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A different future of Higher Education

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Unlike the Hollywood aliens, the future of Higher Education can not be expected to land in the United States alone. The American universities, of course, lead the world in academic prestige, cutting-edge research and endowments. They are, collectively, the best and the brightest, and attract the best researchers and best students from around the world. And they are not just intellectual world leaders but also represent the biggest education industry in the world, sprouting an ecosystem built around the success and prestige of the great universities. However, if higher education has to change and make sense in the future, this is exactly what needs to change. I write this as I am rather tired of reading literature coming out of the United States which portrays the future of higher education in the universalist terms. It seems that there is only one reality - that of higher education in America - and every other variation from around the world represents intermediate stages of a journey

What's wrong with higher education?

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Sitting at a meeting where I am told that today's learners would rather sit in a café than in a library, I heard the penny drop. Collectively speaking, we no longer have a clue what it is that we are doing in higher education.  Some conservative commentators see it more clearly than the left-wing ones: That higher education has become an inward-looking credentialing system completing disconnected from any social or even economic utility. It has become so because most of the education, giving in to the consumer economy, is being designed as light entertainment, completely divorced from its own rhetoric. Here is my point: A higher education is nothing if it is not uncomfortable. Aristotle made the point to an impatient Alexander: That there is no royal road to education! Change, which requires, by definition, about abandoning the comfort zones, is uncomfortable: There is no way to soft-serve this. And, yet, as we bring market logic everywhere, education must become easier - comfortab

In search of informal knowledge

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  I have been recently lured into reading Jordan Peterson - an impulse borrowing from the local library - though I did not last long. But, I am thankful in a way - it showed me, rhetorically speaking, the principal struggle of this historical moment, and of all moments of change, is the struggle against the oppression of formal knowledge. If this sounds like yet another battle against the experts, I would make another point: The battle against the experts that our smooth-vowel politicians usually indulge into is only a charade. All they are trying to do is to steal the sentiment of the moment rather than expressing what they really think. If anything, they are on the pulpit preaching against the pulpit, as demagouges had done in the past and will continue do forever.  But the struggle I speak of is a universal one. Theodore Zeldin had it right - the experts tell common people what to do until the common people speak up and change the conversation. All revolutions are, as late David Gra

The uses of pessimism

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The cost I pay for being distrustful of praise is that I come across as a pessimist.  That makes me an odd person. The general tone of life in the Anglo-saxon world is optimistic. The monopoly on pessimism has been granted in perpetuity to the media. But it is optimism that keeps everyone going - you can always do it, you make new starts every day, you can change the world all the time. Even that great priestess of suffering, Simone Weil, knew that the basis of all our knowing, contra Descartes, was: I WILL, therefore I am! Hence, my constantly being on my guard is too dark for most people. My explanation that this is only to guard against my overt optimism is not very convincing, at least to people who know me everyday. I have come to accept that I overcompensate perhaps, and it is time for me, at least occassionally, to pay heed to the bright side of life.  If anything, though, it is the bright side that I am constantly enarmoured with. That I am still starting things, looking for th

The 'venturesome' economy

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There was a time - not too long ago - when I used to be excited by venture talk. Spending hours on PowerPoint presentations or ever complicated Excel spreadsheets, I painted the future - and then 'pivoted'. I participated in the watercooler chat about valuations and name-dropped every VC I knew in town. The future - I believed like everyone else - had a valuation. Nowadays, though, I am scared. Through many failures and some successes, I have come to see what venture capital does to industries. While I spent my entire career looking for innovation opportunities, I have lately realised that disruptions can be literal and really destructive. Of course, my age explains my scepticism, but that also allows me to see things in context. Also, the reason I am scared is personal: I chose, early in my career, to be in education. That's what I have done for over twenty years now, not just working in it but also reading, thinking and talking about it. There was venture-talk in educatio

On waking up

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My Staurday morning was a mild mayhem because I disobeyed the alarm clock.  I am always optimistic with my alarm, allowing me at least one snooze. Usually that action gets the phone in my hand and the combination of email and facebook notifications do the rest. But this Saturday, as my watch told me later, I had this very deep sleep just in time for me miss the pathetic everyday sequence altogether. This, on a day I promised myself a fresh start: A formal beginning of the post-pandemic life when I should switch from forever waiting and compromising to getting on with my ideas in a hurry. This perhaps was the deep sleep as I was dreaming I have got there already. Therefore, I woke up with a start and started as I woke up.  But - if I could get back my faith in omens - this disregarding the alarm was a good sign. I was raised on a certain ethic - getting up early is good, slumbering around is bad - but the very thing that I want to do now, raise my awareness about the underlying structur

