2020 is an inflection year in a lot of ways, and a year of great suffering for many. But, for each unprecedented time moulding our vocabularies as language has often fallen short of the carnage to humanity and the fiscal health of our economies, the metaphor has fallen into the trap of hyperbole. When everyday rationale is in deficit; language in its emptiness masks the realities of the day. Communities in the era of the digital need solutions at the tap of the smartphone. Digitisation or Digital Transformation is probably the word of the year along with social distancing, however if we think a bit deeper, digital as the societal scaffold has become quotidian saviour as technology enables social distancing while serves as a bridge to normalcy in the next normal.
The digital is not innocuous as tech is an active site of contested site of political negotiations. Technology is a vehicle of transnational capital hence is embedded in circuits of data of a different kind, ideology. The economy paused for saving lives, at the cost of a global lockdown; jobs and incomes became the priority as livelihoods evaporated in many sectors such as aviation, hospitality, retail and tourism. The economic insecurities juxtaposed with the world moving to a screen of screens, created near perfect headwinds for the EduTech space. The democratic, emancipatory potency of Edu-Tech is unbelievable; it gives the power to learn from the best teachers to an adult in a disenfranchised neighbourhood, where a premier academic course is realistically out of teach, the cost factor being one.
However, the reskilling boom in the light of the plummeting economic fortunes is not driven by the love of learning or knowledge. It is fuelled by a fear of the future. The recent adverts flagged by the Advertising Standards Council of India on White Hat Junior (in the limelight due to funding by BYJU’s, an Edu-Tech unicorn) promotional materials which indicated that coding courses taken by pre-teens would pave the path to valley successes, were anchored in the ‘FOMO’ or Fear of Missing Out Syndrome which drive desi kaisu parents crazy even in pre-pandemic so called normal circumstances.
Edu-Tech based Reskilling is a complex landscape as it is not merely an infrastructural fix. It is not as easy as the plethora of potential courses one can select is from a buffet of epistemic options. The track record of course drop-outs is a significant statistic that is not factored in to reskilling conversations. Course completion badges to be worn as e-badges of honour on LinkedIn do not necessarily translate into on the job performance, nor a job.
I have come across friends from the core humanities picking up AI courses and wonder sans the basics of college level calculus and computer science, how much are they able to grasp on an intellectual plane detaching the possibilities of performing professional billable work. As a per a conversation with a good friend who is coding since the decade, he mentions that reskilling is an expected skill-set in the start-up community where the technology changes are frequent as the inherent logic and tool-kit remains the same for the developer.
Organisations hire to get the job delivered and if the so called ‘re-skilling’ does not measure up to real world requirements then the usual professional pools of talent will be tapped, instead of the newbies on the block. Obviously the newly reskilled labour, will be cheaper which will be conducive for the small enterprise provided they are willing to invest in the training. There will be a proportion who would prefer a low paid job than a no job scenario. However, the expectations of social mobility are unlikely to be materialised, given the over the top hype.
Reskilling thus needs to think through a spectrum of variables at play, is there a skill which is marketable that is just around the ‘skills’ corner? The master narrative of the machine eating up all work is uncritical herd mentality which needs a shot of vaccine of reason this Infodemic. Just because an Edu-Tech venture is looking for multiples of growth and engages in low level fear mongering does not mean, your kid must be made the scape goat. In our pre-teen years, we hardly understand arithmetic leave alone code.
Coding features imagination, critical thinking and logic which is amiss in the South Asian education curriculum where rote learning still dominates in the era of Alexa. Maybe we can start by helping kids and adults alike by encouraging them to read closely, detect their confirmation biases and speak to their potential power peers in the new arena in which they wish to play.
Any career pivot has its own fair share of pains to foreground. The career move is a deeply personal experience which extracts plenty of emotional and intellectual labour into to decipher the journey. There is an element of inevitability in the narrative around reskilling, that its success is most needed in corporate branding storytelling. That very notion shuts possibilities to reclaim the fullest experience during the career transition. The impulse sets up the initiative for failure.
In conclusion, education at any level is rich in its intersectional vagaries of class, gender, caste and race. EduTech is not about Zoom classes, but the fibre of the faculty delivering the instruction. Is the training, hands on enough or is the candidate having the correct pre-requisites and the resources to complete the course? Let us shine the spotlight on the basics which would be needed to create a future proof workforce, based on a robust state driven public education system which most of the population could afford such as Singapore where coding among other subjects is a part of the pedagogy. Skill building is a Lego block, it requires constant building on a firm foundation to ignite the sparks for success.