Ramblings on Education

Some existential questions on education coupled with hints and observations from all around.

What is education?
Probably the more important question is why educate? Without going technical on you, let me give you the simplest definition I found. Education is about opening the mind; at least that is what Jawaharlal Nehru said. Given that the word education carries so much of baggage with it, I want to use learning to explore the question. Hence,

What is learning? Why learn?
Again the idealistic answer could be found in definition given by JC Williams – education is about opening the mind and allowing one’s self to be inspired by thought. Another facet of the question that is central to our college is that graduating students must become engineers at the end of their study. An engineer is supposed to create new systems or ideas, rearrange the existing systems or ideas for better utility. This function requires demonstrable skills. In summary, the graduating students of RVR&JC College of Engineering must have minds that are open to new ideas and have demonstrable skills in the chosen field.

Let us use a working definition of technical education / learning – cultivation of open minds and imparting demonstrable skills. The simple act of opening a student’s mind is to make the student receptive to new terminology, ie, make the minds open to the names of the things. This kind of opening does not lend itself well to development of demonstrable skills. A more deep and useful opening of the mind is to follow Richard Feynman’s famous saying, “I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.” Knowing the things, knowing the underlying working principles of things, knowing the ways to apply this understanding in a new context is what the skill is all about. The graduating students must have this skill of understanding the things. I would say that teaching the the skill of understanding the things is the higher purpose in this era of exponential changes. The skill of understanding the things requires holistic combination of logical, analytical, visual, recollection and comprehension skills. More importantly, the student must be able to apply all these in a practical setting to create new ideas and systems. Over emphasis of recollection and comprehension to the sidetracking of other skills will not do justice to the true aim of learning.

Couch potato engineers, when do they dance?
Let me address the second aspect of learning, ie, demonstrable skills. The funny things about acquiring skills is that skills require in-depth study not a superfluous study; and the demonstrable skills are acquired in the labs. At present, the students spend anywhere between 20% to 27% of their instruction time in the lab. The lab time has to go to somewhere near 50% of the instruction time. Here we must take inspiration from the medical profession. I am told that a medical student spends every afternoon doing practicals. Why not adopt such a hands-on approach to engineering? The following Chinese proverb illustrates the importance of hands-on learning.

Tell me and I’ll forget;
Show me and I may remember;
Involve me and I’ll understand.

Again we can take inspiration from doctors. All the graduating doctors are required to undertake one year of work as apprentice of one form or other under another doctor. Of course the apprentice ship does not mean industrial apprenticeship. Why not let the merit / interested students explore new things in the existing labs? Why not evolve a culture of apprenticeship in the labs right in the existing framework?

The present scenario is almost like watching TV. People watch the proceedings on TV and get vicarious satisfaction. My guess is that a lot of our graduating students are in this category. So, how do we go about making them competent and confident enough to jump out of the couches and undertake the task of nation building.

Oh Sage, why are you silent?
I am told that in (g)old(en) days, all the knowledge was transferred through oral learning. Sages instructed the students face-to-face; Not through text books. Nothing was written down. Then came the book in its various forms and forever transformed learning. A properly written text book is like a sage speaking personally to the student. At least that’s what it used to be like. A properly written text book first caters to the development of the students’ faculties in the chosen subject thereby prepares the student for the professional world. A text book that primarily prepares a student for the exam is doing a lot of injustice to the student. The categorization of a lot of modern text books, let alone the question banks and all-in-one books, is left open to you. Hence, as teachers, we have the responsibility to encourage the students to pick the right kind of book that prepares them for the professional world. If we are not sages, at least let us encourage the students to learn from the sages through text books.

The question of e-learning
Everyone is agog about electronic learning. As a member of the College Automation Committee I am faintly familiar with some of these concepts. Let me give a rough sketch of this terrain. Any learning environment which supports collaborative and participative learning using technological tools may be called e-learning. The two key things are collaboration and participation. This gets roughly translated as group learning and hand-on activities. No more passive note taking; no more passive listening to the instructor; no more acing of the subjects alone.

The motivation for implementing a e-learning system can be looked at from the students’ point of view or the teachers’ point of view. From a students standpoint, the simple answer is that e-learning makes learning a fun activity. As Mark Twain said, “Learning and fun must go together for effective teaching with fun leading the way”. The e-learning environment encourages students live in the world of nearly now. In this highly networked world, everyone is communicating with everyone else, but they are not talking in real-time. They are messaging, chatting and blogging in real-time. This phenomenon of nearly now can be utilized in a structured way to create interactive and productive classroom environment. The motivation from a teachers’ standpoint is even more interesting. The e-learning makes it possible to deliver personalized instruction to all the students.

The question of implementation has been answered for us through well known learning management systems such as MOODLE, Blackboard and Sakai. The experience suggests that a open source platform such as MOODLE gives enough flexibility to adopt the given framework to suit the needs of an organization.

One significant advantage of e-learning is the on-line and custom evaluation methods. The e-learning platforms like MOODLE provide tools for automated testing, assignment submission, group evaluations and project work. Since most of these tools are automated, these evaluation methods consume very little of the teacher’s time. One can contrast this with the traditional evaluation schemes where each teacher of RVR&JC College of Engineering spends an average of 30 working days in the examination halls performing invigilation duties.

These are some of the things on my mind. Being a young member of the teaching fraternity, I probably speak a lot more than necessary in a gruff manner. Please do not mistake the unimportance of the author with the unimportance of the issues raised in the article. These issues need your careful and immediate attention.

– Prasad Talasila