My first job ever was to set up corporate email networks. Yes, this was days before the Internet as a commercially available service, and I worked for the first e-mail service company in India. We would get corporations to buy subscriptions to our services, and then people like me would turn up at their offices to set up servers, modems etc. However, a big part of our job was to make people use the service to communicate with each other. The point was to save money on long distance calls and fax, because the subscriptions were sold precisely on that sort of cost-benefit analysis. But the users were all too reluctant in 1993 to switch over to a different mode of communication, and our system did not have its full benefit till everyone started using it. So, I would turn up with my comparison charts (this was before Powerpoint too) and explain to people how email may be better than Fax. And, as one would expect, it was not an easy idea to grasp, because most people were paralysed with the fear that the emails can be faked (whereas Faxes would be authentic)!
I think about this experience often these days as I have to argue in favour of Online Project-based Learning. The company I work for is trying to deliver an entire Higher Education curriculum through projects, eliminating the classrooms altogether. This is more than the common practice of doing projects as an add-on, the zero-impact summer jobs and internships that academic institutions throw in for the sake of industry relevance. This is, in a way, the real thing - a learning experience indistinguishable from that of work, just with more variety, fun and meaning. When the students sign up for the course, they start working in teams (just as one does at work, but never in an academic institution), get assigned a coach-cum-project manager, start using Project Management methodologies, and start working on live projects - short ones first and a long one later on.
This is indeed great for everyone who want to educate themselves to get a job. The students complete the course not just with a degree but a portfolio of work, making it much easier for them to find work immediately after completing the education. Besides, this makes them world-wise, already exposed to working to deadlines, conversant with the dynamics of the team, familiar with the demands (sometimes unreasonable) of the clients, and conscious of their own strengths and weaknesses. In this format, the usual educational content, texts, theories, play a support role, to be accessed as and when the real work requires them, a sort of on-demand engagement with content just as we do at our own work and lives all the time. The teacher, ever present in this model, is the Coach and the Project Manager, facilitating, connecting, demanding and leading, but almost never lecturing.
Yet, evangelizing this format of learning often feels like my days of promoting the email. It is a conceptual leap most people are not willing to make. Today, the argument that Fax might be more authentic than email may seem ludicrous, but back then, when people were not sure what email was, the familiarity of paper-based document gave comfort. My arguments for Project-based Learning, and the stance that this is the only way to learn if the student is looking for a job (in fact, for doing anything practical, think of the Art Studio or the Medical School, but our projects are based on commercial workplaces), are often turned into an argument about Online Learning. Indeed, to create an environment where students are working on projects, we have to facilitate the learning, access to content and access to coaches, using online technology, such as Learning Management Systems, Project Management Tools and Conferencing Systems. These are, however, support mechanisms than the main method of learning, which is indeed Project-based. But because some of the engagement is electronic - just like the e in email - my conversations turn all too often about the merits of learning online.
But this is indeed the wrong way to look at it. Ted Levitt's point that the customers do not want a quarter-inch drill, but a quarter-inch hole, is so often forgotten, and we confuse the means and ends. If the point is learning, a word which draws its meaning not from how it is done (therefore, it is different from book reading) but what it is for (ability to do things, be productive, be participative etc). Any learning should mirror the actual experience of living, which today is a mixture of online, offline and hands on experience, learning on the go supplemented by reflecting conscientiously. This is exactly what we replicate in the learning environments we create, and this, therefore, does become unfamiliar. The email problem, where the need to communicate took precedence over paper, was similar - our debates were focused on what rather than why.
I may have become a believer, but I am unable to see how else one can construct an educational experience meaningful to everyday lives based solely on the classroom experience. One must note that the huge surge in popularity of Higher Education is correlated with the expansion of middle class aspiration, service sector jobs, economic participation of women and active promotion by policy-makers of higher education as the ticket to middle class life. There remains a few students with financial, social and intellectual security who may think of achieving spiritual fulfilment (though more often than not, the objectives are more trivial - remember Clark Kerr's three maxims for an university leader 'sex for students, sports for the alumni and parking for the faculty), but most students want to have a job, or an economically productive life after they finish education.
