Books; People; Ideas : These are few of my favourite things. As I live between day-to-day compromises and change-the-world aspirations, this is the chronicle of my journey, full of moments of occasional despair and opportune discoveries, of connections and creations, and, most of all, my quest of knowledge as conversations.
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Would Technology Transform Higher Education?
I. Why Doesn't Technology Change Higher Education?
I lived through the Dotcom years - all that frenzy about valuation of Start-ups, reading Red Herring (the aptly named Magazine of the time that is no more), the excited talk about a changing world - and I have heard this before, that Technology would utterly, completely, irreversibly change College.
It sure did. So, textbooks were replaced by e-textbooks, lectures were recorded and made available as videos, journals became searchable e-journals and submissions became online (though, tediously, many schools still asked for paper copies). But it was a damp squib! There was no disruption like the Music industry, which stopped becoming an industry, almost; nothing like the Netflix-size challenge that shook the big studios; and not even like steady, creeping territory grabbing like Amazon, that redefined how we buy stuff.
A lot of businesses, and people who built them (which includes me), tried and failed to transform education in any fundamental way. Great ambitions often pivoted into mere selling of services, and the only the investor portfolios felt the impact of disruption that was supposed to come about. The teachers were blamed for their fear of change as well as their habit of abandoning the course too soon into an enterprise; regulators were blamed for over regulation that strangulated innovation and under-regulation that encouraged markets for lemons. But the question remained unasked: Why doesn't technology transform Higher Education?
Let's rephrase it: Why doesn't Higher Education change the same way the other similar sectors changed through technology? Streaming destroyed record labels and now the studios, but in education, it became the tool for the marginal indulgence of the podcasts; data sharing and RFID transformed the supply chain and how things are bought, but de-materialization of textbooks did not mean the end of textbooks, but rather a greater, more profitable, proliferation of them. Surely, these changes brought greater efficiency, increased private sector participation and changed student engagement, but it left the PROCESS of College 'un-disrupted': The popular conference slide that a show classrooms of the nineteenth century side by side with contemporary ones to illustrate how little has changed is not heralding the future, but rather, in itself, is an admission of defeat.
II. What's Different About Higher Education?
Is Higher Education peculiar then, a sort of impermeable, unchanging practise that continued the same way all the time? Certainly that carefully cultivated claim is the embattled educators' last defence: It was as it now is and as it always will be. And, the reason such a claim may sound authentic is not because College has not changed, but rather the opposite, that it has changed and such claims were always made. It is the language and the nature of the claim that remained constant, though Higher Education has always been a historically defined activity.
It is more helpful to focus on the origins of this claim than to settle for the more obvious, but superficial, explanation that Higher Education is not really comparable to media or retail sectors: The latter came about as a result of technological transformation, and were expected to change when the technologies changed. This is obvious because the music, movie and organised retail are very much industrial era phenomenon, made possible by a certain technological moment. But this explanation is superficial because this hides more than it says: It obscures that the College in its current form is very much an industrial era creation too, and that the media and retail industries were created not just as a result of enabling technologies, but because of the social conditions - urbanisation, nuclear families, consumer culture etc - that accompanied it. It was not just that the technologists said that let there be a film industry and there it was: It came about in baby steps, through a process of negotiation between ways of organising businesses and ways of living - and in perspective of those changes, the recent transformation of those industries are, at the same time, less revolutionary and yet more promising.
Once we accept that Jeff Bezos is very much a child of Sears, just responding to a different social reality, and Steve Jobs was merely updating the visions of Akio Morita for a 'Prosumer' (Alvin Toffler's prescient term to describe Producer-Consumers that sounds slightly clunky now) world, we perhaps get to see why Education might be different, and how technologies may indeed change education. It is not the Technology in itself, but the whole complex of technical, social, economic and commercial factors that make a sector change to transform the sector. Our affection for the term 'Revolution' is unhelpful; and the adulation for the 'Revolutionaries' is outright mistaken: Rather than making transformation, changes come as the existing arrangements fail, utterly, completely and irreversibly, and eventually, someone gets it and seizes the moment, usually from the outside!
This is where Higher Education is different. Because the industrial era assumptions that brought the current system of College into play are still alive and kicking! We may claim that Robots are changing everything and we have this wonderful age of globalisation going, but it is harder to accept that we would no longer be educating people for 'jobs', 'skills' may not really be as easy to define, and that we may not need to do things that we can't really measure. Ideas die harder than the realities that created them, and the industrial era realities - the big corporation, education for jobs, clearly defined subjects and disciplines, of merit and innate intelligence, 'smarts' - are very much with us even after the chimneys have disappeared.
