How the Digital Era Is Nudging Universities to Adopt a B2B Model

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Ravi Kumar, president of Infosys, discusses how educational institutions are adapting to the imperative of lifelong learning by migrating from a B2C model to a B2B model.

The education space is witnessing dramatic shifts in how it engages with students and the employers that hire these students. A continuum of lifelong learning has become the new imperative, and educational institutions are moving from their traditional B2C model to adopt a B2B model, says Ravi Kumar, president at the global IT services firm Infosys. He advises educators to partner with corporations to re-skill people and bring the workforce up to speed with the changing needs of the workplace.

Here, Kumar emphasizes the importance of digital technology as the great leveler, and the importance of experiential and componentized learning “just in time” to supplement the traditional “just in case” learning that schools provide to prepare students for all the things they may need — just in case — once they enter the workforce. Community colleges and educational institutions, in emerging nations, could play a vital role in making such education accessible to underserved populations, he says. In a previous interview with Knowledge@Wharton about the future of work, he noted, “Universities are not yet paranoid about ed-tech companies. The day that paranoia sets, they will be compelled to make that much needed switch in approach.”

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: When we spoke in New York last July, you said that in order to prepare for the future of work, we will have to move to a continuum of lifelong learning. Now this obviously requires the digital transformation of education in much the same way that other industries are also being transformed. How is this happening today?

Ravi Kumar: Never before, in the last few decades, has learning moved from a straight line (learning first in school and then applying that same learning throughout one’s tenure at work), to a continuum of lifelong learning (learning and applying learning in several cycles of continuous personal evolution). This requires a massive overhaul of the ecosystem around us. K-12 schools have to be enabled to create lifelong learners. Once they create lifelong learners, the learning curve is going to go from simply learn to learn, learn to unlearn, and learn to relearn.

This process will go on for decades. People are living longer. Their professional lives are growing longer. People are exploring at least four or five professional careers – distinctly different professional jobs – during the tenure of their work life. All of that would mean that we need to learn on a continuum and learn on a continual basis.

I so love this concept about learning just in case vis-a-vis learning just in time. Learning just in case is about learning everything you can, which you could potentially use at a later time of potential need. Learning just in time is about learning exactly what you need it, and contextually when you need it. To switch to that philosophy, you must be a lifelong learner. If you do not know how to learn to learn, you cannot switch to the paradigm of learning in a just-in-time paradigm, where you quickly ramp up and quickly ramp down whenever you have to on-ramp into a new thing.

Technology will play a very important role in this journey because it is no longer enough to rely on just classroom teaching — that typically comes in the first 20 or 25 years of your life. You have to imbibe bite-sized, small packets of learning across the spectrum of the work tenure. Relevance, application, micro-sized knowledge-modules, adaptive-to-context and technologies like augmented reality to amplify this are important aspects of lifelong learning. It has to be done on an ongoing basis, and has to be convenient to facilitate anytime, anywhere and to scale affordably, too.

Engagement can be improved by technology, too. Learning can be gamified and made social, bringing the benefits of experiential learning to the continuum. Digital technologies can make learning a journey of personalized development, and the iterative cycles of analytics that surround it can help measure progress made as well as indicate what’s best to learn next.

We have not yet determined who the real custodian of lifelong learning is. Is it the employer or the employee, or is it the ecosystem one learns and works in? That’s something worth pondering.

“Once [K-12 schools] create lifelong learners, the learning curve is going to go from simply learn to learn, learn to unlearn, and learn to relearn.”

How Technology Disrupts Education

Knowledge@Wharton: When you look at the educational ecosystem today, what are some of the biggest disruptions that you see technology creating in this field? And even more importantly, how are educational institutions responding to these disruptions?

Ravi Kumar: Technology can prove important when facilitating the transition into a lifelong learning continuum. There is the ability to use virtual technologies to make learning experiential.