Also, consider the way we justify not changing our educational paradigm to something closer to everyday life experience. We speak about academic quality, which is a standard set by institutions themselves for themselves, without regard to the concerns of those it is for, the students. One of my colleagues has a very provocative way of thinking about academic quality - he says it can only be measured by the students' starting salary - which upsets a lot of people. But is it not giving people what they want, and more so, what the institutions promised themselves? Because our thinking about education is so much trapped in the paradigm that whatever happens with classrooms, textbooks and a teacher is education, we continue to weave social illusions for higher and higher education, as we fail to deliver on the key promises of an undergraduate education - a productive social engagement.
So, once we accept this paradigm - the goal of education is a productive engagement with life - we know the source of learning should be the life itself, and its methods should resemble the ways we live now. And, in this, there is a profound sense of déjà vu for me, as this is indeed the email debate, lived several years forward. My argument that the fax is not about the paper, but the information contained in it, resurfaces in my question what learning is, and my belief that we must find a better way to perform the essence of the task rather than being constrained by the institutional trappings (the fax may be stamped and signed, but that is no guarantee of its authenticity because both could be faked rather easily) inform my conviction about the project based method. The buildings and infrastructure, which most universities, devoid of any other meaning, make themselves about, are as important as the rolls of Fax paper (remember the thermal variety!) were in the transmission of information. It seems my entire professional life has been one long argument, and an as-yet unfinished one.
Popular posts from this blog
A friend has recently forwarded me a quote from Lord Macaulay's speech in the British Parliament on 2nd February 1835. I reproduce the quote below: "I have traveled across the length and breadth of India and I have not seen one person who is a beggar, who is a thief. Such wealth I have seen in this country, such high moral values, people of such calibre, that I do not think we would ever conquer this country, unless we break the very backbone of this nation, which is her spiritual and cultural heritage, and, therefore, I propose that we replace her old and ancient education system, her culture, for if the Indians think that all that is foreign and English is good and greater than their own, they will lose their self-esteem, their native self-culture and they will become what we want them, a truly dominated nation." The email requested me to forward me to every indian I know. I was tempted, but there were two oddities about this quote. First, the language, which
Nations are ideas. We try to fashion them as territories. But how can a river, a mountain ridge or sometimes an imaginary line in the middle of a field can explain the wide division in the lives, thoughts and futures of the people who live on different sides? Nations are not the people too. Indeed, people build nations and become its body. But the soul of the nation is an idea: People come together on an idea to build a nation. While that's what a modern nation is - an idea - and that way exceptionalism is not an American exception, very few nations are as completely defined by an idea as Pakistan. There was hardly any political, geographic or military rationale of Pakistan other than the idea of an Islamic homeland in South Asia. [In that way, the ideological brother of Pakistan in the family of nations is Israel] This, abated by the short term political calculations of some backroom colonialists, created a modern state which must be solely sustained on that singular idea. Religi
This post is a reaction to Aatish Taseer's evocative obituary of secular India in the Atlantic ( read here ). While I agree with it mostly - and share the reservations about the direction and the future of India - I differ with the author on one key aspect: I do not agree with his portrayal of a resurgent Bharat eating up a secular India. In fact, I believe while Mr Taseer regrets the Indian elite's loss of connection with the realities of day to day life of the country, his very presentation of Bharat and India as oppositional entities stems from that incomprehension. While I understand that he is only using these categories as RSS uses them - to effectively other the English-speaking elites and non-Hindus - I believe it is a mistake to describe the profound changes in contemporary India as the ascendance of Bharat. I grew up in Bharat. I never learnt English until late in life, when I started working. My growing-up world was one of small-town India, vernacu
Today, Helen Goddard, 26, a highly popular music teacher of a City School for Girls, has been sentenced to 15 months in prison. Her crime was to carry out a year long lesbian affair with one of her pupils, who appeared in the court and admitted that the affair was consensual and it was she who pressured Helen into the affair. For Helen, a bright musician and a devout Chistian, this is an extraordinary lapse of judgement. Also, she was teaching in the £13,000 private girls only school in London. She was surely aware what the consequences of her action will be. The fact that she still could not stop herself tells us that lovers do not always act rationally, something we always knew. There is more in this affair than personal tragedies. For a start, this has all the dramatic elements: a bright, beautiful teacher more in Julia Roberts mould [as in Mona Lisa Smile], a stiff upper lip school [not unlike Wellesley] and a story like Notes On A Scandal with an added twist. Indeed, Helen was gui
