Monday, October 13, 2014

Conversations 19: Creating An Innovators' School

One of the projects I started, and then abandoned, is the creation of an e-School, an enterprise school. This was a concept defined in opposition to the B-School, a place where one is trained to solve problems and learn how to communicate: The e-School, as conceptualised, was about finding problems, connecting with people, discovering opportunities, creating and leading. This is not about being entrepreneurs, though: Enterprise is for everyone, though entrepreneurship may need particular financial, social and opportunity setting. Besides, entrepreneurship, as it is defined today, is quite a narrow concept related only to a way of making money. In my conception, the e-School was about seizing the initiative in one's own life, and defining the agenda, rather than leading one dependent on other people's agenda.

I started and abandoned this project at some point in 2011. This was the direction I wanted to drive the college I was then involved in to go. However, the strategy was perhaps too ambitious for one where the ground realities were somewhat different. The contraction of business due to immigration policy changes did not help, and the long engagement with private equity that I had to spend time on distracted me enough from the academic agenda. I carried on with the same conversation, after the merger of the college with another entity, this time in the form of a small start-up, wishing to build, using learning technology, a network inside other colleges in different countries. The idea was to de-link the idea of enterprise school from the question of immigration that must invariably arise in a country like Britain.

However, trying to establish a somewhat new academic model through partnership is the difficult way of doing it. The idea, when cascaded through different levels, eventually become a different beast, and soon I was hawking foreign courses and online learning, none of which I wanted to do. The thing I learnt through the experience is that the whole concept needed to be physically done, not as an online university which is usually equated with credentialling more than anything else, but in the form of a real community which demonstrates the concept and produces observable graduate attributes. The learning technologies can augment this idea, help reduce costs and extend the reach, but what it can't do is immediately change the minds - because it has other conceptual hurdles to clear first! 

The second thing I learnt is such a school perhaps need to be closer to where the students are. Asia, with its millions of students and dynamic economies, seem like a better place to put a creative bet than matured economies like England. Besides, a country with a large scale public sector, as in Western Europe, will always pose some challenges to creation of a new institution, particularly when the number of students going to college is set to decline. With its politics becoming increasingly driven by fears of outsiders, the immigration policies in the UK are unlikely to change in the coming years. Given these factors, my inability to move base in the short run meant that I put the idea of the e-School on ice, at least temporarily.

However, over the last few months, as I re-calibrated my activities and priorities, the agenda is now back on the table. This is a medium term thing rather than immediate - indeed I am preoccupied with a number of projects at least till next Spring - but I feel ready to start thinking about it again. The idea is to set up a college around the creative disciplines and entrepreneurial businesses, perhaps bringing the two closely together. This is, however, not just about celebrating the millionaire entrepreneurs, which most such programmes become. Rather, this is about creating 'normal' programmes of learning, the usual college courses on certain subjects, where the principle of enterprise, diversity and globality, are weaved into it. I envisage a philosophical, rather than rhetorical, approach to enterprise here, a deep desire to change the world informed by critical appreciation, rather than rhetorical flourish, learning merely to talk the talk. And, indeed, the whole project for me is to be built around a community, a community unified by values and aspirations, and, as it must be, by hope.

This is indeed long term and I have just started weaving together the coalition of interests that could bring it together. For me, personally, it was about regaining my sense of purpose after facing the despair of dead ends. The worst thing for an educator is to lose hope, and the surest way to lose it is to spend time in classrooms where education does not really matter: I am happy that I eventually managed to escape it. It is this, rather than the limitations of a start-up, that caused a drift in my life: Working with people who really believes in what they do is helping me build my hopes and return to my dreams yet again. There are many lessons to learn, but the most important one is about the corrosive effect bureaucracies have on values and purpose of education. Here, again, my ambivalence about enterprise and entrepreneurship will show: While I am unsure about the ability of For-profits to deliver good education, I believe the government bureaucrats do worse. In many ways, my search is for a third form, where purpose and profits can somewhat coexist, though such a search is somewhat doomed when one starts looking for scale.

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