The Long, Slow, But Inevitable Death of the Classroom

If you read enough about Robert Solow, this quote coming up is but a matter of time:

You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics

http://www.standupeconomist.com/pdf/misc/solow-computer-productivity.pdf

Much the same could be said about internet based learning technologies if you tried to measure it in colleges and universities before March 2020. We had lip service being paid to MOOC’s and all that, but if we’re being honest, that’s all it was: lip service.

Things have changed around a bit since then, I think.

We’ll get to that later on this post, but let’s go back to the seeing computers everywhere but in the productivity statistics bit for the moment. Paul David, an American economist, wrote a wonderful essay called “The Dynamo and the Computer: An Historical Perspective on the Modern Productivity Paradox“, back in 1990.

I think of this essay as an attempt to respond to the question Robert Solow had posed – why isn’t the data reflecting the ubiquitousness of the computer in the modern workplace? Read the essay: it’s a very short, very easy read.

Paul David draws an analogy between the move away from steam as a source of power, back at the end of the 19th century.

In 1900, contemporary observers well might have remarked that the electric dynamos were to be seen “everywhere but in the productivity statistics!”

David, P. A. (1990). The dynamo and the computer: an historical perspective on the modern productivity paradox. The American Economic Review80(2), 355-361.

Adjusting to a new technology, it turns out, takes time.

Steam-powered manufacturing had linked an entire production line to a single huge steam engine. As a result, factories were stacked on many floors around the central engine, with drive belts all running at the same speed. The flow of work around the factory was governed by the need to put certain machines close to the steam engine, rather than the logic of moving the product from one machine to the next. When electric dynamos were first introduced, the steam engine would be ripped out and the dynamo would replace it. Productivity barely improved.
Eventually, businesses figured out that factories could be completely redesigned on a single floor. Production lines were arranged to enable the smooth flow of materials around the factory. Most importantly, each worker could have his or her own little electric motor, starting it or stopping it at will. The improvements weren’t just architectural but social: Once the technology allowed workers to make more decisions, they needed more training and different contracts to encourage them to take responsibility.

https://slate.com/culture/2007/06/what-the-history-of-the-electric-dynamo-teaches-about-the-future-of-the-computer.html

Again, please read the whole thing, and also read this other article by Tim Harford from the BBC, “Why didn’t electricity immediately change manufacturing?” The article, by the way, is an offshoot of a wonderful podcast called “50 Things That Made The Modern Economy“. Please listen to it!

But here’s the part that stood out for me from that piece I excerpted from above:

“Eventually, businesses figured out that factories could be completely redesigned on a single floor. Production lines were arranged to enable the smooth flow of materials around the factory. Most importantly, each worker could have his or her own little electric motor, starting it or stopping it at will.”

https://slate.com/culture/2007/06/what-the-history-of-the-electric-dynamo-teaches-about-the-future-of-the-computer.html

Colleges and universities are today designed around the basic organizational unit of a classroom, with each classroom being “powered” by a professor.

Of the many, many things that the pandemic has done to the world, what it has done to learning is this:

each worker learner could have his or her own little electric motor personal classroom, starting it or stopping it at will.

In fact, I had a student tell me recently that she prefers to listen to classroom recordings later, at 2x, because she prefers listening at a faster pace. So it’s not just starting or stopping at will, it is also slowing down or speeding up at will.

Today, because of the pandemic, we are at an extreme end of the spectrum which describes how learning is delivered. Everybody sits at home, and listens to a lecture being delivered (at least in Indian universities, mostly synchronously).

When the pandemic ends, whenever that may be, do we swing back to the other end of the spectrum? Does everybody sit in a classroom once again, and listens to a lecture being delivered in person (and therefore synchronously)?

Or does society begin to ask if we could retain some parts of virtual classrooms? Should the semester than be, say, 60% asynchronous, with the remainder being doubt solving sessions in classroom? Or some other ratio that may work itself out over time? Should the basic organizational unit of the educational institute still be a classroom? Does an educational institute still require the same number of in person professors, still delivering the same number of lectures?

In other words, in the post-pandemic world…

How long before online learning starts to show up in the learning statistics?

