Friday, February 27, 2015

Universities, Disrupted!

When I talk about universities being obsolete in a decade, I usually get the bewildered looks measuring out whether I am crazy. How could an institutional form, which is perhaps the most expansive and at the peak of their prestige right at this moment, be in any danger of obsolescence? This conversation also angers some people, who see in all this a neo-liberal conspiracy and me as a messenger of the For-Profit side, though my case applies as much to For-Profit universities as much to the Not-For-Profit and Public ones.

There is huge amount of data coming out measuring whether universities are good investment, particularly as the students have to pay the full cost of education in an increasing number of countries. The case for universities, for the champions of that side of the argument, are hinged either on a teleological argument, that universities have a specific purpose and they are indispensable in a democratic society, or on the existence of a graduate premium. But both these arguments are somewhat open to questioning.

The first argument that universities sustain a democratic society fails to take into account the recent troubles of democracy even as the university enrollments are at its peak. Indeed, the proponents of this view would claim that universities are not doing what they are meant to do, and thereby twisting the argument so that it becomes unfalsifiable, and therefore, unscientific. And, indeed, one could see that the traditional university model, which is about creating an enlightened ruling class, is indeed part of the problem. It seems what the universities are doing is out of sync with what the society needs, something that even the defenders of teleological argument seem to concede, and we may need a different model of developing a democratic ethos than teaching a bunch of privileged people how to dine and dance.

The second argument hinged on graduate premium hides the fact that non-graduate wages are collapsing. It also hides the fact that graduate premium is largely driven by the exponential growth of earning of a few graduates in chosen professions, and the life is not rosy for the poor graduate with a History major from an average college. Rather, the graduate unemployment, which is running at an all-time high, should be the measurement that should be applied to check the university's worth. And, while one may blame the recklessness of bankers which brought about the financial catastrophe which is to blamed for graduate unemployment, those bankers were some of the cleverest students our best universities produced.

The observation that the universities may soon be extinct, despite their power and prestige, is actually derived from Darwin's famous argument of survival of those who adapt. The universities dont. It does not matter how big or powerful they are, but an university in its bureaucratic form is utterly incapable of questioning its own worth. I made the point in an earlier post about Apple, which dared to destroy its own successful iPod business with a phone that can play music (see here) and thereby won. Business history is replete with examples of companies - those mindless greedy ones which get all the blame - competing with themselves, cannibalising their own products and disrupting themselves, so that they remain nimble. Bob Noyce did that famously at Fairchild Semiconductor, bringing about ultra-cheap semiconductors, destroying his own juicy business but creating huge profits and a whole industry (and foreseeing Moore's Law in a way). I was hearing the story about a new company, Pluralsight, which went online despite the fact they were running a successful face-to-face training business, disrupting their own profitable $3000 a course business with $29 a course online offering - but winning a $1 billion valuation and more than 4000 loyal corporate clients on the way. Such things are unthinkable for the universities, which still make 5-year strategic plans, which take particular care in not indulging in anything that can cannibalise their market. Often, in many countries, intrusive regulation and government funding make them forget their purpose, other than ranking pressures and accreditation. Within the paradigm of natural selection, they seem to have been marked out for extinction.

Indeed, to take the analogy further, there are those which are developing favourable characteristics and adapting better. But universities as we know it are on borrowed time, and it is time to start thinking.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

How To Think About Education Technology

Ed-tech has come of age. Gone are those days of HTML scripted pages with two big Next and Back buttons, the databases merely reporting how many seconds someone looked at a page and document repositories to be downloaded and printed at convenience. But how this came about may be slightly more contested. One may think it was video, made possible by robust bandwidth and multimedia in everyday computers, that changed everything. Yet others will think, like everything else, it was mobility, the ability to hold in hand a powerful enough device with a screen that does not tire off the eyes, that facilitated a different level of engagement with all things electronic. Social is also a big thing, and its advocates will claim that connecting with others electronically is changing everything. And, yet others will point to the emergence of the cloud, or affirmation of what they used to say in older times, 'the Network is the Computer', that changed computer from a box on a desk to a space to meet and collaborate. And, in the end, perhaps it is all those and more, a perfect storm of technologies, attitudes and ideas that made Ed-tech come of age.

However, I would claim that this is about a change of approach - and attendant expectations - that has really changed Ed-Tech, rather than any underlying change of technology. Technologies have indeed emerged and this has allowed these approaches to become viable, but technologies itself are not the change.

First, the conversation about Education Technology has moved beyond Cost. The argument that Ed-Tech saves money (by replacing teachers, classrooms etc) has become stale. Rather the buzzword today is scalability, pinned on the idea that Ed-Tech may allow us to do things that was not otherwise possible. And, within this broad theme, the key is of course turning non-consumers to consumers, reaching out to those who could not have, or afford, education before. Informed by thinking on Disruptive Innovation, this has become one of the most potent strand in the conversation about Ed-Tech.

Second, the conversation has moved from Tech to Ed part of the equation. It is less about what technologies can do, and more about the education model itself. So, creating classroom-like environments are no longer the holy grail of Ed-Tech. It is rather about creating new models of Education, centred perhaps, if it could be represented by a single concept, around the phenomenon of Emergent Learning, as popularised by TED Fellow (and ex-NIITian) Dr Sugata Mitra. Dr Mitra long advocated the idea that learners can learn themselves as long as they are empowered to do so. Technologies of learning are ideally suited to create these new learning environments, and indeed, drawing upon the earlier point, even for those who did not have access to formal or good quality education. 

Third, the conversation in Ed-Tech has moved beyond being a Content-Delivery mechanism to being an environment for learning engagement. Indeed, there are still those Learning Management System providers who brag about providing reports on content consumption, but they are rather hopelessly out of time. The focus has now shifted to granular levels of activity, not just who downloaded what, but who is engaging with what and what they are producing and how they are doing it. In a way, the personalisation of learning, long a buzzword, has eventually become the cornerstone of Ed-Tech. And, it is not just pretension of personalization, but a genuine effort to understand, with all the new technologies of Big Data, defines the frontier of Ed-Tech today.

Indeed, one turns up at myriad education conferences today to see stillborn initiatives centred around talking heads, content manipulation and better management of education systems, but these efforts are destined to fail [even if they are funded, because most investors still do not get Ed-Tech]. The ones that are destined to make the future answers at least one of the three questions, if not all three, as below

1. Can this turn non-users into users?

2. Can this enable the learners to discover ideas or build capabilities which was not possible using traditional modes?

3. Can this provide engagement through better understanding of the learning process of individual learners?

Ed-Tech (or e-Learning as it was called then) came into vogue approximately the time when people started talking about e-Commerce (late 90s), but while the latter has since found a footing and now finally revolutionising the world, Ed-Tech has languished because of both poverty of ideas and lack of aspiration. That finally seems to be changing, and this may be because we are more willing, at the societal level, to talk about education in general. This is good news for Ed-Tech, but not for those weak-hearted who see Ed-Tech as a way of delivering videos with tracking or running a forum.



Knowing and Doing: Are They Different?

Our minds love classifications, neat boxes that we can put stuff in. But, often, these boxes are just created by us rather than being a fact of nature, though we seem to assume that nature is indeed organised in neat boxes as we want them. The dualism that we apply to knowing and doing is one of those false classifications, which we created perhaps to preserve the dignity of what we call wisdom from the messy realities of the world, but as we keep pushing the boundaries of what we can do, this dualism has been outed as false, and even dangerous.

Indeed, I am just quoting Dewey more or less in saying that Knowing and Doing are actually one and the same thing. There is no knowing without doing and doing for a sentient being involves some knowing all the time. This is the principal difference that human beings have from other animals, for whom doing and knowing may not be connected - and indeed, therefore, an animal may not know anything at all.