Online higher ed: new questions

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As higher ed goes online, we must remember: The medium is the message. There is little point trying to do online what we do in campuses. This is what most online higher ed propositions are built on, and very quickly they become poor copies of the real thing. The screen reduces the whole web of personal interactions and relationships into just content delivery - and universities to diploma shops! It is not surprising that the students do not see the same value in online delivery as they do in the classrooms. But that format also underplays the key strengths that a distributed environment can bring. Flexibility in terms of time and space, for example, may not be that valuable if we are trying to replicate the same activities that happen in a classroom, but mightily important if we try to do what can't be done in a classroom. But there is more: This is not just about access but experience too. There was once a charm getting to know others across the barriers of time and space. Faceboo

The nation-state's last hurrah

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  Dani Rodrik defined 'inescapable trilemma' of our world system back in 2007: That a globalised economy, democratic politics and nation states can't possibly coexist. (See here his post in 2007 on this) We could have, he said, two of the three, any two, but not all three. The last five years - the Brexit-Trump years - should have settled the matter. Democracy and nation state trounced global economy, putting one demagouge after another at helm across the world. Democracy's forward march was portrayed as the nadir of globalisation as we knew it. We were, as it seemed, destined to live in an age of ultra-democratic nation states. It indeed seems so, living through the pandemic. The system of 'each country for itself', with populists and ideologues running the show, showed a range of responses, from virus denial, vaccine nationalism and isolationism. The concerted effort of avert the global financial crisis in 2008 was totally missing this time around. Yet, as th

Beyond Online Education

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I have been, admittedly, a constant sceptic of the inflated valuations of online higher education companies.  Part of the reason is practical: Most online education companies focus much more on sales than creating sustainable institutional structures, looking to create an educational sub-prime. Their aim is often to 'uberise' - commoditise the inherent trust and respect that make an educational community work. That focus on scale, without a proportional attention on the outcome, makes an irresponsible business. Indeed, the Chinese government has recently stepped in to make this precise point. But there are also other reasons why I think these edtech valuations are frothy and unsustainable. I think the investors misunderstand the nature of education, particularly higher education, and therefore, their estimates about the prospect of online higher ed are wildly wrong. The pandemic was an aberration, when people were forced to stay home; as we return to normal, online education wi

The limits of American power

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  The scenes from Kabul Airport are sad and shocking, but they are not extraordinary. If anything, it seems that the Biden administration, even if they did not know what this would look like, was fully aware what they were doing - and what its consequences will be. Their allies were in it too, and they also knew what was going to happen: They were hoping, after Louis XVth, that the inevitable catastrophy would come after they have safely left. Most of the world already knew, ever since the 'Nam, that America is much better at bombing territories than holding them. That George W still misadventured shows the perils of not knowing one's history - or for that matter, any history! There was, of course, a good dose of over-confidence from the end of history moment of the nineties: After all, as Marx said, Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please. It's not just about history, but also about the present. In more ways than one, what's happening in Kabu

The missing middle of online higher-ed

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  When the campus is reduced to a screen, are Princeton and Phoenix the same? One may indeed think that higher ed going online create some sort of level-playing field, and in fact, may even give the challenger an advantage. This is based on what happened in Amazon-vs-B&N: When the rules of the game change, new and disruptive players can compete better. Technology can trump track record and endowment. But this belies a lack of understanding how higher education works. Education is NOT about the delivery of content: A lot of it is about signalling of value. Amazon could sell the same book as B&N using a different media and the customer could attain the same outcome - the reading experience! The outcome - in terms of expectation and outcome - from Princeton and Phoenix is quite different.  Besides, when something moves online, brands become more - not less - important. Metaphorically speaking, if Princeton to Phoenix was a 10:1 advantage offline, it is likely to be 100:1 online. I

The next Edtech

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    There is a certain presumption that after the pandemic, edtech is the future of education. Which edtech, I ask. If that's puzzling, that would be ironic. There is a disconnect if we assume that after the pandemic, there will be no business-as-usual, but at the same time, expect the edtech to be business-as-usual.  The pandemic has normalised edtech but also exposed it. The lame excuses about its limitations have been forcefully discounted but its true limitations have been seen and felt. Therefore, as the societies emerge from the pandemic and settle into new ways of doing things, edtech, like everything else, has to change itself.  I have followed the chatter about what comes after, and picked up three key shifts in the conversation: 1. Pedagogy-market fit : The most interesting speculation I came across is that this is time for edtech entrepreneurs to look for 'pedagogy market fit' ( See here ). Indeed, this is old hat, what went on in the guises of instructional desi

India & the future of higher education

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India is where the future of higher education is being decided right now. Of course, the literature on the subject paints a different picture: This is mostly about the future of American Higher Education! The funding follows the same logic - funding technologies and enterprises based on the conversations in the United States.  Implicit in this is the assumption that the United States, the world-dominating civilisation of the moment, represents the peak civilisation, and all the other countries are on a journey - and are at different points - to become more like the United States. Therefore, the future of the future of anything is being more like America.  On the ground, the reality is very different. China has powered its way to global economic top table - and increasingly the academic one too - pragmatically picking and choosing elements of the American model, but steadfastly sticking to its own path. Now India comes to the party, belatedly acknowledging its vast waste of human potent

Building innovation clusters: Smelling the coffee

There was a time when countries and cities rushed out to build their silicon something. After many failures and dead-end real estate, this tendency has now sobered. Silicon valley has remained where it was, and its ecosystem proved impossible to replicate. So, where does the thinking about innovation as redemption go from here? Despite the spectacular failure of some of the fêted projects, there should not be doom-and-gloom in the innovationland. There are some notable successes too, and useful lessons. As governments look to rebuild after the pandemic - and before a new urge to replicate takes hold - it's worth reflecting on what separates success from failure. It's useful to start at first principles: Innovation cluster is a zero-sum game! Silicon valley is difficult to replicate because it exists, because it vacuums out money and talent from all other places. It's not enough to ask whether one can replicate Silicon Valley, but whether one can compete with it. Without ans

Beyond the Pandemic: Shape of the 'normal'

The new year 2022 will be like no other. The shock of 2020 and the grappling of hope-and-despair of 2021 will be behind us. The pandemic, which seemed to threaten civilisation earlier, will become a mere logistics problem.  At the year-end party, we would celebrate modern science, for putting the shape-shifting killer genie back into the bottle. As the seconds are counted down, we would shed our fears and look at the future in its eye. At that hooray moment, we will know that there will be no going back to 2019. Our lives, societies and businesses, may have just been reinvented in the shadow of the pandemic. The memory of the 'pandemic years' will linger on: Therefore, in all our hope, there will be sobriety; our fetting of the new heroes will embrace the mourning for the dead; in our new exuberance, there will be the anticipation of payback time.  More than the outward changes, the changing ideas will matter more. The economic principles that we lived by - sound money and smal

On the origin of company silos

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As an idealist who rather naïvely believed in shared purpose, I have been confounded by the pervasiveness and silly pettiness of the silos all through my working life. Initially, I approached it with the high-mindedness of youth: We must be able to find common ground! Gradually, that gave away to the cynicism of mid-life: People never change and bureaucracies are inherently corrupting! Eventually, I needed a full therapy - start-up life - to cure me of cynicism and gain some perspective on why silos happen. I now think that the silos are usually a response to a certain leadership style. Most leaders seem to assume that work-life needs to be built around competition. Office, in this version, is some kind of Darwinian playground where the fittest should survive. Obviously, that misses the point: The most crucial insight of Darwin is the understanding, one that he drew from the breakthroughs in geology, that evolution is a slow process that plays out over millions of years. Compressing th

No way back

There are moments when choices have to be made. This is perhaps one of those, for me. Ever since 2020, I kept my life in a holding pattern. Not thinking about the future, living a day at a time! It worked well - it was the right mode for the pandemic. But now I am getting tired of not dreaming. I must concede that the year has been extremely productive for me in a variety of ways. It's not just about overcoming my earlier entrepreneurial failure - which I have been brooding over for seven years and still dealing with its consequences - but also about learning a few things about entrepreneurship itself. As a result, I live a very different life now: I have gone back to being a company man I once was. Along the way, I became conscious of my baggage. I now have a clear idea what success looks like - how singularly focused, totally unconcerned about nuances one needs to be - and how my fundamental assumptions about business life were always too idealistic. I grew up in an entrepreneuri

How to create a Digital Commonwealth?

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Through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighbourhood and yet we have not had the commitment to make of it a brotherhood. But somehow, and in some ways, we have got to do this..We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. - Dr Martin Luther King, March 31, 1968 1 It is time to make Digital work for people. It's time to think about a Digital Commonwealth. Commonwealth used to be a community for common good. It was so in Renaissance and then for the founders of the American colonies, facing off the wilderness with the strength of working together.  Today the term lost some of that meaning, and got associated with the imperial legacy. It's time to reclaim it back. 2 Digital commonwealth is about enabling human communities to co-create digital possibilities. Today's narrative, that the sociopathic technologists and sociopathic investors would control the tools and the rest of the hu

Beyond vocationalism: reflections on general education and technology

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As we learn to live through the pandemic, during which work and professions have been transformed through the use of information technology, the question of what effect technology will have on post-pandemic jobs has been raised again and again. Books that explore AI and humanity have come thick and fast; how we educate a new generation of workers has received a lot of attention too. There is much speculation whether this time, it will be different - and if there is anything to be found in our past experience with technological change.  I work in the faultline of this change and the object of my work has been to enable workers take advantage of technology. In a way, this is the less attractive end of education: This is not about groundbreaking research or completely novel ideas, but rather equipping the middling workers with skills to take advantage of technologies. I shall claim that this no less crucial in economic growth and progress - as without the skilled workers, the benefits of

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