Additional, related reading, for those interested:

  1. Timothy Taylor on why “some of the shift to telecommuting will stick
  2. An essay from the late, great Herbert Simon that I hadn’t read before called “The Steam Engine and the Computer
  3. The role of computer technology in restructuring schools” by Alan Collins, written in 1990(!)

There’s No Say’s Law in Classroom Teaching

Yes, that’s not exactly what he said, but I’m going with the definition we all “know”. And I’m going to repurpose that popular definition for going on a rant about classroom teaching.

Supply does not create its own demand.

That is, the supply of education in the classroom does not create the demand for education in the classroom.


Do you have a memory of staring out the classroom window, having given up on waiting for time to move faster? My congratulations to you if you have never once experienced this emotion across school and college, because it was my only emotion in almost all classes I ever attended. And boredom of an excruciating nature was my only emotion because all classes were tremendously boring.

Some were instructive. Some teachers/professors really knew their stuff. Two professors, who I am lucky enough to still have as mentors, were the best professors I have ever had. But even they didn’t think it was their responsibility to inspire the class to learn more. A Walter Lewin type moment in a class that I attended? It has happened not more than one or two times across over two decades of sitting in classrooms.

And this is, even today, something that enrages me.


David Perell’s latest essay is the inspiration for this rant:

Inspiration is a uniquely human experience because it isn’t motivated by mere survival. It transcends the world of needs and lives in the world of wants. By doing so, inspiration stirs the mind. It’s no coincidence that the etymology of inspire is linked to “the breath of life.” As the sparkle of inspiration enters our bodies, we are animated with a video game style turbo-boost. Though a state of perpetual awe is the natural state for kids (which is why they learn so fast), it’s foreign to most adults. Too often, the wrinkles of age and the weight of responsibility silence the rush of epiphany.
Blinded by age, we can turn to cold rationality, valuing only what we can define and prioritize only what we can measure. When we do, we forget that the wisdom of an inspired spirit exceeds our ability to describe it. The less we insist on a justification for our curiosities, the more we can surrender to the engine of inspiration and let learning happen.

https://perell.com/essay/how-learning-happens/

How do I teach my eight year old daughter to sum up the first n numbers? By asking her to memorize {(n*[n+1])/2} or by telling her Gauss’s story? Do I teach her Marathi and Hindi by asking her to read her textbook, or by introducing to her the shared civilizational wonder that is etymology?

Should I teach my students about how to think about macroeconomics by writing down equations and defining GDP, or should I begin with Gapminder? Should I draw the 2×2 matrix to explain the prisoner’s dilemma, or do I show students Golden Balls on YouTube? Should I tell students what monetary policy is, or do I ask them to play the Fed Chairman game? Should I tell them about demand and supply, or should I introduce to them the wonder that is kiviq.us?

Should students be taught about mass, velocity, friction, acceleration, arcs and circles, or should they be shown this video? How to motivate students at the start of a semester on statistics? Talk about the spice trade, and talk about brewing tea! I can go on and on, but I’ll stop here.


You see, in each of these cases, you don’t have to teach students the underlying concepts. To be clear, you can, and you should. But my point is you don’t have to – they’ll have developed the thirst to figure it out by themselves, because, you see, they can’t help it. Their curiosity has been piqued, or as David Perell puts it, they’ve been inspired.

And that, really, ought to be your job as a teacher or professor. To get students to go “Whoaaaaaa!”

Get that to happen, and then good luck trying to finish the class on time. I teach undergraduates and beyond, and I’m not suggesting that one should stop at inspiring students as a teacher. Papers will have to be read, books will have to be recommended, essays will have to be written – all of that is necessary, and absolutely should happen.

But each of these things are much more likely to be done (and willingly) if only you light the spark first. Reading Mishkin after you’ve played the Fed Chairman game isn’t a chore, it is a joy. Why, even Fudenberg Tirole stands a chance of being somewhat palatable if students have been first exposed to Games Indians Play, The Art of Strategy and The Evolution of Trust.


Every student who leaves college bored to death because of how stultifying classrooms are is a damning indictment of my tribe. We’ve failed to do right by them, and by extension have failed to do right by society.

What is wrong with higher education? A lot!

But David touched upon a raw nerve where I am concerned – the worst thing about those of us working in academia is that we fail to ask ourselves every single day a very important question: how can I inspire young people to want to learn more? Everything else is a distraction, this ought to be the mission.


