September 02, 2012

Distance Learning : An Inverted Model for Indian B-Schools

"No army can stop an idea whose time has come." This quotation from Victor Hugo  has often been used in defence of many new but unpopular ideas and I will invoke it here to justify the usage of distance learning techniques, particularly in business schools that lead up to an MBA degree.
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Whether we like it or not, many global trends are first set in the United States and then the rest of the world joins in and distance learning is one of them. Respected and well known schools like Stanford, Harvard and others are offering a large number of undergraduate and postgraduate programs that are based on a calibrated mixture of on-line and on-campus pedagogy.

Despite criticisms of being less effective than face-to-face teaching, distance learning is here to stay and grow because of compelling economic reasons -- many students are simply not able to pay the kind of fees that big US schools charge and unless schools are able to offer education at the price point that students can afford, the invisible hand of the free market will make the business of B-Schools unviable ! So just as US companies have accepted the hard economic reality of software services being outsourced to India, so will B-Schools accept the reality of distance learning.

But as many all cases, the Indian market is different from the US and that is why it may make sense to invert the model that is being followed in the US. In the US, the dominant pattern is that the faculty is sitting in Harvard or Stanford whereas the students are scattered anywhere in the world -- as long as they have a broadband Internet connection and a credit card. You register, pay, log-in and access course material either synchronously ( as in live lectures ) or asynchronously by downloading videos, slide decks and books. The only real challenge is the evaluation or examination process where it is difficult to ensure a no-cheating rule but it is a matter of time before even this will be resolved.

How is this different from the Indian B-School market ?

In India there is no dearth of "customer"s and students are flocking to even some very shady B-Schools that have been created by crooked entrepreneurs with the active connivance of the regulatory bodies for higher education. But the real trouble is that there is no one to teach ! There is no  good faculty, not just in these shady schools but also in the well funded, well known and well regarded Government schools like the IIMs and the IITs !

While the situation is understandable in the small schools, the situation in the big schools may be puzzling but easily explained in economic terms. Let us look at this issue from the perspective of who should be teaching in B-Schools and who are actually doing so.

B-schools act as feeders into corporate management and should typically impart skills that are necessary to run a business profitably and ethically. Ideally, a B-School faculty should be someone who has the practical experience of being in the corporate sector and has been in a senior position. In such positions,  he should have faced and resolved real issues in the area of finance, marketing, operations, HR and business strategy. But instead, what we find in B-Schools ( particularly the IITs/IIMs) are academics with PhD degrees who (a) are paper tigers with scores of theoretical papers published in academic journals that are only read by other academics, not by corporates and what is worse (b) are people who have never had the ability or the confidence of actually working in the industry. What rubbish do they teach ?

Why is this ? Economic reasons. Under the 6th Pay Commission, a senior faculty at a premier Government institute is paid around Rs 12 - 15 lakhs for annum which is just on par with the average salary that an MBA student gets when he or she passes out from the same school !! A well respected manager, with about 15 - 20 years of experience -- the kind that we would like to have as teachers in MBA schools, would be drawing anything from Rs 40 - Rs 80 lakhs per annum. Now no sane person in his senses will leave his corporate job -- however stressful it may be -- and take a 80% salary cut to join a B-School. And even in a moment of madness (for example when he has been passed over in the annual promotions ;-) he were to contemplate this, his financial commitments ( children's education, EMI for flat) will prevent him from doing so. And if this involves moving to a different, non-metro area, then the spouse will have violent objection because she would be cut off from her normal earning and entertainment opportunities. ( This assumes that the person concerned is a man but is even more true if it is a lady who is contemplating this move)

So in the US, they have lots of good faculty in good schools but losing students but in India we have lots of students but no faculty. Hence time to invert our model of distance learning.

In an earlier post on Zoho Show and Google Hangout I have shown how easy it is for a faculty, sitting a distant location, to teach a class full of students using simple and inexpensive technology.

So my model works like this. We set up a B-school and create the infrastructure for students to live and work. In fact this could be at remote and picturesque locations so that academics is not disturbed by the discordant notes of urban life and, perhaps this is more important, land is cheap and so capital costs are low.

There is no need to recruit any full time faculty at all and in any case, if the location is remote,  good faculty will in not join anyway. Only utterly jobless people who cannot go anywhere else or old and retired professors trying to pass of their ancient and out-dated knowledge in their second and third innings of their career will be interested. This is precisely the kind of people whom we do not want in our B-Schools.

So instead of recruiting full time faculty, what we have is a network of high end managers located wherever they are currently employed -- anywhere in India. In each city we can either set up a small "transmission" kiosk, through a telephone operator or if the faculty is comfortable enough install the simple hardware ( basically one or two computers with audio/video and a high speed internet connection ) at his home or place of work.

On campus we create an excellent telecommunication infrastructure so that every student has more than adequate bandwidth (enough even for his not-so-surreptitious Torrent downloads ;-) both in class as well as in the hostel.

To make things a bit smooth, the faculty may be required to make one visit to the campus at the beginning of the semester, get acquainted with the students and if necessary get familiarised with the technology. As the class progresses, he can keep in touch with his students through private social media platforms like the Kollaborative Klassroom or through more mainstream media like LinkedIN or Facebook.  In fact the Coursera model has similar ideas but we need to remember that it is US model and so needs to be tweaked for our inversion.

This model also removes the one big irritation in traditional distance learning -- how to conduct valid examinations ? In this case, this is not a problem at all since all the students are located on the campus and local staff ( not distant faculty) can monitor the examination and ensure fairness. Moreover with the students living together on the campus, there is no difficulty for them to work together and collaborate on assignments -- which is one of the important aspects of B-School pedagogy.

While this model will allow a Institute to draw upon the best B-School faculty from anywhere in the country, it also has the potential to push up faculty earnings in a dramatic manner. Typically a faculty at a premier Government Institute teaches two 3-credit subjects in a semester and so faces a class for six hours every week. [ I am ignoring "research" because B-School research is generally pointless-data-collection-followed-by-regression-analysis, nothing else. It is done only for the purpose for faculty promotions because of the philosophy of publish or perish adopted in many Institutes ] For this six hours of work per week he is paid Rs 12 lakhs. A corporate manager works 40+ hours a week and gets say Rs 60+ lakhs. So it makes sense for a corporate manager to move to academics if and only if he can teach in at least five or six institutes simultaneously -- and this is very much possible if we adopt the distance learning model that was explained in my earlier post ! In fact with this model, well known Institutes can create the distance learning environment that will allow their faculty to enhance their income five or six times and so draw the best people from the corporate world into the academic domain.

Of course faculty is not the only thing that matters in a B-School. Placement plays a very important role in the success of school. We also need to look at the existing curriculum and see what changes can or should be made. But these are big topics and need to explored separately.

Let us first get cracking with the faculty issue and address it with our inverted model of distance learning. It is a win-win strategy that benefits both Institutes as well as faculty since the former gets good teachers and the latter gets to earn much more without stressing the economic and business model of MBA education in India.


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