So, this argument that one must learn the theory before applying it, misrepresents both the nature of theory and of application. A theory is not just a set of assumptions, but tested and validated ones; so there could be no theory without some element of application presumed into it. And, all of us do things with a set of expectations how this would turn out - our theories, perhaps as yet untested - and therefore, no application really happens without a theory built into it. 

If the proposition of knowing and doing being two different things is really so mistaken, why do so many people believe in it, and indeed, defend it so vigorously? The reason perhaps is that the knowing-doing dualism underpins the system of social power that we have set up. The Hindus had this up-in-your-face casteism, where some people were supposed to think and others were to do the things, but more or less every society developed this concept of social power based on the pristine idea of theoretical knowledge. In that sense, to paraphrase Marx, history of all societies is of the nature of knowledge and who owns it.

At this very moment, when the economic inequity has perhaps reached an hitherto unsurpassed peak, it makes sense to revisit the Knowing-Doing dualism and see whether that indeed is the source of the problem. The case is not just for an activist education, but also a call for knowledge economies to be more directly connected, and therefore, be more relevant to real life. And, indeed, the Internet plays a part, but fundamentally altering the principles of access to and currency of knowledge, which presents an unique opportunity to create new models of knowing-doing.

The education system I am working to promote is one where knowing and doing are not two different activities, but one and the same. This is about having an approach to learning, so that one absorbs and learns from everything happening around him/her, and does so not by withdrawing from real life but being in it. The knowledge in this process are not in content but in the process of living. And, indeed, quite frequently, I get told that what we learn from experience is not the kind of deep knowledge that we can get through engagement with books and literature and under guidance from a learned person.

But, as I claim, such dichotomy is false and perpetuated to maintain the models of social power, which allows some kind of knowledge to be arbitrarily defined as a higher form of knowledge than others. Indeed, one can engage with culture, as the above suggestion really point to, without having to do it in a form disconnected from life. It is rather engaging with life, rather than withdrawing from it, one can discover a culture - a living-breathing one, rather than something ossified. Learning from experience is not a quick fix - this argument is not to propagate an easy route to learning - and neither it is just restricted to unthinking enterprise. Rather, it is an invitation to think in action, to engage with mind, to create and to challenge the caste system of thinking and work that keep better ideas from emerging.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

On My Way

Whoever said it: The maxim of corporate dysfunction is when someone discusses their airmiles on the dinner table. While I scrupulously avoid it, making some of my friends what I really do when I frequently disappear for business trips, I can't avoid another frequent flyer syndrome: Having my moments of existential crisis at Airline lounges!

So, here I am, in the quiet poshness of the Gatwick Lounge, and devoid of any conversations; the assorted Golf and Lifestyle magazines rather useless, staying off food in consideration of my soaring weight, with a touch of Internet fatigue (this post is being done retrospectively, or should I say, posthumously, after the thoughts have died). It was one of those moments when I don't want to start reading the books I am carrying in my bag, because I have to read them anyway for the next 7 hours, as I have seen all the movies that are there on Inflight entertainment (one less spoken about downside of Carrier loyalty) - and therefore, plunged into that déjà vue moment of what-am-I-doing thought.

Apparently, I can't make up my mind. The gorgeous winter morning outside is a reminder how much I have come to love England, all its landscape, ways of living, the libraries, the opportunities to meet people from all over the world, the freedom with which I can speak my mind and the conversations I can join into. On the other, this stale moment of sitting in an airport reminds me that I don't really belong, and my affections and perhaps my future lies elsewhere. Those early adolescent passions of making a better world is still alive, and talking of the idea of India can still bring tears to my eyes. Besides, leaving out the big issue of who I am, even what I do isn't settled yet. When most people of my age are comfortably settled into a life to fade into comfortable retirement, I am still in this search, a sort of intentional and indulgent mid-life crisis, and throwing up these questions rather than settling into at least one of those therapeutic habits of making money of doing good. 

All the things I care about May point to a sort of drift, at least that is what it would be called by all my friends who are practically minded. I tell myself that I am on an one-year recovery phase from the burn-out of my entrepreneurial stint, which didn't go so well, but then recovery to what? The indulgent blog writing that I do - and I do this when I am inspired rather than when I am bored - is less of a serious commercial endeavour, which it could have. Been if I was practical. It is rather a conversation I wish to have with friends who I wish to connect with, those fellow travellers out of reach and only fleetingly persistent on a web-trawl, and often meant to be a journey without a destination. In all, there is no picture of life that I am beginning to paint, except for just enjoying the palette spread out, the experiences and the ideas they stimulate.

But this does not fit into the stage of life I am in. In this age-conscious time, when you are out of date if you were born in the 80s, I am a dying-sixties relic with no claims on 'fun'. It is not for me to do new things or ask why, but rather to fit into the roles assigned as a family man, mortgage and all that, the 'do or die' of our age. I have, in the past, refused to fit into a structure - I left jobs to start businesses, migrated across continents, went back to school, had four different careers and started all new endeavours from scratch - all in an attempt perhaps to avoid being defined by who I was born, without necessarily discarding my roots. But then, I know that you can perhaps never escape - I am still defined as an India expert, still expected to do my roles as a middle class family man, a corporate citizen, a man - and every act of transgression is just that, transgression, frowned at, disapproved, and even worse, ignored. 

And, this ignored bit is the point of this blog, this post. Indeed, no one should care about my existential crisis at this moment, which will even be unfinished as the flight is called, but yet, I would write about it - how pointless could one be - as to defy the sensible things that I am supposed to do, like replying to emails. Not doing what one is supposed to do may not always be foolish, and not thinking what one is supposed to think is definitely the most potent form of resistance known to us. As one comes full circle, it is a choice between a life of consequence and a life lived in free will, but the point is to defy such duality and keep trying to make these lived moments meaningful, at least to myself.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Amartya Sen Resigns

Professor Amartya Sen has withdrawn his candidature for the Second Term as Chancellor of Nalanda University, the prestigious International University the Indian government has set up. The reason is apparent reluctance of powers that be in Delhi to clear his appointment, even after being elected by the University board, and use the protocol requirement of President's approval of the Board Decision to signal their disapproval to Professor Sen's appointment. 

Professor Sen's resignation has been met with the usual flood of ridicule on social media by the current Prime Minister's ardent supporters. Professor Sen was always an outspoken critic of the current Prime Minister on ground of his Human Rights records, and once he came to power, a retribution was expected. Indeed, Professor Sen's resignation taints the whole Nalanda University project - who wants to go to an university lorded over by Fascist lackeys - and undermines India's soft power further.  

However, this may not matter to India's Human Resources Minister, who owes her job to loyalty rather than ability and usually the blunt instrument to smother academic freedom in India (see my earlier post on Academic Freedom in India). Just as China opens up its Higher Education and shows serious aspirations to be one of the best in the World, the Indian government continues to treat Higher Education just as the Colonial Administrators did - a machine for making Babus - to the peril of the country. 

India is the only country trying to build a modern economy with a poorly educated labour force, says Professor Sen. Indeed, the current ideology of wining-and-dining foreign investors and handing out tax and other inducements to foreign investors to invest in India, rather than making a compelling case for them to come in for the educated labour force, is very much prevalent in this administration, which, as signaled by its choice of HRD Minister, does not value education beyond its uses for ideological propaganda. 

And, this is my broad point about Professor Sens resignation, that it is not just violation of academic freedom, which each isolated case indeed appears to be, but rather a joined-up ideological campaign to turn the Indian academia into an instrument of mind-mending. I am not suggesting grand designs, but the usual banality of evil, the step-by-step violation that may eventually end up in a grand design. While Indians enjoy the country being commended for its democracy, Indians have started taking the democracy for granted. There are instances in history, where ruthless authoritarians, preaching economic well-being, had taken over democracies from within and led it to ruin. At those precise points in history, the population of those unfortunate countries took its political system for granted - and were ready to trade a little liberty for a little prosperity. This event reminds me again that India faces a real danger - of a gradual authoritarian take-over - and we may have started seeing early symptoms of it.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Mis-utopia of The Sharing Economy

As far as euphemisms go, one can't do much worse than calling something a Sharing Economy which is neither about sharing nor an economy in the usual sense of the term.

