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EDGE2011 New Delhi

The Emerging Directions in Global Education (EDGE) conference in Delhi was a power packed event. It saw a coming together of government, academia and private players in the education sector. It was an intriguing experience. There were some key ideas that I took away from the conference.

I believe now that there is full realization that no one player/stakeholder can meet the challenges which has had several implications – deregulation, shared governance, public-private partnership, increased dialogue, increased allocations in government spending, higher accountability – but most of all, a willingness to break out of the shackles of a dilapidated educational system and mindset.

I felt that this time around, as opposed to what I heard across conferences last year, there is a visible tension to make things happen in a participative manner. We have two very erudite and skilled people in Kapil Sibal, Minister, HRD and D Purandeswari, Minister for State, HRD. Listening to them speak with passion on their understanding on what ails education today in India, and their initiatives to make a change, I felt vastly more comfortable that a certain maturity has stepped in that can only do wonderful things if allowed to flourish.

It is still disconcerting that we are using old solutions to combat current and future problems, though. For me atleast, centralized governance as an overarching one-size-fits-all strategy, doesn’t cut any ice. Scale must meet scale.  Education has to be seeded locally, not centrally.

Secondly, we are throwing outdated educational technology and content formats/pedagogical techniques at the problems. Witness the NMOEICT initiative which will end up creating the world’s largest open courseware repository (of course, at this rate, anything we do will be the largest just given the kind of scale we will end up addressing), but is based on page turning WBTs and non-interactive videos. There seems to be little consensus on revisiting or creating anew, modes of addressing quality content/network provision.

Thirdly, I must say that the quality of educational administrators may need significant investment of time and effort to upgrade and enable to meet the new challenges. I found that a lot of very basic questions on people handling, capability building, government liasoning, operational problem-solving, research, infrastructure etc. were being asked that administrators should have already figured out with experience or formal training/facilitation.

Fourthly, I found a distinct trend, in the workshop topics, to promote ends over means. Excellence is being counted as an end and the definition of excellence seems to be making it to the top 100 institutions in the world, or educational governance (Governance Issues in Educational Institutions, Mahadevan, IIM-Bangalore) along the lines of possibly a Six Sigma for education, or best ways to partner with a foreign university (Making International Partnerships Work), or getting the right financing (Funding Education in the Emerging Market) for education.

There seems to be a strident market propaganda creating hype and fear. It starts with the references to scale (40 mn Higher Ed students by 2020). Then it goes into how inadequate the infrastructure is, how ill-paid the teachers are and how poor the students are to afford quality education. Then it segues into how the West has solved the problems using quality systems, educational financing and de-regulation (which it hasn’t really, but who argues with an E&Y or Parthenon Group report, right?).

And finally, it makes the case that if we do not push reforms for privatization (de-regulation, accountability, quality), open up the market for foreign partners (increasing student mobility through credit systems, influencing students by marketing and advertising, giving access to rural markets etc.) and increase the flow of private funds (financing of education, so that the poor 70% of India can add debt to their woes), then we are going to be unable to reap the demographic dividend, may need to import labour, lose our competitive edge, create internal strife and increase poverty.

This is an eminently laughable and indefensible thesis, a case of starting with conclusions and then gathering supporting facts. I promise to present a full case analysis for the E&Y and Parthenon reports when I get the time. But let me make three overarching statements:

  1. The market knows no social justice
  2. Industrial models of education have failed
  3. Diversity and scale are the biggest challenges facing any educational system

One surprising omission was lack of any talk whatsoever on educational data – from collection to analytics. This is a disturbing piece because without completeness and accuracy of data, we are not in any position to make decisions. Look at the disclaimers on the DISE reports from NIEPA and the disclaimers from the Central Statistical Organization to know that there is something seriously lacking even in basic reporting of educational information.

Another surprising omission was a lack of discussion on new innovations (except for a brief session on New Frontiers in Assessments, which I thought was good and not just because I was one of the speakers) that could prove to be critical in a country this size. I would have thought that if 3-4 innovations capable of reaching mass scale were discussed, it would be invaluable for their evolution and for mass early acceptance.

The good thing in the Assessments panel, moderated by Madan Padaki (from Manipal who incidentally was given a well deserved award for his contribution to the education sector), was that I heard something which was music to my years. The speakers put together accounted for perhaps over 90% of the assessments being undertaken by private assessment companies in India. And a couple of them voiced an interesting dream – that perhaps, very soon, there would be no assessments (atleast not the kind we have subjected our children to so far). I liked that very much.

I liked S B Mujumdar (Chancellor, Symbiosis) when he talked about the triangle of excellence, inclusion and expansion, though the way he put it made me feel that he has no hope of a unifying strategy for all three to grow symbiotically (pardon the pun).

Shashi Tharoor did give an entertaining (and if may say so, rather vague) talk on why Liberal Arts are essential. He felt that the utilitarian approach of professional education may destroy liberal arts and that a Well formed mind is better than a well filled mind.

