The Era Of Multi-Millionaire Teachers Is Here And Now

by Banuchandar Nagarajan - Sep 29, 2018 10:05 AM +05:30 IST
The Era Of Multi-Millionaire Teachers Is Here And Now Political philosopher Michael Sandel (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Snapshot
  • We are entering an era where certification will become increasingly more valuable than a degree, and the best of teachers would justifiably be multi-millionaires.

Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel in his iconic course “Justice” posits a thought-provoking question: “The salary of an average school teacher in the US is $42,000. David Letterman’s salary is $31 million. Is that fair?” The question is aimed at provoking students to ponder on the “difference principle” of John Rawls.

If one thinks beyond the ethical dimensions of the problem, a rather pedestrian reason is the difference between the reach of services offered by entertainers and teachers. A Kangana Ranaut or Jennifer Lawrence movie reaches billions of people through theatres and the internet. The same is the case with Lebron James or Virat Kohli, who enthral millions through their sporting prowess, reaching us through TV and internet.

The business model of the entertainment industry is built around the scale of distribution, making individuals who are at the top of the game the stars who command steep price tags. In contrast, a local theatre star or a good chef does not earn the same amount because of structural limitations of reach.

A teacher is no different, and suffers from the same handicap. She is confined to her classroom and has to display her pedagogical prowess in a room of just a few students. The wider world, including parents, has to rely on feedback from children or results of their wards in examinations to assess how good the teacher is. But we have all, at one point or another, come across that one teacher who disentangles the complexity of a differential equation or Kalidasa’s Raghuvamsa or some other complex concept into thrillingly simple ideas for us to comprehend.

Enter MOOCs. MOOCs are Massive Open Online Courses, through which the entire course is provided online. They can be government-run, like India’s own SWAYAM, university-run, like EdX of Harvard and MIT, or privately led, like Coursera or Educomp. They offer not just lectures but also exams, quick consultations, and feedback.

A teacher can reach millions through MOOCs. A fantastic teacher who explains the intricacies of “Theory of Machines” or “The Romantic Era” or “Organic Chemistry” or “Photography” lucidly, thus, has the opportunity to be famous. And a world-famous teacher who can home-deliver concepts to millions of students is more likely to be rich. That being the scenario, any teacher offering an edge would command a premium. Add endorsements, books, apps, consulting, and teaching – the star teacher is looking at top billing. The time is not far when a nerdy professor offering an “Introduction to Biology” course on SWAYAM will be promoting an energy drink!

A concurrent development is the rise of certification as a marker of skill and knowledge, rather than degrees. Modern companies are seeking specific skills. Many are disdainful of the current higher education system. For instance, Indian startups currently need Android programmers. They are not worried about whether the candidate has a computer science degree. Anyone with an Android programming certification from Udacity would get the gig.

We are entering an uncertain era, clueless about the makeup of the economy, even in, say, 2030. Even 10 years ago, Android programming was unheard of. So what we teach in colleges and universities might just not make the cut because the future is an unknown-unknown. But what we know is just that more and more jobs are getting automatised and that knowledge and skills will play a more significant role than what we are witnessing today. Hence, certification and teachers offering high quality courses will be invaluable. Concurrently, we are also entering an era of life-long learning, expanding the time period and expenditure on education.

Brands of professors will become disaggregated from university brands and will, in fact, feed into each other. In the future, most colleges will have fewer professors and more teaching assistants. The teaching assistants will offer last-mile personal touch and attractive enhancements to the courses offered by “star teachers”. The teaching assistant will be akin to the cricketer playing in lower leagues or the wannabe star who is a side actor today.

It might sound disempowering for the average professor, but that is how technology is likely to disrupt the market. It should be kept in mind that any assistant professor or teaching assistant can become a superstar if she is able to offer something unique and is able to rise above the clutter in a competitive online market. Since access to technology is democratic and barrier to entry is almost non-existent, just like the millionaire YouTube and Instagram influencers of today, we might see star teachers from unexpected places. Kylie Jenner, who started with teaching how to wear make-up on YouTube, is a billionaire already.

The transition is already happening. In schools, apps and videos supplement teacher instruction. In higher education, students access learning resources on the web quite frequently. It is no longer a seller’s market where few educational institutions rationed seats; it is turning into a buyer’s market where consumer is king – and spoilt for choice.

Byju is an example of a millionaire teacher. He ran a chalk-and-talk IIT coaching centre in Bengaluru. Enter tech and venture capital, and you have Shah Rukh Khan’s endorsement and the company sponsoring cricket tournaments and raking the moolah. Sebastian Thurn, the Stanford professor who started Udacity, is a millionaire. So is Salman Khan of Khan Academy. Many Korean tutors who teach after-class English and math make up to $4 million a year. There are IIT coaching centres in India that pay top physics and math tutors crores of rupees.

Sandel himself earned a rockstar reputation after his course was put out for free. He was just a respected figure in the academic circle that ran the largest freshman class at Harvard before becoming a worldwide phenomenon. Sandel was welcomed to a packed audience in Delhi and in Beijing.

Since the moral dilemma of teacher’s pay vis-à-vis entertainment stars is sorted, let’s move on to the next-level dilemma: Who should be paid more? What is it in our internal wiring that makes watching someone hitting a ball or shaking a leg so indispensable? Maybe we should begin by signing up for “Cognitive Neuroscience” and “Developmental Psychology” on MOOCs!

Banuchandar Nagarajan is a public policy adviser. An alumnus of Harvard University, he has worked in the World Bank, PwC and the UN. Follow him @Banuall.


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