Our IT industry is going through times of change.
Automation, managed cloud services, and the economic slowdown are cited as some of the possible causes. The major consequence is however clear: mid-management is being trimmed. It is reported that over 17,500 mid-level employees have been laid off, and more are apparently coming. However, hiring continues for freshers, with over 87,000 being projected to be recruited in the coming year. Also, top-level management have their hands full in navigating their organisations through these tough times. So, we have activity both at the bottom and the top, and a middle that is thinning. This is what we are calling the “lean mean”.
We see two well-understood and fundamental causes for the lean mean. One, technology is rapidly cutting into work that is repetitive. Two, technology is efficiently enabling meaningful interfaces between humans at scale and at distance. The former puts a premium on unique or complex work, while the latter reduces the premium on managing people and projects. At the cross-hair of both these trends, is our mid-level IT manager and hence the pink slips. It is worthwhile to understand which other roles may be similarly affected by a thinning middle. In this article, we posit that the lean mean will show up in higher education with significant consequences in the roles of stakeholders and the need for several disruptions.
For the higher education industry, we can similarly map three roles. At the bottom is the role of facilitation which involves interacting with individual students to help them understand concepts and complete assignments. In the layer above is the teaching role, which often is about translating existing domain knowledge and presenting it lucidly so that students understand and appreciate it. At the highest layer is the role of knowledge discovery which involves research, writing textbooks, and pioneering inventions. While the above three roles are pulled out separately, they do not necessarily map to different individuals. In most private engineering colleges for instance, a faculty member plays the roles of the facilitator and the teacher. In more renowned institutes, faculty members have partial facilitation support with teaching assistants, while they focus more on teaching and knowledge discovery.
Like in the case of the IT industry, the bottom and top layers are indispensable. Facilitation is crucial: For high learning efficacy, each learner’s unique needs should be singularly attended to. At the other end, knowledge discovery is the essential: It provides clarity and direction in a fast changing tech-driven world. The scale of teaching, however, remains suspect. Firstly, teaching is often replicated: Across multiple institutes, teachers teach the same courses year after year.
For instance, last semester, we taught the Operating Systems course to the undergraduate Computer Science class at IIT Madras. Such “core” courses are repeatedly taught often deriving from the same select set of textbooks and resources. Secondly, technology is ready to enable a teacher to efficiently teach large student audiences. The rise and maturing of Massively Online Open Courses (MOOCs) over this decade has established this. (Note that most MOOCs today suffer from very poor learner engagement due to lack of personalised facilitation, which is called out as a separate role in our structure). Thus, teaching seems to be repetitive and technology is ready to teach at much larger scales. Hence, teaching as role may be squeezed to be the lean mean.
How would higher education look like with teaching as a lean mean? Here is our take. Courses would be taught by select top faculty members who are deeply involved in research and product development. Large number of students, in thousands, would take up these courses on online platforms. Facilitators will enable learning for individual students in manageable student to facilitator ratios like in today’s college classrooms. Students would take up proctored examinations across the country and receive online diplomas and degrees. The roles of many individuals and organisations would fundamentally change. Faculty at the top institutes of the country would primarily focus and be judged on knowledge discovery. Instead of teaching 3 courses a year within their institute, they would teach 1 course in say 3 years to large student communities. This would afford time and resources to prepare and design courses at definitive levels. Faculty at other institutes would effectively become hands-on facilitators with emphasis on empathising and connecting with individual students. Colleges around the country would become hang-out spots for students virtually enrolled into different online courses. Colleges would be primarily judged by their ability to provide infrastructure facilities to their resident students. Institutes like the IITs would be home to top researchers and offer standard classroom courses on advanced topics. They would significantly reduce their administrative overheads of managing large student enrolments in core courses.
Several disruptions are needed to enable a lean mean higher education stack. Robust technology platforms are required to support online education at scale. Such platforms should enable interactive lessons across disciplines, well beyond providing just virtual programming labs.
Proctored examinations with certified quality levels will be a major operational cog. Ensuring high credibility on these tests would be essential.
Recruiting, skilling, and networking facilitators would be an important human-resource disruption. There should be greater social and commercial acknowledgement of the challenges in and the value of facilitation. Finally, virtual platforms for placements will a necessity. Such platforms should provide companies a single interface to students across physical locations. Successful startups across these areas spanning technology, operations, and human resources would create immense value.
Where does all this leave our dear students? For one, school students would limit their focus on entrance examinations as admission to virtual schools would not be limited by seats. Instead, focus will shift to doing well throughout the degree program and earning the degree with higher relative grades. This would mean that students would bring higher levels of energy into their more meaningful college lives. Finding suitable employment with one’s degrees will remain the prime motivation for students.
In a flat virtual university setup, students will focus more on creating differentiating experiences to catch the attention of recruiters. Students will enjoy greater choice in structuring their programs and even careers. It would not be surprising if students choose to interleave work and education based on their own lived experience.
Viewed positively, the lean mean would displace roles from the middle to more effective roles in the bottom and the top. However, from the perspective of individuals and organisations going through the displacement, it will be a rough journey ahead.
Authors: Pratyush Kumar and Mitesh Khapra, IIT Madras
Pratyush and Mitesh are faculty members at the Computer Science and Engineering department at IIT Madras. They are also co-founders of the startup One Fourth Labs that runs an affordable online school PadhAI on AI and related areas.
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