Workshop Tweets

Active engagement with knowledge. Tharoor #edge2011
Tharoor a liberal arts edu will help you enlarge minds, to make for ordered minds, to develop good thinking habits #edge2011
Well formed mind is better than a well filled mind. Tharoor. #edge2011
Tharoor utilitarian approach of prof education may destroy liberal arts…may not be so #edge2011
Creativity is key Rao #edge2011
Exam system has exhausted and destroyed young minds #edge2011
Liberate education from bureaucracy. This is the biggest obstacle Rao #edge2011
#edge2011 now for Rao’s vision lecture..
#edge2011 university at your doorstep Content can only be provided by institutions of excellence..invest in intellectual development Sibal
#edge2011 meta universities..sit in front of your laptop and decide your level of excellence..Sibal
#edge2011 leverage software capability. Teacher is no longer totally central…content becomes important..
#edge2011 community should take responsibility…
#edge2011 make freedom an integral part of the system..financing education is a commitment..a duty not a power to control Sibal
#edge2011 Sibal speak. Collaborate not seek conquest. We need a change of mindset..govt cannot drive, can only facilitate.
#edge2011 CNR Rao speaks… Real role of a teacher is to give..1500 papers…60 years of scientific research
#edge2011 shashi tharoor will be talking about why liberal arts education is important. Wish this was webcasted.
#edge2011 pillai quoting PM India is an emerging idea?
#edge2011 majumdar symbiosis exploit triangle of excellence, inclusion and expansion
#edge2011 interesting…sibal asked rao to precede him in lighting the inaugural lamp
#edge2011 Kapil Sibal just walked in..Minister HRD
At #edge2011 day 2 in Delhi. CNR Rao is going to be speaking today. Expect some cool insights.
#edge2011 increase participation in governance. Mahadevan
#edge2011 peer pressure and peer review is main driver of excellence. Mahadevan.
#edge2011 interesting…people are saying that public funded colleges could take a leaf out of the book of best practice institutions…
#edge2011 interesting debate…an IIM B perspective on acad perf etc is not universal. Mahadevan
#edge2011 its Mahadevan…not madhavan…oops
#edge2011 internal accruals of public colleges can fund performance incentives. Madhavan
#edge2011 first implementers of acad perf mechanisms should adopt both quantitative and qualitative measures. Madhavan
#edge2011 following Minzberg? Treat students as citizens not clients or customers
#edge2011 academic performance – how do we measure, how do we implement, how do we design metrics..Mahadevan
#edge2011 professors have a half life decay. How to accommodate them. Mahadevan.
#edge2011 teaching as a profession is the last career choice Mahadevan
#edge2011 education is a sellers market for India. Watch out for game changing regulatory changes. Mahadevan
#edge2011 self regulation is particularly important. Don’t depend on the govt. Mahadevan
#edge2011 three issues of the Internet – privacy, trust and security.
B Mahadevan IIM-B what are the core issues in higher edu today? #edge2011 same old stuff
At the edge2011 conference in Delhi
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When I wrote We don’t need no education in mid-2010, I urged:

cut down school content, start school later, end it earlier, focus on growing the mind, building teamwork and other “21st century” skills, enabling our children to become responsible and knowledgeable citizens with a global perspective, reshape the assessment tools and frameworks that we have today to evaluate richness and variety of expression in our young minds, build new avenues and focussed curricula to strategically align with what we really need, get industry to recognize vocational education on par with regular degrees – basically – give our children a break, they don’t need this education.

Little did I know that our government would move so fast in this direction with regard to the introduction of vocational education curricula in schools. Kapil Sibal, the HRD Minister, has done it with the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) schools in India. He plans to introduce vocational curriculum from grade IX to XII (ages 15-18).

There are many possible reasons and implications of this move. Vocational education in IT and other sectors has traditionally been addressed by private sector and government schemes at largely the class 10+ or 12+ levels. With 2-4 years of vocational training at the school level, these post school training courses will become more or less obsolete.

For the employability issue that India faces with the kind of demographic dividend that we have, this will also reduce the number of students that need to be trained to become employable through these courses at the +2 level.

The language that Kapil Sibal is using also targets sectors like Automobiles, which if you look at the National Skill Development Council reports, is among the largest skill requirement sector for the next 10 years. This shows a clear alignment between different parts of the government and the hope that there is increasing cohesion among decision makers today.

That it will also be instrumental in providing students specifically from economically weaker sections (EWS) to pursue non-academic careers that result in direct employability post school, also seems part of the strategy. It is perhaps a pacifist act as well given the non-cooperative attitude of the private school system towards the Right to Education law.

But vocational training will require infrastructure provision that schools are not equipped to achieve. This will require them to invest on acquiring new set of skills and adapt to the new requirements if they want to remain affiliated to the CBSE. Like the Right to Education, this will thus, be also subject to delays and obstructions adding to the general chaos around the Right to Education Law implementation.

Some interesting possibilities may ensue. OEMs, private training companies and public vocational training bodies may be called to play a greater role in the new curriculum. The same organizations may then be better placed to exercise influence over the rest of the school curriculum and this presents great opportunities. At the same time, they would have to update their existing programs to provide a curricular path post the 4 years of vocational training and this is has its attendant problems in infrastructure provision, availability of instructors, new vocational degrees etc. 

I would have also like a bridge system for students who would want to cross-over between pure academic and vocational streams at some point of their education or work, like in Australia. This does not seem to be addressed.

But meanwhile, Mr. Sibal, please read this blog post and give in to my other demands as well :)!

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