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Anomalizer's Journal
Unintended consequences
The education revolution 
21st-Jun-2010 12:14 am
Casual
I am a firm believer in higher education reforms. And when I say reforms, I mean sweeping reforms, not minor tinkering. Much of the aspiring social reformers spend time in making primary education accessible. Yet, as a country, India has way too many people holding college degrees for what they do. The reason why I find the degrees meaningless is twofold: first off, we are obsessed with possessing a degree as an end and secondly, the mode of higher education is ineffective.

For the longest time, I've wanted to fix this mess. My idea of fixing never was do anything radical during my phase of life as a college student. I didn't even have any intent to change it. Trouble started when I started to act. I've attempted a couple of stints as a guest lecturer but it was not sustained. More importantly, it lacked a larger direction. While my intent was appreciated, I myself knew that it was not producing the results.s

Providence had it that I revisit this whole thing since last weekend. I decided to go on a reconnaissance mission to my college. The biggest difference I felt was that both I and the HoD of my branch seemed to have a much clearer idea of what each one of us wanted to do. I knew what message I wanted to deliver to the student community and my HoD was clear on how she wanted to deliver more than course related training. While I was (and still am) contemplating on how to move forward, the one move I wanted to do and managed to pull off is to get a bunch undergrad students to intern at my workplace. It is meant to be an exploratory move for me to discover where things stand in colleges these days. Of course, back at office, folks are more than happy to have bright and optimistic people join them for a few months.

In doing so, I've stumbled upon three areas where I see a huge directional change:

Infrastructure: An area that we think colleges and Indian universities in general lag behind has made progress. I saw every lecture hall equipped with projectors and recording equipment to ensure that the sessions are available for the next one year. A command centre like layout of programming labs so that everyone is facing in one direction and follow the presenter. The usage of linux and gcc right from day one and opposed to our beloved Turbo C++. Auditoriums to ensure large number of people can participate in a presentation. Industrial grade wi-fi repeaters everywhere. While there surely must be far more elaborate campuses with far more esoteric gimzos, this for me is advanced enough.

Temperament of the establishment: A few years ago, certain colleges were granted autonomy under the university. This makes way for two things. Firstly, it is orders of magnitude more easier to not just change the curriculum but also the overall format of the entire course. Secondly, preparing for exams no longer needs to happen to maximize for "this is the safe answer for the exams since you never know which clueless person from which college will be correcting". What this permits is for institutions to progress much faster than the rest if they choose to make changes in the right direction. As I mentioned earlier, I also sensed a desire to make it more holistic and orienting people to deal with the larger challenges in life than just applying technical skills.

Temperament of the students: Enough people know to say "segmentation fault" as opposed to "program will crash". I met someone who knew the basics of text searching like stop words and stemming. Someone was trying to cope up with HTTP chunked coding. Another person had written a scheduled RSS feed processor that plotted graphs. A few people had mucked around with php & python. Someone knew exactly what HTTP status code 301 meant. All of this, and they still had a year to go before graduation. What is evident is that a bunch of folks seem to have a head start. And enough of them also seem to have a momentum. Should they maintain the momentum (and I really hope they do), I can see them say You are obsolete much like Xan Kriegor in a few years from now.


Overall, I see a concerted change like I've never seen before. If the government and administration does not do anything stupid, I think we are at the dawn of a new area. What I think is needed for us to see how we can foster this environment. If you feel this is not important enough, try spending some time reading this: http://techcrunch.com/2010/06/06/can-indonesias-ciputra-prove-that-great-entrepreneurs-are-made-not-born

Disclaimer: All of this writing is based on my experiences of being associated with my college and specifically my department over the years. While it is misleading to interpret the changes in one place as a widespread phenomenon, I think it is a good enough indicator of what is to come for other places will eventually catch up to keep up with the vanguards.
Comments 
20th-Jun-2010 07:04 pm (UTC) - You missed the most important factor
Good, dedicated teachers who know what they're teaching, and know how to teach.

But I completely agree with the rest. Especially the autonomous bit. Whatever the state of teaching was at our college, I'm sure they were still way better than those who ended up evaluating the VTU papers!
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