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,this about measuring efficiency in education and this from yesterday about large classes and small groups.
The latter part of yesterday’s post spoke about the importance of small groups, and how to go about forming them. I mentioned how the process isn’t clear at all, and about how you might have to iterate until you get the right groups for most people concerned.
But a supplementary question is, well, all right, we have the groups. Now what. As in, what do these groups do?
The beauty of a group lies in the fact that a well-knit, cohesive group that shares certain traits but also has diverse skill sets is able to accomplish so much more than an individual ever can.
So asking the group to just help each other learn achieves – nothing. Not only will it be the case that the group will achieve the goal of learning better fairly quickly, but worse, it will stop being challenging.
But, on the other hand, if you ask the group to apply what they’ve learned – ah, that’s where the magic has a pretty good chance at beginning.
Or, as Seth Godin says: ship, dammit. Not, to be clear, in those exact words, but the point he’s making is that learning all you’ve learnt isn’t worth a damn thing until you’ve put it out there in the real world.
Put what out in the real world? Anything! A blog, a podcast, a vlog, a write-up, a website, a dashboard – anything at all. But unless you use what you’ve learnt to create something, and unless that ‘something’ is up for people to see, like, love, hate and criticize… it doesn’t count.
For example (and this is the point of today’s post), go visit this page. It is a page that hosts a podcast called “The Undismal Paradox”. This is a podcast started by nine FYBSc students at the Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics (GIPE), which is where I teach.
Mondays is a podcast about the rise of China (and related issues), Wednesdays is about the electricity sector in India (ditto) and Fridays are about understanding how consumption habits have changed because of the pandemic (ditto^2).
This podcast was started by the students themselves, with the gentle encouragement of a colleague of mine – Saylee Jog – from the Institute. I was roped in to help in any way I could, but honestly, both I and my colleague have ended up not doing all that much.
We put a basic structure in place, created a basic workflow, and put in place simple rules to follow about minimizing errors. After that, we just stepped back, and watched these nine students learn more about economics than a class could ever have taught them.
The learning happened, make no mistake. The colleague I mentioned has taught them a course in Principles of Economics and Microeconomics-I. But learning while sitting in a class is different from learning in order to teach other folks. Plus, the pressure of shipping your work to a fixed cadence, and that too, shipping something out to the world at large, is a much better incentive to learn than the threat of an examination at the end of the semester.
The podcast is about to take a hiatus in a bit, because they have exams (oh, the irony), but it will be back in one form or the other in late August/ early September.
My personal hope is that when it will be back, I and my colleague will have to do even lesser than we did this time around. Maybe these nine students can recruit others, and the podcast will end up taking on a life of its own.
But that, to me, is a concrete answer to the question, what exactly do small groups do in an online course? They apply what they’ve learnt, and make their learning available to the world at large.
Without having shipped a product on the basis of what you’ve learnt, an education simply isn’t complete.
There are problems with this, to be sure:
- It by definition doesn’t scale well, because the job of the teacher/college is no longer to just teach, but also to mentor each group
- It is also to guide this group through a variety of stages: the formation, the inevitable adjustment pangs, the pressure of shipping, the disagreements that will crop up. Again, this isn’t a scalable thing, and so costs will rise.
- Getting the number of students in each group, and the number of groups in each class right will always be a challenge.
- Some groups will not work out, especially online. Devising fallback measures and alternatives is important.
- Setting up these groups, and setting up the systems associated with these groups is hard work, but hopefully, it will be a one time thing.
- Tackling the inertia of the education system, and convincing it of the merits of ship-the-work is hard!
But, all that said and done, it still is worth it. Because what you learn by doing simply can’t be replaced by what you learn by memorizing.
Small groups, and shipping your work is the only way online education will work.