Why Knowledge Is Power

“Knowledge has become a key input in production,” said India’s Hon’ble HRD Minister Smriti Irani at the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) Conclave on Entrepreneurship on 19 September 2014 in New Delhi.

Here’s a video of Ms Irani’s speech on education and entrepreneurship, shared by BusinessWorld TV on YouTube:

[Citation: ‘Why Knowledge Is Power’ (video), Smriti Zubin Irani, AICTE Conclave on Entrepreneurship, BusinessWorld TV and YouTube.]

Tips for Indian students seeking admission to US colleges

Earlier this month, India Today magazine’s print supplement Aspire – The Guide to Education and Careers – published an article which is important for Indian students seeking admission to colleges and universities in the United States. In the article, titled Passport To The World, Sonali Acharjee speaks to Lisa Jain, country representative, India at the College Board.

On their website, the New York, United States-based College Board describes itself as “a mission-driven not-for-profit organization that connects students to college success and opportunity. 

Founded in 1900, the College Board was created to expand access to higher education. Today, the membership association is made up of over 6,000 of the world’s leading educational institutions and is dedicated to promoting excellence and equity in education. 

Each year, the College Board helps more than seven million students prepare for a successful transition to college through programs and services in college readiness and college success — including the SAT and the Advanced Placement Program. The organization also serves the education community through research and advocacy on behalf of students, educators and schools.”

Although the first part of the article which explains the PSAT/NMSQT – i.e. the Preliminary SAT and National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test – is also important for Indian students, it’s the second part of the article, Tips for students, that is most valuable and acts as a mini-counselling guide for Indian students. I’ve reproduced these tips verbatim from India Today Aspire’s online format:

Image courtesy India Today Aspire

Image courtesy India Today Aspire

“Start early – Many students who aspire to study abroad believe they need to start planning for it only in Class XII. What they don’t realise, is how much time, thought, and effort it requires. One should begin the ground work as early as Class X, to gain a clear understanding of what the college application process entails, and to be prepared to deal with the pressures later on. For example, if students need to take their SAT, they shouldn’t delay it till Class XII. They should do it in Class XI itself, and leave more time to focus on other parts of the application in Class XII, or give themselves the window to retake the SAT in Class XII, if a second attempt is needed. 

Look beyond college rankings – There are several companies that publish rankings for universities. Some are specific to one country, while others release global rankings. It is important to understand that every ranking is based on a certain set of parameters to determine a university’s standing on a wider scale. The question that students needs to ask themselves is – does the ranking give weightage to the factors that are important to me? Very often, the answer to this question might be no. And that’s when students need to tread with caution. This is because the information captured in the rankings might not necessarily help you find a college that is ‘best fit’ for you. Another important thing to remember when looking at rankings, is just because a university is ranked high overall, doesn’t mean that they rank high in the course you want to pursue. So, if you must look at rankings, focus on those that are course-specific.”

[Citation: Passport To The World, Sonali Acharjee, India Today Aspire, 10 September 2014.]

Indian online education startups reveal student needs and some concerns

Last Saturday (13 September 2014), I attended a seminar/meet on education startups at SIES College in Nerul, Navi Mumbai hosted by Headstart.in (which organises seminars, meets, events under the Startup Saturday banner across India). The seminar/meet hosted three presentations on education startups by three individual education startups in Mumbai and was attended by approx. 40 people. Of the three presentations made, two were talks by existing education startups (stupidsid.com and managementparadise.com) and one was a pitch by a startup-in-the-making (classesnotes.com). As you can see, all three startups were online education ideas.

All three education startup ideas/businesses focused on a very basic need which students expressed: the need to prepare well for examinations and score high marks. It didn’t matter if it was preparation for school-leaving Board examinations, or public examinations such as IIT JEE or CAT or IAS, or tests during engineering and management courses; it was made clear that students have a desperate need to prepare for examinations, improve their chances of acquiring better education (e.g. college admission) and a secure future for themselves. It was also a response to their fear of failing in examinations and living a life of shame.

In tangible terms, this collective need had three components to it: one, practice question papers with answers (primary need); two, study material with notes (secondary need); and three, information on various institutes, courses and examinations (another secondary need). And these education startups provided exactly that. Then they, slowly, evolved into broader platforms offering discussion forums, niche student communities, networks of information on projects, internships, jobs, events… all of which facilitated information flows between students (much like real-life word-of-mouth) on college admissions and made them smarter.

Although the education startup seminar/meet was informative and generated ample interaction with the audience (me included), none of this was news to me. I’ve known about this basic framework for online education for a long time. For the last 5 years or so, these startups have fulfilled a huge consumer/student need in the Indian marketplace. No matter what I say hereafter, the demand for similar online education startups will far outweigh the supply and many more online education startups will come up over the next few years.

However, I have two specific concerns about this process or system of disseminating information to students, engaging them and preparing them for the future. First, the entire startup online education system is built upon (and is a repetition of) the Indian practice of seeking easy ways of scoring marks in examinations to quickly acquire degrees and certificates without taking the trouble to learn anything and acquire knowledge. To be fair, one of the startups (stupidsid.com) did try to address this issue in terms of ‘academics versus learning’. Conceptually, we all agreed.

