The Past of The Future, and A Plan
August was somewhat the crucial month, with a both a week-long walking tour of Paris and a work trip to India, allowing me to the perspective that I desperately needed. It has been a year that I chose to take up a job after a few years of bootstrapping, and it was most appropriate for me to reflect on what happened since. Besides, I wanted to figure out what I really want to do, and travelling and engaging with different things in different countries was one of the best ways to figure this out. This allowed me to test the assumptions I had, about work and about myself, and while there are no definite answers in these kinds of things, I am much better informed now than I was only a year ago.
For a start, I know adult education is something I enjoy being involved in, and I would rather stick to this, despite some tempting offers to work for the technology sector. Even an education technology company is not an education company, I keep reminding myself, and nor an investment bank putting money in education. The joys and possibilities of education is still at the sharp end, in teaching, building and running institutions, which is what I want to do. If this was an idealistic presumption right at the start, when I pivoted into an education career, it is no longer - I have withstood the trial by fire of bootstrapping and eating the humble pie of going back to work. It is at least one thing I can leave constant as I try to re-imagine my future.
The other thing I figured out is education is a land-grab business with a distinct dynamic. Despite all the talk of disruption, education innovation is a game to be played one step at a time. Innovation is not a buzzword in education the way standards and quality are, and when people pursue Higher Education, there is an inherent pursuit of prestige and credibility. This is what drives higher education and therefore, good, small colleges may be more difficult to run than bad, big colleges. I have come to see how difficult it is to disrupt the existing education structure even if it is dysfunctional, because at the end it is growing - with masses of middle class - innovation is not the game. The middle classes want to be educated to emulate the upper classes, and for them, what is in demand is more of the same at a cheaper cost, rather than something utterly different.
There are so many innovative education companies which believe, rightly, that the existing education system would fail to deliver what the middle classes want and trying to construct something different. Their failures, as well as of my previous venture, add to the evidence that middle classes are nothing if not conservative. The defining characteristic of middle classes is to pursue upper class lifestyle and aspirations at a cheaper price point - in one sense, that lies at the heart of many truly disruptive business ideas - and the real disruption comes from cheap, not better. My British venture trying to give a different type of education to Asian youngsters was doomed from the start - an online Diploma Mill giving degrees from non-existent colleges at a throwaway price always has more promise than the pretentious attempt to offer competency-based education that I set up - because the price point I was working with disqualified us from the pursuit of cheap degrees.
This understanding provides the context for my next plan, which I shall embark on when I finish my current project. I have summarised all I learned during the last three years into a few principles, on which I shall build my plan.
First, I shall stay out of competing with the existing education system and would rather work with it. This means whatever I do, my offerings would be to plug into the existing institutional structure rather than trying to create an alternate structure altogether. There is enough opportunity for this, as things can be done better.
Second, this can indeed be a piece of technology, or content, or things that may enhance educational experience. These projects can be done well with limited financial resources, whereas anything to compete with whole systems of education and changing mindsets need an enormous resource base.
Third, the pursuit of scale (and exit) are wrong goals to pursue in building an education venture, because they impose an unrealistic ambition, and create an unsustainable dynamic, not consistent with the goal of creating a memorable education experience. Good education remains, despite all the advances of technology, a very personal business, labour intensive and personal. While one could build efficiencies in the process, the current quest to MacDonaldize education. I have noted that many current education ventures are based on business models which seek to rationalise (this is the original sense George Ritzer used the term) education - creating controlled processes, equating measurability with good performance and emphasising predictability - and education is not as permeable to such models as the proponents of it thought it to be (it is strange that we fail to learn from the experiences of US For-Profits). Quest for scale does not make any business sense either, given that most successful universities are relatively small affairs, but it is often driven by globalising vanities of the investors and executives, a recipe for disaster. It is most sensible, therefore, to aim to create a small community knitted together around an excellent experience. Excellence, not scale, could be the only legitimate goal of an educational enterprise.
Fourth, there is a profound change underway at work, with new opportunities and job roles emerging, at the expense of many traditional middle class jobs. This is where the quest of scale becomes self-defeating too - the most popular areas of study today, law, business, IT for example, are the ones facing obsolescence, and the niche areas that will produce the jobs of the future do not promise the scale. There is great demand for plug-ins that would make the existing education system cope with the change, and this is perhaps where the greatest opportunity for a new education organisation is.
Indeed, all the above means that I am not in alignment with the current For-Profit education thesis, but that is a good thing, given the rate of failure of For-Profit institutions and their fast-disappearing credibility. I shall go back to my original plan, of offering a great creative education in collaboration with the existing education institutions, and do it through innovative technologies, content and experience. This may indeed play out over a period of time, several months at the least - and I shall record my progress here as I go along.