Tuesday, August 06, 2013

About 'Unbundled' College

I am often told not to bother about content. That is odd, considering that my business is Education. Only a few years ago, the advice would have been the other extreme - Content was the key! And, considering that we are really only a few years into the era of digital content, compared to 500 years of print, content could have been, should have been, exciting business. But it seems common sense that being in the business of content does not make sense any more.

Indeed, it is obvious how much open content is out there. And, it is not just the various universities giving away their content, and often videos, for free, and not even YouTube, TED, Vimeo and the like, but the whole array of contributions on SlideShare, blogs, Scribd and the like. In educational content, it seems like Internet's promise to be the great commons of knowledge has been somewhat realised. Against this fascinating array, it is hard to see why a small education company like ours should bother about making content.

There is a broader point beyond our strategic predicament, though. It is that the education has now been unbundled: The idea that specialist organisations should focus on content, teaching, platform, network has taken hold. This isn't unlike the other Information industries where such unbundling had happened before. And, in context, the idea of a college may be reduced to a credentialing institution, and in some cases, hosting place for networks. For us, it is worth exploring what kind of opportunities this transformed education sector present to a start-up.

At the face of it, creating a college now may be a bad idea. In context of all this unbundling, different niche opportunities are emerging, which may already be more profitable than an integrated education institution: Businesses such as Pre-university Preparation, Graduate Internship Provision, Niche Publishing, Social Networks for students, Employer Connect Specialists are all very interesting. The 'college' may now just be an assembler, an integrator concerned with certifying the experience.

However, while this may work in practise, this structure looks really bad in theory: All these parts may eventually create a fairly limited and mechanistic experience for the students. This assemblage indeed looks more like a processing plant than anything akin to the concept of an educational institution. Indeed, I am no more fond of the teleological conception of the university having a purpose in itself, but people who have had a good university experience would usually recall the friendships, the odd inspiring teacher, the joys of making a discovery (usually of meaning into previously undecipherable material) and of the idle spirit-lifting aspiration to change the world. These are, by their very nature, serendipitous, rather than planned, experiences, and difficult to reproduce in an 'unbundled' college.

I shall explain why I think so. I think where our construction of unbundling fails is in perceiving the role of the teacher. Indeed, she is no longer the Guru and the fountainhead of knowledge, having acceded that role to Google long ago. With predictive analytic of learner preferences, adaptive content, employer driven assessments, she is not even the human conveyor belt of learning: She is now reduced to the role of, as the TED fellow Dr Sugata Mitra will suggest, a 'grandmother', who just need to stand back and encourage - and let people learn. One of the key assumptions of the unbundling theory is that the knowledge has now been alienated from the teacher: This is really THE CHANGE that makes unbundling possible.

However, my experience tells me that good teachers are not just conveyors of learning, but they are catalysts. My lifelong love of poetry came from a fascinating teacher who could recite memorable lines by heart, and had a great sense of context: So, I shall still remember the lines of the poems depicting a coming storm and feel the cool air of the storm that happened on the very moment we listened to that poem first time in our classroom. When I explain price elasticity to this day, I can still remember the diagrams drawn on the board and stories told to us, as it was driven a great teacher. And, so were other experiences, driven by teachers who were not just popular or charismatic, but who had a great way of communicating, empowering, contextualising, and bring lessons to life. And, they could do that because they could control all aspects of the learning experience, the content and the classroom: What they did was not just to prepare me for the assessments, but to equip me with skills, abilities and indeed love for poetry.

I am indeed one of those who argue that education must move forward by assimilating and making the best use of technology of the day. However, I believe the unbundling may have significant shortcomings even if it may work in practise. This may sound like a self-defeating statement, but it isn't: The unbundled college may deliver undifferentiated outcome in terms of assessments, but anyone remotely concerned with education will agree that assessments are only one measure of educational outcome, and a fairly limited measure. The transformation of a person, through good education, is the professed goal of any education: Proclaiming that such transformation should be reserved for a certain, privileged, kind of people is as wrongheaded as the explorations of timeless purposes of the university. And, this isn't an explicit argument about status quo: Indeed, the practises could change with time and technology, as it did in many other industries. But, where this logic is problematic is that the students are not exactly consumers and transformation isn't exactly a production process with definitive outcomes; and besides, unless we know for sure that there is an alternative method available (which we wouldn't know because we can't carry out the experiments without creating significant educational disadvantage), we must keep the teacher at the centre of educational experience.

So, while we must take advantage of the great advances in technology, a teacher-centric institution structure still remains the key, which will possibly save the college as an institutional form (and not reduce it to an examination board). Indeed, specialist businesses will continue to prosper, but we must be careful in claims we make: The specialist businesses are to enhance, and not replace, the educational experience. The question of open content is similar: While the teachers should be made aware of and encouraged to use open content, they should still be left in charge - as architects of educational experience. We know no better way, at least as yet.

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