Innovision India: Innovation Needs in Indian Higher Education

The author is a noted media academic and columnist and is currently the Pro Vice Chancellor of Kolkata based Adamas University. He was earlier the Media Dean of Symbiosis and Amity Universities, Whistling Woods and Pearl Academy. This piece is based on his talk in the CII Higher Education Conclave in Kolkata on August 17 last on Innovision India.

There are around 900 universities of all hues in India and above 100,000 colleges as well while the proportion of the population in higher education in India is still less than 10% of 130 crores, in spite of India being the youngest large nation where in every 3 persons, 2 are below 35 years and half of the total population is below 25 years of age, in the educational age so to say. The Knowledge Commission some ten years ago advocated more than 1500 universities to reach out to the entire population.

And if we go into the details of education being delivered through these 900 universities and 100,000 colleges, we largely find that we are delivering a 20th century education to 21st century youth and preparing them for the unknown economy and society that is yet to come in. There is naturally an enormous dichotomy between what is needed and what we deliver which only contributes to rising tide of unemployable educated youths. There are glorious exceptions to this dismal scenario though.

What could be the innovations for education of tomorrow? Confederation of Indian Industries organized a conclave in Kolkata on this theme recently. There and here I present my eight top of the mind points for an innovative vision of higher education in India.

First, education must move from being teacher-centric to learner-centric and the entire concept of student has to change to a learner. Teacher is no more the sage on the stage but a guide on the side. No teacher in the internet era can know it all, of any subject, and there are options for students to know more than the teacher on any issue. So, the job of the 21st century teacher is to be a mentor, motivator, facilitator, and first stimulus to grow interest in any theme or subject among the learners. There has to be role-alteration consciously here as a guide and co-researcher and not the last word on any issue. Students, on their part, have to move ahead as students merely study in classrooms, for marks and degrees and are to be spoon-fed. They have to move to the next paradigm of learners for whom classroom is just one source of learning, sometimes not even the major one, others being internet, personal and peer experiences, labs and society at large. They research, learn, explore and internalize by practising for acquiring a productive life skill.

Second, a major educational innovation comes from the perspective of convergence. So we get a converging pedagogy which combines the experiential learning with traditional brick and mortar and the modern IT enabled click and portal one. Even evaluation of education cannot be based on earlier year-end long written exams. We are moving into a modular education, delivered semester-wise (in some cases even trimesters) with a blended evaluation incorporating simulated and live projects, continuous internal assessments of quiz and debates, field-work reports, case-studies, online tests and class presentations. A much well-rounded learner can evolve from a convergent evaluation. Even branding or communication of educational institutes is becoming convergent with all channels being used with a single brand promise: online channels of portal and social media, offline channels of newspapers, magazines and hoardings, on air channels of television, radio and cinema, on ground channels of events, malls, experiential marketing, and on mobile channel of apps and mobile-based notifications. The universities which are able to blend all of the above in a given geography for a given target audience are able to have better outcomes.

Third, flexibility in education is the innovative vision of our times. While BA BCom BSc all over India are three years long degrees, for Pandit Deendayal Petroleum University of Gandhinagar, these are of 4-years in keeping with Western practice. BITS Pilani has evolved an industry-centric BTech for working professionals where the education is delivered at the work-places along with their work. Many universities are creating integrated UG-PG course of five years duration. Nomenclatures are being questioned as in Journalism & Mass Communication as journalism is a component of communication, and communication can be niche, mass, group etc.

Fourth, inclusivity is the new innovation of the day. Instead of all girls, or all minorities, or all Hindus, or a linguistic group, the order of the day is gradually to opt for an inclusive all communities and genders campus-life which helps in making more well rounded citizens with a global mindset and higher tolerance. Scholarships, based on both merits and means, encouraging women and event creating safe environs for the LGBTQ communities on campuses are crucial inclusive factors.

Add to this, as a fifth point, national and global mentors and learners. The more varied will be the composition of mentoring and learning folks, more tolerant, mutually respectful and global will be the mindset of all involved. Hence, an innovation ahead should be compulsory visit by learners to other parts of India and, budget allowing, going abroad for education tour, a project, an internship, workshops or a semester. It is heartening to see SP Jain Management and Amity University coming out with two or three location degrees giving a global experience and outlook to learners. This breaks myths about ‘the others’ and creates desire to explore more in life and at work.

