Showing posts from 2020

Beyond Blended Learning

 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

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

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

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

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

After the Flat World

 The world was flat. Then, it wasn't. We - those who benefitted from the flattening - think Donald Trump is an aberration, Brexit is a mistake and Putin is behind all this, stirring things up. We also believe that this would all go away, soon. We wish Trump will be out of office next year and Boris, with his fragile health, will be gone soon thereafter. And everything will be normal again. We are hoping the world will be flat again. In summary, we know that there is nothing wrong with our vision of flat world: It was the best thing that could have happened to humanity. That 'sound of business', the global rustle of money, is the coolest thing ever. But, then, come to think of it,  even within the metaphor, the world was never really flat: Rather, it was like a chain made of little hierarchies everywhere. It was not about everyone having the same opportunity - the equality of conditions, as Michael Sandel would call it - but rather the opposite, little worlds of inequality j

Ghost in the classroom: Finding and banishing the empire from Indian Higher Ed

India - with its new education policy - wants to make a new start. In a world of weakening institutions, China-US competition and a rapidly changing climate and disease environment, this is overdue. India's young millions is great power, but also great responsibility: If not tended, its demographic dividend can turn into a demographic disaster. But the first call of duty for an Indian educator is to address the elephant in the room. For far too long, Indian higher education carried on the colonial legacy, casting successive generation of Indians in the empire's shadow. Despite its independence, and perhaps because of the troubled legacy of its partition, India remained a marginal player in the world higher education scene, consigned to following the agenda rather than shaping it. Its higher education system, always big and now the second biggest in the world, curtailed its own aspiration and carried on the business as usual. It has failed its people, comprehensively and spectac

In praise of serendipity, when nothing seems right

When I was in college, I thought I knew what would happen to my life. I knew where I would live – that was easy: Four generations of my family lived in the same house. I knew what I would do – follow either my grandfather into the family business or my father into college teaching. I also knew who I would marry – well, at least my parents made up their mind about that. Of course, none of that happened. The world around me changed and all the assumptions I grew up with disappeared one by one. I ended up living five thousand miles away from my family home, being in a profession which didn’t exist when I was in college. By the time I married, my parents had given up on the idea that they knew what would be best for me.  But, looking back,  while  I would love to say that I took the risks and followed my heart, I didn’t do anything of that sort. Rather, at every turn, I tried to fit in, be consistent, keep my commitments. I did not try to dent the universe, as Steve Jobs called my gene

The great decoupling

As Trump speaks about disengaging from China, the Chinese are doubling down on creating a parallel Information Technology universe free of America-made software. The big tech, usually the champion of free trade and free movement of people, has all of a sudden turned sinophobe. Just when a disease borne by globalisation destroys lives and disfigures economies, we are staring at a fundamental reconfiguration of the world - the great decoupling! It's an ugly word (fittingly for the age of Trump, full of sexual innuendo) but one that really captures what's happening: The integrated global economy that we got used to is breaking apart! This was a process well under way for some time, but COVID19 has accelerated the process. We need to start thinking what comes next and adjust our ideas accordingly. However, amid Donald Trump's rhetoric and China's territorial assertions, it is tempting to start thinking about a new Cold War. But that's not what is happening now: The worl

Education versus Technology

I work at the technology-education interface. Most of my day is spent in thinking about how to use technology to expand access to education and to enhance our capabilities to educate.  Sometimes, I look at the other side of the equation: How education may help spread the use of technology and enable more people to benefit from new technology. An early convert to the Internet, I rarely thought about an education to confront technology.  Until recently, that is. But I am increasingly uneasy about what technology does. It's quite clear what Facebook can do, and often does: Shape our daily lives and make us dance to the tune of some shadowy master! WhatsApp can take over our every waking moment and drown us in hate-filled cacophony. Google can box us into echo chambers of our queries. Then there are others, like Oracle, who thrives on an empire built around our data. For me, it looks like a prison of mirrors, where our every little move is observed, repeated and studied eternally, from

A return to history

As History with a capital H makes a comeback, would we return to studying history? History is an endangered discipline now. There are those who believe study of the past is rather meaningless, when we can just create - with the power of technology - the future.  And, then, there are those who use history all the time - or rather, make it up - to further their own goals. For them, unlike the historians, the lure of the past is due to its obscurity, its uncertainties and tentative nature. Instead, they confidently create the narratives of the past that they want - shaping and controlling it in their bid to own the future.  However, history as political propaganda isn't really that new, but it's not history. At the core of history, there is a search for truth, even when such truth may be unknowable. It's true even the best of history writing is a narrative, an interpretation of what happened, and there are inevitably a lot of missing parts. But what distinguishes history from

Needed: A new theory of autocracy

Autocrats are on the rise. Many societies, presumed to be democratic, are under the sway of autocratic leaders. Others, who had been under autocratic rule for some time and recently disposed off the long-reigning autocrat, have gone back and got a new one.  Commentators, who initially saw such a political turn as aberrations and predicted democratic tendencies to triumph eventually, are now recalibrating their outlook. Books with titles such as 'death of democracy' are out now and those calling democracy a disorder seem to be around the corner. Protests, which are everywhere, are producing unintended consequences: Few years of battling Brexit have produced in Britain the most authoritarian right-wing government one ever imagined there would be; the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States may just help Donald Trump to scrape through again. The commentaries on how this came about focus on the usual suspects: The great recession of 2008, inequality, effects of globalisati

Does India really want foreign universities?

