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One Globe 2012: Uniting Knowledge Communities: My perspective on the space of education in India

I have provided a few snippets of information that came my way on Day 1 of One Globe 2012 here.

During the day, I also happened to jot down the thoughts running through my head which I have reproduced below.

Now, at the very least, some of these thoughts and questions will be unconventional – at the very most, impractical or simplistic. But I do think they are worth thinking about, which I what this blog has been set up for.

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Today, in our country, the ability to speak English is higher than the ability to read or write English. This is evident in the fact that foreigners can find their way around urban India using spoken English.

If we are looking at bringing education to India in a big way, can we look at options that can be taught using verbal skills of English and not the written word?

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Everyone is talking about India and its huge youth population that needs education.

But I have a slightly pessimistic (imho, realistic) view on this.

The first question that comes to my mind is – “Education towards enabling what?”

What are the jobs that we are going to educate people for?
What are the industries towards which education is geared?

It has to be focused towards our economy today and the expected economic areas of development from tomorrow.

I highly doubt that we need more engineers or doctors in this country anymore.
So if not the classic professions, then what education do we want to impart to them?

Education for the sake of education won’t work.

Will their ability to read and write in Hindi or English get them a job tomorrow?
I highly doubt it.

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The future generations of our world will need to know not only how to learn the new, but also how to unlearn the old. Learn how to be willing and open to change.
How do we go about teaching that?

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Looking at private investments coming in for education in India, the question in mind is more basic.

How does one marry –
– the large size of the Indian population, with
– the affordability of that population, with
– the profitability that the private sector would want?

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There was talk about how foreign universities want to pay globalized salaries to their faculty, wherever they are. But if you’re in a poor country, where the Exchange rate goes up to 50 but the Purchasing Power Parity only goes to about 15 or 20, then you don’t really want to move talent at the exchange rate.

The best bet would be to move talent at a rate somewhere between the PPP and the Exchange rate – so that the conversion offers them a better quality of life than back home, however it isn’t really the same amount in dollar terms.

I’m sure there would be professors who do not need or want the money – who would rather prefer the experience of living in a country with a couple of cars, a driver and domestic help that doesn’t need you to even lift a finger. Add to that the experience of soaking in a unique culture like India, and I’m sure there would be a few professors out there who would look at it as a good deal. You don’t need to pay $150000 per year to your professors, as they will be able to live like kings in India for $75000.

If you get that in place, what you have effectively done on your balance sheet is reduce the cost of your talent.

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Another way to reduce costs for foreign universities is to assign a cost of zero for all existing knowledge.

I’m not sure if that is being done – time and money that has gone into research and fresh knowledge does have a cost and I’m sure that gets covered over time by the fees that the institution brings in.

However, when you are looking at setting up education in India, for all the knowledge that you are imparting, just allocate a cost of zero.

That is the real cost of knowledge as it already exists.

Putting any number apart from zero is just accounting practice – don’t think the demographics of India will find it sustainable just yet to cover the cost.

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The Internet has redefined the way the world communicates.

People get to know each other well enough online to even fall in love – we are but trying to find a way to recreate the socialization experience of a classroom using digital channels of delivery.

Unlike many others, I believe it is possible – and in many ways, will turn out to be superior to the experience we find in a classroom.

I’m thinking Google+ Hangout meets Wikipedia meets Facebook – in virtual classrooms built for the purpose of education.

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Foreign entry into education into India

What is being looked at by foreign universities –
Foreign universities -> come to India -> tie-up with Indian universities -> teach Indian students in India

What can be looked at by foreign universities –
Foreign universities -> come to India -> tie-up with Indian universities -> bring/teach foreign students in India

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There was talk about how foreign universities are also very conscious about their brand and they would not want to dilute it in India. That aspect reminds me of something I know about my alma mater IIM Ahmedabad.

During the years when I was there, and I’m guessing this has been true since soon after the advent of the photocopying machine, academic material from our courses has been available with the local ‘raddi-wallas’ (scrap paper dealers) or roadside makeshift bookshops.

That is just the very nature of our environment.

Does anyone buy it? I’m sure people do.
Does it help them? I highly doubt that it does.

The reasons for that are two-fold:

1 – The brand of an institution isn’t built by its curriculum. Like all intellectual property that is released into the world, course material isn’t immune to unauthorized replication or copying. The brand of an institution (and here I refer to the brand of IIM Ahmedabad that has withstood its test of time) depends on the talent that it attracts – the people who come there to teach, and the students who come to soak in the knowledge to fulfill their potential destinies. So a brand, in a sense, is only as important as its ability to attract the right kind of people – and is very intangible to say the least – leaking curricula is the least of one’s problems when it comes to brand.

2 – The amount and depth of content is intimidating, to say the least.

Someone who needs to get IIMA course material from the local raddiwalla probably isn’t the right candidate to be learning from it in the first place. Else, chances are, he/she would either be finding a way to enrol at IIMA – or some other b-school.

