Many shades of Education Innovation

I wrote about my career pivot, moving away from start-up kind of work and focusing more on introducing innovation within educational institutions. This means I am spending more time thinking about introducing new tools, formats and relationships within existing institutional structures and less time trying to woo investors who speak about disruption but behave like herds, responding to verbal cues (the magic word, this year, being 'blockchain'). Accordingly, I have started shunning those conferences which parade entrepreneurs based on valuation, and going to ones that deal with less exulted topics like educational design, funding and student services. Yes, sometimes, these are infuriatingly boring; but at least, delegates at these conferences do not think that all you need for better student experience is to give them an App!

The world I am trying to get into is an in-between zone - between the entirely false claim of the timelessness of educational enterprise and the entirely false claim that our educational ideas all changed on or around December 2010. But then I have lived in this world before: Remember my first job involved doing comparisons between emails and faxes! Despite the fact emails 'won' and faxes become so totally obsolete, I totally remember that transition: None of our fancy email software convinced the users, but one big step, the dusty old state telecom monopoly introducing a new subscription service called 'the Internet' really did! 

It's not a celebration of the foresight of state monopoly that I wish to do. But this gives me a new perspective on change, a crucial distinction between the rhetoric and reality of change. This tells me that change needs more than shifting consumer preference, because, as Steve Jobs would have found out in the Eighties - 'the customer doesn't know what he wants'! This is not just about education, but definitely, in Education, that change would be brought about by institutions themselves, rather than outsiders trying to tear down the house. This is because, in spite of the screaming claims about education being broken, its popularity, at least when one considers the vast young populations of China, India and Africa, is growing, not declining. The very American argument that campus-based educational experiences are passé and it is the time for online is simply so alien to the young people who see those campuses as freedom, a very special time of their lives, an opportunity to avoid their parents' lives and shape their own. As I come to think of it, the pessimistic Western paradigm of education innovation, driven by concerns of cost, declining birth rates and stagnating middle classes, have nothing to offer to the vast young population of Asia and Africa, where the quest of possibility, young population and surging middle classes shape an optimistic agenda.

And, this, perhaps, is the most valuable perspective I have gained: That education innovation, based on the premise that traditional education is broken, misses the point completely. All the fancy new online education companies, as it happens, miss this, because they are very similar at least in one sense: They all have an 'investment thesis' at their core, backed by a banker of some kind, shaped by a deep pessimism about human future - of an ageing population, limited human ability pitted against ever-expanding capacity of the machine, of basic conflicts of class and interests. Apparently, these can't just be the assumptions for educating the young people in Asia and Africa. Indeed, these 'facts' are presented as self-evident: That machines will replace humans in every human activity, humans can't compete with machines in what they do, etc. But, apart from the fact that Moore's Law may have reached its limit, the tasks - what we need to do and what we don't - are defined by humans. We may not need mortgage plans which can only be designed by computers and be understood by computers: Using technology to explore deep space and genetic structures are not comparable to our tendency of creating tasks for technology and then claiming that humans are not good at it.

But I digress: I want to re-imagine my work with a more optimistic view of the humans. I want to believe that we can educate people better, not with the assumption of Bell Curve and most people are morons, but that most people have abilities and they can contribute. This gives me a different perspective of Education Innovation. I don't have to have accept the assumption that scale is king: Rather, building locally relevant education offerings, informed by cultures and values of the local community. In fact, this is as disruptive as it can get, because the quest for scale is industrial and the search of relevance is really the 21st century thing. I don't want to assume that humans can't ever do what machines can do: Rather, I want to think that the students can define what needs to be done in a way that has the maximum social benefits, not just benefits to a few financiers. 

The point is that this approach returns me to the institutions. I see human history as a history of progress, and the great machine was not just individual ingenuity but the institutions that we built: The ones which, like the DNA of civilisation, passes the torch of progress from one to another. Yes, indeed, they decay - I have no great regards for today's universities, for example - but they always change. Being the change agent within the institutional set-up is what I am trying to be.



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