Faculty Internships. But Why Not?

What stops the world from inviting teachers and professors to work for a while in industry?

We need to make education more relevant to the demands of the workplace – most people would be in complete agreement with this. The question is how to go about doing this. Sure, one could rejig the syllabi, and get feedback from alumni and industry – and this has been happening for years in many colleges and universities.

But how many industry professionals have spent a semester seeing what is taught to students? How many professors have spent a couple of months observing what work happens within a corporate set-up? Would the world be better off if more of this happened?

And if your answer to that question is yes (and this is very much true in my case), then why are we not trying to make more of such “internships” happen?


  • When a firm visits a campus for placements, also have the firm explore the option of asking professors if they would like to tag along for the duration of the internship
  • No money need change hands – the college will pay the professor their monthly salary (and if need be, an additional stipend to cover living expenses)
  • Students get a mentor on site, which means lesser work for the employees of that firm
  • The professor gets a peek into what is going on in the corporate world:
    • Which are the tools in use, versus the ones being taught in college?
    • What is the work pressure like, and are students being adequately prepared?
    • How important are the changes in the style of writing and speaking?
    • Is what is being taught in college relevant?
    • Are corporates missing out on tricks that the professor can help them out with?
  • And the firm gets an insight into how the professor has been teaching. Even better, while at this faculty internship, the professor can attend training sessions that have been organized in the workplace, meet with departmental heads across the firm, and perhaps even meet some of the clients.
  • If the professor can actually get involved in a project, nothing like it. Sure, you’ll need to sign NDA’s and all of that, and sure this might not be possible in all organizations for all projects – but surely some projects in some organizations should be possible?
  • And if a firm is willing to make the investment, why not have industry professionals spend a month in a university? Maybe conduct a course, or a part of a course – but really more like a scholar in residence. The ability to interact in a more relaxed environment with students, to guide them, to mentor them, maybe collaborate with them – surely there is merit in the idea?
  • I do not know if there are colleges/universities in India that already do this. If you know of any, please do let me know.
  • But especially if you don’t, please do one of these two things:
    • Help me understand the potential downsides to such a scheme
    • If you think there to be no potential downsides, help me try and get this off the ground? Bridging the gap between academic ideas and real world problems1 is a great problem to try and solve, and I think this idea has some serious merit.
  1. if you know, you know[]

Macroeconomics: An Introduction, by Alex Thomas (Pt. 1)

About five years ago, I went on a rant on my other blog:

I have developed, over the last seven years or so, a visceral hatred for textbooks. Its not that textbooks are all that bad – they’re limited, they’re expensive and they’re straitjacketed in terms of content and structure, but all of this together isn’t why I hate textbooks.
Its because we have students who demand a textbook in every single course. Over time, we have reached a mentality that says that a course must have a recommended textbook. Instructor must assign chapters from said textbook. Students must read chapters and solve end-of-chapter problems. Instructor will design paper on basis of said textbooks, students will write exam having prepared accordingly, and all is right with the world.

https://thepuneri.wordpress.com/2016/03/28/textbooks-have-become-mostly-pointless/

I’m not going to excerpt the entire rant, but on reflection, it is certainly true that I was on a roll:

And it gets even worse with the “end of chapter problems”. The expectation that the examination will have the same “type” of problems as does the textbook might be convenient in the short run, but it doesn’t teach you how to adapt to problems as you might encounter them in real life. Worse, and this is a point I’m going to write about at length in my next post, this approach simply helps you solve problems, not identify them. And in my opinion, identifying problems is a far more important skill today than having the ability to solve them – but more about that in a later post.
In short, then: textbooks are static, limited and structured ways to learn about a subject, and it is entirely possible, and desirable, that we enrich students knowledge about subjects by giving them much, much more to learn than just a textbook.

https://thepuneri.wordpress.com/2016/03/28/textbooks-have-become-mostly-pointless/

Five years down the line, my opinion on textbooks haven’t changed all that much. I still cringe when students in courses I am teaching ask me for “a” recommended textbook to “prepare for the examination”.

They’re being quite rational from their perspective: they want to maximize marks while minimizing effort. Their microeconomics professor would be proud. My problem lies beyond their request, and beyond their rationality in having framed their request the way they have. They are simply responding to the environment we’ve placed them in, and it is the environment that I have (serious) issues with.

And the textbook authors are responding to their incentives, in turn. If we accept the educational system as it currently exists, then of course we should have chapters, and end-of-chapter problems, and question banks, and answer keys supplied to accredited professors. It has become an industrial complex, for all the participants respond, rationally, to the incentives the educational system has set up for them.