Consider the beginnings, all that excitement about technologies of connection and collaboration being available cheaply and at a global scale, which was thought to have the potential of unlocking the gift economy, those little things that we do for one another without necessarily expecting anything in return, and give it a scale and scope not otherwise possible. However, the Sharing Economy, as the idea was usurped, became exactly the opposite, a mad rush for monetising every little thing - a death sentence for 'sharing', that is. 

And, this is hardly an economy. An economy is a system, not just one for commission-for-everything deal making. It involves people, winners and losers, yes, but not one where only bookies stand to win at everyone else's cost. And, indeed, it involves relationships, even when it's all business. The man who drives me to airport most times I go overseas, Phil, tells me that he would never go over to Uber because his customers then wouldn't be able to ask specifically, as I do every time I call the cab service, for him. It is only an illusion to take an algorithm for an economy, and only arrogantly delusional can get away with that when talking to others.

Fast Company writes about the troubles of the sharing economy (see here), but this is to be expected. One is unlikely change the world by earning a commission of it. For such an endeavour, one needs to create winners - earning a share of the winnings is a far sweeter thing! The masks of rhetoric of Uber, Lyft and Handy are falling off far too quickly, and the army of the exploited they are creating on their wake, while undermining the systems of propriety and conduct along the way (not to mention the destruction of the gift economy), are becoming far too obvious. It is time to call its name - how about organised pimping - and save our cherished habit of sharing for some better endeavour.

Should India Allow Foreign Education?

The new Indian government, which has come to power promising development, wants to be friendly to foreign investment. After all, this is what Mr Modi, the new Prime Minister, had done previously in his home state, Gujrat, and this is what he has projected to the young, aspiring nation. Already in power for most of an year, expectations around him and his government are now focused on a budget due later this month. It is reasonable to think that it would do a few things to simplify doing business in India - which is one of the most difficult countries to start and run a business in - and offer some sweeteners to businesses wanting to set up shop in India. The question is, however, whether such openness would hold for education.

One can keep talking endlessly about the Foreign Education Providers Bill, which was there on the legislative agenda for more than 15 years now but never got passed. It is indeed unlikely, despite strong speculation on the contrary, that the Indian government will pick this fight when they have so much to do otherwise. However, it is worth asking - why does the foreign education providers bill is never a priority?

First and foremost is that the Indian government wants to create a water-tight bill so that no one can profit from education. This sounds right. However, this moralistic position sits somewhat uncomfortably with both the reason, why India needs to have a Foreign Education Providers Bill at all, and the on-the-ground realities of Indian education.

The reason India is even debating a Foreign Education Providers Bill because it is thought that India needs to expand its educational capacity quickly. All sorts of numbers have been discussed, and the Indian employers make it known that they are facing a serious talent shortage. And, the stated reason for introduction of the bill is to bring foreign investment - not knowledge or expertise, but investment - into Indian (Higher) Education. So, the Indian government has set itself a task of creating a legislation that encourages investment but discourages profit, a tough task indeed!

This peculiar position also has to be seen alongside the ground realities in India. While the government clings to the not-for-profit mantra, it has somewhat accepted a doctrine that the Government should concern itself only with the education of an elite population (most of whom, by the way, are sure to migrate) and therefore, invest only in the elite brand of institutions. The education for a vast number of others, a phenomena that one calls Mass Higher Education rather lovingly, must happen with private investment. Accordingly, a great number of institutions have been set up with private investment. With government insistence that they should all be not-for-profits, the over-the-table fees have remained quite modest, but consequently, India has achieved to build a great system of education underworld, where admissions are done for large sums of money, often in cash. 

One of the promises of the new government is Good Governance and indeed, returning to common sense is a good way to start. For-Profit Education has its inherent problems, but as the governments around the world are learning, if a country accepts the goal of Mass Higher Education and wants to achieve it through private investment in education, it is better off looking for appropriate ways of regulating it rather than denying the existence of the phenomenon altogether. It seems that the new government is quite willing to accept profit-making in education, which happens anyway, as long as the regulatory framework is respected. And, it also seems that it is willing to apply this principle to local players, but would exclude the foreign players from such consideration.

This brings the discussion to the second point - India's inherent discomfort with foreign education! In fact, even if the Foreign Education Providers Bill is passed, in its current form or a business-friendly form, the message is consistently that while India wants the foreign money, it does not want, or need, foreign ideas. Once this is understood, it becomes clear why Foreign Education Providers Bill may forever be languishing in legislative back-chamber. India does not really need foreign money - because capital is global and who would not give someone money to set up shop in one of the fastest growing markets in the world, which is underserved and protected from foreign competition - and therefore, a bill to encourage foreign investment is utterly redundant.

It is rather that India needs foreign ideas and expertise in education, and this no one, including the most ardent advocates of the bill, would dare to accept. Part of the reason is the colonial legacy, that an English Education system was imposed on India purely with the objective of creating an elite class which will collaborate with the rulers and repress others. It is a rather strange legacy. On one hand, Independent India accepted the colonial principle - that there should be an elite to govern the country for whom a different education system should be built - but rejected foreign education itself, which, despite the colonialists design, had helped in other things, including building a modern national ethos. And, such an approach has done two things to India - created an irresponsible and disconnected elite, and created a closed system of education, where mediocrity reigns supreme. 

So, in summary, I believe the debate about Foreign Education in India is misdirected, and conversations about Foreign Education Providers Bill only muddies the water further. A conversation about education, rather than investment, is needed in the context. India is an Open Society with a closed mind - Kishore Mahbubani says - and contrasts with China, which is a closed society with an open mind. It is opening of the Indian mind that is at stake here, and Foreign Education needs to be thought about from that perspective. So far, Indian government has treated it as another business sector, one where no profit should be made.


Sunday, February 15, 2015

Conversations 27 - In Search of A Creative Life

Why do you do what you do - someone asked by email. 

Is this a life of drift that I live, doing what I like at any given moment, or is there a design, a career plan as one may call it, was perhaps the intent behind the question. My answer - that I search for serendipity - perhaps answers the question and it does not, at the same time. 

It does, because that is precisely the plan. It does not, because that looks too much like a convenient excuse for drifting. How could one plan for serendipity? My answer, by expanding possibilities, by setting off in a journey, by doing various things, by engaging in myriad endeavours, by meeting many people and by pursuing many ideas, is logically correct - this is the only way to find possibilities that one otherwise may not - but falls outside what we mean by planning. It is being deliberately unintentional - something along the lines of Churchill rehearsing his impromptu remarks - an oxymoron.

But, at the same time, it may explain a few things. Why did I leave a job, which was going well, and migrated without one? Why did I not pursue a career path in Marketing even after taking the trouble to qualify professionally and reaching at least the starting line? Why did I not pursue career paths within the companies I worked for, or the industries I got into, but would be in, as I am now, my fifth career (after data communication, IT Training, e-Learning and recruitment)? Why my aspiration remains living in a country or a society outside the English speaking part of the world, to be able to see the world through a different language glass? Why my work is full of unexpected twists and turns, things that turn out to be beneficial to my employers but they did not ask me to do them in my job description? Why did I start two businesses, failed, but yet plan to start yet others in the future? Why did I pursue three different academic disciplines in my life (economics, sociology and education) and read other things most of the time (economic history, politics, psychology, philosophy, and occasionally, business literature)? And, indeed, why I failed to turn this blog, which I have been writing for ten years, something useful, instead of filling it out with impulsive writing on things that I was doing at the moment, rather than something planned and neatly organised?