Let’s face it – for 99% of the world, the upside of an MBA degree is in getting the certificate – don’t think anyone really enjoys the countless hours of midnight toil that one puts in. And if you’re not going to get a degree at the end of it, how long do you think you’ll be motivated to study through the IIMA course material that you got from your raddiwalla at dirt cheap prices?

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One of the themes running through my head through the day was about crowdsourcing of knowledge.

I have had a few conversations with people in the Education domain over the past few months and one thing seems common across all of them which follow these 3 steps –
– Hire talent
– Create intellectual property around knowledge by either reworking content or creating media
– Find customers who will pay for this content

My take on this approach is slightly different. My point of view is that, in today’s world, no one set of people, however talented, can become the best source of knowledge for any particular domain. Today, in a world where a Wikipedia exists, it is time that some of us in the education domain accept (and excitedly so) that maybe it is time to not focus on content as much as it is time to focus on the importance and methodology of delivery (and while we’re at it, look at reinventing pedagogy).

Crowdsource your knowledge from the world community – create an exciting and robust delivery system that helps real learning – create an ecosystem which facilitates this environment – ask users to subscribe and pay you for the learning that your delivery system offers – not for the content.

It is the service that you offer around educating people that will keep them coming back for more – the content of knowledge has already been created.

In simplistic terms, what I’m saying is this –

Newton’s 3 laws of motion have been part of classical mechanics for centuries. Reworking the content of those laws or presenting them in a new form isn’t a sustainable way of redefining the industry.

However, if we can find a way to use the Internet to facilitate the learning of this content –
– by simulating an experience as close as possible to the real world, or
– by redefining pedagogy to allow for quicker or longer-lasting learning
– or both
then we would have redefined the space of education.

Later on in the day, I was excited to come across Across World which seems to get exactly what I’m referring to above.

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Everyone is quoting that India has 54% of its population below the age of 25. 54% of 1.17 bn people comes to a shade over 632 million.

But before we get carried away with the potential of this population, we need to know a few more facts –

– How many are of the right age?
By right age, I mean, the right age to enter an education system that provides them the opportunities they need.

– How many of these people are too old?
We need to acknowledge that a substantial portion of this population would be between the ages of 16 to 25, a population that has not had any education till date. Are we going to provide standard education to people who have never had any? Are we equipped for that?

– In terms of education, is it possible to go backwards?
By that, I mean providing education to young adults that creates and allows economic sustenance. Once that is done, we can work backwards towards primary/secondary education.
I have a feeling it has probably never been attempted – but I don’t understand why it has to continue being so. Skillsets required in the real world for finding and keeping a job do not necessarily have to do with knowing the history of your country from 5 centuries ago or knowing that water is composed of H2O, two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen. If all this isn’t necessarily required, do we really need to teach it? And teach it before anything else?

A good way to evaluate this potential population would be to map –
– industries towards which education needs to be geared, with
– education courses available for these industries, with
– durations of these education courses, with
– education qualifications required for these courses, with
– education qualifications available with the population, with
– age brackets of the population
to see what is the real potential for educating this population.

Once the above mapping is done, it will be a matter of identifying pockets of people that fit the requirements and offering them education that will help them live a better quality of life. I would personally love to be part of this mapping exercise for those who are interested in pursuing this methodology.

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Instead of setting up new education systems, are foreign educational institutions looking at overhauling the quality of the Indian education system?

By that I mean conducting a due diligence of the education system that is running in India – viz. checking it for redundancies, internal controls, accuracy, relevancy according to the latest updated knowledge and best practices being used around the world today.

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In the land grab for students, quality is bound to suffer.

Limited teaching talent will mean scalability issues – which will mean that if scale is pushed upwards, it will probably mean a drop in the quality of education being imparted.

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Can foreign universities come in and
– use knowledge
– pilot education programs
– provide proof of concept
– garner support
– create buy-in
for expensive education?

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What do we think of new age schools?

I define new-age schools as the ones that focus a lot more on extra-curricular activities than normal schools. Now that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

But there are schools which take it to a different level altogether.

For starters, I believe it is becoming the norm to measure proficiency using grades not marks. My disconnect with that is that, on some level, I believe that having a spectrum of 100 marks creates more competition than the spectrum of grades from A+ to F.

But that’s not the real concern here – the concern is about schools that are okay with not having grades to measure children (because comparisons can make children feel bad about themselves) or believe in passing along 100% of students from one grade to the next (because otherwise the children who have failed at certain subjects will feel bad about being kept back in the same grade).

IMHO, this borders on mollycoddling our children, and that can never be good for them – instead we should be raising them to survive in the future world, which will be far more competitive than the one we are in today.

My views on this subject might be old-school (as they are based upon personal experiences) – however, I am more than open to hear about differing points of view so that I can understand the other side of this argument.

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How does one create thirst for knowledge in people?

