Wednesday, April 29, 2015

New Education Business - Scale, Access and Relevance

There are two problems in modern education - access and relevance. 

Access is an economic issue, and it is mainly a developing country issue. The developed countries mostly have access issues sorted out, through various funding mechanisms, particularly educational loans. In developing countries, however, a number of issues come in the way of access, including physical (there are no schools to go to), social (people of certain caste, class or gender are not welcome) and indeed, financial (one can not pay for school or afford to be in the school). 

Relevance, on the other hand, is a more complex issue, and afflicts developed countries as well as the developing. At one level, educational relevance is about whether the person is getting educated at all, and we know that many people come out of school/ college not being able to do even the basic tasks meant for that level of education. And, at another, related, level, education does not deliver the expected outcome, job, career, self-actualisation, whatever it may be. Relevance is a big issue in developed countries, particularly as they toiled hard to solve the problem of access. Given that the educational access was created primarily by funding with public money, and more recently with loan funds underwritten by public money, educational relevance is becoming a really hard issue.

I wrote about scale as the key objective for new educational enterprises (see Exponential Education) and the investors who look to invest in the sector. To achieve scale, an educational enterprise should try to solve both the problems of access and relevance. In one way, if the enterprise is focused on developing countries, then access may come before relevance, and in developed countries, the other way around. However, at another level, considering that education is an investment good which eventually pays for itself many times over, the two issues go hand in hand. In other words, there is no point trying to solve the access problem without consideration of relevance, and a solution solely focused on relevance is inherently about improving access, and should say so.

Admittedly, this is old news. We have already seen a surge in private education investment and these two goals were often at the forefront. However, there is one key challenge to solve. The founding assumption of many new education companies is that one can not achieve scale without solving the issue of Access AND Relevance. On the other hand, one could also argue that the quest for Access and Relevance may really constrain the scale of the enterprise.

How pursuit of access can constrain scale is easy to see. Infrastructure is costly, social attitudes are hard to change. Creating a funding structure, even a sustainable one built around loans and repayments, requires really large scale funding and is not easy to create without solving the relevance problem first. On the relevance aspect, one is usually up against the might of regulatory agencies, which are all too keen to protect their domain and reject any new ideas either for sheer inertia or vested interests. One could perhaps enlist the support of key employers to mitigate the regulatory speedbrakers and build relevance through project-based learning, but project-based learning may have its own scaling issues and employer engagement at large global scale, with its infinite varieties and cultural preferences, may indeed need specific focus.

So, in context, the challenge of the new education enterprise is to scale while addressing the twin challenges of access and relevance. The key to this may be is to reject institutional thinking, which has been the structure of all educational enterprise so far, and embrace framework thinking. Too many new educational enterprises today see themselves in dichotomous terms with the existing educational infrastructure, and attempt to reinvent the whole wheel. However, the new education may come as an open framework, which can integrate the existing institutional framework into a new way of doing things. AirBnB does not build houses and employ the hosts, nor does Uber buy cars or try to change the traffic rules. Even more appropriately, the Internet would not have happened if the initial proposition included paying for all the Fibre optic and submarine cables. Similarly, the new educational enterprise needs to create an enabling network, enabling players and connecting possibilities that exist within the current system, rather than creating a system from scratch.

 


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