Friday, July 19, 2013

The 'Decoupling': On The Future of A Degree

Bill Gates have now given us a new word, or more precisely, a new meaning to an old word: Decoupling. He suggests that knowledge and employability may be 'decoupled' from university degree in the coming days. Which effectively means that he is predicting university degree may not be relevant anymore. It may sound counter-intuitive, but coming from Gates, the statement is worth exploration.

One could argue that college education was never more popular: College-going population worldwide has surged and is continuing to grow. So, the demise, or irrelevance, or, if we must play safe, 'decoupling', of a college degree may sound fantastical. But then, the surge needs to be seen in the perspective of the global jobs crisis. The college has not created jobs, nor it can: It has been an instrument to sell middle class dreams to many, only for those to fail eventually to achieve the promised life.

In fact, the surge in college education may be seen as a part of the global consumer revolution, where a certain way, western way, of life was idolised and societies across the world subscribed to a somewhat consensual definition of prosperity. So, growth in income and consumption, easier credit, house owning, ownership of an automobile, private education, college degree, credit cards and mortgages, air travel, certain global brands, gym membership, etc became common currency of middle class life. Only till a point though, when unemployment, rising interest rates in the rest of the world, street protests, and austerity, entered the equation and made things different. 

Gates is an optimist and he sees 'decoupling' through the liberating force of technology, where access to knowledge becomes free or nearly free. However, even 'free' needs to be interrogated: This 'free' may be free as in beer, but may not be free as in free speech. Reducing knowledge production to those who can afford to feature in, and pay for the production of, MOOCs, say, may make these available to lots of people at no or minimum cost, but this will only be done by certain people at certain universities, in a certain language and reflecting a certain worldview. I love Michael Sandel's lectures on Justice and attended his free course on HarvardX, but completely agree with the observation made in Nathan Heller's 'Laptop U' that one may need different varieties of discussions on Justice. Surely, a lecture on Justice in an Indian, or Chinese, or a Catalan university will sound very different, and one must not lose sight of this variability as a core element of an education experience.

But his broader point that 'degree' is failing its social mandate - its symbolic value of identifying the educated - remains true. This is very much a reality everywhere, in India, in China, in the United Kingdom, in the United States, where which university went to matters more than what degree one has. There is already a decoupling therefore - not by the liberating force of technology, as Gates predicts, but by the crusty old power of privilege, of degrees and institutional affiliations. What Gates is now talking about a more 'democratic' access to knowledge, which is technologically possible, though one would be more sceptical whether the form permitted by the economic rationale of such projects would necessarily result in a better and more relevant education.

Our experiments with global higher education, though it is only a small project with very limited funds, were to explore this 'decoupling', to create a competence-based education structure running parallel to degrees, indeed with established pathways for people who may want to gain an academic credential, but primarily focused on the urgent need of boosting employability and relevance of learning at the workplace. Technology was at the core of this experiment, but not to reduce varieties into one view of the world, but as an enabler of global collaboration and conversation, a platform for global-local learning, where knowing is interrogated by doing, and the dialectics of application results in the production of knowledge.

Gates' point therefore deeply resonates with us. Indeed, our experience of talking to educators was deeply frustrating, with most of them fixated with the outcome (degree) but not the process or content of education. After our initial conversations with colleges and universities, where this 'degree disease' is most prevalent, we have started aligning ourselves, consciously, with entrepreneurs who want to shake the status quo, build an alternate offering and create a parallel system of education outside the officially mandated one. So, we are creating an architecture of 'decoupling' and Gates' comment is, therefore, deeply encouraging to us. 
 
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Here is the video of Gates' conversation at Microsoft Research's Faculty Summit, an hour-long video, which covers a lot of ground but also the points mentioned above around the 18th minute.


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