Arjun Narayan asked Tyler Cowen this question recently:

You have the power to grant 100% more capital (that they deployed in their lifetime) to a person or institution who prematurely ran out of capital too soon. Who do you pick?

https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2021/08/the-capital-life-extension-query.html

Substitute the word “enthusiasm” for “capital”, substitute “students” for “a person or institution” and you have my own personal mission in life. And I promise you, it is my mission because I am very much scratching my own itch.

We should all, at the margin, be learning better.

And the earlier we start, the better society will be.

Quick Thoughts on Google Chat

I’ve been a fan of Google ever since I saw for myself how much better the search engine (how quaint, no?) was compared to the alternatives, and I’m old enough to remember what a revelation 1GB of storage was for inboxes. Chrome in 2008 was a game changer, I’m an unabashed Android fan, and I spend more than half my life in Google Drive.

I’ll never, ever, ever forgive them for their cold blooded murder of Google Reader, but let’s not get hung up on that for now. Feedly is here and it works just fine.

But what was a hobby (learning more about how cool Google can be) suddenly became an utter necessity when the pandemic took over our lives last year. Working remotely has been a challenge for all of us, and utilizing all of Google’s features was no longer a luxury, but a necessity.

Figuring out how to get your colleagues (and in my case, our students) to learn how to use all of Google’s features has been both a challenge and a pleasure, and most of us at the Gokhale Institute are now fairly comfortable with the following tools/apps: GMail, Google Calendar, Google Classroom and Google Drive.

What especially helped was their decision to launch the sidebar on the right, in GMail, that allowed for most (but not all!) of these tools to be accessible from within just the one tab.

One feature in particular that we’ve made fairly heavy use of has been a separate tab for Google Chat (go to chat.google.com). Most of us know Google Chat as that little box on the left in our GMail tabs, but the separate stand-alone tab is much better. You could have chat rooms (about which more in a bit). But most importantly, a separate tab made more sense because visually, chatting was easier in a separate tab rather than those little pop-up windows in GMail.

That apart, the ability to use “bots”, such as Polly for conducting polls and the Meeting bot for setting up meetings1 has been really helpful this past year.

But yesterday, they announced some serious updates to all of these features. Dieter Bohn has a quick explainer at The Verge, but as is usual with Google, the full feature set will be “coming soon”. But here are my quick reflections on whatever it is that we’re able to to do right now. Note that I work in a university, not a conventional office. YMMV, as they say:

  1. Starting projects with colleagues/students is much better in a chat room in Google Chat than via email. The discussion happens much more quickly, responses are searchable, and threaded discussions make it much more convenient.
  2. There are three tabs available up top in all chatrooms: the actual chat itself, files and tasks. Files shared in the chat room are now available to see at any point of time, and now they even open up right there, in the chat window. Much more convenient. Note that seeing comments etc requires the document to be opened up in a separate window/tab. Tasks is basically Google Tasks (a tool which almost nobody uses), but assigned to work for the group that is in that particular chat room. Tasks, used as a group, is much better than Tasks in GMail. A richer feature set here would be awesome, but that’s another blogpost by itself.
  3. Add in the Polly and Meeting bots to your chat rooms (and please let me know if you know of other good bots to deploy)
  4. Stuff I wish they’d add: the ability to pick a message and reply specifically to it (as in Whatsapp) is sorely missed. Conversations would be so much more streamlined if this was around.
  5. Chatrooms are searchable by person and by date, among other things. The trouble is that most people won’t know that this is possible, and Chat doesn’t (yet) have the drop-down menu in search like GMail. Most folks don’t know about the drop-down menu in GMail search, but that’s another story.
  6. Google Chat now has the same bar to the right that GMail does: Calendar, Tasks and Keep show up over there. Education specific request: throw in Classroom there too?
  7. While we’re at it, why can’t all Classrooms automatically have chat rooms created? Why can’t files shared on Classroom automatically sync with this chat room? Why can’t assignments given in Google Classroom automatically sync as tasks in these chatrooms? This would help so much!
  8. Setting up a calendar appointment, or starting a Google Meet call is possible from within the little box you use to type messages in Google Chat. When you set up a calendar invite, it automatically invites all participants in that chat, which is great.
  9. My own personal workflow involves Feedly, Roam, GChat, GDocs, GDrive, GCal. Hopefully, API’s will allow one to add in Roam and Feedly on to the sidebar in the near future. If that becomes possible, I’m happy to live entirely inside Google Chat when I’m working, with minor excursions into the Twitter tab every now and then. From a purely selfish perspective, maybe Google can buy out Feedly and Roam (hint, hint)? Keep as a note-taking tool just isn’t good enough!
  10. Finally, any educational institute anywhere: if you need help learning about this, or setting it up, or just a call where you want to see how we use these tools at the Gokhale Institute, I’m just a shout away. Happy to help, any time 🙂
  1. it is a life changer once you get the hang of it, trust me. It uses NLP, and you can type stuff like “set up a meeting with xyz at ten am tomorrow morning” and it does the rest. Yes, really. It is an old feature, used to be available in Google Calendar years ago, but is now sadly missing from there[]