And so it goes, year after dreary year.


And then you see something like this in the introduction of a text:

I strongly recommend and encourage the use of various texts (books, journal articles, government reports, fiction, newspaper articles and textbooks) in the teaching of any course in economics. This stems from my rather modest experience of just over 15 years as a student and teacher of economics. While the use of varied texts is challenging for both the teacher and the student, I firmly believe that the long-term benefits far outweigh the short-term costs, and that it truly contributes to good learning as it enables the students to become better arbiters of knowledge. After all, we live in the age of information abundance, and perhaps the most valuable skills are the ability to identify credible sources of information and the ability to evaluate, with sufficient confidence, contending arguments, perspectives and standpoints.

Preface, Macroeconomics: An Introduction, by Alex M. Thomas

In other words, this is a textbook that is not looking to minimize the efforts of either the teacher or the student. The very opposite, in fact. As Alex says, he is looking to maximize the long term benefits (one might call this “learning”). Not the short term benefits, note (one might call this “marks”).

And it gets better!

Finally, this book adopts a problem-setting approach rather than a problem-solving one, as is the case with most economics textbooks. To put it more clearly, this text helps you to identify, conceptualise and discipline a macroeconomic problem. Therefore, this book does not contain exercises in problem solving, but it contains discussions and questions that make you think about the nature of assumptions, the logic of the theory, the limits of the theory, the interface between theory and policy, a little bit about the gaps between theory and data, and, occasionally, the nature of past and present economic thought. Therefore, this book aims to provide you with an introductory) immersive experience in macroeconomics.

Preface, Macroeconomics: An Introduction, by Alex M. Thomas

Why do I say it gets better? From another of my blogposts, also written five years ago:

In examinations, teachers frame the questions, and students answer them.
So obvious, so matter of course, so banal is this statement that it takes a little time to realize how horrible a system this is. All we’re doing, when we ask students to do this, is learn the subject well enough to be able to answer whatever question we throw at them. And therefore, when they get out there in, y’know, the real world, they ask for a problem, so that they may solve it.
But in the real world, more often than not, you’re paid to frame the question.

https://thepuneri.wordpress.com/2016/03/30/the-growing-irrelevance-of-examinations/

I’m happy to spell this out as many times as it takes: you attend a course in order to learn. A way to check how much you’ve learnt is to write an examination.

Somewhere along the way, this has mutated into: you attend a course in order to score marks in an examination so that you get a job/get into a better college.

Jo kuch ratta maara tha, sab saala pel ke aa gaya, aur doosre din bhool gaya” is funny because it’s true.

So, in a standardized, run of the mill course, this textbook is a nightmare. No end of chapter problems, no question bank, and (the horror!) literary references and (shudder!) poems instead.


Which, of course, is exactly why I can’t wait to read it. I’m done with the first chapter, and will put up my thoughts about it soon. There’s a lot that I love about it, some things that I have questions about, and some areas of disagreements.

But if I’ve understood the spirit in which the book has been written, I think Alex M. Thomas will count my experience thus far as a success.

About Innovative Question Papers

The typical exams, at least in Indian universities, tend to be really dull, drab affairs. I cannot speak about how good (or bad) they are in other countries, but partly by design, partly due to inertia, they follow the same old template in most Indian universities.

You’ll get your fair share of “State briefly”, a sprinkling of “Explain why”, and the very occasional “In your opinion”. But for the most part, it needs rote memorization to respond and “do well” in these examinations. Take home essays, reflective essays and anything that is even remotely innovative are not welcome.

But in a world where such a thing was possible, what might question papers look like?

Tyler [Cowen] once walked into class the day of the final exam and he said. “Here is the exam. Write your own questions. Write your own answers. Harder questions and better answers get more points.” Then he walked out. The funniest thing was when a student came in late and I had to explain to him what the exam was and he didn’t believe me!

https://chrisblattman.com/2012/08/15/best-exam-question-ever/
https://chrisblattman.com/files/2013/01/1-Introduction.pdf

I can’t find it online right now, but I seem to remember that some of Prof. Blattman’s papers included the additional condition that you needed to submit the cheat sheet, and it too would be evaluated for what you chose to put in it (and implicitly, what you chose to leave out).


