An Update On Me

I have come back where I started. I decided to write this blog in a diary mode yet again. This is how I started anyway, but abandoned the banter as I got more people reading the blog. But I just feel too constrained to fit myself into a crusty professional self - this has been the bane of my career, I would suspect - and I found out that churning out wisdom on the blog is not my kind of thing. I tried and stopped, stopped and tried, and like now, and I am at another moment of fresh start.

A part of how I approach this blog is about my professional responsibility as well. When I am in employment, rather than being my own boss (I alternated between the two modes several times), these constraints matter more. I never wanted to write what I had for breakfast on this blog (I am not famous yet) but about ideas and situations that stimulate and make me think. And, some of these are disappointments: In fact, I figured out, disappointments stimulate more than a happy night out. Or, for that matter, being stupid is also an immensely stimulating affair, if one has the good fortune of getting back to senses not long after. The trouble is, of course, that one can not write about these publicly while also carrying out one's professional responsibilities, which essentially means being the 'role' rather than the person.

As one could perhaps guess, I am at the end of one such life and starting another. My silence over the last couple of weeks, and my resolve to find my voice yet again, would testify that I am at an inflection point. This is the end of the three year period I spent working around the idea of Experiential Learning. I took this on as my attempts of building a global collaborative learning platform through my own start-up faltered. It was a very interesting journey and I had the chance of working with some of the most brilliant people I have ever met. However, three years down this road, it is time for me to start out again, and explore the ideas that I have developed in a more independent manner. That indeed means an all-change moment for this blog: I feel more free, and, at the same time, I have more to write.

Of course, not for the first time, I procrastinated before taking this final leap. This is because I have put relationships ahead of the cold, hard logic of career progress or financial gains, and people I worked with often became my friends (I did refer to them as friends, prompting one colleague to remark that I have 1.2 billion friends in India). This made what should be a rather mundane and procedural affair - leaving a job - a complex human project for me, one involving relationships and commitments. This is perhaps another bane in my career, that the distinction between professional and personal isn't as clear-cut as it should be. For me, therefore, changing a role is almost like leaving a family, and frankly, I can never leave fully something I was so deeply and passionately involved in (as most people who I worked with in the past would testify).

However, I decide to move on based on a professional consideration, the realisation that the Education to Employment problem in developing countries is hard to resolve within the current For-Profit frameworks and mindsets. There are several layers of mistaken assumptions and structural issues which come in the way, and this is not the place or the time to dwell on the details. However, there is one key issue that I take away from the current experience, and I hope that this would become a key thing to deal with as I move to the next projects.

The reason why I think the For-Profit approach, which underpin all the currently fashionable venture investment in the Education sector, falls short in achieving anything transformational is because it misreads how value is created in education. It borrows its model from Technology industries, where 'platform' is the new, cool thing. A 'platform' - Facebook is a great example - essentially offers a space and a toolkit for its users to create value. This is immensely scalable, as the businesses themselves don't have to create content and even direct its purpose (other than maintaining the social norms and legal requirements) and invest all its energies in expanding its user base (sales) and the scope of its tools. The users create all content and connections, and willing allow the business to monetise the value they create for its own profits.

The 'For Profit' approach wants to bring this into Education. It is easy to see how this translates to the education context: No content, only platform! The For-Profit approach feasts on all the sleek theories of self-learning, though they conveniently ignore the caveats and only take the bits that fit their own world-view. For example, no serious education theorist (including ex-NIITian Sugata Mitra, who is the favourite guru of this camp, as he speaks about self-organising learning environments) would ever say knowledge is not important in education: But this message is conveniently lost in translation and at the For-Profit end, education means only skills and experience. Again, someone like John Dewey would highlight the Centrality of Experience in Education, but his caveat, that Experiences are of whole life and not of some bottled exposure, is conveniently ignored (see my previous post on this). The platform approach, therefore, takes what George Ritzer called 'McDonaldization' (see here) to a new extreme, to a self-service model where the learners become the new, digital, sharecroppers.

This is the opposite of rote learning that goes on in many schools, and indeed, I have no sympathies for that. But, the content-free education doesn't look anything like freedom from bad education or promise any transformation, despite the tall claims and loud promotions. It, instead, builds an education model totally subservient to pre-existing commercial models. Education - as the meeting place of Experience and Knowledge, as an opportunity to develop an independent and reflective identity - is totally ignored, and instead what one is left with is a superficial model of social interaction, underpinned by oneupmanship and self-promotion. Superficial communication, in this model, takes the place of understanding and engagement, experience is vulgarised into universalising models and knowledge is projected as a baggage. Despite the claims of careful, evidence-based approach, these educational approaches are usually based on learning designs made on a spreadsheet with dollar figures, and ended up hurting more than helping - and indeed, it hurts the most vulnerable most severely.

I have spent last five years, ever since I walked out of my job in the UK private college in 2012, exploring various models of Education-to-Employment transition. I recognise this as an urgent problem, and I remain totally committed to the cause even if I have to take a different road now. The 'Digital Sharecropper' model (Nicholas Carr's term) is not going to solve this problem, and will only make it worse. It needs more substantial, and sustained, involvement on the ground, with greater engagement with the stakeholders and greater respect for local cultures and norms, than anything I have done so far.

So that is really going to be my agenda going forward: Enabling socially committed institutions in building robust educational models. This may have to happen outside the VC mindset and needs to enabled by other, more enlightened, sources of money. The other part of my agenda is to expand my work as Historian of Global Education and write more often and more widely, as this would reinforce my work in the more practical arena of building solutions. This is the conversation I shall turn this blog into now, and I hope that is a change for the better.

Comments

I believe that the present focus on digitizing education is misplaced, especially in a world where the digital divide is still a stark reality. There is going to be a natural digitization of the information dissemination model, much of which is already apparent. What is not apparent is the convergence of models, of pedagogy and user generated information and the marriage of content that emerging technologies will enable. Autodidacticism and democratic learning are already giving conventional education systems a "run for their money." We have not seen a major paradigm shift in the education model in the last three decades (after the information technology boom) but I am convinced that there is a shedding of skin taking place that none of us are yet in on. And from the young people I meet and speak with, I am convinced that it will be a gamechanger for the good - changing politics, economy, and transcending social divides. All the best for your new direction. Your work always fascinates me and fills me with hope.

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