Introduction : The Business of Gift Giving Business gift giving has always been common and contentious at the same time. Business gifts are usually seen as an ‘advertising, sales promotion and marketing communication medium’ (Cooper et al , 1991). Arunthanes et al (1994) points out that such gifting is practised usually for three reasons: (a) in appreciation for past client relationships, placing a new order, referrals to other clients, etc.; (b) in the hopes of creating a positive, first impression which might help to establish an initial business relationship; and (c) giving may be perceived as a quid Pro quo (i.e. returning a favour or expecting a favour in return for something). The practitioners of gift-giving generally argue that doing business is often an aggregation of personal interactions and relationships, and gift-giving should be seen as a natural way of maintaining and enhancing these relationships. ‘Business gifts, especially one given in the course of the festive s
In most societies today, making profits are accepted as moral, if not especially praiseworthy. This was not as obvious as it appears today – people used to be embarrassed about making a profit not so long ago. Crazy as it seems today, it is worth thinking why it was so. Profits, as economists will put it, is the reward for risk-taking, for putting a business enterprise together in the pursuit of an objective. In this definition, remember, profits are not what it is commonly understood to be – the gross middle-line towards the bottom – but a figure net of entrepreneur’s earning [wages for his labour], dividends and interests on borrowed capital, and provisions for building and other physical assets [a sort of rent, offsetting what these assets could have earned if leased out]. This pure profit – surplus – accrues to a business as a reward to its organisation, for the act of entrepreneurship itself. Economists were divided on how this surplus comes about. The conventional wisdom was, as
A lot of conversations about Kolkata is about its past; I want to talk about its future. Most conversations about Kolkata is about its decline - its golden moments and how times changed; I want to talk about its rise, how its best may lie ahead and how we can change the times. In place of pessimism, I seek optimism; instead of inertia, I am looking for imagination. It is not about catching up, I am arguing; it is about making a new path altogether. It had, indeed it had, a glorious past: One of the first Asian cities to reach a million population, the Capital of British India, the cradle of an Enlightened Age and a new politics of Cosmopolitanism. And, it had stumbled - losing the hinterland that supplied its Jute factories, overwhelmed by the refugees that came after the partition, devoid of its professional class who chose to emigrate - the City's commercial and professional culture evaporated in a generation, and it transformed into a corrupt and inefficien
Introduction Erna Petri née Kürbs, a farmer’s daughter from Herressen in Thuringia, arrived in Ukraine with her three year old son to join her husband Horst in June 1942. Horst, an SS leader inspired by Nazi ideologue Dr Richard Walter Darré, settled in the plantation of Grzenda, just outside today’s Lviv, to become a German Gentleman-Farmer. Erna saw Horst beating and abusing the workers in the plantation within two days of arriving there, which was, as Horst explained, necessary for establishing authority. Erna joined in enthusiastically, settling into a combination of roles of ‘plantation mistress, prairie Madonna in apron-covered dress lording over slave labourers, infant-carrying, gun-wielding Hausfrau.’  However, there were clear rules in the plantation, and Erna was very much expected to play the woman’s role of being a Cake-and-Coffee hostess. When four Jews were caught in the estate while trying to escape from a transport to a death camp, Horst told Erna and her female
Introduction: Hastings in the history of Indian Education Whether or not one includes Warren Hastings in the history of Education in India is a matter of perspective. If writing the history of education means writing the history of schools, the impact of Hastings' administration would be quite limited. If anything, the rapid implosion of local rulers in Eastern, Southern and Northern India during Hastings' tenure had meant a bleak period for the indigenous education system, as patronage and funds would have dwindled away for many of them. The Company administration really concerned itself with the schooling of the natives only after 1813, as Nurullah and Naik rightly pointed out ( see my earlier post ) and one can legitimately start the story at this point. However, if history of Education in India is to encompass the transformation of Indian Scholarship, on which foundation the new, colonial, system of Education would be built, the story must start with Warren Hast
Buzzwords have disadvantages. Right now, experiential learning is one, and that means we put the label on everything and it stops to mean anything. Also, this means reasonable conversation about experiential learning becomes difficult - at times such as this, either you preach experiential learning or you are traditional, antiquarian and hopelessly out of touch. But, overlooking the limitations of experiential learning can cause big problems. Experiential Learning does many things - putting practice at the heart of learning is an important paradigm shift - but not everything, and it is important to be aware what it does not do. Usually, we equate the terms Project-based Learning (the method) with Experiential Learning (the idea) and Learning from Experience (the ideal), treating them as one and the same and using the terms interchangeably. Any talk about distinctive meaning of these terms is usually seen as pedantic, but really represent very different ideas about education.
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.