Getting back to International Education

I am back in International Education again.

I had a three-year break from international education. Part of the reason was my own work preference: In 2016, fatigued from years of constant travel, erratic habits and living out of a suitcase, I requested a change of role into a more home-bound one. I always enjoyed travelling but perhaps I did too much of it. After years of boasting about Airline tiers and the quality of food at airport lounges, I was, at that point, keen on a new life of office work and daily routines.

But that was only part of the reason. The other part was that I became all too aware of the limitations of 'global education'. I wholeheartedly believed in what I did: That project-based education would represent a great step-change in education. I engaged with all my heart to bring employers ever closer to the learning process. But, as I did that, I saw that any universal formula really doesn't work - the tension between the specificity of the employers and generality of education was far too great when overlaid with all the nuances of cultures and languages. 

As these issues of detail came up, the limitations of scale-driven nature of private education business started showing up. What we were trying to do is different from what goes as International Education at the universities. 'International Education' is about bringing students from various countries into a room and delivering to them a culturally specific and nationally accredited education programme. The outcomes are defined by a national standard and the students, despite their various countries of origin, share similar backgrounds, aspirations and life histories. But what we were trying to do, delivering education to students where they are, within the context of their local economies and labour markets, was altogether different. There were very few commonalities and rather wildly varied specificities - and there was no way of ironing it out, no silver bullet.

In the face of this wide array of aspirations and outcome expectations, the usual prescriptions of the instructional designers were coming up short. Among the venture-funded online education companies, faith in instructional design's potential is a foundational one. This was the 'secret sauce' that was to reduce all the messy details into assessment grids and standard outcomes. But, from my vantage point, it was abundantly clear that it didn't work. There were deeply held assumptions - cultural, social and political - behind all the things we were doing, and the efforts to reduce them to instructional design problems only convoluted the matter more. 

After a good five years of exploring the idea of online global education, therefore, I was unsure whether we were doing more harm than good. It was clear to me that online global education and what goes on in the universities in the name of 'international education' were two different things and the ideas derived from the latter were hardly useful in the former. Besides, I figured that a better tool-kit than blind faith in instructional design was needed to define an approach to global education.

This was, more or less, the quest I was on. After I scaled back on travel, I took on roles which allowed me to look deeper into learning at work. I went back to school to study adult education and came back with a set of perspectives I did not have before. I moved away consciously from the behaviourist underpinnings of instructional design and explored intently how learners make meaning and how historical developments of their labour markets and educational systems come to play a role in this. I embraced constructivism in its widest possible meaning and looked for a way to create a 'platform system' for online education, where the global and local can meet.

Of course, such a quest never really ends and though I don't have all the answers yet - and will perhaps never have them - I am at a better place than I was three years ago. I also feel sufficiently un-tired to get back to travelling and hungry enough to have another shot at creating a new model of international education.

In a way, my timing is indeed curious: Corona Virus is clobbering the Chinese market for international education and new nativist tendencies are muddying the waters in Indian universities. But I only see this as an opportunity: The push-back against globalisation, underway since 2016, has perhaps gone far enough - and a rebound is to be expected. Corona Virus has a profound effect on the lazy model of international education and would perhaps tip the scale in favour of experimentation and online learning. And, as I see it, India's own version of the Cultural Revolution would strengthen the country by tearing apart the age-old system of privileges and vested interests that held the country back. A good crisis is always great for ushering in new models and we are at such a point.

My big strategic bet in this Round 2 is Europe. I intend to build a constructivist, culturally engaged educational model based around European educational frameworks. Europeans, because of their history, are somewhat more culturally open than their Anglo-American counterparts - and this is what I am trying to build upon. The usual struggles involved in setting up start-ups, finding money, right partners etc., are still ahead of me, but I have now committed myself to this path.



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