A chat with Pi about blended learning in Indian higher education

Arnold Kling:

I tried Personal Intelligence (Pi) from Inflection AI. As a chatbot companion, it charms you by offering encouraging reactions to what you tell it. After commenting on what you have to say, it always asks an interesting question. Think of it as a very skillful and probing interviewer. Yes, it’s only software playing a game with you, but it plays it well.
To get an idea of where a conversation with Pi can go, see part of my chat with Pi. The excerpt I posted starts with its message after I’d told it about my Marginal Revolution is Dead post. I predict that you’ll be impressed by it.


I did go and see Arnold’s chat with Pi, and yup, I was impressed.

Impressed enough to have a conversation with Pi myself. What topic would you guess I chose? The one closest to my heart in a professional context, of course:

I am convinced that classroom education in higher education in India is inefficient, takes too much time, leads to sub-optimal learning and rote memorization for examinations. This is because of a lot of different factors, most of which are interlinked with each other in many different ways. But long story short, young people in India, even in the very best universities, do not learn as well as they could. And since best practices trickle down to other universities, we end up creating a culture of learnng that is sub-optimal at all levels.


If you, like me, are convinced that classroom learning is overrated, please do go and read my conversation with Pi. If you, unlike me, are not convinced that classroom learning is overrated, definitely go and read my conversation with Pi, and please do tell me where I’m wrong.

Three points that I would like to highlight:

  1. Far too much of student’s time is spent in passive listening (and that for hours on end). Reduce it dramatically, and even the bit that remains should be online. If your choice is between packing a hundred and fifty students into a classroom like sardines or allowing students to learn online, go online. Is online bad? Well it’s not perfect, sure. But relative to what alternative? If the alternative is the sardines-in-a-can approach, then why not?
  2. To me, the job of a professor in higher education is to mentor, not to teach. This is not a binary variable, and the truth lies somewhere in the middle, but more mentoring than classroom teaching, that much is for sure. So if anything, the workload for a professor will go up in my proposal, not down. But more personalized teaching/mentoring. Leave the large scale classroom to online education. What else is it for?
  3. AI in education is coming. You may not like it, you may resist it and you may say (as a professor) “but what are we here for then?”. But read the rest of Arnold’s post and ask yourself if the median professor in your university is better or worse than AI tutoring. Then ask yourself how many students this professor can mentor/tutor. Again, AI in education is coming. But the answer to the question “but what are we here for?” lies in learning to think of ourselves as complements to AI. Ask what AI can’t yet provide, and provide that. What the “that” will be changes based on a variety of factors, but in my specific case, I would think it is working on projects with students. And that is what I am focussing on this year.

I sent my conversation with Pi to two friends of mine, who gave me extremely thoughtful responses.

Samrudha Surana highlighted the fact that I should also be thinking about the question “what is college for?”. Different students want different things from the same course. Some may wish to become professors, while many more may wish to join the corporate world. This is as it should be: higher education is not a replication machine, whose sole job is to produce more professors over time. But we need both (future professors and future employees in the corporate world), and people trained in many other professions besides. Blended learning, and AI’s introduction allows for more customization, and that is a good thing.

He also pointed out that we should carefully think through how the online courses will be chosen by the students, and to what end. What he means by this is how much of a say a student should have in choosing their course(s), and how much of it should be the decision of the professor. Not just the choice of the courses, but also the choice of the project/assignment/paper for which the course is being taken. He favors more autonomy for the student, and while I’m inclined to agree, the magnitude will be tricky to set as a rule. In general, a higher degree of autonomy in later semesters, I would think.

Much more discussions are needed in our classrooms. Much, much more. We professors need to be challenged in class, our assumptions and claims scrutinized, our premises questioned and our conclusions critiqued. Learning is best achieved through Socratic discourse (in my opinion). But our classrooms are more about proclamations by the professor rather than any of the above. Smaller class sizes will help, as will more seminars, discussion groups and workshops. That matters, and is rendered more probable under such an arrangement.

Undergraduate courses, finally, might involve much more of classroom learning in the initial semesters. Although under the new four year undergraduate programme (and the likelihood of them more or less replacing Masters programmes altogether), even here you would want to shift to more of blended learning towards the end of the degree.

We need to teach students in higher education better, of that I am convinced. What I have suggested here is worth further discussion, I’m fairly sure. Whether you agree with me or otherwise (and I hope it is otherwise), please tell me why 🙂