Indeed, to talk about the blog - and this post - it possibly is best illustration of my quest for serendipity. When I set out to write this post, I did not know what I was going to write. When I made the list in the above paragraph, I did not know how many things I was going to write about. I let it come to me, rather than being deliberate. This is why possibly a blog suits me better than other, more serious, type of writing - this writing is not a finished product, but rather an endless conversation - and this is more consistent with the way I live. 

But I know that all this do not answer the question why I do this. All that I just said now is more or less what I do, a retrospective description fitting seemingly unrelated things in one box. All this may as well be seen as one big excuse for drifting - being too lazy to commit to a disciplined pursuit, or being unheroic by being flippant. My rejection of intentionality is indeed that, rejection of intentionality, and if I must indulge in search for why, I would say this is my lifelong quest to escape the middle class structures that I was born into. My comfortable middle class childhood was indeed steeped into all those regular ideas - of planning, of being responsible, of climbing the social ladder - but dominated by my desire for outside, of wanting to play. Seen that way, it may be quite normal for someone who grew up playing in the backyard of own house, and who had never been allowed into the big bad world till he was fully grown up. Life, from that point of view, was a romantic idea, as it always remained for me.

Drift again, but being deliberate, now that I come to think of it, is so devoid of possibilities. I have a great time sometime just because I try things new. I am enjoying writing this just because this is not putting in words what is inside me, but just finding out, seeing things which I did not see before. Like this post, I am in the quest for what is outside the structure, rather than the structure. And, a life lived steeped in middle class conventionality perhaps needs the window where such structures are completely redundant. Life, then, becomes pleasurable not for the possessions, and predictably (after what I said) I don't have much, but for all the inspirations, engagements, friendships, conversations and all those moments of freedom that come with them. It is living a dual life of sorts, but don't we all do the same, given that we are so desperately trying to fit one structure or the other, structures that keep shifting and changing, and the ones we know that would eventually desert us, living us used up and useless on its wake. But this duality that I embrace is my drive to live, to be free and outside all expectations - a search for a creative life, if I have to fall back on a cliched, but perhaps the most potent and understandable, expression.

Would I want to be completely free, if ever an opportunity presents itself? Is that the serendipity I am after? In the speculative mood with which all this is written, I must say that when the objective is the search, it must never end in a destination. Once I have accepted creativity as the end, I must also accept that this is an unattainable one - it must never end. And, on the other hand, there is nothing more to be free than as I already am - free to search, free to live for serendipity - and this privilege I must never end up giving up. It sounds like a terrible failure, doing something without an objective, but would not be focusing on an objective be too conventional, the very thing I am trying to avoid? This is perhaps my answer to that rather straightforward question, a long one with a confusing end, but then, that, the defiance of structures, confusion as all the conformists will call it, is precisely the way to live for. 

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Meaning of Character

A kind commentator dropped by and left a comment in one of the older posts, pointing out that the approach I wanted to promote - a practical education built around the humanities - is what he calls building of character. In the work he does, he focuses on Character and Competence, side by side, which makes abundant sense. 

Indeed, character is a high sounding word with a lot of legacy, most of it going back to colonial times. So, talking about character in my work, which is mostly done in developing countries, is not going to be straightforward, without explaining what it is going to be about. But, such explanation is needed and timely, because one could perhaps claim with justification that the technocratic nature of education is the reason why we have the social problems we have.

But even before we go into the discussion about character, it is important to state, perhaps re-state, the case why we need to look at humanities seriously. Those who believe that humanities education is now superfluous - students go to college only to learn technical skills that could be used in a job (and, indeed, anyone can do humanities once they have got a job) - are working with an underlying assumption that history has ended. Despite all the evidence on the contrary, they take the social system we live inside as a given. There is nothing more to be thought about how we live, or how we should be living. What only matters is how to do the jobs we have, better - how to build better machines, how to write better code, how to start smart businesses, how to help customers better - and this would be enough.

The point is, of course, that though this view is presented as a matter of fact, descriptive, one - isn't this what you see around you, they ask - but this is an inherently normative position. It is not that this is what we see around us - that history has ended and we have reached that happily-ever-after moment - but this is what we are told we are supposed to be seeing. There is no possibility that we could create a better system, politically or economically, and it is futile to think about it. The only history one needs to know about is that Capitalism has defeated the evil empire of Soviet Union and that is that. 

At this very moment, the overarching feeling is confusion, in most of our lives. We can indeed shut off our senses and drown ourselves in one kind of pleasure or other for a while, but the confusion, the sense of loss, keeps coming back double-quick. It does not help that the gap between the economic good news and personal well-being keep expanding - we feel more indebted just when the policy-makers do victory dance of debt reduction, more hopelessly out-of-use just when the newspapers celebrate job recovery. As the communities that helped us and gave us culture wither away, we choose to make up for our cultural poverty with material feel-good - a fancy computer replaces our parents, a mobile phone our belongingness and a car, our responsibilities. But this is not a feeling of equilibrium, that history has ended and we can live like this forever. We do feel the need for imagination, social, empathic, communitarian, when we can not postpone the bewitching question - how to live - any more. At that point, the dissonance is even more acute - the pessimists, who believe that we are condemned to live like this, claim to be the optimists, and the optimists who think human beings can do better are labeled pessimists - and the need to re-imagine is ever more urgent.

This is where character comes into play. The words such as resilience, empathy, imagination, integrity, confront us - each needing a new meaning perhaps, but each needing embodiment. All that we have started taking for granted, like freedom, stability etc., seem vulnerable - because of some gathering cloud around some corner - but also open - pregnant with new possibilities and meaning. The technocratic solutions for better life - all that sharing economy and crowdsourced knowledge - illuminate themselves both as dangerous threats and alluring possibilities, leaving the master-key to our judgement. Character, rather than mere strategy, decides what we will be, who we will be.

This is, even if broad, the definition of character that a humanities-based education should work towards. It is about achieving mastery over own life, as well as engaging and shaping the communities we live in. This is about not giving in to a lazy conception of history, but having the courage to imagine it. It is about escaping the temptation of drowning in rhetoric and being able to act and change. And, finally, and crucially, this is about being concerned about more than oneself, taking barriers as opportunities and privileges as responsibilities, and being able to contribute to collective life.


Friday, February 13, 2015

Competence and Interests

The big question for Higher Ed is how does it remain relevant when almost half of those pursuing it do not get what they pursue it for, a job. The Higher Ed expansion since the 70s, and in developing countries in more recent years, was based on a middle class dream which has now disappeared, and with it, the legitimacy of the present structure. Besides, the withering of the Welfare State, and the coming of modern corporate statism, undermined the mandate Higher Education institutions had of delivering a middle class economy (a term Obama resurrected, but perhaps past its sale-by date).

Everyone is trying to answer this, and not least, the global network of investors, who sees Higher Education as an essential ingredient of hope in the future, a key element of expansion of credit and a driver of consumption like no other. Higher Ed, from their vantage point, is crucial for sustenance of the modern economic vision, the dynamic status quo that they bet, literally, on. They have a solution, and that is about a radical reorganisation of Higher Education around competencies.

This prescription is simple and starts with the proposition, self-evident or it should be, that Higher Education is about a job in the end. The big problem is the Education-to-Employment gap (E2E gap, in McKinsey's convenient shorthand), and the way to bridge this to create a Higher Education offering aligned closely to what employers want - competencies. The traditional organisation of Higher Education around Subjects or Disciplines are not relevant anymore, because the employers do not look for degrees in Sociology or Psychology, but rather ask the question whether the candidate can do what they require. Therefore, treating competence as the starting point - which, in a benign setting, would only mean whether the student can apply their knowledge to a particular business problem - will help rearrange the Higher Education model to fit the needs of a modern economy. 

Before one explores this argument, not just in terms of what this says but also what it does not say, it is worthwhile to see this argument in the broad context of its supposed consequence. It is argued that not bridging the E2E gap would lead to instabilities such as in the Middle East, where street protests are destabilising the states and disrupting normal lives. Thus, a fundamental rethink about Higher Education is in order, not as an academic exercise but as a survival need for our entire social order. 

