Education Challenge: Designing for Scale or Swell

In designing for education, we need to differentiate between scale and swell. Swelling an operation is merely increasing the volumes. Scaled operations are far more complex.

Meeta Sengupta
Updated: Mar 21, 2013 09:32:03 AM UTC

India's large scale education challenge is real, here and now. The numbers of children that enter the education stream each year are in the millions. What is a national target in many other countries is merely a pilot program in India.

Designing for such scale is unchartered territory for many. And the only role models that exist are retail multinational companies that have created large volume operations with deep access into the interiors.

Not quite the role model that education needs. Even as there are lessons to share.

In designing for education, we need to differentiate between scale and swell. Swelling an operation is merely increasing the volumes. Scaled operations are far more complex.

It is easy to design for swell. One needs to design a template and then just repeat what you have planned. It could be as easy as an increase in the size of the manufacturing units, or duplicating them to increase the volumes of output. That is the McDonald’s model - create a fixed set of standards and processes, and then replicate them to ensure efficient delivery. Much of the current solution seems to follow this pattern, reinforced by the RTE Act, as it must be implemented. The idea seems to be to create standardised schools with standard qualifications for teachers, identical curriculum and student performance assumed according to age. Build it and they will come. Build more, and more will come.

This is designing for swell. Not scale. This is like designing a sausage factory. Or as the song said - another brick in the wall.

Designing for swell misses many a boat - it serves neither potential, nor opportunity nor does it improve quality. It is a design that is blinkered with respect to both demand and supply. It serves neither the needs of the nation nor the needs of the community, falling short of both somewhere in the middle ground. It also ignores the potential applications of resources on offer, including technology. With proven models of customised learning that support various types of learners, technology has shown one possible solution. More solutions lie in better design of schools systems. Designing for swell can, at best meet the needs of the modal population, not all. And if the goal is universalisation of education, the one size fits all is at best ‘optimistic’ and at worst - insulting. (Also, To impose a template designed in the past on the talent and potential that must be nurtured for an unknown future is rather arrogant - but we leave that for another day)

Designing for scale is a more complex process. Scaled (and Scaleable) models can either be 'Swell'models or Swell prime, including -let us call it 'Flex'. Flex is a more flexible and customisable approach to growing the resources. Flex models also deliver to standards, so they are not a compromise on quality. On the contrary, flex models deliver better quality that is relevant for the local context. For example, it is reported that the panchayati teachers in Bihar and the local village teachers in Uttarakhand have been delivering far better results than regular standard issue certified and tenured teachers. These teachers are not standard issue teachers - their qualifications, skills and talents vary. This model that taps into the talents and links of these local teachers is one that cannot be 'swelled' but it is clearly a model that can be emulated and replicated in other education districts, and is therefore scaleable. Other models of scaleability also exist or can be engineered depending upon the strategy and tactics.

India needs a different and more intelligent design than Swell growth to meet its education targets -one that takes note of the variations in its ‘last mile’. All school children are not created equal, and each has a unique potential that deserves to be nurtured in an equitable fashion. This requires the tools of mass customisation to be applied to the sector. The diversity that we see in our schools must not be stamped down, rather it must define the design of that school, classroom and lesson.

Indian schools operate under a wide range of conditions. Urban schools, large and small, rural schools - government and private, schools in urban villages - all have different pastoral and scaffolding requirements. Schools operate in different languages and myriad dialects. The local requirements and circumstances are different - terrain, climate, harvesting cycle - all impact achievement at schools. The same solution cannot work for all. One cannot reach out to aspirations and talents by merely swelling the same solution.

Scale Design needs more than swell, it needs to design for diversity and needs to plan for variability. It must be able to adapt to the needs of the students and be responsive to the local resources available. Truly scaleable design must be replicable but flexible enough to adapt and include localised contextual innovations. The idea is to design to local requirements and meet global standards.

Coming to think of it, McDonalds had to learn this very lesson. McAloo Tikki anyone?

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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