I had once asked a very small development economics class to teach some of their peers – those who hadn’t taken Dev Eco – the Solow Model. The non-math version, of course. And then those who had been taught had to take a small multiple choice question test. The marks they scored would become the grades for the “teachers”. Stuff like this will never work for a larger class, will never work for a semester end exam, but it still was a lot of fun to do!

The point is that it is all too possible to have examinations be fun, and be about learning. But so long as examinations are about signaling how much you’ve scored, rather than allowing you to reflect on how much you’ve learnt, they’ll have to be standardized, which means they’ll have to continue to be boring.

If you’d like them to be fun, you need to try and live in a world where examinations (and therefore colleges) aren’t about signaling.


But that is a tall order, no?

Proposed Examination Reforms

I’m not holding my breath, but this article has raised my hopes just a little bit:

Colleges and universities may soon adopt continuous comprehensive evaluation, a method that shifts focus from only annual or semester-level summative assessment system.
The suggestion has come from higher education regulator University Grants Commission (UGC) amid the increasing dependence on technology for education delivery in the current pandemic environment. Assessment at several intervals during and after achievement of learning outcomes specified for every module is needed as blended learning is gaining ground, UGC said in a draft proposal shared with higher educational institutions.

https://www.livemint.com/education/news/ugc-bats-for-reforms-in-exams-with-a-focus-on-continuous-evaluation-11621798197326.html

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: everybody associated with academia in India knows how broken, pointless and screwed-up examinations are, but nobody wants to do anything about it. And the most often quoted reason is R Madhavan in 3 Idiots going “Abba nahi manenge”.

Abba being the UGC.

But now, hallelujah, the UGC is talking about open book examinations and on-demand examinations. This was a “tears in my eyes moment“:

Open book exams is the “right way to move away from the conventional approach of exam where remembering and reproducing is prime”, UGC said. “In real functioning beyond formal education, life is all about open book examination. Hence, in higher education, we must prepare students for work life by making them acquainted with open book examinations. It will also facilitate better understanding and application of knowledge,” UGC said, citing an internal committee report.

https://www.livemint.com/education/news/ugc-bats-for-reforms-in-exams-with-a-focus-on-continuous-evaluation-11621798197326.html

There is still a world of pain that awaits those of us who are in academia. The inertia associated with the old system will take years1 to overcome, and it will be a long, unpleasant journey.

More, we will run up against capacity constraints, because shifting away from the “State in brief” questions to having students think critically will require the changing of multiple mindsets, along with intensive training of faculty in all universities.

And even if some universities were to adopt this whole-heartedly, one unintended consequence will be the exacerbation of already ridiculously high inequality. The inequality I speak of is in terms of access to quality higher education, of course. Better colleges and universities will get better still, and while that is desirable for the students who are lucky enough to get into them, it doesn’t bode well for equitable educational outcomes across the country.

But even so, the very fact that this is even being discussed in the first place is a welcome move.


The one thing that gives me hope is something that is discussed almost as an after-thought in the article: e-portfolios.

An electronic porfolio (e-portfolio) is a purposeful collection of sample student work, demonstrations, and artifacts that showcase student’s learning progression, achievement, and evidence of what students can do. The collection can include essays and papers (text-based), blog, multimedia (recordings of demonstrations, interviews, presentations, etc.), graphic.

https://teaching.berkeley.edu/resources/assessment-and-evaluation/design-assessment/e-portfolio

This blog, for example, is my “e-portfolio”. I pay around ten to twelve thousand rupees every year to maintain this blog, but one can of course start a blog for free. Or a YouTube channel, or an Instagram page or absolutely anything else you like.

In an ideal world, e-portfolios (and could we come up with e better name for it, please?) are solely the responsibility of the student. They can be in any language. They can be nurtured over time, for years together. Cultivating your e-portfolio needn’t cost money, in other words, and popularizing your e-portfolio is a life-skill worth developing in its own right.

Most importantly, developing one requires just a smartphone. Yes, this is still a challenge for large parts of our country, but I would argue that a learning system that revolves around the development of an e-portfolio is more efficient, cheaper and easier than even a perfectly reformed examination system.


Bottomline: marks, examinations and degrees are overrated. Doing the work, and sharing your work in the public domain is underrated.


Here’s a blogpost from last year about conducting examinations during these crazy times, and here are all the posts I have written about higher education on EFE.

  1. And if I am to be cynical, which is almost always the case, I’ll say decades[]

Certificates and College Degrees

A past student of mine (and now a good friend) Alankar Pednekar shared a video with me recently.

Alankar mentions how at around the 10:15 mark in this video, an article is cited which speaks about how a certificate like this could potentially disrupt the college degree.

