Sunday, September 03, 2017

Tamil Nadu's Upper Funnel Education strategy and why its brilliant

Tamil Nadu has one of the best education strategies in the country. Let me start with an analogy that will help you appreciate this.

Imagine you are an e-commerce website owner. You have a webpage (like or that allows people to visit the webpage, prospect products, maybe add-to-cart and eventually buy. Think of your webpage as a funnel. The top of the funnel is people visiting the webpage. Mid-funnel is people prospecting products. Bottom funnel is people doing "Add-to-Cart". You have couple of important strategy options for digital marketing this webpage. Strategy 1: You adopt an upper funnel strategy. Your digital marketing efforts drives as much of the population to simply visit your webpage. It is prospected by many, and then a small subset will add-to-cart and a subset of that will complete purchase. Strategy 2: You adopt a bottom-funnel strategy. Your digital marketing efforts specifically targets people who are more likely to "add-to-cart". In effect - you only want those people who will take the "add-to-cart" action to visit your webpage. The traffic coming to your webpage is much lower, but those who come will most likely convert.

People pick from these two strategies based on their constraints and priorities. If you want to keep your server capacity cost low - you pick strategy 2; if you want brand awareness of your webpage to be high - you pick strategy 1.  Here is the key thing - the definition of traffic quality - depends on what you think of success. Strategy 1 could define quality as (number of people who know about my webpage)/(total population). This strategy focuses on more people being exposed to your webpage so that they have a habit of visiting when the need arises. Strategy 2 defines quality as (people who actually purchase)/(people who visit my webpage). There is no consistent definition of quality. It depends on what you, as the owner of the web page, want to do. It is dangerous to evaluate one strategy with metrics used by another strategy.

Tamil Nadu has an upper funnel strategy for college education. It wants as much of the population to either (a) get exposed to college education or (b) pass college and get exposed to professional career. It does not specifically optimize or even care about how many people eventually convert to great jobs in the end. It wants to make people going to college a habit, passing college a natural thing and hopes that this virtuous cycle habit formation leads to both direct and indirect positive effects. The definition of quality is more social - "what % of population get exposure to college education". Thats why it has a 12th pass % of 92%. Karnataka has a 12th pass % of 52%. It is adopting lower funnel optimization. Its definition of quality is (people who get jobs)/(people who get to college). Therefore, it is okay with a large chunk of its population not experiencing college or a professional career. While this is horrible for Karnataka's population, thats the state's strategy.

Tamil Nadu has consciously made passing 12th std easy, consciously allowed liberal centums and high marks in Math, Physics, Chemistry, Biology. It optimizes to put as many people in a position of applying to college. BITS, RECs, Delhi Colleges, and top colleges in other states have relied on 12th marks as a basis for admission. To help its students get into these non-TN colleges - Tamil Nadu has ensured that its students stand the best chance relative to students from other states. In parallel and quite obviously, it has increased its own server capacity in terms of number of colleges within TN to ensure the infrastructure support for its strategy. Now voila! - Magic. TN has not only pumped in its students into its own rapidly growing list of colleges but also into any available seat in non-TN colleges. Think of the virtuous cycle effects here. When BITS switched to normalization (which is (your mark)/(your state first mark)) - Tamil Nadu increased the "if you have to be above 90% its better that you be 96%" density to counter that strategy. It is a deliberate strategy to give its students the best chance everywhere. It has had flagrant success in exposing students to college education and embarrassing defeats to those exposed. But it has made sure getting to and completing college is as automatic a habit as brushing your teeth. It is quite a stunning feat. And it has taken all castes along in this journey - dalits, brahmins, thevars, MBCs, OBCs - the whole kitchen sink. Everybody has prospered. No one has been left behind. The country did not wise up to it until now. So we have NEET - a competitive move from other states to shut us down. Tamil Nadu's counter should have been "Fair enough. Bring it on". What it doesn't need now is a ill-informed intra-state caste war. That will only make it weaker. What it needs is a new game plan.