Let me give you an example. In manufacturing, I know of corporations that use AR (Augmented Reality) and VR (Virtual Reality) technologies to create virtual learning cycles. I know of firms which use digital twins to simulate lifelong learning. In fact, in the automotive and aerospace industries, you could create digital twins to simulate extreme conditions, extreme boundaries, and hence create learning opportunities. Embedding these new-age digital technologies is pivotal as they provide on-the-job, lifelong and continual learning.

The second aspect is the ability to transform traditional classrooms into smart classrooms, the ability to use collaborative online platforms, leverage data insights, instantaneously provide real time feedback and change the pace at which one can drive the learning process.

Nandan Nilekani, the chairman of Infosys, puts this interestingly: “Educational institutions will become platforms that distribute the ability to learn and teach.” Instead of teaching always being done in a classroom in a synchronous manner, the professor or educator can be in-person and can take care of learners virtually, both in synchronous and in asynchronous modes. Online learning can be made immersive, bringing together both physical and the digital worlds to significantly accelerate learning.

The Khan Academy has created this momentum around crowd-sourcing content and democratizing content. Knowledge@Wharton is an evangelist for democratization and crowd-sourcing of content. The next big wave will be crowd-sourced content and democratized content that make learning a pervasive experience.

Pivoting from B2C to B2B

Knowledge@Wharton: I’m so glad that you mentioned The Khan Academy, because very often when we think about disruption, we have to figure out who the disruptors are. Do you see any ed tech start-ups that are shaking up the education ecosystem the way, for example, fintechs are shaking up the financial services ecosystem?

Ravi Kumar: I have friends in the ed tech industry – new-age education companies enabled by digital technologies. Sebastian Thrun, [co-founder] of Udacity, is a good friend of mine. I know the folks at Coursera. All of them have enabled an educational ecosystem of lifelong learning for the B2C market, where you directly go to the consumer and provide opportunities to learn. And this could be a student, an employee, or even a potential employee.

But lifelong learning has become such a big responsibility for corporations that large universities, and new-age academic institutions have to pivot from the B2C world to the B2B world. And that pivot will be the single biggest shift for universities, academic institutions, and new-age ed tech startups. In fact, today, not even the new-age startups are geared for a B2B world where employers and these startups come together to build future learning partnerships.

The single biggest gap today for scaling a digital learning program, in a large enterprise, is all about re-skilling human capital. And re-skilling human capital is a joint responsibility of educational institutions, employers and the employee. In fact, governments, too, want to participate in this ecosystem.

I strongly believe that the switch will happen. The switch that helps us all move from degrees to skills – something that is already happening in the world of digital. With that switch, the downstream impact will be that academic institutions will begin to address corporations, rather than just addressing individuals. I think that will become a differentiator for progressive large universities and small startups.

“The next big wave will be crowd-sourced content and democratized content that make learning a pervasive experience.”

Role for Community Colleges

Knowledge@Wharton: In focusing on the needs of companies and the focus on large educational institutions, one group that sometimes gets overlooked is community colleges.

Ravi Kumar: Yes.

Knowledge@Wharton: I know this is an area that’s dear to your heart, because community colleges attract so many students. What role do you think community colleges can play in helping to prepare students for the emerging digital economy? And at the same time, can digital technology help to make community colleges more mainstream than they are today?

Ravi Kumar: Absolutely, this is a topic very dear to my heart. Worldwide, community colleges offer associate degree programs. In the U.S., 41% of students, that is roughly 8.7 million students, go to community colleges. The majority of them come from underserved communities because the cost of higher education has just skyrocketed in the last few decades.

The tech jobs of the past created the digital divide. The digital jobs of the future will bridge that divide. The digital paradigm has created these backbone jobs, which take a lot of heavy lifting to execute, and this heavy lifting will require massive pools of talent – alternate pools of talent. This calls for the ability to create a digital apprentice program where you could get talent with the potential – perhaps not necessarily with the degrees – to learn, earn and work for us, similar to what manufacturing companies do in their apprentice model. Many manufacturers in Europe and Asia have done this very successfully.