The fact that the case for bridging E2E gap is based on this argument is not insignificant. While it is possible to see the struggles in the Middle East as people fighting for their democratic rights, something that education, in its usual liberal form, is supposed to enable, the conversation is being reframed as a breakdown of the middle class consensus in vogue since the early seventies. Seen this way, an argument is being made pointing to the breakdown of the neo-liberal order, and the urgency of an all-pervading educational agenda in order to preserve the same. So, we may say, by extending this argument about E2E gap and the competence-based formula to save it, that once we rearrange our Higher Education models accordingly, we would never again have street protests against corrupt dictators running illegitimate administrations, as we would all be too busy paying off our mortgages. 

With this in the background, let us return to the argument that Higher Education should be rearranged around competencies. This argument jumps a step, somewhat. The arrangement of Higher Education around subject areas, with the teacher, being the dispenser of that knowledge, firmly in command, has come under scrutiny for over a century now. Such model, it was argued, is not conducive to the engagement of the students, who are somewhat dis-empowered within such a setup, not being able to pursue their interests and life-goals. This lack of engagement was cited as the main problem of Higher Education, and indeed, this was amplified, not resolved, in the university systems overtly under the state control, where the bureaucratic formats of the State and the consequent managerialism among the university ranks made the institution drift away farther from the interests of the students.

One may claim that arranging an university curriculum in alignment with student interests is undesirable and impractical. Undesirable, because the students may not be interested in anything, or be interested in pointless pursuits. And, it is also impractical because of the industrial, scale-sensitive nature of the university operations. However, as this argument was raging for over a century, we have already had detailed investigation of what the interests could be. In fact, in this model, the task of the institution is not to dispense knowledge, but primarily to create enlightened interests of the students (which makes more sense now than a century ago, with knowledge being so easily accessible). And, this is practical too, as innovations in technology make it possible to attend scale at the same time as allowing diversity (we don't all have to buy black cars anymore).

The argument that we must look at competence as the organising principle for university curriculum stands in direct opposition not just to the traditional university designed around subject knowledge, but also around the democratic model of being led by enlightened self-interest of the students. The question to ask about competence is indeed who defines the competence, and whether giving priority to such externally-imposed competence models would enhance student engagement and make learning sticky and effective any further than the traditional subject-based models do. 



Thursday, February 12, 2015

On Critical Thinking

We built an education system designed on Information Retention skills because information was, until about very recent times, scarce. We needed to memorise because timely access to information was a problem. The analog, printed stuff that we had - which was the primary form information was stored - was place-bound and time-shifted. Even if someone knew it, it took some time to be available for general consumption. And, it sat on bookshelves or filing cabinets. Knowing things, as in remembering, was the mark of an educated person.

But we have the opposite problem now. We have too much information. Gutenberg and his press brought a revolution that doubled the information stock of the world in fifty years. Now, we are doubling it, a much larger information stock, in three years or less. Every person in the world has 320 times more information than was stocked in the entire Library of Alexandria, designed to hold all the knowledge of the world. And, within this deluge, even if we miss a bit, there is Google. 

So, we need a different ability, as Howard Rhinegold calls it, for Crap Detection. The problem that we face today is that anyone with a computer can add a bit to the information stock, which can become readily available to all public (I am guilty of the same sin, right now!). So, we would see discarded helmets on Mars, alongwith a claim that some mythical people got there first! Or hear gossips that can start riots! We need abilities to filter the information that we take in. This is some sort of a reverse filter - the trick of remembering in an earlier time was to focus on the key elements and not letting it go out - and being educated today mean that we are less susceptible to misinformation and nonsense.

This ability, more or less, is critical thinking, which is indeed, critical. Without being able to interrogate the information coming our way, we would simply go mad. However, this is not about simply filtering information - because we all filter things based on what we like - but filtering it in a certain meaningful way. So, one can not be doing Critical Thinking when someone is a Nazi cultist (or liberal democrat) and s/he chooses to reject everything that does not fit her/his worldview. Critical thinking is a different sort of filter, made out of skepticism. Do I believe everything that I see on the Internet, one ought to ask. In fact, the question is, should I believe anything at all, without evidence. And, indeed, what evidence would be enough? And, while I do all the judgements, am I keeping an eye on myself that I am not tending to believe what I want to believe?

Indeed, it is at this point when the whole thing gets interesting, or absurd. How far can one keep questioning, and is there really a way to understand own biases and preferences? The purely rational formulation that it is only based on evidence stumbles at this point, because we often see what we want to see. And, therefore, a model of critical thinking without the basis of anything else other than available evidence may be fallible. One of my students told me that he believed that pre-historical Indians had the technology to fly - they wrote about this in their great books and eminent experts in the recent Indian government had endorsed this - and despite some people claiming that this could not be true, he would like to believe the former rather than the latter because of the political affiliations of the people in the latter group. He indeed had evidence, a mention in the great books and endorsements of some experts, and he could claim that he did think through critically. But there are two problems with this model. First, he chose to ignore protestations of some other experts on the ground of his personal preference, that they were politically motivated, and not on the strength of the evidence they were presenting. And, second, more importantly, this filter did not make any reference to disciplinary conventions. Considering that we are talking about technologies of the past, we should be referring to the methods that we have built within the discipline of archeology, which is about finding remnants of the past and trying to build a whole model around it. This assertion - that Ancient Hindus could fly - was not supported by Archeological evidence, but by mentions in a book (by which measure, Jules Verne would have seen people sent to the Moon), and hence, just evidence by itself is not enough. The ability to think critically has to be based on an attempt to transcend own subjective preference as well as application of disciplinary thinking (discipline as in an university, rather than as in military). So, critical thinking is application of a filter informed by culture - the accumulated body of knowledge and disciplinary methods - and indeed, in this form, extremely important for living and doing things in age of information deluge.

However, critical thinking, by itself, is not enough. One of the great problems of modern scientific education, where critical thinking is the key, is that it may end up being too harsh, too disconnected and ultimately oblivious to the possibilities that exist beyond the immediate realm. Critical thinking, as great an ability it may be, is nothing if this is not supplemented by respect, an ability to work with other people and to be able to listen and learn. Critical thinking, to be effective, is not about demolishing all the arguments and demeaning everyone else in the quest of intellectual superiority, but a certain position of not accepting anything without a proper consideration, with a Good Humoured Inflexibility, to use an expression coined by Emerson. 

For the reasons I mentioned above, Critical thinking is an important ability, and this is one thing educators all agree upon. However, the agreement on meaning is often more difficult than the agreement on the words themselves. And, besides, the dangers of being too critical, as Jane Addams will point out, are completely forgotten when one pushes ahead with the importance of being critical. 

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Two Ideas of Leadership

I sometimes catch up with ideas and concepts long after they were needed. Call it slowness if you like, but this is not about slowness of wit but the lingering of love that I am talking here. This is not about missing out on something while I am at it, but rather indulging in an ongoing engagement even when the immediate need has been fulfilled. So, I really discovered the fascinating world of economic history - so much so that I may end up reading those books while on holiday - only after my formal education in economics was over. My obsession with John Dewey came only after I have completed my Masters in Adult Education, and I believe I understand him better now as I have completed the course earlier. 

My current reading concerns leadership. I have got to it in a roundabout way. It all started with Vienna, where I am planning a short holiday around Easter, and Freud, upon whom I stumbled upon in course of my engagement with Modernity, itself a hangover from the Coursera course on Modern and the Post-modern, which I much loved. However, my concerns with leadership fit into my late-thinking pattern because I completed teaching a course, which I taught for two years in a London College, on leadership to aspiring middle managers. The course - called Leadership Journey - was about enabling reflective practice, and we spent quite a bit of time on talking about the ideas of leadership within the course. 

