Platform Thinking For Global Higher Education

I came across a deeply insightful article by Vivek Wadhwa pointing out that the most successful companies in Silicon Valley are not focused on selling products. They are instead creating enabling ecosystems for others to create value, and they are capturing a portion of that value. They know that the value comes from communities and conversations, and not from selling close-ended blackboxes, at least not anymore. 

In a different context, this is a message that companies claiming to 'disrupt' global education should take to heart. All they want to do is to sell those products - 'degrees' in most cases - structured as close-ended black-boxes. And, as the marketplace for such education offerings are becoming global, primarily with the growth of middle classes in Asia and Africa, the limits of this model are more and more visible. Education as an activity is deeply shaped by local cultures and preferences, and most attractive markets, such as India or China, already have a long tradition of education, a clear preference system and established local institutions. It is so much harder to come with a new and fancy product and replace what has been there for so long.

I often wondered why companies make such mistakes. Part of it hubris, coupled with a lack of appreciation of the local preferences. People in education are not known for their sensitivity to customer preferences - they educate them - and in most businesses, they are backed by bankers who make money by conjuring up demand from thin air. That a poor Indian or African student may have a view about education of their own seem implausible or absurd when seen from the vantage point of a London Conference Room. But, also, part of this is how all education has always been shaped: It has always been an end-to-end structure, with a bureaucratic control, labelled as 'Quality', locking all aspects of it down.

I have a big issue with this idea of 'Quality', which I shall mention here even at the cost of digressing. In International Education, 'Quality' is often an excuse, a lazy excuse at that. 'Quality' is the reason why courses are not made responsive to demands of employers and students, 'Quality' is why costs remain high, 'Quality' is why local partner opinions are trashed and 'Quality' is why we build all those splendid offerings which no one wants. 'Quality' as a bureaucratic tool of keeping things as it is, a smokescreen for not doing the thinking, is at the heart of this black box thinking. After having listened to many excuses of 'Quality' for inward-looking education offerings and invocations of the Q-word as something that can not really be explained, I have come to see 'Quality' in the bureaucratic sense of the word as the enemy of 'Good Education'. 

But one has to remember that a company like Apple or Google care about Quality as much as any navel-gazing college in the world. But in their world, Quality is not about talking down to the customers (or, the developer community in this case) but to be responsive to them, to work with them. Quality, in this case, is not the official sledge-hammer, the conversation stopper, as it is in Education, but the enabler of engagement and conversation. And, this open approach, indeed, lies at the heart of all platforms.

But, apart from hubris and the excuses of 'Quality', there are other reasons why so many new education companies, designed to be nimble-footed, still stumble. This is to be found in the mantra of 'disruption': The underlying assumption that all education investors make that the education structures are broken and must be replaced. Therefore, the back-box, the claims of a new kind of education to replace all other kind of education - the 21st century equivalent of the original Macintosh that we continue to hawk!

But the education system is not broken as far demand for it is concerned. People go to college more than ever. If anything is spoiling the quality of education in any of the emerging countries, it is the abundance of demand: There are just so many students who will come regardless of what the college is offering. This is hardly the ideal setting for disrupting an industry, particularly for global businesses which have higher overheads. 

'Disruption' is sexy, but there is a certain value in looking for its plain cousin, 'Enabling'. What about those innovative education companies which enable the colleges in emerging world do things they otherwise can not? There are plenty of things colleges can do with: Connecting with employers, finding good-quality study abroad solutions, access to experienced mentors, etc. How about creating plug-ins that solve any of these problems?

Finally, also, there is the question of technology. I get the feeling that most companies talking education innovation focus on technology not because technology builds a better education proposition or that technology is the only way to achieve 'scale'. The reason they use technology is because their business templates, and that of their investors, are built around technology business models. The effect of this is that they seem to throw technology at problems which can be done better through human intervention, and where, technology, with all its army of know-it-all consultants, actually costs more and creates poorer solutions. In education, the more successful (and sustainable) businesses have actually built around human support and interactions and a fairly old method called franchising, and any of the technology-based disruptors are yet to match the success of those models. One could say that they are indeed playing Uber - making a long bet for the day when technology-based education becomes the norm - but I am not sure these companies would last the bursting of the inflated private valuations, which will inevitably happen when money starts becoming tighter.

My favourite theme is, of course, the education-to-employment transition. This remains a big problem. At least three quarters of students doing a degree in a country like India do not get a job after this. This is big, hairy figure that focuses minds. The common answer is - let's build an education proposition, a better degree, that will solve this problem. Great idea, but it ignores some crucial information. That 75% of the students do not get a job has not stopped other students from going to college. They are going to college, in greater numbers. Indeed, there are other social reasons, outside the job, for going to college. The claim that one has a better degree simply because it would get more students jobs - particularly if this is coming from outside India - is not an easy proposition to sell. 

But imagine a platform instead which allows these colleges to get their students jobs: A sort of a plug-in, that can work with existing colleges and get them access to employers. And, it is not simply about creating an employability class, which we know does not work. But, one could instead think of a platform that connects the employers' recruitment teams looking for talent and institutions with pool of students, and everything inbetween, drawing value from 'enabling' the connection. This makes it work better with local demands and preferences. A platform that does not seek to make redundant neither the employers' recruitment staff nor the colleges supplying the candidates, but rather enable a different kind of conversation between them and allow them to create new possibilities jointly together. The quest for 'disruption' diverts attention from such possibilities altogether.

This is an example, but consider the success of companies which offer University Preparation or Study-Abroad Solutions, and do it in a people-intensive manner, in conjunction with existing institutions and within regulatory framework, and some absurities of the education disruption talk should become obvious. On this, I rest my case on building platforms, enabling the current education system meet the emerging expectations and serving the learners better.


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