We launched a digital apprentice program where new hires come with a two-year associate degree, and land on a backbone digital job. These backbone digital jobs involve activities like cyber security operations, end-use compute maintenance, infrastructure support, and the like. Even as the apprentices work, they are offered the opportunity to earn 60 college credits through online learning. They also earn credits for the experiential learning they gain at the workplace. And then they are enabled to cross the bridge to become undergrads as they complete a couple of years of work.

This whole process is not just about offering them an undergrad degree, but also about making them lifelong learners so that they can keep pace with the changes in the corporate and tech worlds. We have never had so compelling an opportunity before in the tech world to empower students of community colleges. This is the time to do so. We think we already have an operating model to do it.

“The biggest roadblock is resistance to change. There isn’t enough education tech momentum to disrupt the traditional university infrastructure.”

Spurring Technology Adoption in Education

Knowledge@Wharton: I was struck recently by an interesting paradox, which is that global spending on education is projected to grow to about $10 trillion dollars by 2030, but less than 3% of this money is actually spent on technology. Given how central technology is to education in the future, what are the reasons that number is so low, and what can be done about that?

Ravi Kumar: You’ve touched the crux of the issue, in terms of technology adoption. Traditional large economic institutions have very little to gain from change. The U.S. is the best example. The cost of education is going up. Student finance is available, and therefore there is no incentive for institutions to reduce the cost of education, which continues to spiral out to a point where it is untenable. The biggest roadblock remains resistance to change. There isn’t enough education tech momentum to disrupt the traditional university infrastructure. Some universities have been bold enough to catapult into the new-age ed tech sector. But everybody has not done so.

So, there is an opportunity for those universities to leap into the future, but resistance to change is so high, and technology adoption is so low. Universities have to cannibalize themselves, and that is a very bold thing to do. You’re going to take away what you are good at and bet on the future. You’re going to bet into a B2B world. You’re going to bet into micro-sized modular content, vis-a-vis content that comes in big packets.

In the past, industries changed at a slower pace, and therefore they would come to academic institutions to figure out how they can disrupt. From now on, it will go the other way around. Academic institutions have to proactively reach out to industry because industry is disrupting at a rapid pace. And their own model will get disrupted because the human capital needed for those industries is going to change so rapidly that universities have to go to industries and proactively ask to be partners.

Wanted: A Mindset Change

Knowledge@Wharton: If the shift that you are talking about does happen, that universities and schools start thinking about a B2B model rather than B2C, they would need to be able to justify this in terms of returns on the investment in education. So, to a degree that cost might create resistance to change. What advice would you give schools that want to think about the ROI of education?

Ravi Kumar: As much as we all think that the adoption of tech is capital-intensive – which it was for many years – this is rapidly changing. It is moving to a pay-as-you-go model. It is moving to become on-the-tap. It is moving to open-source software. The future of technology would be consumption-as-you-go, on the cloud, leveraging open-source software. That is why my strong belief is that capital cost is no longer an issue. For academic institutions to leap into the future, they need a mindset change. There are a variety of technology interventions one could bring in right now with absolutely no upfront capital.

With the advent of cloud and open-source software, who else but academic institutions can gain from adopting this first? For someone who has missed a generation of tech, the moment is perfect to take a leap. In some sense, academic institutions have missed one or two generations of technology advances. A mindset change and the boldness to disrupt the operating model will really drive how well this is done.

Readying for the Millennials

Knowledge@Wharton: Bold disruption of the technology model seems very necessary because all over the world, there is a huge demand for making education more affordable and relevant. In fact, it has been projected that more than one billion digital native millennial students will emerge worldwide in the next two decades. Now what impact do you think this increase in demand will have for the future of learning through digital disruption?

“Universities must bet on micro-sized, modular content, instead of content that comes in big packets.”

Ravi Kumar: Universities will play an important role in how learning is used for creating professional jobs. Universities are still gearing up for classroom learning and expect companies to ensure continuance on the learning curve by creating mechanisms to do this in incremental shifts during one’s professional life. With companies shifting to the learning continuum, and preparing people to be lifelong learners, universities will now have to partner with corporate organizations and switch over from a B2C to a B2B world.

