Education v2.0

The last few days have seen a bit of a furor about our graduates and their lack of skill sets and employability. In recent times, there are a lot of complaints about our educational system and the quality of graduates emerging from that system. I dont entirely agree with the blame cast on the system and have explained my viewpoint here. What I propose is an alternative to the existing system aimed at providing people with other options.

One of the major problems faced by  our educational system is the challenge of providing knowledge and learning to all students equally to ensure that none of them falter or are lagging. This means that teachers have to try to teach at a level of the slowest learner or try to ensure most students are able to clear the examinations through a process of learning by rote. Equally important is the necessary infrastructure required by schools. Schools and colleges require buildings, teachers and corresponding equipment for teaching students. Equally importantly, students need to have the opportunity and the time to attend schools or colleges. Lots of students miss out on an opportunity of education because they have to work for a living or the corresponding schools or colleges are too far off or too costly.

In an era when we have been using technology to solve most of our problems, small or large, it is time we took this as an opportunity to help our educational system evolve and adapt. There are multiple channels of technology we could avail but I would primarily like to discuss two models – one based on mobile phones and the other based on the Internet and Television.

There have been many reports about how the penetration of mobile phones has reached high levels, even in the rural districts of our country. Farmers and others are using mobile networks for business and personal reasons, thus helping themselves while also making existing systems more efficient and possibly eliminating the middle man out of the system. To help youngsters learn and improve, governmental schools, NGO’s and large universities such as IGNOU could work together to provide specific vocational skills such as better communication, a good grasp of English and other basic subjects , and most importantly career counselling for a large number of kids who either drop out of school or need to improve. Tying up with service providers to design Interactive Voice systems/ SMS Based teaching methodologies or phone lines where volunteers can try to answer the doubts and queries of children could go a long way in providing children an alternative to the existing educational system.

The other approach would be to follow the idea of Khan Academy or Coursera. This follows the concept of Social Entrepreneurship, an idea still to find its place in an emerging market like India. By building up alliances with Government and Private institutions of learning, we could build a database of lecture videos on a diverse set of topics and subjects aimed at making education more interesting and understandable for children who often get saddled with poor faculty and facilities at government schools.With state governments providing free televisions to so many, we can even tie up with television channels or DTH operators to provide these lectures as a free channel where students can choose the lecture they wish to view at any time they want. This facility of a wide choice of quality lectures coupled with systems for constant feedback and interaction could help poor students get better skill sets while enabling them to grow more comfortable with modern technology.

What I have spoken about is a very generic plan. However with burgeoning population problems, lack of real estate for schools and a rising student : faculty ratio, introduction of technology and innovative learning & teaching methods may be the only way to ensure that our graduating classes are capable of more than just performing a task by rote.The important point , is that our education system needs to realign itself to help the 99 % looking for vocation skills and new skill sets to adapt to the changing employment landscape. THe 1 % who have educated parents who can teach or guide them and can fund their education at better schools are NOT the target audience for these schemes. The government needs to remember that while implementing technology to aid the educational system


Insisting on the Impossible

An old legend goes that when George Mallory was about to leave for his final attempt at Everest, he was asked why he chose to attempt this seemingly impossible task. His curt reply was “because it is there”. It is the habit of the few to aspire to achieve the near impossible. That journey is not always successful. In both cases, humankind has usually learnt something. This is true not just for individuals but even for organizations. When most firms start out , be it from a garage or from a 30 storey skyscraper, they start out hungry and eager to achieve the impossible. Some lose that fire in a few years while others choose to keep that fire burning for a much longer duration. In recent times one organization, which has made strides towards achieving what others consider impossible, is Apple. Much has been written about Steve Job’s charismatic style of management. What most of these articles fail to mention is the decision to take extraordinarily risks to achieve what was hitherto considered as impossible.

