Search This Blog

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

No Technical Degree Programs through Distance Education

Last week, Supreme Court has given a judgment which says that no educational institution can offer degrees in technical subjects without specific approvals from regulatory bodies, namely, UGC and AICTE. It has also suspended engineering degrees obtained through distance education of batches between 2001 and 2005 from 4 institutions. These students now have to give tests in both theory and practicals within the next 8 months and pass those tests, without which their degrees will be cancelled. And those admitted after 2005 will have no recourse to such a test. Their degrees from the same four institutions will be cancelled.

One can find media reports here: LivelawScroll.inTimes of India, and LiveMint.

I read the entire 118 page judgment, and frankly, found it rather confusing, and at times, a bit overreaching.

Is it really fair to ask students who received their degrees 10 years ago to give a test again in all the subjects. A lot of what you study at college is not meant to be remembered after a while. It is supposed to broaden your horizons, and you can apply certain learning from such courses in your life. A test at the end of the semester is supposed to ensure that you have gained a fair amount of understanding at that time, in the hope that some of it would be internalized in your education. But remembering all that to pass the test after 10 years is certainly asking for too much. Now, if AICTE prepares a test at the level of what a decent university will do, and ask students to pass 45-50 such tests in less than 45-50 days (of course, after a preparatory period of 6 months), only rare students would pass such tests. If AICTE were to prepare a test at the level of what a poor quality university would do (and there are many of them in our country), or better still, just ask them to pass a single exam like GATE, AICTE would be admitting its failure in regulating engineering education in the country, and telling the whole world that that is the level at which Indian education system operates.

But not permitting even this relief to post-2005 students is a bit strange. Is it the argument that admissions till 2005 were in confused zone. But after 2005, there was complete regulatory clarity that they were not supposed to admit students, and they still did. First of all, SC is admitting in its judgment that these institutions had indeed some approvals from some regulatory bodies (which turned out to be illegal), and they had stay orders from High Court. So the institutions were in confused zone even post 2005. So either you say that the distance programs were illegal throughout or you say that there were some confusions. This division into two time zones is not sufficiently clear. And in any case, should we consider confusion of institutions or confusion of students. Are we saying that students till 2005 were genuinely confused about the legality of the programs, but post 2005, they should have known better. I am not convinced.

The judgment is also reiterating a typical Indian mindset - that degrees are more important than knowledge. After 10 years, their continuation in jobs should be based on their performance and not based on their degrees (unless it was clear that they cheated to get their degrees, in which case, they are being punished for violating the law and not because of poor quality of education). As far as whether the employer must give them benefit of the degree, the court could have ruled that employers should do the testing on their own to figure out whether they deserve those benefits, instead of AICTE doing such a testing.

To draw a fine line between deemed to-be universities who continue to offer programs in disciplines which they had at the time of such a notification, and deemed to-be universities who offer programs in new disciplines (in which apparently they have no expertise) was completely unnecessary, and frankly reflect the lack of understanding of how educational institutions are supposed to work.

The reason why universities are allowed freedom to decide what new disciplines they can get into is that universities are very conscious of their reputation and prestige. If they are excellent in one discipline and they are trying to expand into another discipline, they will make sure that they are excellent in the other discipline too. SC repeatedly pointed out that at least three institutions were granted deemed to be university status for their quality in certain subjects other than engineering, and hence somehow starting engineering discipline was bad in law. Come on. Is it anyone's case that these three institutions are excellent in those disciplines to begin with. If you accept their quality in arts and whatever else, you better accept their quality in engineering also. They too have maintained their reputation by starting new programs, whatever that reputation was.

SC finds it interesting and indeed disturbing that a college affiliated to a university which as per its act have certain restrictions in operations once becomes a university itself will not have any restrictions which the initial affiliating university had. Frankly, I don't find this disturbing at all. If the promoters of the original university (which is typically a state government) want to free the university of those restrictions, they can do so any time through a change in the Act. That they do not wish to remove those restrictions can not be the reason for maintaining those restrictions to this newly minted deemed to be university. And this logic has been used to put deemed to be universities back into the regulatory control of AICTE, which is so sad, given the past record of AICTE in maintaining the standards of engineering education in the country. The judgment has essentially said that best quality institutions like BITS Pilani will now have to seek approvals of a poor quality institution called AICTE for many things.

I am not at all suggesting that the distance programs offered by these four institutions were great or even acceptable. I am only suggesting that LOTS of academic programs offered by LOTS of universities, including government universities, are very poor quality. Hence reference to quality of education in a judgment is unfortunate. Either the judgment is based purely on the applicability of law, or all poor quality programs must be closed. And if the judgment is based purely on the applicability of law, there should not be any reference to extraneous issues like quality. References to quality give an indication that judgment was influenced by concern for quality and a strict interpretation of law may or may not have happened.

The Supreme Court has thrown a bombshell which was not even a question in the case. It has decided that no deemed-to-be-university can use the term "university" in its name. What happens to so many institutions which use the term "university" in their name. Are they going to change their branding overnight (or within a month). Will it not affect their programs, admission process, attracting faculty and everything else. Just like some relief has been provided to students admitted in 4-5 years, shouldn't some relief be provided to those institutions who are using the term "university."

SC mentions that engineering education requires practical training and use of labs and that is why distance education cannot be allowed for engineering degrees. Almost the entire engineering education in the country is without practical training and use of labs. That is why the graduates are unemployable. As I have often said in many blogs, I always ask each MTech admission aspirant whether they have written even a 100 line program, and the answer in most cases is that they haven't. And remember, I only interview students from good institutions. I do hope SC will find a way to close most engineering education in India by quoting this judgment. (Don't tell me that labs are part of curriculum, they were part of curriculum of these 4 institutions also. The question is whether these universities even had the infrastructure in their study centers to conduct those labs. And the question is whether colleges who do have these labs, ever conduct lab work.)

Now, the next level questions will be, what is a distance education program. From the definition of distance education, MOOCs are certainly distance education. If a university offers a program in which students can get upto 50% credit from MOOCs, is that distance education. As per Washington Accord that India is signatory to, we are expected to recognize degrees granted by accredited institutions of other signatories of the accord. And some of these institutions have started offering a program based on MOOCs. Can a university in India transfer those credits, if not allow MOOCs directly under its banner.

On a lighter note, someone famously said that distance education starts from the 3rd row of a lecture hall. Should we ban large classes.

Monday, November 6, 2017

How can schools better prepare students for college life

Last week, I attended the 23rd Annual Conference of Sahodaya School Complexes. This is a conference where principals and other senior administrators come together to learn and exchange best practices. About 1000 of them from all over the country landed at Madurai for the 2-day event. These are only from private schools.

I was invited to address the gathering on the topic which is the title of this blog. The question was that when faculty members like me see students in the first year, do they get this feeling that schools could have done something more. What is that something more.

The topic was a bit of challenge for two reasons. One, most of the students that I have seen in various colleges where I have taught, have not always come through the formal education system but through a "shadow" education system of coaching. So may the issues that I notice are not because of schools but because of coaching. I wouldn't really know. And two, even if I know, is it fair on my part to demand more from schools without knowing their constraints. But once I had accepted the invitation, there was no looking back.

So I did the next best thing. I asked my daughter (who is a first year college student)  to do some brain storming with her friends and tell me what do they think of their shortcomings which they now believe should have been taken care of during the school years. And I asked a few faculty colleagues to think of their interaction with first year students and give me their thoughts. So this address was a bunch of ideas that I collected from others.

Before I say what students should have learnt at school, let us first consider what is the primary difference between school life and college life in India. The most important difference is that  colleges tend to treat students as adults, expect them to take several decisions independently, and be responsible for their actions and inactions, while in school, Indian students tend to remain dependent on their parents for everything. So colleges would have elective courses, the attendance in a class could be optional, how much money they can spend on what is their responsibility, and so on. While in school life, mothers would typically be responsible for waking them up, fathers would drop them at school or coaching, and both will keep an eagle eye on the use of facebook and whatsapp by the student at least till all the entrance exams have been taken. Basically the transition from adolescent to a young adult should have started at the age of 15, but in India it is supposed to happen on the 18th birthday magically.

Since students in school life have hardly been asked to take any decisions, they are extremely poor in decision making, even figuring out where to begin, what are the important parameters, how to collect data, etc. And this shows even before college admissions. They have no clue on how to decide which program in which college would meet their requirements, and finally end up following the herd, and last years' closing ranks become the only guidelines for most of them.

In college life, time management will play an extremely important role in learning. The students' schedule is no longer being dictated by parents (well, in some cases, it unfortunately continues). Students will have to prioritize and decide how much time to spend on which activity. Those without any experience in taking decisions will probably waste a whole lot of time on things that they will later regret.

What can schools do about this. Well, at the very least, have different styles of exams. Instead of mostly testing on recall (important for board exams), could they encourage students to analyse information, consider pros and cons, and then provide a reasoned answer. This will also ensure that learning is at higher levels (in terms of Bloom's taxonomy). But I will leave it to schools to really think about how to prepare them better for an independent life involving lots of decisions.

The other major issue which every single person that I talked to pointed out is communication. All four aspects of communication - reading, writing, speaking and listening. Communication is, of course, extremely important in one's career, in any career, but poor communication would seriously hamper learning in college. There is a lot more of self learning in college, and for doing that, you must have good communication skills. With poor communication, you would be shy of not just asking questions from your instructors and teaching assistants, but even your class fellows. (And there is enough evidence to show that you learn less from lectures and more from discussions with your peers.) The quality of your submissions, and the quality of your presentations will all suffer. And one thing that schools should find a way to do is to ask students to read a lot of books right from early classes. And given that one has to keep learning new things throughout the career, reading is a very critical skill that they must pick up early on. Remember, no education program can prepare you for future jobs. We can't predict what jobs will be there even 20 years from now, and the working life is 50 years. So learning to learn is the most important skill to become future-proof and that requires a habit of reading.

In my discipline, Computer Science, programming is one of the most basic skills. And one cannot write a program if one cannot write a coherent paragraph/essay. Try doing this: Write a set of instructions in your mother tongue on how to compute factorial of N. The instructions should be so clear and unambiguous that a class 2 student who has just learnt multiplication should be able to compute. A large number of students aren't able to do this. They, of course, can compute N! but don't know how to explain the algorithm. That is a communication issue.

The next thing that students should learn in schools is the concept of plagiarism. When they write anything in school, there can be no shame about using material from multiple sources. It should be perfectly fine to put lines in quote and say that this line is from such and such source. Why would teachers not insist on stating attributions and having a bibliography at the end of the report. No one is really expecting a school student to advance science and write something that s/he has discovered. They are writing up existing knowledge in their own words, and it should be fine to use a few sentences from existing sources and give proper credit to those sources. Once they come to colleges, the teachers are, in general, more demanding of proper credit, and students get into unnecessary trouble.

Another shortcoming is conduct of laboratory experiments. Many students have not done lab experiments in their science courses but the lab assistant or a teacher has just shown them an experiment. This not only kills curiosity, but also they lack confidence that they can do things on their own. And they show lack of interest in doing lab experiments in college and lab reports are perhaps the most commonly copied documents on campuses.

Given that I exclusively meet only science students in the first year, I see a lack of appreciation for non-science subjects among them. While all engineering colleges have some humanities and social science subjects in the curriculum, students look at them as useless or at best, courses to get easy grades. In today's world, an appreciation of society and individuals is extremely important for all careers. And given that students are required to do all courses till 10th class, teachers must be able to explain the importance of all these subjects, and while students may not study those subjects in 11th and 12th and may not even do extra readings because of board exam and competitive entrance exams, they should come to college with an open mind on such subjects.

At the end, schools should take everything I say with a pinch of salt, since as I said in the beginning, I do not claim to understand the constraints of schools. I have tried to keep only those points in this which I thought would be practically possible to focus more in schools, but I could be wrong about it for some suggestions.