The future of individual learning

It is said that the knowledge society we live in today relentlessly punishes the under-educated and the under-prepared. The evidence of this statement is all around us to see. In developing countries, a fair percentage of a family’s income is spent on educating its children. Why is this so? One can safely say that if one were to leave out the top 2% of the population of a developing country, as measured by their economic status, the rest of the population is trying hard to educate itself, in the belief that it will lead them to a better tomorrow. This strong urge to be “educated” and “prepared” for the future has its pluses and minuses. On the positive side, it leads to improvements in the aspirational levels in youth, lowering of crime rates and improvements in the standards of living. On the flip side, it creates an intense pressure on children and parents, with many of them going to undue lengths to get admission into brand name institutions and courses. The fallout of this mad scramble for “quality” education leads us to many ills, such as cheating in exams, leaking of national entrance test papers, buying of college seats through touts, suicides on failure to secure admission, etc.

Given the paucity of seats in quality institutions in a vast, developing country like India, there is a whole tutoring and coaching industry that has now become one of the biggest sources of income for a large number of individual tutors and coaching institutes. So much so, there are coaching institutes to train students to get into more successful (read “famous”) coaching institutes! Some cities like Kota in Rajasthan and Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh have become de facto coaching factories for students wanting to secure a seat in the premier institutions of the country. Many families endure 2 to 4 years of separation from their children, since they have to travel hundreds and thousands of miles away from their hometowns to live in these cities and get better “prepared” for that one competitive exam that will decide their future.

However, if one were to talk to many parents of such students, they are not a happy lot. Many of them feel trapped – they have committed a lot of upfront money to a coaching institute, their child is not able to cope with life away from home, his performance in the coaching classes and assessment tests is not showing any improvement, and he is missing his regular school classes as well. Yet they do not have the courage of pulling their ward out of the situation, hoping against hope that things might change for the better.

It is said that whenever there is simmering discontent in any market, there are opportunities bubbling just beneath the surface. Today, thanks to the convergence of a few factors, such parents and their wards could be ready to experiment with a new method of coaching – the Stay@Home model of self-paced, self-driven learning. What are these factors? Let us enumerate them.

1. The deep penetration of broadband internet across all parts of India.

2. The general discontent among a large section of students with the kind of herd mentality that drives them to a few “named” coaching institutes, far away from home.

3. The constant changes in the entrance test format and pattern by the testing authorities.

4. The high total cost, both financial and emotional, of enduring years of away-from-home coaching.

5. The emergence of smart e-learning platforms that make self-help learning far more effective than possible earlier.

The last-named factor is what some nimble coaching institutes are beginning to exploit to their, and the student’s advantage. Imagine the several benefits to a coaching institute that accrue from migrating some of their programmes to such platforms:

a. Better utilization of the most critical resource – good faculty

b. Ease of managing content – from creation to dissemination

c. Improvement in quality of student engagement – through a medium that the student enjoys using the most

d. Full control over the business functions – from student enrollment & fee collection to IP (Intellectual Property) protection & profit maximization

e. Easier scalability of operations without having to expand brick and mortar infrastructure – classroom space, power, air-conditioning, printed material, etc.

At the other end, here are some clear benefits to the student:

a. The physical and emotional comfort of studying at home

b. The ability to pace oneself based on one’s grasping ability and circumstances

c. Ease of reviewing a lecture and taking assessments when one is ready for them

d. A rich multi-media experience (of the same content from the same great coaching institute) to make concepts clearer

e. Better balance between school studies and coaching “classes”

f. Last but not the least, a much lower financial burden on the family.

The cultural shift that is needed to make independent, individual learning a more common phenomenon is already taking place. From schools to colleges to companies, systems are rewarding those who take responsibility for their own growth and development. Blaming the environment, the system, the teachers, the technology is no more fashionable. This is seen as more of a loser’s excuse. The bold and the brave are expected to take charge of their own destiny, and design their own path to success than just follow the crowd.

Whenever there is a disruptive force in any market, the early adopters of a new, revolutionary solution are not those who are sitting pretty. It is usually those who are in some way discontented with the current situation. So it is my calculated hunch that the new ways of delivering and consuming coaching and training services will find early takers among students who are less than satisfied with the “Kota” experience and among tutors and coaching institutes who are grappling with faculty shortage and dwindling student interest. Once this early wave of adopters tastes success (and there is enough evidence to show that this is happening), the more established and comfortable players – both Knowledge Providers and Knowledge Consumers – will jump onto the bandwagon too. From the iPod to Facebook, it is always the bold, brave, early adopter who makes a great idea come alive.

The rest, as they say, is always history!

Till we meet another idea again.

Pramod Joshi – 16 August 2011

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