While teaching the course, I used two contrasting models of Hitler and Gandhi - each charismatic in their own way, but each a bit of an oddball as well - primarily to tease out the ideas of leadership that the learners have had. My idea of focusing on Hitler, rather than any other comparatively benign or less controversial authoritarian personality, was indeed to question our natural association of leader as the commander. I wanted to contrast this with the idea of leader as a sheep-dog, using a term that late CK Prahalad used to use, someone who provides direction. I did use various videos, including a TED talk by General Stanley McChrystal (see below), where he brings out this idea of leader as a sheepdog in the Military context (where, one would guess, leader as a commander idea will still hold).

But, now, I discover Freud. I am fascinated by the view Freud held - that craving for authority is a normal human trait and therefore, Fascism is somewhat inevitable - and see how this helps my broader point about two distinct ideas of leadership. In one, the leader is the father, the source of command and authority, that we crave. This is a very potent idea of leadership, and therefore, Fascism recurs so insistently, notwithstanding all our wisdom and knowledge of experiments such as those of Stanley Milgram or Phillip Zimbardo. Essentially, from a Freudian view, the more confused we are, the more conflicted our inner selves are - just as globalisation invades our community lives and many people are feeling caught out - the more we crave for an authoritarian leader who will offer us one meaning, a route to salvation and peace. This is common, all-pervasive, intensely human, and can appear at any time in any human society. Our ideas of a hero, nobility, leadership are all informed by this craving for direction. This is why we often resent leaders who do not give us answers but rather invite us to look for it ourselves. 

The other idea of leadership starts from here, where the leader is simply the enabler for others to find their own meaning. This is utopian, too optimistic, from the Freudian corner. In fact, this idea of leadership amplifies the very problem we expect the leaders to solve - lack of one unified meaning so that our ego, self, can resolve the conflict between our super-ego and the id - and the diversity of ideas break down, more often than not, the simple characterisation of the world that Fascism provides in ingroup/ outgroup terms. The leader as a sheep-dog, indeed he is still authoritarian as he directs, may therefore sometimes fail our cravings - and indeed, is unfit, for many people, for the leadership stereotype they wish to idolise.

As I go through this, I realise that this latter model of leadership is not weak and to be discarded, but rather, we just use a different label for this - teacher. This is what the teacher does - a good teacher is who allows his wards to find their own meaning in learning and thereby make the learning stick - and they could, if temporarily, help us see ourselves and resolve our conflicts. And, in many ways, we need more teachers of this kind rather than leaders who would fulfill our cravings for authority and direction, in order to create a Higher Order society. But this act of denying Freudian inevitability requires great courage and deliberate action. This was indeed the point I was supposed to teach in my course.


Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Delhi Revolution

Sometimes, fairy tales are possible. One is unfolding right now in Delhi.

Just as I was contemplating writing a post on the decline of democracy, Indian voters demonstrated what is really possible. It is a return of hope with a vengeance.

This one is for the world, worthy of celebration more than Indian Mars Mission and stock markets. So, I must recount the details even of this famous event, lest someone has missed.

In Delhi, the Capital city of India which is also a State, an assembly election was held at the fag end of 2013. Despite everyone thinking that Indian politics is a two-horse game - and the choice is really between heir apparent Rahul Gandhi and business-backed Hindu supremacist Narendra Modi - a new party gets the most seats. Started by a former taxman, the diminutive Arvind Kejriwal, the Aam Admi Party ran on an anti-corruption manifesto, and almost won a majority. 

Since the two big parties can not form a coalition among themselves, eventually Mr Kejriwal was asked to form the government, with outside support from Congress. True to his word, Mr Kejriwal runs an activist government, fulfilling his promises made without regard to the coalition politics. The Congress party, which was in power then, failed to bottle him - and eventually manoeuvred him to a position where he could not deliver what he promised. Mr Kejriwal did the honourable thing - he resigned - just as any honourable politician will do anywhere else in the world.

Two things happened then. 

First, the Congress and the BJP colluded - and invoked the unlikely possibility that they may form a coalition - and kept the assembly in suspension. It was a legalistic triumph, but showed the anti-democratic nature of both the parties. They just denied the vote to the people of Delhi, despite the fact that no government could ever be formed and it would have been cheaper and easier to have this repeat election along with Indian parliamentary elections in May 2014. They treated the voters of Delhi with contempt, because they thought between them, they own the country.

Second, even more absurdly, they slapped the label of Quitter on Kejriwal. Perhaps justifiably, because in India, no one ever quits - Ministers stay in office even when they are in jail - and the concept of honour and responsibility do not exist in Indian politics. It is okay to make a promise and not keep it, but it is a sin to take the responsibility and quit when one could not deliver.

The usual politics of Congress-BJP seemed to have triumphed, when AAP failed to win a single seat in the parliamentary elections in May 2014. BJP swept Delhi, and the AAP and Mr Kejriwal were dismissed as an one-time wonder. The point was made that Delhi electorate would not forgive Mr Kejriwal for quitting, and the point that he quit because he could not keep his word was laughed at. The corporate friends of Mr Modi confidently celebrated the fact that they could buy any electorate at any time.

Eventually, AAP found its way through the Indian court system, which, lethargic and often inefficient, seemed to have become the last resort against the scheming politicians, who treat the voters with contempt and the country as their personal fief. The court forced the issue and the Congress and the BJP were called out for their coalition bluff - and the Delhi elections were called.

As the results unfolded - and I waited to celebrate till the point the results were in (exit polls have been wrong before, and were wrong this time) - it seems that the voters have seen through the Congress-BJP nexus. They have been swept out, and AAP is heading towards a famous win, with at least around 60 seats of the 70 seat assembly. This is a revolution - not in the sense of bringing a new party in (AAP was there before), but in the sense of voters seeing through the schemes of politicians and choosing independently. 

The wise commentators immediately argued that the voters have forgiven Kejriwal for quitting because he said sorry, but it may equally be that voters did not mind an honourable politician. As for the Parliamentary election wins of the BJP last May, it was not the obituary of AAP - as has been proved now - but just a demonstration of maturity of Indian democracy that voters choose most appropriately. Congress failed, and was therefore swept out at the Centre. But the elections this time was fought on a different agenda.

So, concerned as I am for democratic future (as India has taken its democracy for granted), I shall postpone my gloom and celebrate today. I shall celebrate a different kind of revolution, of quiet will, peaceful resolve and of coming together of people, of the kind we have forgotten to talk about. I shall celebrate the triumph of democracy against political scheming, big money vote buying and showmanship. I shall celebrate resistance to the dreams of hegemony by a few and a return of the republic. I shall celebrate the man on the street, who seemed to have displayed wisdom and courage everytime they have been given the vote.

For all the countries, who seemed to believe that people with money and culture are best left in charge, this is one bit of evidence that democracy works. It is messy, slow and imperfect, but nothing better has been invented. This is its moment.



Monday, February 09, 2015

Employers and Education - A Strategy for Engagement

There is an Education-to-Employment gap, numerically speaking. But it is more - a social problem - when education is sold as a way to middle class life and fails to deliver. It is therefore worthwhile to identify the reasons for the gap - and to rectify it.

McKinsey, which coined the term E2E gap, sees employers and educators taking parallel paths and not talking to each other. This is rather strange, given the interests of both parties in working together. Some observers blame this on the educators, and bring up the age-old Ivory Towers accusations. Others, educators, blame the employers, as they demand very specific skill-sets and experience, and are more interested in poaching from each other rather than participating in education process. 

There are different attempts to address this gap, and mostly, these attempts seek to engage the employers as closely as possible with the education process. By way of disclosure, I am professionally engaged in one such attempt. While it looks straightforward in theory, just as the starting proposition of educators and employers talking to each other was common sense, the actual engagement is far more complex - and requires a strategic approach, rather than case-by-case persuasion, from the educators.

However, before we speculate what this strategic approach could be, it may make sense to clarify another point. It is a mistake to see educators as mere suppliers to employers, despite the relative balance of power in the conversations. Educators have a job to do, and despite the lack of acknowledgement of the role of education (outside its economic worth), one must not lose sight of it. The thesis that the Middle East troubles (Egyptian revolution, ISIS etc) are due to Education-to-Employment gap is only partially true, and the more plausible explanation is that education in these countries failed to foster democratic thinking and leadership. The point made by Matthew Arnold, that, all liberty and industry in the world will not ensure high reason and a fine culture - they may favour them but they will not produce them - and indeed, they may exist without them, remains valid - educators have a job to do even if we had a full-employment society (like Kuwait, where everyone gets a job regardless).

The starting point of a strategic approach, therefore, is about acknowledging this expanded role of the educators. While one must build the bridges between the parallel paths of educators and employers, education is not just the bridge but the territory of culture and reason that lie beyond it. This is exactly the difference between a case-by-case view, persuading the employers to employ the students (which fits more a ferry metaphor than a bridge metaphor), and a more strategic view of building an attractive territory on their side of the divide, so that the employers meet the educators half-way down the bridge.

This attractive territory, however, can not be built without understanding the employers more fully than the educators do now. One unacknowledged reason why students do not find jobs is because they are often poorly educated. Most people come out of college with none of the High Reason and Fine Culture that Arnold talked about. They can not even write appropriate reports, read complex texts or negotiate ideas and concepts, as Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa show. The educators are indeed in some kind of ivory tower, though this is about denying the accountability for student learning and not merely about talking to the employers. Once the educators have owned up the students and assume their responsibility of making him or her successful, talking to the employers will come naturally to them.

Once educators assume this responsibility, it becomes easier to engage the employers. In such a setting, the conversation with the employers is not merely to understand their requirements so that such things can be added to the programme and the students can become employable, but rather a genuine collaborative conversation to understand the needs of the practical work life, which should play a role in the curricular approach. This is indeed a patient, long-term conversation, allowing the employers a close view of the learning process and drawing them closely into it through conversations, student projects and mentoring conversations. This close engagement does not mean surrendering the educators mandate for developing reason and culture, but rather doing so not in isolation from messy realities of everyday life. 

What does this mean in practice? Several things, perhaps. First, this may mean assessing the learner skills and abilities in the context of work skills and abilities that would be demanded. The examination system may demand resilience, discipline and quick thinking, which are all useful real world abilities, but miss out on assessing practical wisdom, leadership skills, collaborative ability and communication skills in the broader sense. Understanding the employer perspective may indeed inform a new approach to assessment - and this is the easiest thing to engage the employers into. Engaging in assessment is far more familiar territory for an employer than engaging in education. On the other hand, employer engagement in assessment is perhaps the most useful thing that the educators could hope for. The problem, of course, is that assessment is sacred territory, a source of power that the educators have cherished holding - and despite its obvious appeal, opening up this territory to outsiders is a difficult thing to do.

Second, this may also mean looking at Project-as-Content in the education process. This is an old conversation drawing back on Dewey and Kilpatrick from the last century, but such thinking is still exotic among the Higher Ed circles. The idea that the learning can be driven by projects, which may become the integrative platform for all knowledge, skills and abilities that the educators wish to develop in the learner, and that projects can indeed be closely linked to the learners own interests and abilities, create a possibility in education like none other. It allows the learning to be democratic, open, collaborative, context-sensitive and even research-based, combining the favourite keywords from the world of education with those of the world of employment. To play on the metaphor, the project is indeed the bridge that could be built and employers can meet the educators half-way down.

Third, constructing the language of education side-by-side with the employers language is also helpful, and allows employers to be easily engaged. It is not about accepting the employers language and mimicking it, but rather critically engaging with it and being able to understand and use it - is the key here. Indeed, this is a fine line and most educators try to teach a few keywords, to be used without context, to their learners in the hope of better employability. But the employer engagement in assessment, and project-as-content method, would hopefully circumvent such superficiality. 

Finally, constructing an education around the employers language, projects and assessments may still fall short of the mark if the educators failed to provide a safe space for the learners to reflect, to critique and to grow from the boxes that one gets to be put in while at work. This is the educators role - High Reason and Fine Culture, to invoke Arnold one last time - and the learners should be able to dissect their experience, distill it with reference to culture (the accumulated experience of the humankind, Dewey would say), and reflect upon it to grow as an individual both inside and outside the humdrum of daily chore. 

Constructing such an engagement has proved to be difficult, not because it does not make sense, but because this flies in the face of power equations that both educators and employers indulge in. The strategic approach, then, is to step outside the comfort zone of each individual silo, which progressive employers and educators indeed do, and to proactively engage into a common language, allowing a more rounded approach than would be otherwise possible. In this approach, educators would not just be a supplier of talent to the employers, but a critical partner, a mirror of reflection and improvement, a safe place of thinking just one step removed from the intense world of action.    

Sunday, February 08, 2015

To India or Not To India

That indeed is the big question that featured throughout the 10 years I have written this blog! What started as a brief educational trip - my stay in Britain - ended up becoming semi-permanent, as one thing followed the other, but my picture of ideal life, deeply attached to the city of my birth, Kolkata, continued to surface at regular intervals. There is a mix of sense of duty, commitment, of finding the zone of comfort - and this drives my thinking, and reinforces my sense of impermanence. However, as expected, this does me no good - and one of the key things I want to do now is to figure out what I really want to do.

Apart from my desire to be near my father, and my attachment to my childhood home, there is another, more practical, reason to be in India. It is indeed the most exciting market for the sector I chose to specialise in, Higher Education. Britain, with its declining number of college goers, does not seem to be an ideal location to be thinking disruptively about Higher Ed, whereas India, with its vast number of young people, is possibly the most potent in the world to start something new. On the other hand, however, precisely for the same reason - seemingly limitless demand - Indian Higher Education is not open to innovation. So, if my objective would have been to create an attractive Education offering, from the sales perspective, and sell it to millions of people, India would have been the place to be - and indeed, I possibly would have migrated back to India quite some time back. However, my work is based on my belief that we need a new model of Higher Education - because of the twin forces of globalisation and automation - and this is not a conversation to be having in India, where the whole Higher Education conversation is dominated by a narrowly technocratic vision of the business, mostly corrupt and inefficient, and almost always unfailingly mindless. Therefore, the question - to India or not to India - persists.

What complicates this further is that somehow my knowledge and understanding of India, gathered over a decade of working in the frontline of IT Education, has come to be seen as my key skill by potential employers. I am also equally guilty of indulging in this conversation through this blog, and the conferences etc that I helped to organise in the past. But this is also a stereotype that I strive to escape. I have, over the years, consciously tried to accumulate knowledge and skills with a global perspective, and I hate to be boxed as an India expert, not because I do not know the country, but there is a whole industry of that which I want to be no part of. Indeed, I may have failed to project another, more compelling, area of expertise so that all conversations lead back to India, for me. But equally, because I took an unusual road and tried to develop a more holistic perspective of the sector (rather than becoming a teacher, technologist or marketer, or something specific), India Expert is perhaps the most convenient label to slap on me. 

And, surely, I have taken advantage of it. Of my eleven years in Britain, I have at least spent five years taking on roles in which India was a big piece. This is indeed because I needed those roles at those specific times, and surely I knew a few things about India that would have helped my employers. But, to add to my general sense of impermanence, these roles were a throwback from my past - not presenting opportunities to do anything meaningful and not presenting any learning - and to me, were more of transitional opportunities than something to look forward to and settle in. 