Sixth, the entire degree-centric higher education needs to give place to skills and values-centric education. What are we mentoring and learning for? To have a value-based approach to life, be responsible global citizens, and be productive for the economy and earn a decent livelihood. And none of these depends on a degree. It is just the legal power of the University, received through a decree of the government of the day, that degree looks big. For a measure of qualification, degrees are welcome. But the focus has to be on skills and values. Amazon, Google, Apple and Facebook are among some major global companies who have already declared that they do not need degrees, will give no premium to degrees, but only hire based on skills and attitudes. They do not find the same degrees of the same discipline across nations or even across provinces of the same nation of any comparable quality.

Seventh, the new era needs certain non-technical skills or orientation as well: business orientation, entrepreneurial skills and leadership skills. End use sensitivity of every education and skill-learning is significant. Learning is for a society in general, and a market segment in particular, for a job more narrowly, and for some clients or users of the learner’s skills finally. Sensitivity to these is a necessary part of higher education today.

Eighth, and finally, there is a new gamut of abilities for the times ahead which are necessary to be intertwined in our higher education courses. Crowd-sourcing of ideas, projects and funds is an important skills in times of shared gig economy increasingly dependent on collaboration and not competition, freelance talent and not bonded ones. Next is the understanding of block-chains of projects and businesses which is disrupting traditional business models. Ability to participate productively in a shared economy and create one’s own space itself is a major skill. Artificial Intelligence will take away all skills of mass production, repetition, low IQ tasks and wherever there is a precedence. That reduces human scope of work. Hence, skills to create, innovate, problem solve, crisis management, design thinking, critically think, teamwork and create prototypes or templates for AI are the skills that will ultimately remain with humans (though AI will impact upon some of these too with more progress of technology).

We are entering into an era of multi-skilled human resources, with one in-depth skill, higher emotional intelligence, and with ability to seamlessly move across economies, geographies and groups of people. But is our higher education geared to prepare our younger generation for such a scenario? Jury is open.

Educational Delivery: Changing Left, Right & Centre

Education technology and its delivery are going through a revolutionary change today. In the digital age, chalk and talk is history. On one hand, with depleting attention span of learners, new learning pedagogy is needed. And on the other, integrating digital tools into education, from school to University, is must. But which are these tools and how to integrate the same?

Brick & Mortar:

This has been the usual learning in the classroom taught by teachers who speak the last word on the subject, coupled with learning in the library from hard copy books, and evaluating through examinations written in examination halls. Brick and mortar still is the core of education delivery. We need teachers as role models and a human touch, for clarifications and for inspiration. A good teacher motivates a learner to be open to even tough subjects. Also brick and mortar gives us peers, brings in a sense of collaboration and teamwork, and gives our first circle of friends much of which remains till death.

Click & Portal:

The West first brought the concept of online learning. Entire courses came to be presented online through the blend of text, pdfs, audio (podcasts) and video, and finally blended where all of these are converged to make the learning experience diverse to the sense organs and pleasing to internalize. New range of e-learning tools and resources, e-tutors, self-learning through Khan Academy and Coursera videos and courses have now emerged. They are sometimes aid to mainstream learning, and at times these become the mainstream learning itself. However, such an approach, when taken to its logical conclusion and in its entirety, makes education mechanical, bereft of role models, inspiration, peer group and teamwork. Many critics have noted that such an approach leads to geeks and robotic minds. The good old campus life, peer-network, teacher as a guru etc do have their own place under the sun.

Experiential Learning:

Ancient Gurukul System in our civilization has eulogised learning by doing with a Guru in front as an inspiring role model and learners staying together in Gurukuls for collective learning. Even in the post industrial world, many with basic education went directly into the factory system, workshops and offices and picked up skills on the job, learning by doing. While this experiential learning makes a strong case of hands-on ready-to-use skills being imparted, the major limitation of this is while it answers to ‘How’ questions of skills, it does not delve deep into ‘Why’ questions of any issue. It renders itself limited to a repetitive process and learning by default, rather than by design. In true education, we need to learn how to do any work, along with the clear answers to why to do that, when to do (and not to do), what is the continuity or history of that skill/knowledge, etc. For these, we do need a formal and structured learning architecture as well.