One can build skills towards processing knowledge that comes one’s way – but how does one create the thirst in the first place?

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Apart from the usual things of a conducive environment and experiential learning, what else leads to true learning?

In my opinion (and this I quote from personal experience), these three things are very important (and usually missing in the Indian education system) –
– Providing students with the context of “why” is this being taught – what will the learning help them do?
– Size of the content – “how big” is the content – what is the depth of the knowledge, what levels of details are we going to go down to
– Visibility on the journey of education with timelines – “how long” will this process take (months, years)

This country has, for the longest time, drilled on the importance of learning without trying to make it enjoyable or less overwhelming – it is time that we move away from the attitude of “Do it because I’m telling you to do it” and work together with students to make this process a real two-way learning experience for both sides involved.

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Correlation between Knowledge -> Security/Instability

In my previous post, there was a table that looked at how much % of GDP was spent by different countries on Defence vis-à-vis Education. It made the point that there was a seemingly direct correlation between Knowledge/Education and Security/Instability.

My take on the same is that some of these countries are unstable not just because of less spending on education – they are unstable because the lack of spending on education means that a majority of the people do not have the skillsets to be efficient and productive and compete in a globalizing landscape – since the countries are not able to provide a minimum standard of living for its people, beyond a point that leads to instability in these regions.

Which would mean the correlation actually looks something like this –

Education/Knowledge -> Health of Economy -> Security/Instability

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As the world becomes more complex, all of us know lesser and lesser about more and more things.

Apart from the standard education that we all undergo, there is a huge aspect of learning that we need in our lives that is never taught.

I’m talking about the skillsets required to maneuver our way through life, the skillsets required to tackle difficult situations, how to manage people, how to work the system, how to best respond to events that happen to us in life.

I’m talking about the school of life.

In an increasingly complicated world, isn’t it high time that we have people out there who are imparting this wisdom throughout the world?

They say a lifetime of mistakes isn’t enough to learn all the lessons we need to know – so why don’t we start proactively learning these lessons before we end up making mistakes that teach us the hard way?

As is obvious, a lot of these learnings will be culture-specific, but we could always start with the basic lessons that are true for all people, irrespective of ethnicity or race or geography, and take it from there?

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During the course of the day, there were visual charts showing how a significant portion of Indians had the affordability levels required for a certain standard of education.

However, it was found that these charts were based on average affordability levels.

Knowing that there is a huge disparity between the rich and the poor in India, average affordability is not the right way to measure potential – as the money available with the rich will not spread to the poor to qualify them in terms of affordability.

An accurate way would be to look at median affordability to understand what is the real size of the Indian population that can afford the aforementioned standard of education.

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What is striking is that we have the world’s best education universities wanting to sell education to a poor country.

A better bet for success would be to –
– Educate people about skills that can work towards creating value
– Build products or services that require the scale of manpower (thereby taking advantage of the large population)
– Derive value by creating a market for these products

Basically, create a hybrid of academic education that works hand-in-hand with people-intensive skillsets that can add value to the producers, and the world at large.

Within manufacturing –
– skillsets could be around engineering or design – these skills can be used by people in a workshop to build things

Within IT –
– skillsets could be around design that are used to create art that is sold around the world
– digitizing the world’s information – again, people-intensive and something that would create value

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Create ICE for the Indian rural population
Make them want to stay in rural India by providing them strong Intellectual, Cultural and Educational environments

I couldn’t agree with this more. Indian cities are usually ill-planned and have been straining to support enormous migratory populations for decades.

Indians, being more family-centric than most other cultures, still have a large majority of people who believe in the adage “Home is where the heart is.” Most rural Indians do not leave home for bigger cities because they want to go live in cramped spaces in the midst of strangers. They leave home because they do not have enough worthwhile opportunities at home.

It is this problem that we need to solve – by providing them strong Intellectual and Educational environments at home. Somehow I have a feeling that strong Cultural environments already exist.

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There are thousands of foreign students who take a break and travel the world for a year. They are driven by curiosity, a desire to contribute and in some cases, a need for a change of scenery.

It would be a wonderful thing if their native countries could work out arrangements with Indian universities or the Government of India to associate their travel plans with courses that they can do when they are in India.

These courses do not have to be around standard education – they could do a Social Service course, or a project with one of the NGOs that works in a specific sector.

Apart from the fact that such arrangements would add great value to everyone involved, it would also help facilitate transfer of ideas and policies across boundaries and create a true cross-pollination of cultures that pays off in the long run.

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As of today, the Government of India has telecom operators on the back foot with respect to licenses because of the 2G spectrum scam.

In this situation, instead of cancelling licenses which it has just done, can the GOI look using this advantage by making telecom operators commit resources to build infrastructure dedicated to building delivery platforms for education.

I say this because the future of delivery, not only for education, will depend largely on the ability to deliver content using Wi-Fi technology, which cannot be a localized offering – it will have to be bridged across locations – which is where the telecom networks come in.

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