He had some questions about the video, and about the article. I answer them below (please note that I have lightly edited his questions for clarity. Any confusions that remain are down to me!):

  1. Logically speaking this sounds true, but is it really possible? Do you see this happening sometime soon, maybe?


    It’s already happening, of course. I wrote about it earlier, and you might also want to take a look at Lambda School, or STOA School. In different ways, the idea of college is being challenged. And if you ask me, it is high time it was challenged! Higher education has remained far too hide-bound for far too long, and technology, resistance to outdated ways of teaching and weirdly, the pandemic have made all of us aware of what is possible, if only we kept our minds open.

  2. Will there be any scenario where – there won’t be any “Middle Men”- The colleges – in the education sector (As Professor Tyler and Professor Alex debate about in one of their “Duels”), and companies would prefer to educate (or should I say ‘Train’?) to people who are willing to learn and hire them directly?


    Part of the answer lies in we not being clear about what we’re buying when we pay money to a college for higher education.
    For some folks (in many places, at least in India, these folks are the majority), higher education is about a job, and that is it. Of course, it is impolite to admit this in public, but this is the stark truth: higher education is about a job. Contrast the enthusiasm with which placement talks are planned and attended with regular classes in your own college if you are a student, for example.
    For other people, higher education is about higher education – that is, about learning for its own sake. Until colleges, students, parents and firms acknowledge that this difference exists, we will have the confused system that we live in right now. This really deserves book length treatment, but I’ll stop here for now.
    ..
    ..
  3. Assuming this happens in reality, will that be an end of colleges and universities, or they will get replaced by training centers (which we already see in today’s markets). Will there be any existence for pure joy of learning and immense pleasure of understanding things around us (even though they might not directly help us in anything)?
    ..
    ..
    Training centres exist today to train people to write exams to get into colleges. And colleges are viewed as a way to get jobs. So why not have training centres to get people jobs?
    That then leaves us free to have colleges be about “the pure joy of learning”, as both David Perell and Alankar point out. The trick, if you ask me, lies in unbundling college. You should be able to purchase courses rather than degrees.
    The trouble is that a blogpost is easy to write, and to change a system that we are all so used to is all but impossible to do.
    But I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. College as it exists today solves efficiently neither the problem of training people well for jobs in the real world, nor the problem of delivering quality education for its own sake. And the growing discontent is palpable.
    ..
    ..
    Palpable to me, at any rate.

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.

Doing a PhD

Abhishek had a pretty interesting question on last Friday’s post:

“Is doing a PhD still worth it?”

I don’t know (and deliberately haven’t asked him) what he means by “still”. I am going to interpret that to mean “in recent years”. And my answer is the same as any other economists’ answer: it depends.

What does it depend on, you ask?

  1. Don’t do a PhD to learn a topic, or master one. That happens by working on a topic in the real world for many years. It doesn’t happen by studying a topic for many years. Some of the brightest people I know do not have a PhD, and unfortunately, that statement also makes sense the other way round.
  2. Do a PhD to get a job. We have this idea, both here in India but also the world over, that only a PhD has the moral authority to teach on a full time basis. I call bullshit on that idea, but it is not an idea that is going to go away anytime soon. So if you want to be employed by a university on a full time basis as a teacher, do the PhD.
    1. If you want to teach in an Indian university, you can get away by getting a PhD from an Indian University.
    2. If you want to teach abroad, I’d strongly recommend getting a PhD from abroad.
  3. A PhD is a useful signaling device. If you want a leg-up in your career after a decade of working, or if you want more “cred” in your workplace, at seminars and conferences and what not, then get a PhD. A “Dr.” in front of your name is a wonderful signaling device.
  4. It’s got fairly decent “Sharmaji ka beta” powers too. Not, of course, as good as the IIT-IIM badge, but still, it will impress family. The same point at 3., really, but in a non-academic/non-corporate context.
  5. Bottomline: it buys you optionality, and if you think your career is going to be remotely associated with academia in one way or the other, it’s probably, still, a good idea. But it is expensive in terms of time, and has recently become more expensive in terms of dancing through hoops.

But if you ask me, I completely agree with the idea that we should just ban PhD degrees.

Along those lines, I have a modest proposal. Eliminate the economics Ph.D, period. Offer everyone three years of graduate economics education, and no more (with a clock reset allowed for pregnancy). Did Smith, Keynes, or Hayek have an economics Ph.D? This way, no one will assume you know what you are talking about, and the underlying message is that economics learning is lifelong.

https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2019/09/how-to-reform-the-economics-ph-d.html

It’s never going to happen, because we all love signaling far too much, but hey, one can dream.