Experiential Brick & Portal Learning:

As we proceed into a Knowledge Economy, and also a society which needs all the more reasons to interact and mutually empower one another, education is increasingly moving towards the right futuristic model in its delivery: Experiential Brick & Portal Learning (EBPL). Education to be diverse in scope, humane in approach, technical in skills, and internalized in its impact must combine the best elements of all the three noted above seamlessly and without mutual conflict.
We need to enumerate various educational pedagogy and approaches, and then move to learn in details, with cases and tasks to apply. This can be achieved by blending the class room/library brick and mortar education with internet/cyber-based click and portal learning and experiential learning by doing.

On Campus Practices:

Jaipuria management college in India has started using whatsapp as a tool to enhance attendance. It makes 2 minutes video with a touch of humour and creativity on the major theme of the next day in session and sends it a night or two before to enhance interest of the learners. Pearl Academy in India has done away with written exams and evaluates learners only through a major project applying all learning of a module, for each module.

Flip classroom methodology has been started by several management and engineering institutes where power-point presentation on the subject of discussion a day or two later is given along with online and offline reading resources. The class begins with a quiz to assess the level of information and understanding of the learners on the subject, then moves into clarifications and case-studies.
After discussing development and organizations in the classroom, reading cases and documented examples, a few management and communication institutes like SP Jain Management or Symbiosis Media schools have started sending learners to study development organizations and apply management principles and communication skills to contribute some value to them for a period of 4 to 10 weeks. Many universities have institutionalized a mixed evaluation process of integrating project work with online research and offline written examination to have a holistic approach to evaluating learning outcomes of their students. And this process is obviously a continuous evaluation. This is in sharp contrast to one-time year-end or twice a year written exams which determined grades and marks of learners for all their lives.

Finnish Innovation Labs in Education:

Education system of Finland is considered to be the finest in the world. In the Finnish Innovation Labs in education, specially at higher education level, there is no formal teaching, but a collective learning by doing where a theme is introduced, ground rules are set, the learners in groups explore it themselves through self-study, cases, survey or research on ground, and coming together and sharing results at every level, discarding those that do not stand strong.

The entire edifice of Finnish education system is founded on one core belief—learning by doing—that inherently values trust and responsibility. Further, the same belief—effective learning can happen when it is self-directed and self-regulated—got firmly imprinted in my mind. ‘Learning’ rather than ‘numerical outcome ‘should become the key component and occupy the center stage to keep education in line with the ‘Self-determination’ Theory—one that propounds that pupils perform better when they are motivated by intrinsic rather than extrinsic rewards. Hence, there are no marks, only grades; and rewards are more in the form of joy of discovery, bonding, and field-work. Recently, Kathmandu University School of Management (KUSOM) and King’s College of Nepal are taking steps towards implementing this approach with Finnish support in their educational pedagogy.

How do I connect with my teenage kid: The Adamas Way

Globally teaching has changed significantly over the last few decades. Teachers are no more the ones who has all the knowledge, they are more like enablers who partner in learning together.

With data or information or increasingly knowledge being more freely available given the digitization of the content, and consumption on the network – the asymmetry is now gone. So today it is not possible for a teacher to enter the class with all the cards. They should rather focus more on methodology, understanding, co-learning, co-creation, and finally as propounded by many including Sugata Mitra, teachers should be asking the right question.

All these are great developments. Progressive, productive. But this has an impact on an adjacent relationship. What happens at home?

It had been a while that the parents, especially in the affluent sections, are increasingly becoming friendly with the kids. The cane is out, the intrusive enquiries are out, the curiosity about what is going on the lad’s life is out. In fact many are taking it farther. They are giving independence to the children to shape their own life. Including even taking an hands off approach to academics.

So far so good. But then there is a conflict. While the parents have evolved, and the kids have become accustomed to a new way of living, the world outside has not changed as much.

Academics still remains the best insurance of the families for the settled future of the next generation. And the world outside remains uncertain as ever.

So in every parents mind is now a conflict – how do I know what is happening in the life of my kid, without being a snapper?

How is the academics going? How is the attendance? Who are friends? How are the soft skills? How do I know the interests? The passions?