When that switchover happens, universities which are accustomed to a sage-on-the-stage kind of model have to also switch to a guide-on-the-side model. That whole paradigm puts universities in a frame where they not only have to have classroom teaching, but they need to have infrastructure to continue to stay engaged with their alumni or students or employees they trained for the next 50 or 60 years. That’s a huge shift in how universities will have to look at learning. Breaking this problem into multiple aspects, crowd-sourcing of content, building online platforms, driving micro-modular packets of education, and bringing the physical and the digital worlds together will become vital across that value chain.

Knowledge@Wharton: How can personalized and adaptive learning be combined with predictive analytics to improve the way students learn and encourage them to become better lifelong learners?

Ravi Kumar: The analytics engine is almost going to make every learner a real-time sentient learner, which essentially means there’s a feedback loop with data, with AI algorithms that feed the learner the next set of things that must be learned. That makes that whole engine of the learning platform itself real-time.

Analytics will play a very important role because it’s no longer about learning at some point of time and then applying that learning over a period of time. One is learning and applying and executing at the same time, which means one will have to operate within a feedback loop which is learning on its own, and sharpening the content that is delivered to every learner. So, one gets the content, the interventions and the faculty – all of which change in real-time, based on the needs of the learner.

Technology: the Leveler in Education

Knowledge@Wharton: Historically, if you look at some of the most elite and prestigious education institutions with the strongest reputations, they’ve always been based in the developed countries. But as education becomes more global, do you believe that schools from emerging markets are going to catch up? Is this happening today, and if so, where?

“Universities which are accustomed to a sage-on-the-stage kind of model have to switch to a guide-on-the-side model.”

Ravi Kumar: That’s a good segue into how technology is going to be a leveler in the learning process.

Knowledge@Wharton: The world is flat, you mean?

Ravi Kumar: Learning is going to democratize everything around us. With inclusive access to information, the arbitrage of information and of knowledge is gone. The edge will come from what one chooses to do with that learning and knowledge. Developing nations, the emerging nations, and the underdeveloped nations will have to focus on nurturing content, nurturing application of that content in innovation, and evolving what needs to be taught in schools. That is because a lot of what needs to be built for the future – be it products or services – has to be built in the context of the bottom of the pyramid. It has to be built in the context of what the emerging world needs. That means if we are not building world-class institutions there, I don’t think we are going to solve or cure the problems of society.

With technology being the leveler, I strongly believe emerging countries will establish world-class academic institutions, unlike in the past, where academic institutions came from the developed world. What we curated in those institutions was meaningful for the developed world. But because we truly believe in diverse innovation, and we truly believe in bottom-of-the-pyramid innovation, it is only apt that we build institutions in that developing ecosystem.

Knowledge@Wharton: I agree that the most pressing need for lifelong learning exists at the bottom of the pyramid. What role do you think technology can play in creating pathways from school to work for some of the world’s poorest people?

Ravi Kumar: Technology will be the biggest leveler, and digital technologies will almost bridge the divide that was created by traditional technologies. With the advent of education startups, more innovative and more cost-effective solutions will almost compel the larger academic ecosystem to innovate, as well.

That’s what is happening in the corporate world. The corporate world is paranoid about digitally native companies. Universities are not yet paranoid about ed tech companies. The day that paranoia sets, they will be compelled to make that much needed switch in approach. Either the academic institutions and universities will collapse, or they will transition, and they will move into this new space. They will not worry about cannibalization. They will disrupt of their own accord. The mindset change will happen.

There are some very exciting technologies which can help us reach the poorest of the poor. In fact, a UNICEF report mentions how almost 250 million kids don’t have access to education. Anytime, anywhere learning options will help solve that challenge. Virtual digital assistants will help access different types of data and serve the needs of people in different parts of the world. Open-RAP (Resource Access Point) protocols can get to the remotest parts of the world. All of these will thoroughly democratize education. And the only thing which we will not possibly be able to ubiquitously provide is motivation. Motivation is individualistic. Everything else has to be provided by the ecosystem we learn and work in.

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