Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Exponential Education

Investing in education is the rage. Given that there is a really big problem globally - of educational access as well as educational relevance - investing to create solutions that can scale is naturally attractive. At the same time, however, education does not scale very well, given the regulation, cultural barriers and deeply held conservatism that come with it. The current models of education, the ideal of personalised instruction, models of exclusive privilege, the idea of deep thinking away from the humdrum of daily life, the connotation of cultural development as a slow process, are all anti-scale. In fact, many people will privately deride any goals of scaling education, the idea that education is only for a privileged few is so entrenched.

The investors in new educational models put their faith on technology. Technology can help scale the classroom and beat the cost disease of education, as conceptualised by economists William Baumol and William Bowen. The point is to replace the teacher - who in the Cost Disease model have a limited productivity (because of the class size) - and augment her services through the use of technology, just as the string quartet would have been augmented by various forms of audio and video technologies. This is the underlying assumption behind various MOOCs, one form of exponential model for education, which puts the best professors from the top universities in front of the camera and allow people, regardless of their academic background, location or ability to pay to join in.

The other model for exponential education is based on an even more radical doctrine of Self-organising Learning Environments (SOLE), championed by Dr Sugata Mitra, whose early work on this area I had experienced first hand during my work in NIIT. The idea here is that with right enablers, which, in Dr Mitra's terms, are inspiration and encouragement, students can learn themselves, playing with machines which are designed for self-learning. This has also been tried and tested in various parts of the world, and gaining traction. In one way, this is radically different from the MOOCs, because the teacher here is not the Subject Matter Expert, but, as Dr Mitra is building, a Granny Cloud, a group of British grandmothers who just prod and encourage.

Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler, in their new book, Bold, talk about a 6-D framework for exponential transformation of an industry. The D-list starts with Digitization, which has started in Education, with Google et al, creating vast stores of digital content. The next D is Deception, which is about that sinking feeling everyone had about electronic learning, all those shortcomings and poor performances that seem to say that this was going nowhere. Next is Disruption, the time to come of age, and this is where Education perhaps currently is. Whether or not MOOCs replace the college, it is already impacting the Lifelong Learning sector, perhaps the fastest growing segment of Higher Education, significantly. MOOCs, SOLEs and other initiatives are reaching out to the previously excluded, bringing non-users to access education, which is one key step in disruption. The last three Ds, Dematerialisation, Demonetisation and Democratisation, still lie in the future, though we have seen some significant movements towards the same. It is the last three Ds that could indeed unlock the exponential potential of education.

This next level transformation will of course need thinking beyond just the role of the teacher. The biggest challenge of scaling education is often the regulatory frameworks. In fact, education might not have been transformed as fast as some of the other industries just because it is regulated. Being educated is usually not about learning something but gaining credentials, and this credentialing function reflect the vested interests in the society. Therefore, even if the technologies exist, the educational consumption is not venturesome. If one is taking chances, they would not be talking about doing a degree. Rather, being educated is a very conformist activity, at least so far.

Getting outside this framework of conformity is what will get the new educational enterprises on the path of Exponential growth. Dematerialisation of education is not about getting away from the teacher-led classrooms and getting content on the cloud, but to go beyond the credentials as it exists today and avoid being degree sellers. This is also an essential step for demonetisation, because come to think of it, the huge costs of education has nothing to do with learning - because one can learn for free or at a little cost - but the regulatory structure whose sole purpose is to deny the validity of such open learning. And, surely, this is why education is not democratised, because non-recognition of open education is one essential part why regulatory structures remain in place.

There are some discussions about how to create a new, inclusive credentialing mechanism. Much of this discussion assume a central role for the employers, and seek to create a framework by which real experience could replace academic credentials. However, as I now know from experience, the employers are as much an entrenched part of the credentialing business as any other. The big employers, particularly in developing countries, are happy to replicate the social pyramid of privilege and exclusion, as they sit atop the food chain for talent. The disruption of academic credentialism is much more likely to come from start-ups and ecosystems that surround them, because they gain the most from disrupting the settled order. Indeed, the movements such as Uncollege married with start-up ecosystems stand the best chance in the dematerialisation stage of education, rather than the University of Phoenix model or even the MOOCs, which has only a limited ambition to undermine the academic credentials.




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