This seems to reach a crescendo specially in the teenager years, when the child stops speaking less at home, and parents become old enough to feel helpless. And social media only adds to the worry. What is he/ she doing on the phone? Who are the connects? I am so worried, but I can’t ask to stop using it. It is so uncool and unreal.

I think this is a space where a partnership between the parent, the teacher will be help. The triangulation of the three will help all to be in the same page, as partners, in a non-threatening way. The passion of the students, the discipline of the educational institution, and love of the parents can do wonders in shaping a balanced future.

How can one do that? Well there are many ways, but I suppose there is still no better way than having an open, candid and transparent Parent Teacher meeting, with the students present.

At Adamas University we have taken this up with passion.

Every three months, by rotation, the parents of the students from three to four schools meet the entire faculty, Chancellor and Vice Chancellor in the University auditorium. The students are also welcome.

The seating is not face to face, rather the teachers mostly sit with the audience. The functional heads, VC and Chancellor takes the questions. Faculties are called in as an when a relevant question is there.

But it is not the meeting per se, but the spirit what matters. No questions are off bound. And there are no pre-set questions. I have seen parents standing up, introducing themselves in reference to their child, and then complaining about the food. Or students talking of how they are not getting enough practical exposure. Or food committee students mentioning they are not being made partners in the decision making.

Interdisciplinary – the new word in education which is not a buzz

Targeted medicine has taken the world of healthcare by storm.

It started when Craig Venter set up the Celera Genomics in 1998, and the long standing dream of mapping the “code of life” started taking shape.

Celera and many more organizations have been able to overcome the challenge of codification of the two billion genes in the DNA of human beings. The double helix structure which was first written about by James D. Watson, and it’s connections of guanine, adenine, thymine and cytosine (ATCG) was cracked. Over time, the cost of mapping the genome code (genome sequencing) of an individual has fallen dramatically – from almost $10 million in 2008 to close to $1,000 today.

And with this came up the discussions on targeted medications.

ICD 10 defines diseases under more than 155,000 categories. Add to these thousands of types of drugs, poisons and allergies. The total combination is approximately 32 billion. That then needs to be mapped to the age, previous illnesses, the gene pool of a geographic location – and the problem becomes gargantuan. No wonder the medication is always a best case scenario, dependent on the doctor’s understanding, clinical knowledge, patient constitution, treatment and medication history, and many other parameters.

So targeted medication, which brings in the knowledge gathered from the “code of life” of an individual, along with the history and crunching the data to find the best case scenario is an area which excites the medical community like never before.

But what it takes to make such a drug? Well of course we have already spoken about gene mapping, the medication history, the gene pool, the diagnosis, the dugs/ allergy/ diseases/ poisons. That is lot of healthcare.

But we need a lot of data, the storage and computing of that. That needs cutting edge hardware, software, and analytics tools. And we need engineers who has that skills.

We need people who can articulate the vision of the targeted medication and make people aware of the possibilities. Those are people who understands the society, the psychologists, the technical writers, the marketers.

We need the physicists and chemists to understand the interactions between molecules and the human body. We will need simulators who will help design the drugs. We will need companies who will help doing clinical studies, and social groups who will find volunteers.

We will need people with knowledge of law and medicine, to draft the rules and the agreements. We will need mechanical, electrical, chemical and computer science engineers to understand the needs of the sophisticated machinery and build them.

We will need the compute power, and data repositories. Also skills who can help in data capture, storage, annotation and access.

And overall we will need social and political leadership to ensure that the society is ready for such disruptive treatment.

So where we have come? From healthcare of drug discovery, to a comprehensive multidisciplinary activity – where so many people are involved.

And that is one of examples of the cutting edge initiatives that we are having today in every sphere. Gone are the days where we can bucket something – for everything people with different skills and knowledge needs to come together.

So spots need management for making better sports persons and infrastructure, and physicians and mechatronics individuals for finding the right movements. And doctors, physics and nutritionists for the right diet and supplements.

And that is where a Unitary University comes handy. But there are rare – as it needs space to have all the departments in one campus. Like Presidency, Jadavpur and Adamas – only three in Bengal.

Here the students may take advantage of being close to all the departments outside their own. They can take classes there with credit sharing mode. They can form interdisciplinary teams, they can attend conferences spanning across disciplines.

And they be more ready for the workplace of the future. And have a head start.