in defining the content and context of the educational experience.

Surely, our task is as much of an educational innovation as financial, because this is not a common model and do not fall inside one of the boxes an investor is used to seeing. Our previous engagements with investors exposed us to the limitations of the usual investment models as well: The private investors, particularly in Western Europe, are just about coming to terms with investing in education, and as early comers, looking to back known models of education though this is precisely what they wish to disrupt. The thinking is to squeeze value out of inefficiencies, like making a professor teach 16 hours a week rather than the current 6 or 9, to have a value for the investments, though everyone around the table may know that this may not work, and may not happen anyway. The global education spectrum is just too complicated in this context, which makes our lives slightly more complicated than it needed to be. However, as we learn through the process, we have learnt to look at alternative possibilities, mergers with a bigger player would be ideal as long as they help us to protect the business model, but we are also seeking to align ourselves with other kinds of investors, foundations or family offices, which may have a different perspective to education than the other institutional investors.

The months of living as Entrepreneurs changed our characters somewhat: We have become accustomed to dreaming, but have learnt to protect our dreams by being realists. We have become aware that we are onto something big, which needs an effort bigger than ourselves, and have learnt to be flexible and imaginative to make this happen. After all, the goal of building a global operating system for education, which can enable talented individuals all over the world and change the educational offerings of colleges and align them to the needs of the employers of today, is larger than any one could have. As we reach the end of the beginning, we are now onto building a platform, a global collaboration of institutions, individuals and investors, to make this happen.

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