Colleges: A Framework for Efficiency

I wrote an essay yesterday about unbundling college. You might want to read that first before tackling this essay.

In today’s essay, we’re going to decide how we’re going to judge the efficiency of college. What framework should we be using and why?

A Framework for Judging the Efficiency of College

Efficiency is actually fairly easy to define: maximal output for minimum input.

And input is also fairly easy to define: minimum resources to be used in terms of time and money.

It is the output bit that is rather more difficult to specify and define.

What is the output of a college? Here are some candidates:

  1. The number of students who graduate in a given year
  2. The marks these students score
  3. Particularly in the Indian scenario, the placement record of the college
  4. Number of seminars/workshops/outreach programmes conducted by the college
  5. Research output of the faculty/students in the college

Let’s work our way through each of these, and highlight the problems that present themselves:

  1. Number of students graduating per year:

    Do large classrooms – that is, classes with a very large number of students in them – work well?
    The obvious reason I ask this question is if you’re going to graduate more students, the number of students per class must go up.
    There is a large amount of academic research on the subject, if you feel like going through it. I haven’t read all of the papers on the subject, but the consensus seems to be that larger classes are necessary from an economic viewpoint, but don’t work as well as small classes would. Key points being, there ideally needs to be some sort of an opportunity to have a discussion with the professor, and that doesn’t necessarily work out well in a large class.
    I’ll speak of my own personal experience in this blog post, rather than cite academic studies. The largest class I have taught included 250 students, while the smallest included just two students. Neither of those extremes is ideal: 250 is more of a speech than a lecture, while two students is economically infeasible. My personal preference would be for a class size of not more than thirty.
    More students graduating per dollar spent by the university isn’t a great way to judge the output, or the educational outcome, of a college, because students don’t necessarily learn better in a large classroom. And in any case, if you are going to use this is a measure, online classes have offline classes beat!
  2. The marks these students score:

    Here’s a Hindustan Times article for your reading pleasure.
    ..
    ..
    I quote:
    “Compared to last year, the number of students scoring 95% and above has increased by 118.6% and those getting 90% and above by 67.48% this year in the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) Class 12 results announced on Monday.
    A total of 38,686 students have scored 95% and above marks in aggregate of all subjects, up by 118.6% from 17,693 in 2019. As many as 1,57,934 students have scored 90% and above, 67.48% higher than last year’s tally of 94,299.”
    ..
    ..
    Are students this year twice as good as they were last year? If so, why? If not, are we just giving more marks this year than we did last year?
    Personally, I don’t think this year’s cohort is any better (or worse) than last year’s. It is quite likely that marks have been given more liberally this year than they were the last year. You can work your way through to what the equilibrium will be, but here’s my assessment: grades become mostly meaningless in the long run. Especially when they’re being handed out like this.
    Judging the output of a college by taking the average marks scored by the graduating batch doesn’t make for a great outcome either.
  3. Placement record of the college:

    I should state at the outset that I am the faculty-in-charge for placements at Gokhale Institute.