III. How May Education Change?
It is that claim - of the timeless continuity of College - which tells how may it change. The claim, indeed, is not just a claim, but an elaborate process of symbols and practises - with red-brick buildings or Roman arches, beautiful Robes at the Commencement Ceremonies, cryptic motto written in ancient languages - designed to sustain the central functions of the college, 'sex for students, parking for faculty and sports of the alumni' (in Clark Kerr's words). The modern university wants to claim its lineage directly to the medieval monasteries, through University of Paris to Plato's Academy - and perhaps beyond - to remain OUTSIDE historical time. The central motivation of this claim is not Utopian, but Conservative - of preservation of privilege - and it should therefore be acknowledged as such. The modern Higher Education is a building block of modern social relations, which are based on assumptions of 'merit' and measured in terms of economic productivity, which replaced the previous arrangement of privileges of birth and appreciation through civility. The current structure of college is an intrinsic part of privilege and power of the modern society, and that any amount of Silicon Valley money would rock this proverbial boat is a rather frivolous assumption.
But the emergent economic and social realities just might! In more than one way, the expansionist assumptions of Industrial Era - that there will be unending economic growth, new jobs and ever larger businesses - sound seriously outdated, and yet these are at the heart of our educational enterprise. Despite our premonition that we don't know what's coming, we tend to believe we can define, develop and measure competencies, only to be proved wrong again and again. We fetishize on economic productivity, and yet, know no straight path to it. These problems and possibilities arise from technologies, but they are not technological problems, to be solved with yet another cool app. There will be apps and gadgets that will enable the transformation, but they wouldn't define it.
What would define it is the imperative to correspond with social realities, such as adjusting for a world without jobs, one without year-on-year growth and credit-fuelled expansion of desire, one where money is reined into some sound basis after the bits-driven frivolities burns itself out and where politics, after years of abjuring the 'popular', returns to local and the familiar. This is no return to medieval monasticism, but an abrogation of industrial era College, which is structured as a PROCESS - with defined output and, often, defined input - and which, implied in itself, arrogate the role of arbitrating the shape of the future. Instead, as jobs and careers break down (industrial era concepts as they were), the Higher Education may become a NETWORK, something one may join and leave, each pursuing their own goals, and bringing their own credentials and experiences with, to validate, to collaborate and to co-create. The College, in this, wouldn't exist to measure, to certify and to ensure conformance, but rather to connect, to create and to expand possibilities. Admittedly, these expressions are empty and over-used, but such is our limited vocabulary of the college, inherited from the industrial-era dictionary: What the college would really do would emerge as the attendant social situations emerge, and most certainly, new words to describe it would emerge with it.
A friend has recently forwarded me a quote from Lord Macaulay's speech in the British Parliament on 2nd February 1835. I reproduce the quote below: "I have traveled across the length and breadth of India and I have not seen one person who is a beggar, who is a thief. Such wealth I have seen in this country, such high moral values, people of such calibre, that I do not think we would ever conquer this country, unless we break the very backbone of this nation, which is her spiritual and cultural heritage, and, therefore, I propose that we replace her old and ancient education system, her culture, for if the Indians think that all that is foreign and English is good and greater than their own, they will lose their self-esteem, their native self-culture and they will become what we want them, a truly dominated nation."
The email requested me to forward me to every indian I know. I was tempted, but there were two oddities about this quote. First, the language, which appeared …
Business gift giving has always been common and contentious at the same time. Business gifts are usually seen as an ‘advertising, sales promotion and marketing communication medium’ (Cooper etal, 1991). Arunthanesetal (1994) points out that such gifting is practised usually for three reasons: (a) in appreciation for past client relationships, placing a new order, referrals to other clients, etc.; (b) in the hopes of creating a positive, first impression which might help to establish an initial business relationship; and (c) giving may be perceived as a quid Pro quo (i.e. returning a favour or expecting a favour in return for something).
The practitioners of gift-giving generally argue that doing business is often an aggregation of personal interactions and relationships, and gift-giving should be seen as a natural way of maintaining and enhancing these relationships. ‘Business gifts, especially one given in the course of the festive season, is …
Erna Petri née Kürbs, a farmer’s daughter from Herressen in Thuringia, arrived in Ukraine with her three year old son to join her husband Horst in June 1942. Horst, an SS leader inspired by Nazi ideologue Dr Richard Walter Darré, settled in the plantation of Grzenda, just outside today’s Lviv, to become a German Gentleman-Farmer. Erna saw Horst beating and abusing the workers in the plantation within two days of arriving there, which was, as Horst explained, necessary for establishing authority. Erna joined in enthusiastically, settling into a combination of roles of ‘plantation mistress, prairie Madonna in apron-covered dress lording over slave labourers, infant-carrying, gun-wielding Hausfrau.’ However, there were clear rules in the plantation, and Erna was very much expected to play the woman’s role of being a Cake-and-Coffee hostess. When four Jews were caught in the estate while trying to escape from a transport to a death camp, Horst told Erna and her female guest…
Buzzwords have disadvantages. Right now, experiential learning is one, and that means we put the label on everything and it stops to mean anything. Also, this means reasonable conversation about experiential learning becomes difficult - at times such as this, either you preach experiential learning or you are traditional, antiquarian and hopelessly out of touch.