And you may also want to read this book, Abhishek.

And on an entirely related note, please, anybody reading this: call me Ashish.

A Pro-Classroom Argument

I am, if anything, against how learning is delivered today. Much lesser classroom teaching, much more discussions, much more of arguments, much more of thinking and writing (this ought to turn into a separate post!) is how I would prefer learning takes place.

But, if I had to force myself to think about what about traditional classroom teaching is good…

  1. Traditional classroom teaching, where the teacher talks and the students listen for the most part, allows for a much more systematic completion of the syllabus, and reduces the burden on the teacher. Teaching ought to become easier, and therefore (assumption alert) better.
  2. The teacher is able to focus on one particular aspect for the duration of that one class, and therefore is able to prepare accordingly. Random questions and answers, taking the class off on a tangent is all well and good, but you suffer, inevitably, a loss in depth when you go wide.
  3. A one-to-many mode of teaching ensures that all students have the same notes, and are in agreement about what was taught. Group based discussions (breakout rooms is what we call these things these days) for example, leaves students unaware of what was said in the other groups. Debriefing helps, but never completely.
  4. Do we underrate “sit still and listen” these days? Yes, long classes and having to focus on the voice that drones on is easy to make fun of, but have we collectively lost the art of sitting still and listening? Might we be inculcating the value of sustained concentration by having traditional classes, and might this in fact be a good thing?
  5. If a class is going to be about listening on a one-to-many basis, does this reduce the cognitive load on the student? Freed from all other requirements, classroom teaching might free up the student to learn more, by reducing the amount of effort demanded from her?
  6. Two points about discussions and debates. Doesn’t limiting the scope for discussions and debates in class make it better, by having only genuine doubts and disagreements being raised? Forcing students to take part in a discussion or a debate, when most of them seem to not want to, can end up making them uncomfortable. It can also be a time-consuming affair, and all for points that perhaps were not worth it. On the other hand, leaving only ten minutes or so for discussion at the end will “bubble up” only the most willing, most eager and most well-thought out responses. That is a good thing, right?
  7. Is a classroom really the best place to debate and discuss? Is not the opportunity cost of having to listen to your peers, rather than the person with the most amount of knowledge about the subject (the professor), very high? Students can (and should!) debate issues raised in class – but outside.

I find myself unable to come up with more, but I’m sure there are other arguments to be made for classroom-based, one-teacher-talks-many-students-listen-based model. What am I missing?

Back to College

I am very interested in the future of higher education.

I have learnt much more outside of the classroom than inside, and this was truest when I was a student. I want to stick around in higher education because I want to try and change this for everybody in college today.

Change it through two ways:

  1. Make classes more interesting than they were back in my day. Also make them more interesting than the typical run-of-the-mill classroom experience today. (This is a hard problem, it requires hard work and it does not scale. But learning how to teach better is an invaluable experience.)
  2. Help change college into something more than drab old sit-in-class for six hours a day, six days a week. What a horrible way to learn!

This current semester, I want to try and get as many projects off the ground as possible. This has meant getting some BSc students started on projects of their own, it has meant involving some of them in work I am currently engaged in, and it has meant trying to get some workshops going.

Some of these things will stick, and grow into something much larger than just my involvement. Others will fail. That’s ok. This semester is about trying out new things.

One of these things is a podcast.

I had tried this out in 2019 (link here), completely as a solo effort, but I got only five episodes in. 2020 is a mess I’d rather forget. And now, in 2021, we’re back with another season of Back to College.


What is Back to College?

The idea is simple: speak to people about how they would approach college differently, if they got the chance to do it all over again.

  • What would you do more of, what would you do less of?
  • What technologies that are available today would have been a blessing, and how could they also have been a curse?
  • Is bunking a science or an art? How should you choose which classes to bunk, and which to not – and why?
  • How would you have built out networks better?
  • Would you give exams the same importance with the benefit of hindsight? Why or why not?
  • Which books helped you?
  • How overrated are textbooks, or are they not? Why?
  • What in your current job are you able to do well because of what you learnt in college?
  • What in your current job makes you wish you had been taught differently in college?
  • … and the list goes on and on and on.

We’re beginning with Gokhale alumni, and we’ll add more folks in as we go along. But the idea is to build a repository of interviews for folks to listen to, any time, to get an idea about the careers they want to get into.