    Colleges, in an ideal world, should have skin in the game. Is learning a means to an end in itself, or is it the means to an end? If it is the means to an end, and that end is gainful employment, then should college not be paid only if the end is achieved? Income sharing agreements are, you might argue, a natural next step in this regard.
    But that being said, there is a part of me that dies a little when I think about the whole means to an end thing. Yes, employment matters, and yes, colleges should be held to higher standards than they are right now in this regard. But I would hate to live in a world where you go to college only in order to get employed. There’s surely more to life and education than that!
  4. Number of seminars/workshops/outreach programmes conducted by the college

    Goodhart’s Law. Goodhart’s Law. Goodhart’s Law.
  5. Research output of the faculty in the college

    See 4. above.

Honestly, I don’t quite know how to measure educational outcomes, and I’m not the only one. By the way, the first chapter from “The Case Against Education” is worth reading while thinking about some of the issues we’re speaking about here.

But this raises an important, and potentially problematic issue. Change is worth pursuing if what is new is objectively better than the old. But as it turns out, we find ourselves unable to settle on an objective measure by which to differentiate between the old and the new!

Consider the range of services that a college provides:

The range of services provided by college

There are four outcomes you get from college: grades, placements, peer networks and the degree. Of the four, we have spoken about and discarded grades, placements and number of degrees awarded as useful/appropriate measures of outcomes in education. That leaves peer networks, and this is perhaps even more nebulous and difficult-to-measure than the other three.

Of the lot, employability and the quality of peer networks are (to me) the most important. But the latter is literally immeasurable, and the former ought to not be the only benchmark for judging the outcomes from education.

There is, as it turns out, a problem waiting to be solved, and it is a fundamental one.

If I’m wrong, please let me know how!

Large classes, small groups

You might want to read my previous posts about online education and learning before reading this. See this essay about the state of higher education in India, this about signaling and bundling in higher education, this about unbundling college and this about measuring efficiency in education.

In addition, Aadisht had a great comment about optionality and higher education, which really deserves a post in its own right – but you can click on the link in this paragraph and scroll to the bottom to read it for now.

All that being said, today’s post ties together the thoughts and deeds of three people whose thinking I try to follow very carefully when it comes to online education.

The role of community in education

Let’s begin with this tweet from one of them, David Perell.

Both the thread of which 4. is a part, and the Twitter thread referenced in 4. are worth reading.

But today, I wanted to focus on the community bit.

A quick reminder: my thesis is that college sells you three things. The education itself, the access to peer networks and the credentialing. If there is to be an online model that will work for colleges, it must successfully provide all three (and more) at the same price (or less) as college does today.

When it comes to peer networks, can they ever be as successful online as they have been offline?

That begs the question: have they been successful offline? And that is really two separate questions.

About Peer Groups

  1. Are peer groups worth the effort in the first place?
  2. Is there something special about peer groups you form in college?

With regard to the first, I’m going to take a pass on answering it in depth for at least two reasons. First, I know nowhere near enough sociology to be able to speak about this sensibly for any length of time. And second, isn’t the answer obvious?

About the second question, you might want to read this essay – a part of which is excerpted below:

As external conditions change, it becomes tougher to meet the three conditions that sociologists since the 1950s have considered crucial to making close friends: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other, said Rebecca G. Adams, a professor of sociology and gerontology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. This is why so many people meet their lifelong friends in college, she added.

https://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/15/fashion/the-challenge-of-making-friends-as-an-adult.html

The entire essay is worth your time, but the crux of it is those three points above: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and college life.

Anecdote Time

Two of the best years of my life were spent while studying for my Masters degree at the Gokhale Institute in Pune. There was a fair bit of reading/learning involved, but most of those two years were spent in just hanging out with a group of people I am still close friends with.

And of the three things that Gokhale Institute gave me when I purchased a Masters degree from it, it is this group of friends that I value the most. Then comes the degree, and the least important – as it turns out – was the learning itself.

Don’t misunderstand me – learning was and is important! It’s just that for me, sitting in a class and listening to professors talk wasn’t the best way to learn. I have learnt much more by speaking one-on-one with some professors, arguing heatedly and passionately about random topics with friends, and by reading/listening/viewing to stuff on my own time.

But therein lies a dilemma.

How to reconcile online education with forming your college gang?

Random bike rides, conversations at three in the morning sitting on a ledge on the hostel terrace, giggling at a joke while sitting towards the back of a classroom is not just an important part of college. In my personal experience, this pretty much was college.