In 2015, therefore, I wanted to put this to bed and come up with a plan that gives me some visibility of the future. And, to do that, this question - to India or not to India - had to be answered first. Given that I have been spending a lot of time in India over the last few months, the answer was really easy. I did not want to go back to India in the near future. The point of migrating out was, for me, to gain global expertise in my chosen field. This is not something being in Indian Higher Education will offer me, I know now first hand, because the conversation there is well behind what is happening in the developed world. Indeed, I shall continue to engage with India - my current job provides ample opportunity and projects always come my way - but I realised that I am not yet ready to return into a box and give up my quest for world class expertise. 

Indeed, this is not a resolution never to go back - India will always be home - but rather the commitment to a plan that would require me to stay abroad for at least another five years. I wish to spend these years pursuing specific projects and learn and develop certain expertise, and continue to engage with India but also other countries across the world. That way, I believe, I shall be able to do more when I eventually return. I feel happy to have resolved this and my mind is now clear and my conversations in the future will perhaps be more to the point. Such clarity, hopefully, will also help me make better decisions about my commitments in India, both in terms of my projects as well as my family engagements. I am hoping that this new kind of thinking will help me prioritise better, focus better and do better, and even prepare me better for an eventual return journey.  

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Why Technology Would Not Save Us

One does marvel at the technological progress that we have made over the last two centuries. It is all but natural to make this the new God - and expect technologies to appear to solve our problems. When we talk about an environmental apocalypse, it is common to refer to the first environmental conference in the world, which was convened at the end of Nineteenth century to deal with the seemingly intractable environmental problems of the cities - Horse Dung! The conference ended in a failure. Yet, in a few years, automobiles were everywhere and the problem completely disappeared. We believe that the technologies will indeed appear when the problems become urgent.

Yet, technological development is not a value-neutral process. It is dependent on the social power, and the agenda of the powerful. This is why we can do advanced robotics but may not have a cure for Ebola. This is exactly why technology can kill - and we know it does - and it is naive to keep an unquestioning faith on technology to bail us out.

This is why the discussions about the future should be more than the possibilities of technology. We may indeed make technological advance, but it is indeterminate whether those advances will help us or destroy us. The most urgent discussions about the future is about social power, things like whether the human race will be split into two (with genetic engineering and advanced healthcare, it already seems to be two different species) and whether that is a good thing, and not how an advanced gadget can change the world.

I know a lot of people who wants to make a dent in the universe and put their faith on lines of code to do so. They believe changing the universe is a value-neutral thing, and as long as there are profits, everything will be alright. However, past is not always a bad thing as it is painted to be. We, after all, survived and progressed from our neanderthal past, crafted advanced societies and triumphed over other species which are, individually speaking, far more powerful than us. We may take that achievement for granted, but value-neutral technology fetishism may undermine our most significant achievement, human society. 

So, here is my point - technology has been the engine of progress, but it has done so because we willed it. It is social imagination that drive technology, and it seems that in our blind love for technology, we have exited the business of social imagination, even the business of society itself. This is why technology may not save us when the moment comes, because our priorities have shifted and we are trying hard to forget our history.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

How To Lose Market Leadership - A Case from Indian Education

Indian Education is a fascinating opportunity. It has scale and an extensive ecosystem of demand. It is badly regulated, but as such things mean in India, which helps the people who are already in and keep others out of it. As the Indian consumers get richer and demand more education, the opportunity in India gets more attractive. This is one of those multi-billion dollar market opportunities, which seem to lay untapped. And, as it is happening in other industries, one could reasonably expect a world-beating company being made by this market. Following the classic model of business growth, it should be possible for a visionary company to take advantage of this relatively protected domestic market and emerge as a player in the global stage.

So far, it has failed to happen. There are some Indian organisations came close, NIIT and Aptech, the two computer training companies, among them. But in a fascinating saga worthy of strategy case studies, they both lost steam just when it seemed they got it within their grasp. How they lost this opportunity may serve as a cautionary tale for those other Indian companies, who are currently taking opportunity of the domestic market to prepare for market leadership globally. 

For me, the story is personal. I have been a participant and an observer in the rise and fall of IT Training in India. I have known many of the key players, and have been part of the action on the ground. I have been part of this building up, and watched the unraveling. Indeed, the fact that these companies failed to achieve what they clearly aspired for at one stage - global leadership - make me think back whether what I was involved in building was house of cards anyway. 

It pays to be specific in this discussion. While I worked for both NIIT and Aptech during their years of growth, I knew NIIT more closely and for a greater length of time. Besides, NIIT led the domestic market - and became, as rare as it is in India, a truly national company. It had thought leadership, with Dr Sugata Mitra, a TED fellow and an accomplished researcher and inventor, alongwith other very accomplished colleagues, leading its R&D efforts. It had an instantly recognizable brand, footfalls, and even an appeal in the Indian dowry market. It had smart processes and great people, and no dearth of ambition. And, yet, it stagnated and declined - it became an also-ran brand without distinction - in the years since the turn of the millennium. NIIT makes a fascinating study of what could go wrong.

This was indeed an ongoing conversation. In many ways, my own identity is inextricably attached to NIIT, given that I worked for it through a whole decade, and had been associated, as a student, a customer and through friends, for my entire professional life. Why NIIT could not hold onto its leadership position is a conversation - an emotional and engaged conversation in many ways - in many of my meetings. 

Consequently, I have had many theories. First, the purely strategic one. That NIIT built a business model solely based on the scarcity of opportunity to study IT within Indian formal education sector, and when the formal education sector started expanding, it failed to innovate much to create other niche offerings, explains a lot of this decline. Second, there is a related one about why niche offerings, like the ones developed by Aptech, never really worked for NIIT - that it was too big for any niche offerings to make sense. Third, the rising Real Estate prices all across India had an adverse effect on NIIT franchising model, which was based on premium real estate, while the ability to command premium prices collapsed in the face of expansion of formal education. Fourth, there are people explanations - that with the expansion of IT services market, NIIT failed to hold onto its best people and failed to recruit them. Finally, my favourite one, which is that NIIT crumbled under the pressure from its stock market listing and continuous pressures for growth, somewhat unsuited to its business model for education. And, indeed, then there are stories, anecdotes and regrets that invariably accompany a story of this personal kind.

However, all these theories need a meta-theory, why this all happened. Why did NIIT fail to innovate? Why did NIIT leadership did not see it coming? Why did it lose its appetite? Why could the franchise model not evolve? Why was stock market listing so disruptive, in the bad sense of the word? To explain all this, I have a Dollar theory, which I think would apply to many Indian companies playing both the domestic and international markets. 

NIIT had two large divisions - Software Services and IT Education - and a few other small, niche businesses. As an organisation, it was enthralled by Software Services, what was later spun into a separate company called NIIT Technologies. The division paid the best salaries, and if anyone did well, they were promoted to it from education. It obviously got the mindshare, and its strategies dominated the company strategy. That NIIT went for listing was primarily driven by the need of its Software Services division, and possibly prematurely for its education business. And, indeed, it all made perfect sense - the Software Services were servicing International clients and was earning in Dollars.

Except that the Education business was profitable and market leading. The Software Services business, despite its status inside the company, was an also-ran, pedestrian kind of business, which other people did much better than NIIT. Yet, the company hitched its strategy with the fortunes of this business, ignoring the business where they had clear market leadership and was inching closer to the global leaders such as IBM Global Services. They seemed to have run out of ideas and stagnated, but this is only because they allowed the company to be run by the logic of the dollar and not by the logic of strategy, which are not the same thing.

NIIT could have been Google or Facebook of Education, someone told me once. Well, they did not. Such things do not just happen, and retrospective rationalisation is not the best way to explain things anyway. However, there is a cautionary tale embedded in this, and that is what I wanted to talk about here. The dictum of Jack Welch - that GE needed to get out of all businesses that were either not No 1 or No 2 of their respective businesses - could have served NIIT well. But, being strategic, having a vision and a long term view, could have also helped to make it a more sustainable company and a brand in the world market. Its failure deserved to be studied closely by all those who are starting their businesses with Google-size aspiration in India.

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