To conclude. In a philosophical decision of "Should I pass a person who is only semi-likely to succeed"  or "Should I fail a person who is semi likely to succeed" - Tamil Nadu has reduced false negatives (type II errors) and increased false positives (type I errors). It is morally and ethically the right strategy from a social justice point of view. This fantastic strategy has caused (a) a state with abnormally high self-esteem where almost all people have college degrees and most have professional degrees (b) the false positives - i.e. people who fail to secure professional jobs still be useful to society by finding other ways to survive as a college graduate and (c) a generation of highly valuable "graduate educated" parents to the next batch of TN children entering school. Lastly, it has allowed me, a late bloomer in education, to prosper later in a career. I could've been easily discarded as not good enough if I were a student in Karnataka. I owe my life to TN's strategy. This chance that I got is what is being assaulted by NEET. It stops the state from determining its strategy. Thats why NEET is poison and thats why TN should innovate a new strategy to get around it. 

Friday, April 07, 2017

Katru Veliyidai - The unusual Maniratnam man

This is a fairly decent movie. Certain interactions between the Karthi and Aditi - when the former behaves like a dick and the latter like a squirming worm - made you cringe on your seat and made you want to look away. These are powerfully well thought out and well written moments. Very subtle but the tension is like an elephant in the room head butts you. But they come with severe distractions. The jarring close-ups on Karthi was a strange vehicle. I understand that close-ups are used as some mood inducing vehicles by cinematographers. However, showing Karthi almost exclusively in close-ups  was just too much of 'why dont you step back from the camera dude' for me. I say this because a big part of the movie runs on his ability to charm and mysteriously smile his way into Aditi's heart and ours. The chemistry that makes us feel for them seems absent. Mostly because the love seems baseless and rushed. On either direction, it was hard for me to see why a person of that mind-set would pursue the other person so mindlessly. One can say "that is love" but somehow i feel it isn't.

The entire crux of the movie is the surprise on seeing a new Manirathnam man. The Maniratnam man is usually a highly virtuous, likeable, principled and forceful personality. People like Baradwaj Rangan exagerrate that all Maniratnam men are neither black nor white but superbly grey. I don't necessarily agree. From a perception point of view, they are always likeable. They are the people's man. And the law cant be a basis for grey if your men are always likeable.  This movie was different because the hero came off as genuinely unlikeable. I simply loved that subtlety. The heroine came off as a confused person and very unlike Maniratnam's girls who are usually independent, decisive and never abused. Here she is the opposite. Which was also interesting even if a little bit anachronistic. I wish the suffering of his journey was brough out better. He looked as smug and as much of a jerk as a POW as he looked in his airforce base. It was hard to believe he had changed his attitude by the end of the movie.

Overall this is not as bad as Kadal or Ravanan (his worst) and not in the class of Iruvar (his best). It rests firmly as his 50th percentile movie. It is a reverse portrayal of GVM's Nee Dhaan En Pon Vasantham but much less boring. The pretentiousness of "oh! we sleep together before marriage, have babies before marriage, family drinks saarayam, we are so cool" was weighing down on me. Those show pieces of fake rebellion could've been avoided. But I am coming to terms with the new Maniratnam. One of us has changed. I don't know if its me or him. But the relationship with my boyhood adulation has changed in the last 15 years.  

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Nirmal Shekhar

Some news items make you sad. Nirmal Shekar passing away is one. I had this article cut and stuck on my bedroom wall for many years. I have read it and re-read it countless times (as I recollect here). Nirmal Shekar is a sports writer I grew up reading and the best sports writer I have ever read. I was so sad to hear the news of his passing away. Reading his version of the extent of grass and wind chill in the Edgbaston pitch made you want to wear a sweater in 40C Madras sun. Stefan Edberg arching like a bow while serving, Becker flying parallel to the ground to get that unreachable volley, the years of Pete Sampras worship and then the magic of Federer were all special if you saw it through the eyes of Nirmal Sekhar. His writing was more flair and more poetry than sports but then who cares.

Link to my favorite article of his is here