Disrupting Education, the Amazon way

Many entrepreneurs around the world are working to 'disrupt' education. They sincerely believe that the traditional model of education can be improved, can be made more inclusive and more responsive to the needs of the employers and of society at large. 

But, sadly, most of these 'disruptive' attempts fail. In fact, all of them invariably fail; the ones that survive become anything but disruptive - they abandon their universe-denting ambitions and turn themselves into me-too universities.

This is, lately, spawning the rise of anti-entrepreneurs in education - those who claim that education will be as it always was! Apart from this being historically incorrect, education has always changed with time and technology available, this is also patently unjust. The current systems of education exclude too many people, promote wrong ideals and limit rather than creating opportunities. Education is not only disruptible; it needs to be disrupted.

As mid-life realism catches up with my usual optimism, it's time for me to reflect whether I am committing myself to an unwinnable cause of disrupting education; particularly, as in my case, disrupting college. My engagements thus far have led not just to failure, but more tragically, to mediocrity. A start-up burning itself out is sad but leaves no trail; private education aping public universities in its own soulless way causes a lot more damage with broken lives and by subverting the promise of transformation itself.

So it got me thinking about why private attempts to change education fails, with a particular focus not on those who burn the cash out, but those which make money but drift into pointlessness. The reasons for this is easy to guess - private education arose as a demand-absorbing option and its most profitable function is to make available degrees and diplomas to those who do not find it easy to enter supply-constrained public universities. But, this is false logic in the post-2008 world: Demand for higher education has stagnated or fallen in Europe and North America, leaving the public system with empty seats; on the other hand, where the demand has risen, across the developing world, governments have expanded the public system rapidly, primarily to satisfy middle-class voters. However, despite this, the new private institutions carry on copying the traditional, nudging each other onto the slippery slope of diploma-mill-ness.

Returning to the question of why this seems to happen time and again, and even when starry-eyed promoters are involved, I think there are two parts of the answer. The first part is obvious: Education is a highly evolved, deeply entrenched system, intricately linked with our ideas of social privilege and power. In fact, it's hard to disrupt education not because it's unchanging, but rather it has evolved so much and so well with time, successively creating new mechanisms to absorb any shocks from without. It's a mistake to think about education in terms of career bureaucrats reading out musty notes inside dilapidated rooms; it's rather an empire of processes, a vast commercial juggernaut of money and power, more steel, glass and computers these days than poorly-heated classrooms. But it's also a vast system of tests, rankings and publications, a system of reviews and judgements handed out by commentators, journalists and politicians whose success and thinking are underpinned by the system of education. The disrupters themselves, even when they have silicon valley level of funding, sign up into this same system, hiring the same professors and competing for the same system of perks and privileges. They say they would alter the field, but you can hardly do so if you play the same game with the same set of people.

But the other part of the answer is that the focus on Technology-based disruption makes the new providers miss an important point about education. It's not about doing the same thing that traditional colleges do, with technology. The assumption that the act of disruption merely involves new formats of delivery, with other aspects of education - student engagement, content, assessment, certification etc - remaining the same, is wrong. Apart from the fact that the medium is the message - online education calls for a different education as well - there are significant structural problems in education that need to be addressed before the access can be democratised.

For me, the disruption will come in education when founders start thinking about Jeff Bezos (or Reed Hastings, if you like). It's easy to see Amazon as an e-Commerce platform selling books, but that's not what made it change an industry. Despite all the common sense reasons why books are ideal for selling online, one must remember that book-selling is also a highly evolved industry with extensive linkages. Amazon did more than introduce an online mechanism of browsing books and managing deliveries; many other providers did the same. It's not even its recommendation system, which still isn't very good for most book-buyers, that made Amazon the platform of choice. All those 'technical' aspects of the platform were replicable and the big book stores could have created that easily.

Where Amazon trumped all of them is by redefining the relationship with the customer. I became a lifelong Amazon buyer when they responded to my request, made from small-town India in 1997, about books lost on the post and sent, at a greater cost than the books themselves, a replacement by airmail. I was dazzled by their level of trust, how seriously they took my complaint and how they went out of their way to service orders from a small-time book buyer from a distant location. It was not about technology: It was taking a non-user seriously and engaging with them. This seems like a small trick - setting up algorithms is supposed to be a much bigger deal - but just ask a technologist or a banker to take a customer seriously and you will know that this is the most difficult trick of all!

This disregard for individual students is even more pervasive in universities. Indeed, some lecturers care, but they have very little power and influence in the modern process-driven universities. The people who run the universities are mostly out of touch with the reality of student life and make decisions based on what it should be rather than the lived reality. This is why the processes, approaches and content of higher education are not ready for those who may come to education without the financial and social capital of the 'usual' university students. At the heart of disruption in education, it's not just technology-enabled delivery; rather, a readiness to educate the students in a different way, taking them more seriously and trying to transform their lives one person at a time.


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