And second, the blatant practice of piracy and plagiarism when it came to content (online and in print): i.e. reproducing question papers, solved question papers, study material, lecture and class notes, information on institutes, courses, admissions procedures, general knowledge for students, videos, etc without licence or permission. No one seems to believe in creating original content – or a differentiated offering – to service Indian students and stay legal. Once again, to be fair, this issue was touched upon by another startup managementparadise.com, but the conversation was short-lived.

How much does a college education really prepare you for your future career?

A question that nags many college students, post-college job entrants and, perhaps, even those in mid-career across the world is the title of this blog post. Although, at 55 years of age, I too am searching for the answer to this question, the credit for the question, the title and the subject of this blog post are not mine. They belong to Emily Bowen, Marketing Intern at Marketing Eye. Ms Bowen, in her recent post on LinkedIn Pulse titled College Degree: My $107,600 Piece of Paper asks: “In today’s business world, you need to have a degree in order to obtain a “good job”. But how much does a college education really prepare you for your future career?”

Unlike me, who has been hacking through life like an unknown explorer, Emily Bowen is inspired by Logan LaPlante, a 13-year-old boy who gave an amazingly motivating talk on TEDxUniversityofNevada titled Hackschooling makes me happy which set her thinking: “I thought about how much I have spent on a college education and furthermore the value that I have received from it. This is something that I have been agitated about for a few years now. In high school, you learn the core classes that you are expected to have basic knowledge in- math, sciences, histories, etc. After high school, you could spend up to an additional two and a half years taking core curriculum classes- basically relearning or building upon what you’ve already learned in high school.”

Image courtesy blog.edupath.com

Image courtesy blog.edupath.com

For those of us who have gone through an Indian college education in Arts or Sciences, this is a familiar experience. Very few of us can claim mastery in a college subject which actually translates into skills in a job environment immediately after college. In fact, my recent meetings with HR managers in the corporate and business world have echoed this thought almost verbatim: “We have to train all new recruits out of college at a heavy cost to the company. They possess no relevant job skills,” these HR managers tell me. Sadly, this sentiment is shared by both graduates looking for work as well as industry managers who hire them – in India and abroad.

So, when Ms Bowen says “Most mandatory college courses do not teach you the skills you will need for daily tasks in your future career.” and emphatically answers the question “how much does a college education really prepare you for your future career?” with From what I’m told, the answer is almost never.” – I agree with her 100%. She adds, At the end of the day, a degree is a sheet of paper- a very expensive, needed one. It is how you take what you’ve learned, no matter how relevant, and apply it to real life that will test whether it was worth the time and effort.”

Do our college education systems need to be hacked, as Logan LaPlante and Emily Bowen suggest? You be the judge.

[Citation: College Degree: My $107,600 Piece of Paper by Emily Bowen, LinkedIn Pulse.  Hackschooling makes me happy by Logan LaPlante, TEDxUniversityofNevada.]

Inside the college admissions process

How do colleges and universities decide which students get in through their admissions process and which ones don’t?

It’s a tricky question to answer, except to say that the admissions process is not an easy, straight-forward process which evaluates students simply on their merits in terms of test scores (as far as admissions to colleges and universities in the United States go). In fact, the process is highly subjective – according to NBC’s Education Nation Today programme on the Today Show. According to this video, the pros and cons of a student’s application are debated by the admissions board comprising of a committee of people. It’s not a single person’s decision.

Since there are thousands of student applications at every admission season (twice a year during Spring and Fall), the process of selection or rejection is completed quickly, and a student’s admission to a specific college/university may be over in 15 minutes. Typically, applications are shared with the members of the admissions board, applications are parsed, grades and scores are scrutinised, essays evaluated, comparisons made with other applications, extra-curricular activities weighed, and finally a vote is taken to admit, wait list or deny (reject) the student applicant.

image courtesy http://www.youtube.com/ and NBC Education Nation Today

image courtesy http://www.youtube.com/ and NBC Education Nation Today

Many other factors like gender, racial and ethnic diversity, family background, achievements (against odds), leadership qualities, financial means to pay for college/university education are important as well.

The NBC Education Nation Today video embedded here presents a very similar ‘inside the college admissions process’ view from Grinnell College in Iowa which uses an admissions process template used by several colleges in the United States. In the video, Jacques Steinberg, author of a 2002 book titled The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College, who used to author (along with Tanya Abrams) The New York Times higher education blog called The Choice (which sadly closed down last year), says students and parents should not take this process as a representation of how good a job they did as students or parents.

According to Mr Steinberg, there are many factors at play at one time. The admissions board does follow certain guidelines, but some aspects of the student’s application are given greater value than others. Some of these aspects are the rigour of the student’s high-school curriculum (i.e. how difficult were the courses the student had taken), extra-curricular activities (a few committed activities where the student excelled rather than a large number of them), and the essay (from the point of view of how the student comes alive as a person other than what’s apparent from his/her test scores).

[Citation: NBC Education Nation Today video uploaded by Henry DelAngelo.]