But, overlooking the limitations of experiential learning can cause big problems. Experiential Learning does many things - putting practice at the heart of learning is an important paradigm shift - but not everything, and it is important to be aware what it does not do.
Usually, we equate the terms Project-based Learning (the method) with Experiential Learning (the idea) and Learning from Experience (the ideal), treating them as one and the same and using the terms interchangeably. Any talk about distinctive meaning of these terms is usually seen as pedantic, but really represent very different ideas about education.
In an earlier post, I pointed out that the application of 'platform thinking' in education misses the mark, as it fails to understand how value is created in education. Since this apparently contradicts my earlier enthusiasm for the university as a 'user network', this statement needs further explanation.
To start with, Clayton Christiansen's idea that the universities of the Twentieth Century needs to evolve from its current 'value chain' model - wherein its value lies in its processes - to a form of User Network, where its value emanates from its community, still resonates with me. The Value Chain model, with departments, examinations, textbooks and degrees, that we know the university for, is very much a late Nineteenth/ early Twentieth century formulation. And, indeed, one can claim that the universities were always communities, and its value came from being a member of that community rather than its end product - the degrees - for much of history. It …
I wrote a note on Kolkata, the city I come from and would always belong to, in July 2010. Since then, the post attracted many visitors and comments, mostly critical, as most people, including those from Kolkata, couldn't see any future for the city. My current effort, some 18 months down the line, is also prompted by a recent article in The Economist, The City That Got Left Behind, which echo the pessimism somewhat.
I, at least emotionally, disagree to all the pessimism: After all Kolkata is home and I live in the hope of an eventual return. Indeed, some change has happened since I wrote my earlier post: The geriatric Leftist government that ruled the state for more than 30 years was summarily dispatched, and was replaced by a lumpen-capitalist populist government. Kolkata looked without a future with the clueless leftists at the helm; it now looks without hope.
However, apart from bad governance, there is no reason why Kolkata had to be poor and hopeless. It sits right inside …
Smart presentations don't mean valuable insights. So it is with the current fad of presenting the vision of an all-new 21st-century education - through presentations, conferences and infographics - style trumps substance all the way through.
For, despite the claims of revolutionary changes in society and the workplace, the neat charts that lay down 21st-century skills next to the 20th-century one's show do not how different they would be, but rather how similar these are projected to be.
We are told that we have arrived at a fundamentally disruptive moment in history and we need new skills. So, we need, for example, communication and critical thinking, learning to learn and a host of other cool things. Indeed, many of those terms are very familiar to the educator: Many of those were around for more than two centuries, ever since the dreams of liberal education were spelt out.
When these slides were presented, I often wondered whether the point about critical thinking meant …
India's unemployment rate has reached a historical high and the government is panicking. It has rejected and suppressed the report and committed itself to inventing a new set of numbers. Members of the national statistical body have resigned, and the bad job numbers have become one of the worst kept secrets in its modern history.
As the government went down the road of obfuscation, it had also fooled itself believing that everything was fine. Once the statistical reports were questioned, the best explanation that the Head of the apex economic policy-making body could come up with was that Uber and other taxi-hailing companies have created millions of jobs in India. But then, the crisis is anything but hidden - walk on any street in any neighbourhood in any Indian city, and it is likely that you will see a few working-age people loitering, waiting or playing cards or carom in the middle of the day. IMF has recently warned that youth inactivity in India is highest among all develo…
In most societies today, making profits are accepted as moral, if not especially praiseworthy. This was not as obvious as it appears today – people used to be embarrassed about making a profit not so long ago.
Crazy as it seems today, it is worth thinking why it was so.
Profits, as economists will put it, is the reward for risk-taking, for putting a business enterprise together in the pursuit of an objective. In this definition, remember, profits are not what it is commonly understood to be – the gross middle-line towards the bottom – but a figure net of entrepreneur’s earning [wages for his labour], dividends and interests on borrowed capital, and provisions for building and other physical assets [a sort of rent, offsetting what these assets could have earned if leased out]. This pure profit – surplus – accrues to a business as a reward to its organisation, for the act of entrepreneurship itself.
Economists were divided on how this surplus comes about. The conventional wisdom was, as I …
India is an impossible nation.
In fact, that's exactly what the British colonialists used to say: India is no more a country than the Equator, Churchill quipped. A geographical expression, but no nation! The region east of Indus, as the Greeks knew it, was fragmented, by language, religion and customs, when ideas of nation and nationhood arrived from Europe. Churchill was only half wrong: India was never a nation like the European ones.
But he is half-wrong because India existed. India may not be a nation, but the implicit assumption that a country has to be one 'pure' nation is apparently wrong. That Scots voted to stay in Union did not mean that they had given up their national identity; nor did a thousand years cured the Welsh of their Welshness. Nation and its territoriality are neat concepts on paper but hardly exist in its imagined form anywhere. Believe it too much and you get Brexit.
Besides, such territorial ideas are European. Asia long existed as congruent landm…