Modeling the Education Sector

There are doubtless many models put into use to try to analyze the working of the education sector and there is significant interest in this space. Here are my initial thoughts on how we could create a useful analytical model. I consider three dimensions to be vital for this model.

Infrastructure
This first dimension concerns the level of development of infrastructure that includes:

  • power,
  • provision of minimum needs (health, nutrition, sanitation, food and shelter),
  • connectivity (transportation, economic activity and integration with other regions)
  • technology (including but not limited to information technology)
  • law and order (both internal and external facing)

The government plays an important role as a provider whose responsibility is to maintain and coordinate the growth of this infrastructure. But there are many examples of private or public private infrastructural initiatives basically because the government needs expertise and investment sharing partners. As a result, policies (politically biased or not) and their implementation have a direct impact on infrastructure and its evolution in a particular region or country.

Leadership
This is the second dimension. Different countries in this spectrum will be at different levels (and different regions within these countries will demonstrate different levels) of development. A major challenge is to use limited funds and resources to remove disparities between regions as far as possible and the decision-making needs to be extremely strategic and planning – visionary. And it requires extreme focus on execution once plans are set. This is a key challenge for Leadership (government or non-government) which given political instability and external pressures, usually plays havoc with well-laid plans or well-conceived visions.

Leadership, though is not only from the government. It is usually also played out by professionals/experts from the domain under consideration. For experts to have a say in determining the vision and approach, there definitely needs to a participatory and responsive political and economic culture, but there also needs to be a certain amount of structured domain leadership, typically through established organizational structures, whether state or non-state. The two need to work in concert and that can be a delicate balance.

This is often cited as the major stumbling block or transformative agent in a country’s evolution. And the level and type of structures, organizational knowledge and collaboration very often will determine the quality of response to issues such as those in Education.

State of Art
The third dimension, the status of knowledge, the level of expertise and know-how or access to it, as critically defines future scenarios as does the provision of structures for leadership and collaboration. Leadership can make decisions based on available know-how and opinion. If leadership is not exposed to cutting edge thinking or technology, it will make less effective decisions. If the right structures do not exist for flow of information or for participatory opinion, the state of art stands diminished.

Society and culture, heritage, attitudes and values, social movements, religious beliefs, globalization – all also impact and are shaped by these three dimensions. They are intrinsic to understanding why a country is at a particular stage or has a particular pattern of evolution. But in my opinion, these three dimensions are the core dimensions shaping our educational futures at this time.

These dimensions are critical to our analysis. They not only describe the current state and constrain what can be achieved, but also point to what could be the primary agents of change for Education. Of course, change can be large-scale, outside the box and revolutionary too, but current state can provide a fairly good indicator of what that we can expect to see.

Tools

I see interventions such as the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTFCE), 2009 in India, as being tools applied on the current state to bring out certain desired outcomes. For the Act to be implementable, a certain set of tools would need to be put into action. For example, a tool could be a school building equipped with basic facilities within 1 kilometer of every child in the age group of 6-14 according to the provisions of the Act. Even assuming that this is feasible, the tool could be evaluated on the basis of certain criteria – capacity, safety norms, student-teacher ratio, library facilities etc. for a school building to be considered at all as a place of learning. Experts could set, validate and monitor the tool’s effectiveness. Teacher training institutes like the DIET (District Institutes of Educational Technology, all 541 of them in India) again are tools that are mandated with certain quality criteria. Under the RTFCE, as another example of a well-meaning tool, teachers, parents and local polity are expected to administer the school and participate in its success – however, who vouches for the skill of the local community council overseeing the school to be able to appreciate (say) inquiry based learning as an effective method for learning?

Certain tools may create conflicts in addition to some obvious benefits – for example, privatization. India has the lowest per unit utilization of educational infrastructure (581 students per college) as compared to US and China. Does it make sense to create more structures creating a new million dollar educational advertising industry for private players? Or does it make more sense for private players to start leveraging the existing infrastructure and bringing in new technology, trained teachers etc. into the mix i.e. rather than scavenging on an already low trained resource base, shouldn’t we be consolidating that base and building upon it? India’s first pure educational financing company hit the streets last month (Credila) just as the Ernst and Young/FICCI 2009 report wanted (financing of education is a game changer for them). But do we want retail financing on an over leveraged and low per capita base or should we figure investment solutions that can yield rich returns through mass enrolments?

Certain tools are completely overlooked. There exists a huge base of private tuition teachers. Anecdotally, half of them do not teach in the regular school/college system and half of them do. If we implemented a tool that was to just absorb the half that are in the informal sector, train this set of teachers and deploy them back in their own neighbourhood but this time with credentials that are standard and higher quality (actually some of these are already much higher quality than most others in the formal system), that would make a huge difference by itself.

These tools affect and change the three dimensions. But it often happens that there are either too few or too many, ineffective or redundant, less than permissible quality or unsustainable etc. What is required is critical analysis of what works and what doesn’t and making sure leadership has state of the art knowledge when it is making these decisions to implement certain tools vs. others. In other countries where such a body exists, perhaps there were other points of differences.

It is also critical to understand that the same tool will operate very differently depending what is the initial state. Lets take for example the proposal in India to create a central overarching body through the NCHER bill replacing or diminishing the role of the country’s flag bearers like the UGC and the AICTE. Except Agricultural education, everything else would fall under this new agency. But the Bar Council of India is in open revolt (ironically, as the education minister himself is a prominent lawyer) and have declared that Legal Education is also autonomous.

Each dimension can be broken down into specific detailed questions. For example, the DISE Flash Statistics provide a reasonable detailed view of some of the parameters of school education in India and they have also developed an Educational Development Index that ranks states on the basis of certain criteria. We can also qualitatively analyze existing leadership structures by asking questions such as “Does a central agency for teacher education exist?” and if it does we could ask “Does it run programs that trains teachers in emerging technologies?”. For State of the Art dimension, we could break it further down into categories such as Availability of data, Free flow of information, existence of communities of practice etc. Each question could have qualitative and quantitative scores applied.

Scenarios

Based on these, we could identify different countries or regions exhibiting similar patterns or question responses. Then we could identify each tool that is being used. There will be a great deal of similarity in the way different countries employ these tools at various stages of their growth. India is definitely not the first to implement the Right to Education, for example. Depending on each country’s own dynamics, there would be a different impact of the tools they use. This could generate scenarios like, if you do this it will most likely result in this and this which shall be invaluable to leadership.

For example, when country A started allowing foreign universities on a large scale, it was found that the nation’s top 10 universities and institutes, those that contributed to over 90% of all research, lost 20% of their teaching staff who left for more lucrative jobs and infrastructure. This resulted in decrease in the research output by nearly 60% compromising several key initiatives as well as transfer out of expertise.

Summary

These are initial thoughts and I hope to refine these as I proceed. A special thanks to George and Dave, and all the great participants in edFutures, who got me channelized into thinking in terms of these kind of models and methodologies! As always, feedback is more than welcome, especially critical feedback!

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