India's New Education Policy makes the clearest statement yet about India's intent to attract foreign universities to set up campus in the country. It recognises the need and makes a promise to introduce legislation allowing the foreign universities to set up campus in India in near future. But, at the same time, it betrays a lack of understanding about international education and branch campus dynamic. The barely concealed assumption that all universities must be very interested about Indian 'market' for demographic reasons and the country holds all the cards on who to allow is completely off the mark.  For starters, this offer is for top 100 universities in the world, the policy states, without specifying how this ranking would be determined. The easiest way to do this would be to take one of the global rankings, but choosing one over the other going to be contentious. Besides, rankings have now moved on from simply ranking the world's best universities to all kin

Meritocracy's discontents

Meritocracy is a convenient lie, as Socrates foretold, and it is the ballast of the social system we have built. The story goes like this. Once upon a time, we had kings and queens and their families and nobles, who got the best meat and the best mate, and everyone lived happily. But then the things fell apart as luxury corrupted the nobles and feebled the spirits of their offsprings - and the peasants and the artisans came claiming their fair share. So we had the age of revolutions in Europe and North America, when we created a new, fairer social system, under a 'natural aristocracy of men', where destiny was no longer shaped by birth but by intelligence and hard work, and anyone could make it in life. And, everyone again lived happily ever after. Of course, this did not really happen. Slavery persisted, at least for a long time. The 'fair' system mostly excluded the real peasants and workers and once they have done their duty dying for various revolutions, they were s

Today in history

73 years ago, on this day, India was divided.  Of course, this is a well-known fact. But it's worth repeating. We must remember that the division of India and creation of Pakistan was an imperial act, driven by self-serving motives.  Indeed, it's an easy thing to forget. In the intervening years, the political class in both countries, which owed its existence to this new configuration, took the existence of the two (and later, three) nations as a given. It was deemed as a historical, cultural and geographical fact, on the basis of which all later thinking sprouted. Each year, the countries drifted apart, obsessed as they were with one another. However, we must remind ourselves - periodically if we must - that this division is an artificial, imperialist one. I am sure there are plenty of people who will disagree to this. They will, because their political power, status and affluence depend on not agreeing with the artificiality of this division. They do their best to keep alive

Labour markets, competency frameworks and quest for good education

  Over the years, competency-based education has become a central focus of my work.  This started with a simple assumption: That the transition from education to employment would be smooth if the education that learners receive correspond directly to the competencies that the employers need.  What it translated into practice is: First, instead of writing courses driven by content, identify the job roles that the employers are finding most difficult to fill - and work with the employers to create a competency map for those roles. Then, prioritise these competencies (using classification such as must-have, should-have, could-have and would be nice to have) and work with employers to define the acceptance criteria for someone to be deemed competent in each of these. Finally, do what educators do and map assessments and content to this to generate a course. But the practical challenges Of course, this process requires unfettered access and trust of the key employers. I have been somewhat

What a Liberal Education is not

India's new National Education Policy argues for a new Higher Education system, which will have a Liberal Education undergraduate curriculum at its heart. This is great news. Globalisation since the 1990s shaped the Indian economy and particularly its service sector, which, in turn, shaped the priorities of the Indian Higher Education system. But, of late, populist politics in the Western nations and automation of work have started changing the shape of the global value chain. India, which banks its future on 'demographic dividend', must adjust to this emerging economic reality - and must construct a new model of Higher Education alongside.  But, while we should welcome the commitment to reimagine the undergraduate education, and free the Indian student from the Engineering fetish which has stunted a generation, it's important that we don't just mimic some American formula of Liberal Education. We must keep in mind that in the United States, Liberal Education colleg

The case for a platform model in private higher ed

Universities are at an inflection point; so too is private higher education. The education entrepreneurs and private equity backing education ventures may present private higher education as the solution to higher education's current woes. In reality, however, most private higher education institutions are innovation-challenged and fail regularly. While some, like University of Phoenix or Hult Business Schools, have managed to be financially successful for short periods of time, such success is both rare and has been short-lived. Private higher ed model needs as much rethinking as that of the universities. In most countries, private higher education plays a demand-absorption role. When demographic or economic changes result in significant expansion of student numbers and public education, because of their nature as bureaucratic institutions dependent on advance planning without unfettered access to risk capital, private higher ed steps in to absorb the excess demand. However, what

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