The Power Of I 2020

We need multi-disciplinary approach to create leaders

The National Education Policy 2020 is a step in the right direction, but we still have a lot to unlearn and re-learn 

When Steve Jobs was working on the first Macintosh computer, the lessons he had taken in calligraphy at Reed College changed the course of computer design. At the Stanford Commencement address, 2005, he said that without those lessons “personal computers may not have the wonderful typography that they do”. According to him, “Windows just copied Mac”. 

The point he was trying to make was that dropping out of the course he had enrolled for and dropping in for courses that simply interested him made all the difference in his life. Learning must be led by curiosity and, therefore, must be multidisciplinary. For the 21st century, learning must pursue depth and breadth. That particularly applies to higher education.

In India, if you throw a stone, it is sure to bounce off an engineer. However, this popular stream of study is very narrowly defined. For example, mechanical engineering students study mechanics and science, and nothing about finance or marketing. But only a fraction of these students end up working as engineers. Most go on to become general managers and then they have to learn on the job. 

To right this mismatch, higher education should sort of be T-shaped — that is, a student should gain in-depth understanding about a particular subject (like the stem of the alphabet) because that gives her rigour, and also a breadth of knowledge (like the bar of the alphabet). Such an education will help her think critically, connect the dots between different disciplines and communicate effectively. It develops curiosity, which deepens and broadens learning over time, and helps build social and emotional skills, which no machine can replicate in our lifetime. 

In American universities, this way of learning is the practice. In Harvard, which offers about 36 courses, a student can do 12 courses in her major and the rest in others, such as writing, history, philosophy, economics, science and computational thinking. If the student is pursuing a more technical major, she can do 14 courses in the major and the rest in others. I never studied philosophy in school but the course I did as an undergrad in Yale University had helped me think a little more rigorously than before. I got interested in Latin America because I took lessons in Spanish and Portuguese. In India, we follow a more British model of study, in which a student is put in a straightjacket. For example, if she studies math and science, she naturally progresses to engineering. It makes a person narrow minded and limited in her imagination. The good news is that we have taken a step in the right direction with our latest National Education Policy (NEP), which is modeled after the idea of multi-disciplinary and holistic learning.

Another thing we can do without is the stage that teachers lecture from. In such a classroom, the student merely takes notes. We need to replace this with the Socratic method, in which a student comes to class after four to five hours of reading and then the classroom is where she discusses what she has read. In the second method, a student is free to question, discovers her voice, learns to build an argument and listen to others. It is the pedagogical method, for which even the method of grading students should change. In it, a student is judged by classroom participation, and papers and assignments submitted throughout the semester, and not by an exam taken at the end of every year.

Just as we need to tackle the hierarchy in classrooms, we need to tackle the artificial one we have assigned for subjects. For example, why is an engineering course a four-year one while an economics course is for three years? As a student, I had considered both and, frankly, economics is just as hard as engineering. It is just as mathematical. You cannot do economics without understanding statistics and calculus, besides the other basics and algebra. Therefore, this assumption that one subject needs more years of study than another must go. Instead, the duration of a course should be determined how rigorously you want to understand a subject. That is, if you want to do more research as an undergrad, then take four years. If you want to a double major, then take four years. But, if you want to do a major-minor, then you should have the option of exiting after three. If you want to do a vocational course, maybe do one to two years of study. If I want to become an IT hardware maintenance person, why do I need to go for a four-year degree?

Educational institutions can cater to different levels of study. The Carnegie Foundation for Advancement of Teaching came up with this wonderful classification 15 years ago. Under that, there are three types of institutions for higher education — first is the research university such as Harvard, Stanford or Princeton, from where future leaders and managers come; the second is the more technical university, which produces the fat belly of the workforce; and the third is the bottom of the pyramid, for more vocational courses. For example, a Harvard or an IIT should not spend its resources on one and two-year courses for vocational training, but would spend on three or four-year courses. In fact, our IITs should be focusing on getting more research papers published. For the one to two-year courses, there should be smaller institutes, like the community colleges in the US. Some of these can be handled here by the average engineering colleges that are lower down the food chain. The institutions handling the three or four-year courses can adopt a multi-disciplinary approach because then a student has more time. The ones handling the one or two-year courses should focus on developing the person such as work on their self awareness, igniting a life-long love for learning or having the right attitude at a workplace. Such a model will put our resources to optimum use.

The new NEP’s credit system allows bridges to be formed between institutions. For example, an IIT can create a course that can earn a student higher credits, and a student from any of the Tier-II and Tier-III colleges can take this rather than what is being offered on campus. The trick would be getting the mechanism in place. Perhaps the teachers at the Tier-II and Tier-III colleges could be trained by the IIT or the IIT could have a cadre that would work with these students. It would be, what I call, an asynchronous-plus-plus course. If the credit-transfer becomes frictionless, I think it would be a fantastic achievement of NEP.

Another way to increase supply of high-quality education is to set the best affiliate colleges, such as Lady Shri Ram or St Stephen’s, free. Untether them from their universities. But the quid pro quo would be that these colleges would have to increase their capacity. They could blend their syllabus with digital study, with students of these blended courses coming to the campus three weeks in summer when regular classes are not conducted. By digital study, I do not mean simply uploading videos but setting up an alternative teaching and assessment models, and allowing for peer discussions and social learning. Many such innovations could be thrashed out. My vision is that there would be 2,500 universities — 1,000 that are already existing, 1,000 that are colleges converted to universities and 500 that are completely new. 

By leveraging digital technology, when top colleges-turned-universities expand their capacity, it will automatically thin the crowd at poorly run colleges. In India, we have tens of thousands of colleges that offer subpar courses and thus do not do any service to the students or the industry. To take out the bad apples, we simply need to pump the system with more good ones, and what better way than use the near-limitless power of technology?

While we work on increasing supply, we should also facilitate informed demand. That is, parents or the students must be able to understand clearly how good a course or college is. For this, the accreditation process should be made better; right now, our accreditation bodies such as the National Board of Accreditation and National Assessment and Accreditation Council are grossly understaffed, according to reports. Also, information about the college’s performance, such as its placement data, should be made freely available. What if colleges were asked to share on a public platform the companies that hired from their campus that year and offering what salaries? If naming the companies is uncomfortable, what about sharing the sectors that did the hiring? What if institutions made the number and details of research papers published available?

Once we have sandpapered the supply-demand equation, we should allow the free market to take over. Colleges that have a good record should be free to charge whatever fee they think is necessary, whether it is Rs.50,000 or Rs.1 million. Just as no one gets to dictate the price at which a cardiac surgery must be done, no one must be allowed to place a cap on college fees. Of course, this should be done through an open and transparent process. No college should get to arbitrarily increase the fee in the middle of a course. For example, they cannot charge a fee one year and then suddenly hike it for the next year. Instead, before a course begins, they should make public the fee structure for the entire course.

As a country, we are aiming to increase the gross enrollment ratio (GER) from 26% to 50%, but we know the standard of education is terrible. Once you go beyond the Tier-I institutions, which is a thin layer, quality plummets. To make the situation better, we need to embrace innovation even while optimizing the use of resources that we have at our disposal. Most of all, our education system should inspire a love of learning.

The author is founder and chairman, Central Square Foundation and a private investor. He can be reached on Twitter at @AshishDhawanCSF