Thursday, October 23, 2014

Education Innovation: Where Is The 'Venturesome' Learner?

One key insight about the process of innovation, provided by Amar Bhide of Tufts University, is that we tend to focus too much on the supply side of innovation, and less on the demand side of it. When we talk about the rise of Silicon Valley, or any such innovation success story, the stories focus usually on the great innovators and entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, incubators and other aspects of the innovation ecosystem: We tend to play down, however, the consumers who tried out those innovations, those early people who ordered on Amazon, tried out Webvan, embraced eBay and Google. The central point of Professor Bhide's argument is that we should go beyond the usual narrow view of the innovation ecosystem. And, this is not about consumer co-creation, or open innovation, which, despite their appeal in management literature, remain quite rare; the point is whether the wider economy is ready to embrace innovation. 

As we prepare for the London event on Education Innovation (see the event details here), this is one question that we may need to pay heed to: While we build an ecosystem for innovation in Education, do we have 'venturesome' learners to sustain such innovation? And, particularly, do we have 'venturesome' learners in the areas where education innovation is most needed, such as India? And, if we don't have them, what policies should be adopted to encourage 'venturesome' educating?

If 'venturesome educating' sounded odd, it is: In education, which is standardised, regulated, fragmented along national boundaries, standardisation, rather than innovation, is the thing to do. In fact, in many ways, innovation is seen as a bad thing - something akin to 'creative accounting' which sounds bad - some kind of global conspiracy to undermine the purity of learning! However, this assumed 'pure' learning is nothing but, in most nations, a failed formula for producing clerks - failed because the clerks are not needed, and failed because it must reject most people to make a few who complete look valuable. These structures of education, standardised and frozen in time, thrive on exclusivity - education is only valuable because most people can't achieve it. 

But there is something else happening in the world. There is a media revolution under way, and this has led to, among other things, a global convergence of aspirations. Now this makes the failure of education even more glaring, because, without the hope afforded by an inclusive and accessible education, and one that really delivers, building democratic societies around middle class prosperity, will fail. Since there is nothing within the current formats of educating, which really still depends on industrial age structures, finding new ways of educating is an urgent necessity. 

It is noticeable that the supply side of such new thinking is coming together. The old institutions are trying out new things, new institutions are being created, there are investors and technologists building newer ways of doing things. However, all these are done with a spirit of 'disruption', that of defying and breaking the old structures - with the expectation that solutions facilitated by global capital will ultimately overwhelm the national systems that are so clearly failing. However, the national systems control the demand side of education, and without this, innovation in education is likely to be limited.

The Indian context is of special interest here. India is the fastest growing markets in the world, and lack of good education is indeed imposing a real strain on a fast modernising economy and accentuating the divide in a deeply stratified society. Yet India remains an unrelenting conservative society as far as education is concerned (some regions of it more than others), essentially carrying on the colonial formula of education and social privilege through a paternalistic regulatory system and traditional formats of middle class life. In this setting, despite rapid expansion of private provision of education, innovation has not happened. Rather, intrusive regulation and dependence on 'black money' in funding education has led to pervasive criminalisation of education, endangering the whole edifice, and over longer term, the 'Indian Dream'.

One way to create the demand for innovative education is to create the sources of funding that sustains the demand for such solutions alongside the innovation. Dependence on national systems of funding, or even private students paying, would invariably impose limits on new ways of doing things. Such innovation may indeed bring its own demands for efficiency along with it - if someone is creating funding for education, they would be keen to reign in costs and ensure effectiveness: Hence, thinking about how to fund the demand side of education innovation may be the start point of any conversation about innovation in education. And, India, above all, provides, as with many other things in education, one great opportunity and its greatest challenge.

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