And this time around, it ain’t a solo effort. I have the energy of youth on my side! Praneet, Rahul, Vaishnavi, Simran, Shashank, Jay, Anshi, Nivida and Amogh are helping me out on this project, and the hope is that eventually, this will become a completely student run thing.

New episodes will be up every Friday, and we have two out already. Neha Sinha spoke with me about public policy, and Binoy Mascarenhas and I chatted about urbanization. In each case, of course, I touched upon some of the questions above. This Friday will be a conversation I had with Rohith Jyothish on understanding the ‘P’ in GIPE.

Please do give it a listen, and to all the GIPE alumni reading this, please – pretty please! – don’t hesitate to reach out if you think you would like to be on the podcast. We’ll set up a time at your convenience. (Non-GIPE folks, same offer applies to you in about a couple of months. I’ll do another post then).

Thank you, as always, for reading – and now for listening too!

On Conducting Examinations, Especially in 2020

This is less a blogpost, and more of a rant. Consider yourself warned! 🙂

This past Saturday, I cam across a most excellent Twitter thread:

The author, Carl Bergstrom (Wikipedia article here, University profile here) makes a detailed, reasoned argument against online proctoring of examinations, especially in 2020. In my blogpost, I’m going to riff on this Twitter thread, and some related points, and build an argument against the way we conduct examinations in Indian Universities.

To begin, watch this Sugata Mitra TED talk about education:

Just the first five minutes or so is enough for the argument I will be making today, but you really should watch the full thing. There was, as it turns out, a case for rote memorization at one point of time. But today, as Mitra says in the video, it is the computers that are the clerks. They do (and to be fair to them, they do it much better than we ever could) the job of remembering everything, so that we don’t have to.

To every single professor reading this blogpost: when was the last time you yourself spent a day working without looking up something on the internet? When was the last time you researched something, wrote something, without using your computer, or the internet on some device?

Then why do we insist on examining our students for their ability to do so, when we ourselves don’t do it? And for those of our students who are not going to get into academia, they wouldn’t last in their organizations for even an hour if they tried to work without using computers and the internet.

They would (should!) be fired for being Luddites!

And yet, to land up in that firm, they must spend the last week of their lives as a college student cooped up for three hours in a classroom without a computer, without the internet, and use pen and paper to write out the important features of xyz in abc lines.

I can’t possibly be the only one that spots the incongruity, surely?

Here, from the Twitter thread I spoke about earlier, is a picture of Bloom’s taxonomy:

Image

Read the Wikipedia article about Bloom’s taxonomy, or look carefully at the picture above. At best – and I think I am being charitable here – our question papers in higher education in India reach the evaluate stage, but certainly not create. And even that is a stretch.

Moreover, even if we somehow agree that we do indeed reach the evaluate stage, we are effectively asking students to evaluate based on their memory alone. Why?

One, won’t students write a better evaluation of whatever theory we are asking them to write about if we give them the ability to research while writing? Second – and I know this is repetitive, but still – are they ever going to write an evaluation without having access to to the internet?

In plain simple English: We train students for 25 years to get awesome at memorizing stuff, and then expect them to do well in a world which doesn’t value this skill at all.

(To be clear, some things you should remember, of course. Think of it as a spectrum – and I am not suggesting that we move to the end of the spectrum where no memorization is required. I am suggesting, however, that we are at the end of the spectrum where only memorization is required. Close enough, at any rate).

Coming specifically to this year, the year of online examinations, here’s a tweet that was quoted in Bergstrom’s thread:

There really isn’t much to say, is there? All universities the world over have sent out variations of this nightmare this year, and in some cases, repeatedly. It’s the whole null hypothesis argument all over again – we assume all students to be guilty until proven otherwise. That is, we assume everybody will cheat, and therefore force everybody to comply with ridiculously onerous rules – so as to prevent the few who might actually cheat.

And cheating, of course, being looking up stuff on the internet. The argument itself is pointless, as I have explained above, and we go to eye-popping lengths to enforce the logical outcome of this pointless argument.

Prof. Bergstrom makes the same points himself in the Twitter thread, of course:

This year, especially, is a good opportunity to turn what is otherwise a disaster of a situation into meaningful reform of the way we conduct examinations.

Students, parents – indeed society at large – will spot the incongruity of learning online, but being examined offline. If we, in higher education in India do not spot this incongruity and work towards changing it – well then, we will have failed.

And finally, the last tweet in the thread is something we would all do well to remember: