Sunday, March 30, 2014

Why I Studied Adult Learning?

Over the last three years, I have had several conversations explaining why I chose to study Education, and particularly Adult Learning. It struck some people as odd that when I thought of gaining professional credential, I chose to do a Masters in Education, rather than an MBA or study online learning technologies; and, that I chose to focus on Adult Learning as a discipline, and not study Compulsory Education, which is indeed the more popular thing to do for an Education graduate. 

It was a common sense decision for me, as I wanted to pivot my career into Adult Learning: All the things I did in the last few years, taught Postgraduate courses, wrote curriculum, designed online environments, explored international partnerships, wrote and conducted assessments, explore education policy, and built an education start-up, all those activities centred around this one clear decision to build a career in adult learning. So, the decision to study the discipline formally was a no-brainer. Just that people who want to be in education normally don't study education - they do an MBA instead: I didn't think that was a good way to go about it.

I also wanted to leverage my experience in Adult Learning - accumulated through my years of IT Training, eLearning work, recruitment exposure - into something consistent and meaningful. Unlike many of my colleagues in NIIT, I didn't think my primary capability of building and managing channel, though this was certainly a key part of the job. I saw my work as delivering meaningful education experience, sometimes through a channel but also through other means, such as online, at other times. I had my sense of purpose at work from experiencing meaningful educational outcomes for our students. I wanted to continue along this route.

So, my principal purpose was to understand the business of education with the intent to create an education business. I am happy I did what I did, because this gives me a perspective why For-Profits usually mean poor education. I started at a completely different point, having spent a significant number of years in For-Profits, and had a view that For-Profits represent variety and innovation in the otherwise stale world of adult education. But through my academic studies of adult learning, I somehow came to understand the nature of For-Profits: Their business is not innovation, because education is a regulated market in most countries and there is very little effective competition in the face of expanding global demand (when capacity is regulated), but rather manipulation of the regulations. In most cases (may be not all), For-Profits is a cowboy business offering little value: Some of my For-Profit experiences are certainly consistent with this view.

Besides, I have come to appreciate the nuances and sensibilities that are involved in Education. This would not have happened if I participated in the process just as a student (as I did) or as a teacher (which I did too): The study afforded me a place for reflection, which was certainly needed. It became clearer to me that education is a many-dimensional process, and I came to the view that technology apocalyptic view held by some was certainly limited. It is funny because I have spent many years arguing technology-based learning, often trying to reason how these could effectively do the job of a human instructor. After a few years spent in the university studying and thinking about the subject deeply, I am a convert: I believe while one must use technology in learning, as this enhances the experience and being able to learn through technology is an essential ability needed by the modern student, this should not seen as a replacement of a sound human pedagogy. Consequently, much to the annoyance of the investing class that I speak to (who live in the eternal quest of 'scale'), all my models feature human facilitators, real environments and communities of people, rather than just better algorithms. Indeed, this is why I studied education.

This also gives me a different view of knowledge and a different prism to look through into the coming 'machine age'. I see the Catch-22 For-Profit education is into: They must train people for immediately available jobs knowing fully well those jobs are going to disappear. But I also see this as a problem of their own making - they wanted to commoditise knowledge in the quest of scale and it is commoditised knowledge, or the illusions of it, is quickly making 'college' redundant. It is their peculiar concept of education for a limited and manipulative purpose that destroyed the communities, they (and other marketised universities) hired more administrators than they had student facing people, and in turn, this reduced the educational experience to a meaningless credential factory. The fact that I had to engage in Sociology and Moral Philosophy because of my peculiar choice of discipline gives me these perspectives that I otherwise wouldn't have had.

So, what I am still doing trying to create a For-Profit education company? I haven't given up because despite many limitations, I still see business as a positive force in the society. It allows me to do things, it allows me to stay outside the games the universities play for privileges and perks. I have come to believe that one can build businesses that really changes things - I keep looking up to Google and other great businesses that really did - and I wish to apply the knowledge I have gained within a business to create something disruptive. This is still a bit of a journey - I am only bootstrapping through my first start-up, but this is like Abraham Lincoln, "I shall study and get ready, and perhaps my time will come".


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