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What is the point of college?

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I have spent a long time making the case for college education and I see I used two different arguments interchangably. The first of these was the human capital argument, the one about skills. Usually, given my line of work, this was about telling employers about work-ready graduates and students about jobs and income. After the universities, I used to cite 'graduate premium', not telling the whole story - that the figure is inflated out of proportion by the incomes of a few winners and collapse of the non-graduate income; most graduates have seen their income stagnate or decline in real terms ever since 2008. I used to argue that the quality of education is best expressed in the starting salary of the graduate (a desperate oversimplification that takes the labour market and all the implicit issues of race and gender out of the consideration) and that the countries should invest in colleges to gain competitive advantage in the knowledge economy.   The other argument was the dem

Why technologists will not save education?

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Post-Covid, will technologists save education? It certainly needs saving. We are perhaps looking a whole lost cohort - may be two - who will graduate in a terrible job market and struggle to make a start. Too many pupils, coming out of forced loneliness of a year, would struggle to adjust in colleges. Those who deferred their studies, will have to find the momentum again. And, as if after a great reset, the conversation what education is for has to start in earnest. Technologists will offer no answers to any to these big, burning questions. In fact, after the year when technologies became so embedded in education, it's role will be seen differently. In a way, this has been the best of the years and worst of the years for education technology: Technology's role as infrastructure has been recognised and technology's limitations to revolutionise education have been exposed. We now know that while technology may have answers to our many questions, technologists are often asking

2021: Going back to go forward

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2021 has started with a whimper, for me. Fittingly I spent the last two weeks of 2020 in the sick bed, as the virus finally caught up with me. I never said so, but I had to learn first hand that this is no flu: It was a virulent disease that makes one feel really sick. Now that I am back in action, I am still feeling sub-par and tired all the time.  That was, however, a fitting end of a year in waiting. Nothing moved forward and my life went in cycles. The worst nightmares I was having when deep in fever were not imaginary, but real - that feeling how pointless everything I do have become. It is as if I got caught in time and never moved forward since 2011, when I used to be optimistic. However, the good thing of this illness and recovery cycle is that one eventually looks forward. As I get back on my feet, I am telling myself that it's time to be optimistic again. Of course, it's hard under the circumstances. Regardless of what I feel, the reality has not changed much outside.

The trouble with college in India

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I always wanted to be involved in higher education in India, but all my attempts so far have ended in disappointments. Sure, there is something in what I want and also who I am speaking with and people who speak with me often have a limited objective in mind: A British accreditation of some sort! But I am beginning to suspect that the special place of college in India may have a role in this failure to imagine college to be anything more than a place to get a piece of paper. My hypothesis is that this difference has something to do with the history of college in India. Its peculiarity - a colonial institution enabling social mobility within the colonial context - is well entrenched in the Indian higher education policy and how the middle classes see the college. In Britain and Western Europe, colleges were conceived as training grounds for clergy and lawyers, residential institutions which not only attended to academic requirements (which was very few in most cases) but also served as

Darwin and all that

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  For as much one admires Darwin, we must remember that he offered a theory, a brilliant one, but only a theory. Darwin may have single-handedly changed science but his brilliance was more about the method. After Darwin, the scientific method combined the brilliant flashes of thought experiment with careful - painstaking is the word perhaps - examination of evidence. Darwin was not alone but he was the most famous among a nineteenth century club of equals, after whom science was not the same. And, we can attribute much of our experimental success thereafter to this methodological breakthrough. What it means to be doing science was different after Darwin and his contemporaries. But that did not mean that the content of his theory was all correct. Indeed, Darwin did not have a theory of inheritance - and his conjectures were off the mark on that one. Gregor Mendel was still too obscure and modern genetics was decades away when Darwin died. His evidence, based on what we knew through foss

Beyond Blended Learning

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 For a long time now, I have been promoting 'blended learning'.  The reasons are various. I have done enough online learning myself to know that the solitary, individualistic learning experience can be a poor alternative to what one may experience in a campus. Besides, most of EdTech is still focused on delivering educational content, but ask anyone about their college days a few years after the fact, all they would remember is the people they met and the experiences they had. Artificial Intelligence, if it ever matches the claims its evangelists make, may perfect educational content delivery but it may never deliver this, the most memorable aspects of an educational experience. But then, I went to school in India and apart from a few truly inspiring encounters, my educational experience mostly consisted of boring lectures and oppressive examinations. One could indeed say that those magical moments made all the drudgery worth it, but I wouldn't really ever want to go back t

The future of higher education that isn't

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Future becomes obsolete, but it happens at a uneven pace.  A wise man once said that in history, 'in years, weeks happen, and then in weeks, years happen'. But, the same wise man - Lenin, as it happened to be - thought he could see the future and shape it. As it turned out, the future didn't behave. This should serve as a cautionary tale for today's Gurus, confidently peering into the future. Our ideas and our expectations, shaped by the slow years, proved completely inadequate now. And, besides, the prediction business does real harm: If the predictions become forceful enough (or are forced on others, as in Russia), it makes us run in directions we shouldn't and makes us ignore stuff that we should be paying attention to. What's happening right now in Higher Education is a clear, time-compressed example of ideas (and predictions) out of sync with reality. Only six months ago we thought the future of Higher Ed was digital. Six months on, there are only a few tru

The Skills Question

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When I saw this government advert, my reaction was: Cyber what?  I did not make the immediate connection that a ballerina is being expected to become a Data Scientist overnight. I am now relieved that many other people found this ad to be distasteful and stupid. But instead of waging a cultural battle on this ad, it's worth thinking about the problem it creates. This is not just about undermining skilled professions (such as ballet) or underestimating the efforts required for a transition. The images and words of the advert can be changed (and it seems that the Government has indeed pulled the advert) but the mindset behind them would not (as the government most helpfully explained, no one in particular was responsible). So, really, not Fatima, but the people who thought up this message should rethink, rewrite and reboot. Not because they are promoting hopelessness - which they certainly are doing - but because their hopes are misplaced. They are promoting a conference circuit vers

The question of authenticity

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I was speaking to someone about behaving well when she turned around and said, "so you are asking me to fake it?" Only then, it dawned on me that there could be a potential conflict between authenticity and decency.  Being ourselves - we have been told - is the goal of life. What this means is less clear, but it's more or less doing what we like, saying what we like and having what we like. This is the modern dream - life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, on our own terms. But what about the others? Can one have life without others? Certainly not without one's parents, at the least, and a lot of other people along the way. No liberty either, without the whole edifice of society and the laws - otherwise the life would be nasty, brutish and short. And, happiness - which includes, at least for most people, other people as well.  Therefore, how is it that being oneself - rather than being one with the world around us - became our dream? I am with Simone Weil when she say

The spectre of Hitler

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As a historian, I am fascinated by Hitler. Of course, he is the most studied persona not just in modern history, but perhaps all history. The phenomena of Hitler - his impact - has led to the creation of specialist areas of research within the history profession, as well as new disciplines such as social psychology. And yet, he is still very fresh - new biographies and histories of Hitler years come up all the time - throwing up new perspectives all the time. Part of reason for this is the difficulty of studying Hitler. His odious, short-lived regime ended in flames. He, in person, disappeared from history as suddenly as he appeared, giving a free hand to conspiracy theorists. The world that emerged from the rubbles was divided, one where truth became a political weapon. The Nazi disruption became veiled by an iron curtain, which, we should not forget, had two sides. With him conveniently dead, Hitler became the ultimate bad guy, as all shades of enablers and collaborators looked to re

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