And not just during the pandemic, but even beyond, the key challenge is to figure out ways and means to achieve something approaching the same experience in this brave new online world of ours.

What might be an answer to this conundrum? That brings me to the second person whose thoughts about online education matter to me, Tyler Cowen

Small Group Theory, via Tyler Cowen

If you are seeking to foment change, take care to bring together people who have a relatively good chance of forming a small group together. Perhaps small groups of this kind are the fundamental units of social change, noting that often the small groups will be found within larger organizations. The returns to “person A meeting person B” arguably are underrated, and perhaps more philanthropy should be aimed toward this end.

Small groups (potentially) have the speed and power to learn from members and to iterate quickly and improve their ideas and base all of those processes upon trust. These groups also have low overhead and low communications overhead. Small groups also insulate their members sufficiently from a possibly stifling mainstream consensus, while the multiplicity of group members simultaneously boosts the chances of drawing in potential ideas and corrections from the broader social milieu.

https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2018/06/best-analyses-small-innovative-productive-groups.html

If you are going to run an online course, or are going to be a student enrolled in an online course, the most important thing you can do is think long and hard about forming groups.

If you are the person running the course, you need to make the process of forming a group as friction-less as you possibly can. Without these groups, not only are drop-outs more likely, but the groups themselves are perhaps the bigger point!

Here’s Tyler Cowen again, in a separate post:

Remember Lancastrian methods of education from 19th century England? Part of the idea was to keep small group size, and economize on labor, by having the students teach each other, typically with the older students instructing the younger.

https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2020/05/my-weird-lancastrian-method-for-reopening-higher-education.html

The post I quoted from is about how college might reinvent itself in the era of the pandemic, but the larger point he is making – or at any rate, the point I choose to take away – is about how learning in small groups is better than classrooms.

And on a related note, the third person whose thoughts on online education I choose to take very seriously, Seth Godin:

Great guy. Chip and I went to business school together. He was the third youngest person in the class and I was the second youngest person in the class. He got five of us together and every Tuesday night, we met in the Anthropology Department for four hours. We brainstormed more than 5,000 business ideas over the course of the first year of business school. It was magnificent. It wasn’t official, it wasn’t sanctioned. It was just Chip said let’s do this, and we did. And he picked the Anthropology Department because he knew someone there and could get the conference room.

https://tim.blog/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/138-seth-godin.pdf

That is from an episode from Tim Ferriss’ podcast, in which he interviewed Seth (the whole episode is well worth your time), but the point that I remembered was about small groups.

Anybody who is going to try and do education online is going to have to get small groups going. Without it – in my opinion – it simply will not work.

But how do you form these groups?

I’m still thinking about the how, and the more I think about it, the more it seems as if there is never going to be a perfect answer. Forming groups is hard, and I think we need to make peace with the fact that groups may not always work out.

People won’t get along, people will drop out, quarrels will take place even among groups that develop close bonds – there are many, many things that can go wrong. But it doesn’t matter how long it takes and how many times groups have to be formed and re-formed – it is unlikely that you’ll get an education worth the name without the formation of a group, or community.

And what do these groups do?

… will be the topic of tomorrow’s essay, for I was part of an experiment that tried to answer this question – and I really liked the answer!

Project Based Learning

This post is based on a discussion with a student about (what else?) unhappiness with marks.


What is the point of an education? Is it to score marks? Or to score a job? Or to better oneself? Or all of the above? And if it is all of the above, is it 33.333% weightage to each? Or are some objectives more important than others?

Now, if it isn’t clear already to long-time readers of this blog, my own personal answers to the questions I listed above have scoring a job and bettering oneself at about 99% weightage, with marks getting – maybe – 1%. There are many reasons for I thinking so, and maybe next Friday’s post could be all about that. But if you, for the moment, accept that the point of an education ought not to be marks maximization, it still begs the question: well then, what instead?

My answer would be: do the work.


Does a course on HTML teach you more, or does building and maintaining a website teach you more?

Does a course on business communication teach you more, or does running a podcast teach you more?

Does a course on statistics teach you more, or does building out a simple Google Sheet about distributions teach you more?

