Project-Based Learning Versus The Classroom - The Unfinished Argument

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.


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