East or West: Their rhetoric is the best

George Siemens vents in a post that describes his emotions upon coming out of a consultation on Innovation and Quality in Higher Education at the White House recently where he was invited. He sees many key things happening:

2. Higher education generally has no clue about what’s brewing in the marketplace as a whole

3. No one knows what HE is becoming.

4. I was struck by how antagonistic some for-profits are toward public higher education.

5. Title IV is the kingmaker.

6. Expect a future of universities being more things to more people.

7. Expect a future of far greater corporate involvement in HE.

8. Expect M & A activities in higher education.

9. The scope of change is starting to settle somewhat in HE.

10. Higher education is a great integrator and subsumer.

11. I was stunned and disappointed at the lack of focus on data, analytics, and evidence. In spite of the data available, decision making is still happening on rhetoric.

12. I’m getting exceptionally irritated with the narrative of higher education is broken and universities haven’t changed.

George has, in fact, exposed the big tensions and rhetoric in the education system, whether in the West or here, in the East. I have experienced the same, without having to go to a White House. It is amazing how the same problems systemically appear in such diverse contexts.

There are changes happening in Higher Education due to technology advances, changes in awareness, student response to online learning in recent times, growing awareness of scale and chinks in the armor of the existing system getting exposed.

Even here, we have mistrust between the private and public systems. Each one thinks, perhaps, that it alone is the future custodian of the education system. Vast amounts of effort and investment are being put in to discredit the public share of the system, while great suspicion is being heaped on the motivation of the private sector. Entrepreneurs are being mostly destroyed by or merged with larger, older, hungrier players, who themselves share a mutual disrespect, if not contempt, for each other. The government and the corporates have very little understanding about the changes and how they will impact education, but their passion suggests either misplaced enthusiasm or pre-meditated greed.

There are reasons that I write so.

One of the biggest learnings of the past 10-15 years has been the abject failure of elearning to scale reliably, with quality. However, we continue to reinvent that same wheel. George bemoans the lack of focus on data and analytics, I bemoan many others.

Like we are also going to, in the name of quality, scale and affordability, push antiquated elearning models backed by blatantly obsolete and irrelevant formal degree & certificate systems, within the next six months or so through the SWAYAM initiative.

Ironically, I helped coin most of the full form of the name – SWAYAM stands for Study Webs of Active learning for Young Aspiring Minds. The “Active Learning” bit was not mine, but the rest was. And the rest was actually inspired by Ivan Illich’s vision of educational webs – which perhaps is lost on the makers. SWAYAM will make high quality teacher videos and other digital material available as part of curricula backed by 500 proctored test centers.

Well, as we unleash it on our millions, who are hungry for these certifications, we will soon figure how inadequate this form of elearning is at scale without webs & networks, collaboration, adaptive learning, learning analytics, new age assessments, gamification and so on. Or perhaps they never will. Even as recently as a couple of years ago, a senior, respected and influential academic figure asked me to spell “gamification”.

Then there is the private sector which thinks they have the wherewithal to succeed where governments have failed and perhaps looking for the equivalent of a Title IV themselves. What better assured profits than infusing corporate management practices over “ailing” public schools – so long as parents can pay more and government can fill in the rest. And therefore they need to create national frameworks and public-private partnerships for everything – assessments, accreditation, curricula, entry and exit – if their model is to succeed – something that is basically untrusted by government.

Then there is this entire brouhaha over skills, a national skills framework, easy bridges between vocational and formal education, money to throw over the fence for just about any scheme – if we really want to build a skills framework at a scale that help 500 mn of our working population, are we audacious enough to believe that a handful of sector skill councils and some tens of partners will be able to handle this? And that too using the same methods for teaching and learning that have proved so inefficient at scale?

Mind you, I am not making sweeping generalizations nor is this generic discontent, and there is some really great work also happening and some very well-intentioned & knowledgeable people in the system and outside it. I am merely laying bare the gaps as I see them in the hope that we start looking at these things before they collapse on us.

I am as staggered as George is – caught in a conflict and witnessing the tensions of the existing system as it struggles to retain its control and coherence in the face of rapid change and massive scale. At this point, it is ours to make or break, or to break something in order to make a better world for our children.

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