Is marketing best learnt through submitting an assignment, or by learning how to build out and market your own LinkedIn page, Instagram page and Twitter feed?

Much more importantly, what is the proof that you have learnt? Marks you score in an exam, or tangible proof of work done that is out for consumption in the public domain? What do you have more fun doing? What teaches you to work better in a team? What teaches you to lead people, and therefore learn perhaps the important life-skill of all?

More people in academia ought to know about project based learning, and when I say know, I mean implement.

Project-based learning (PBL) is a student-centered pedagogy that involves a dynamic classroom approach in which it is believed that students acquire a deeper knowledge through active exploration of real-world challenges and problems. Students learn about a subject by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to a complex question, challenge, or problem. It is a style of active learning and inquiry-based learning. PBL contrasts with paper-based, rote memorization, or teacher-led instruction that presents established facts or portrays a smooth path to knowledge by instead posing questions, problems or scenarios.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project-based_learning

No system, anywhere, ever, is perfect. So also with PBL. I’m sure it has its flaws, and having worked on the projects I have linked to above in this past year, I am going to speak about some of these flaws in this post. But I remain convinced that it is a better way to learn. And my conviction is multiplied many times over when it comes to the question of certification: projects over marks, every single day of the week, and twice on Sundays.

There are many reasons for this, and again, perhaps that is worthy of another post, but the most important one is this one: project based learning is a non-zero-sum game. Examinations are a zero-sum-game.

For me to win (or score well, or do well, or whatever ghastly phrase you want to use when it comes to doing well in an examination), you have to lose. But the successful completion of a project requires that everybody wins – in fact, it’s even better. For you to win as a participant in the project, you have to help others win. You have to persuade, cajole, berate and drive your team members to do their jobs well, in addition to doing your own task well – and you win only when everybody wins.

Which, if you ask me, is a better education than having to constantly look at how well others have done in order to feel satisfied with how well you have done. Plus, either a project has shipped, or it hasn’t. You don’t have to depend upon the subjective assessment of a professor to judge whether it is a job well done or not.

Besides, there is the rather important consideration that a podcast, a website, a Twitter account (and everything else up there submitted as evidence m’lud) benefits its viewers. You may sneer and ask for metrics, but so long as it is more than zero, it trumps your submitted answer sheet.


But there are downsides, to be sure. Of course there are.

PBL teaching takes more time to plan, more curriculum and technology resources, more day-to-day problem solving about how to scaffold student growth and success in their project work, more effort to authentically assess student learning, more communication with persons in the community, more support from the administration in terms of suitable scheduling and curriculum alignment, and more opportunities to collaborate with their teaching colleagues

Lee, J. S., Blackwell, S., Drake, J., & Moran, K. A. (2014). Taking a leap of faith: Redefining teaching and learning in higher education through project-based learning. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning8(2), 2.

(The word “more” is italicized in the original every single time. WordPress’ formatting italicizes the whole thing. Sorry.)

In other words, it is expensive. There is a part of me that wants to say so what, but hey, I work in a University, and reality means that this must be a consideration. But how to make PBL more efficient in terms of time and money is – to me – a more worthwhile and pressing challenge than explaining to students why x marks out of y (“when that student got z. And his wasn’t even all that good an assignment!”) actually isn’t that bad.

Second, it is very much dependent on the team working on the program. If there is a change in personnel (that is, the faculty members who are running the show), and sooner or later that is inevitable, the PBL system can break down overnight. It is comparatively easy to set up processes for the efficient conduct of examinations by making personnel irrelevant – but all but impossible to do for PBL. Well, impossible is a strong word, but it’s close enough. How to increase the supply of profs who are willing to work in such a system is a major, major challenge.

Third, and this takes me into what I think are very deep waters: culture. Part of the reason the Sharmaji ka beta meme is funny is because it is true. In certain cases that I personally know of, it is devastatingly, distressingly true. We judge our successes, our children’s successes by asking if our performances were better than everybody else’s. And the more I work in this industry, the more convinced I get that until our culture changes, very little else will.


I, of course, have not the faintest idea about how to change culture. Except, perhaps, through running PBL experiments – which is what I try to do.

And until it (culture) changes, I’ll have to do that part of my job that I detest above all: talking to students about how many marks they scored and why it isn’t all that big a deal.