Polaroid Camera

Let us look back into the fragments of time, and pull out a few from the wrecks sublime. One of the first organizations to test the boundaries of existing technology was Polaroid and the key behind this was their founder, Edwin H Land. When the Polaroid SX-70 camera was conceptualized, the firm did not have close to 80% of the technology necessary for production of the camera. To actually complete the camera, the firm had to develop new emulsions for the photographic film, a method to actually print the photo on a piece of paper and design an entirely new type of camera base. The successor to Polaroid was a firm called Psion. Famous for developing the first ever Personal Digital Assistant, they took on the dream of developing a revolutionary communication device. But they are a cautionary tale for organizations who wish to chase impossible dreams. The company failed to bring out a product within time and was soon beaten by their competitors and failed to keep up with changing customer demands. Post Psion, Apple came back with their launch of the iPod. The iPod , much like the PDA’s of the 90’s and the Polaroid cameras of the 70’s , was a product not meant to cater to the existing needs of customers but create a desire within customers for a new range of products. This desire to achieve what seems impossible for other companies , is what sets Apple aside from most other technology companies. However , the game is not just about choosing to achieve an impossible dream. One has to ensure that it is a viable business venture. Here is where Apple beats all other companies hollow through a mix of highly efficient operations and good marketing. Not only does Apple focus on minimizing costs through global procurement and close collaboration with OEM Manufacturers, the firm also focuses on controlling supply, thus artificially maintaining demand as and when necessary.

In recent times, the requirement for innovation has shifted from innovation in the hardware domain to innovation both on the software end and the customer end. Not only is it required to provide a better customer experience, one is required to bring it out as quickly as possible, so that one can bring in more iterations and work to remove the kinks. Google plus, which has been launched recently, has been termed as a Facebook killer and the buzz (Oops) around it has been phenomenal. However some people are still doubtful about the possibilities and the extent to which Google can launch a social network to challenge existing networks like Twitter or FB. There is a common misconception that startups possess a greater propensity to innovate / have greater incentive to innovate. The incentive / propensity to innovate comes with the corporate/ company culture. There are firms such as IBM which have been able to consistently maintain the culture for decades, as can be proved from their company history. However it is true that startups do possess an advantage of being at the edge of latest research and have the ability to change direction quickly in comparison to most large firms. However it is as much a factor of risk tolerance as it is of size and propensity. The startup may enjoy a few benefits of an early advantage but it can be negated very quickly by a large firm choosing to enter the field. Another common misconception is that Social media as a trend is fluid and people will soon shift to the next upcoming media channel just like people shifted from Orkut to Facebook to Twitter. However what people forget is that Social Media is an evolving channel. The dramatic changes we have seen in the last 10 years rival the changes seen in the telecom space two decades back. What however we need to realize is that the choice of media channel will not matter as much as how we are able to make users both generate and promote content. The channel is but a choice. However users do believe in the importance of user experience and this is one place where both large firms and startups are equally ignorant and at equal risk. What one really needs to remember though, is the story of Psion. People forget that Psion was way ahead of its times. It came up with amazing innovations and brilliant concepts but consumers were pretty happy with their first product and were equally happy with getting a few simple needs satisfied. Psion is the origin of at least three path breaking ideas (Ipad, GPS systems and Satellite Radio) but these ideas could not get accepted as most people were unsure of the business potential for such ideas. The true advantage of a huge firm like a Google or an IBM or an Apple is not about its innovation. It can choose to innovate through promoting its own talent or acquiring talent. The true advantage lies in its ability to take risks which other firms cannot. Google has burnt its fingers twice earlier with Wave and Buzz. Each time it has learnt valuable lessons about privacy and true sharing of content which it has applied in Google Plus. Though I have been using Google Plus for only some days, I like two of its features – one the ability to choose whom I allow to follow/ be followed and whom I share content with, and secondly, the ability to take all my data with me through Google Takeout if I choose to leave. Google has addressed two major concerns of most existing social media users – privacy and data control. Equally important is the changes it has brought in controlling and managing conversations, which has predominantly been a feature much needed in Twitter. Each time, users lose out on useful conversations which cannot be saved or noted as the TL moves faster than one can blink.

One has to realize that firms can choose to innovate horizontally or vertically. The big firms enjoy the advantage of horizontal innovation through their access to talent across spheres of technology . If there is something a startup does which is really interesting / innovative, the large firm will probably just incorporate it into its systems the next time. Classic examples are those of Tweetdeck shortening of links being integrated into Twitter, Facebook Messages being converted into mail and so on. The problem for a small firm to grow big or innovate majorly lies in accomplishing innovation which is of no interest to the existing major firms. Sadly most firms seem least interested in taking that risk. The key for Indians is to learn from the experiences of these firms. We are best suited for bringing in new products, both in the hardware and the online domains, for Indians. One need look no farther than the Micromax’s and the Karbon Mobile firms to prove this statement. It is important that we focus now on achieving what has not been done before so that we can steal a march on the large firms, before they take large footsteps in India.