Conversations 8: Searching for A Model for New Education

If there is a purpose in what I am doing in Education, it is to develop and implement a model of education fit for the modern economy. This is not just rhetoric, but an article of faith: Despite most of my day-to-day work sorely concerning itself with the industrial era Higher Ed formula, packing students in a classroom studying a pre-defined curriculum, I believe firmly that the days of this kind of education is over. The model is living on borrowed time, sustained by a collective lack of imagination, vested interests and government largesse.
In fact, this model of education may already be past their sell-by dates because its inherent rationale, that one could prepare students for middle class careers through education, is now suspect. The sole reason this lives on is because it is so difficult and uncomfortable to change anything in education: So it must come crumbling down rather than being systematically reformed.

The object of my work is to explore what could replace it.

That is a bold claim, but I have some qualifications. I have lived and worked in different countries, seen and explored different forms of education, taught at different levels, designed courses, deployed large projects with learning technologies, debated the politics of education and seen first hand how education could change lives. I have also been a student in different kinds of universities in different countries. And, all these besides, I watched and observed, and chronicled some of the conversations and experiences I was having on this blog, and looked out for a better model of education over a long period of time.

I also saw the effects of technology from close quarters. My software training and a promising career in an Email service company were rendered redundant by Internet: I survived as I switched and became a Netizen early (before the World Wide Web, I love to say). Then onwards, I learnt to anticipate the waves and move early: This meant some painful early adventures, but never one to be crushed by obsolescence and pointlessness. This is exactly as I feel now: The time for education as usual is over.

What comes next is anybody's guess. Most solid middle class careers are on their way out. I get silent apprehension when I talk about an impending technology revolution making obsolete most of our assumptions about work and career, but that is hardly surprising: I used to get similar responses when I talked about emails in the early Nineties, then about the Internet in the mid-Nineties, and then about E-Commerce even in the early years of the new millennium (a dear friend challenged me that Potatoes can never be sold on the Internet). Just as it happened before, people sleepwalk into technology revolutions, more like a frog in warming water. This time around, though, I believe this transformation will have more acute consequences than the other changes, and this would perhaps be a civilisational tipping point rather than just a better way of doing things. This is because the technological change comes with the brute force of globalisation. Imagine all those young middle class students who are joining the world's universities in millions, preparing for the careers which are already being made obsolete: By the time they graduate, they would suddenly face the impact of such technological change, and nothing in their educational experience would have prepared them to deal with it.

However esoteric it may sound at this time, I have focused my work in joining the search for a model of education for this challenge, creation of able individuals for a world where globalisation, technology and a dynamic and unpredictable configuration of work, life and society all come together. There are many interesting experiments are being done all over the world, but they sit firmly outside the mainstream and mostly ignored. I wish to explore these, write about these and talk to the proponents of these experiments, because they are, in my mind, are like those early Internet pioneers, whose work will have enormous impact on what happens next.

The problem in this search is less than obvious. Most educational institutions and people who work in them are so consumed by the 'system' that it is hardly possible to have a meaningful conversation with them on how education may indeed change: They don't want to know. On the other hand, the technologists' zeal of changing the world is mostly blown up rhetoric, and so is the Education Businessmen's: They have no time for education, and would rather squeeze the dollars out of the industrial model till it falls apart. The meaningful conversations about the new education is happening inside the education sector, by the educators, but not its most visible, successful, established ones: These are happening in the margin - indeed that's where creativity always happens - and they are being carried out by educators who are upsetting the other educators. The ideas how education can change are hardly evident in the glossy research reports handed out in private equity circles, but rather in new experiments done with old ideas, coming out of the playbook of Ivan Illich, A S Neill and others: It is about setting the students free, creating a safe environment around them to explore and to learn, and for facilitating a nurturing creative space where the possibilities of life could be examined. These radical departures from the industrial model of education have come alive now that the rationale for the big school looks bunk.

In my work, I have set in motion a pivot for my original business plans: Instead of setting up a 'college' as I initially tried to do, I am trying to transform the business into a platform for nurturing disruptive ideas for education. This will no longer be about developing and delivering courses, but more of facilitating entrepreneurial ideas and projects among the students, and making them aware of this impending 'climate change' in careers. In my day job, I am giving up teaching and taking up a business role which will focus me back on India: Not that this is what I want to do long term, but this is possibly my most apparently marketable skill. However, there are some benefits of taking on such an assignment: Engaging into the world's most challenging education market and seeing the action first hand would enormously help my quest to chronicle the search for alternative models. This will also help me to find my way back to India, which I am committed to doing, and to participate in the country's education, which remains my ambition.


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