Turning Education Upside Down

By William Miller

William Miller is the Senior Leader, Global Learning and Development at GE. He spent a week at the African Leadership College (ALC) campus in Mauritius in 2018. This is his reflection on his time with us.

In the last week of July 2018, I spent a week at the ALC campus in Mauritius. I had come to campus to deliver a “train the trainers” course to ALU team members, but what I hadn’t realised was that I would end up learning as much as I taught.

I first heard about ALU in January 2017. It was a freezing New York winter, and I was at “Crotonville”, GE’s gorgeous campus, for our annual training meeting. I had been working in learning and development for over 16 years for GE, most of this at the oil and gas headquarters in Florence, Italy. I was known as a maverick, somewhat unconventional and always pushing buttons with my controversial blog posts. So it was no surprise when our Regional Learning Leader for Sub Saharan Africa approached me to tell me about an interesting new project he was working on: a digital education project in Africa. I was introduced to the African Leadership University, and I fell in love with it immediately. As the project kicked off I spent a few days in early 2017 in Mauritius, getting to know Fred Swaniker, ALU’s Founder and CEO. I also worked on the design of a postgraduate programme called the Africa Industrial Internet Programme (AIIP) for engineers. ALU’s AIIP, powered by GE, is now well into its first year, with 30+ students from all over Africa. As I learned more about ALU’s unconventional approach to tertiary education and beyond, I realised that we, GE, a 100+ year old American conglomerate, were lagging behind.

My journey with ALU has continued to deliver interesting insights and learnings. During my most recent trip, I realised that it’s easier to mould millennials (whether they’re students or staff) to adopt a non-traditional way of learning. They don’t have legacy weighing them down, or bad habits to unlearn. An ALC student in his third year told me that he’s not going to bother getting an honours degree. I was shocked – what about the prestige? He told me that he doesn’t need an honours to get into Yale, so why waste the time? This got me thinking about an ongoing internal conversation at GE about whether the legacy that we have been so proud of for so many years actually gets in the way of progress.

At ALU, there is a strong focus on building for the future, and not focusing on current needs, which go out of date so quickly, and this makes it the ideal place for leaders of the future to learn their craft. They invest a whole year (the Leadership Core) into preparing students to be entrepreneurs and helping them understand how they can contribute to their communities. By developing self-awareness and empathy, their drive and ambition is less about building their own status and more about helping others. The socio-economic and impact focused aspect is truly admirable, setting the foundations for selfless future leaders in Africa.

During my second trip to ALU, in July 2018, I returned to campus to lead a “train the trainer” programme for ALU faculty. I spent as much time as possible observing life and learning at the organisation. At ALU, lectures are banned – and this is proudly displayed on the website. In the Computer Science lesson I attended, Dr Stephen Naicken promoted group learning rather than individual learning and asked students to show their thinking in their approach to solving problems on a whiteboard. It was inspiring to see millennial Kelebogile Sephoti incorporating research into her lesson on Business Management. She had students work in groups to research the meanings of stakeholder management, a specific case study on the Barclays / ABSA split, and the role that ethics plays in change management. Learning at ALU, it seems, is active and engaging – very different from the traditional lectures of my university days. Learning is reinforced through annual internships, making the transition from ALU to further education or the working world much more fluid.

I had lunch with five students from different African countries, who were in their final year at ALU. They were originally attracted to ALU because of its approach to learning, opportunities to build character and learn from each other. Studying together has enabled them to break down barriers built up through the threads of political history. Some of them have had offers to read MBAs in Yale and Stanford, and already have plans to set up their own businesses.

Then there is the campus. Those who live in student accommodation share a bedroom – there is no ensuite bathroom. The common rooms are sparse but bright. The bus stop is a ten-minute walk away, and the campus is surrounded by sugar cane fields. I was curious, and asked the students if the remoteness was an issue. With only a few hundred students on campus, they get to know each other well; the spectacular views, the simplicity, the basicness, the peacefulness and lack of distractions make it a perfect learning environment. So no regrets about moving to Mauritius.

As I collected my stuff from my locker in the faculty room (fourth one from the top, FYI) and walked into “FLD” or the Friday Late Discussion – ALU’s weekly all staff meeting to which we had been invited – it dawned on me: although I was called a “guest”, I did not feel like one. I felt as though I was part of the team. It did not surprise me at all that students often take internships within the university, and are excited to spend time contributing to the success of ALU.

When I left the campus, my thoughts turned to how we can adopt ALU’s principles of learning to larger organisations like GE. ‘Just in time’ rather than ‘just in case’ learning, the role of ethics in leadership, building communities, removing cultural barriers and exploring how we can create and shape more selfless leaders.

About ALU

ALU provides higher education for a higher purpose. Our students declare missions, not majors.

They develop the real-world skills to take on the world’s most pressing challenges. And they take ownership of their learning from day one through our peer and student-led approach – because ALU believes in the power and agency of young people to start shaping the future right now.

Together with a world-class faculty and staff, our students are igniting a ripple of positive impact across Africa and the world. Join us

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