Towards a Better Educational Experience

Introduction

I am a third year BTech student at the National Institute of Technology Calicut. I am one of many persons who has been disillusioned by bitter academic experiences at college. I couldn’t help noting down some (many, in fact) points which I think the faculty/administration should stop ignoring and start paying attention to, to make undergraduate education a gratifying experience, not just for the students, but for everyone involved.

There is definitely something rotten about academics at NITC. I think BTech in general has some problems, but I can write only from my experience. Of the thousands of brilliant minds who join this institute, how many care passionately about learning? Even if they do at the time of admission, how many people still care about learning a year into their course?

There has been a marked shift in the focus of students over the last few years. With the easy accessibility of plug-and-play technology, I guess most of us are content to be mere users of technology, even though we are students of technology. And with the brand name of NIT, students can afford to be complacent. It is a pathetic state for an institute like ours to be in. In fact, it defeats the purpose of its existence.

I do feel for the faculty, most of whom are sincere to their work and deserve better response from the students. I’m guilty as anyone in this regard. But the problem is deeper than mere lack of interest on the part of students, and we have to dig deep to search for a solution. When a conventional mode of operation fails to do a job in a changed scenario, you have to try and find new methods that are more appropriate.

There is tremendous potential in making academic life exciting, stimulating and enriching. But it requires an open-minded and sincere effort from everyone. And importantly, the right atmosphere for these efforts to bear fruit.

Educational Methods

When we decide upon educational methods, the first and foremost thing to be ensured is that the joy of learning is preserved and nurtured. Lectures tend to be dull and boring monologues that result in the wastage of time and energy of both the faculty and students. In fact, cognitive studies indicate that lectures are the most inefficient method of teaching.

Surely, we have enough imagination to think of better methods! The same is the case with examinations. First sessionals, second sessionals, tutorial tests, end semester exams- it’s senseless. It wouldn’t be far from the truth to say that students spend more time writing exams, than actually learning something.

The current system is very rigid and stagnant, and doesn’t provide students with the academic freedom that’s essential for proper learning to take place. Also the number of courses one has to take each semester is overwhelming.

I’d like to write about some of the things that need to be done urgently to infuse some vitality back into engineering education.

Mentors, not Teachers

We do not need teachers, we need mentors. Only mentors can help one discover the joy and excitement of learning. Teachers tend to be mere lecturers. I’m sure most of the faculty members feel wronged, because students don’t pay much attention in the lectures. But they have to wake up to the truth- lectures are ineffective, whoever takes them. Especially regarding technical topics. I fall asleep the moment I see $\theta$ and $\epsilon$ on the black board.

So what can we do about it? I don’t think we can get rid of lectures completely. What we can do is to make them few and far in between, and when there is one, make sure that it has a well defined purpose. And in the time thus saved, give the students some real work to do. Without involvement, there will be no learning.

Courses- Theory or Lab?

Why keep them separate? I believe that there shouldn’t be any course on offer, where students don’t do any experiments. Students can attend any number of lectures and write any number of exams, but they still won’t know anything until they actually do something themselves.

With the current number of courses per semester, it is extremely hard to make this a reality. So we need to decrease it. I would say four courses per semester. Each course should provide some opportunity for practical work. It would be great if there could be a pool of six courses from which the student can choose four. That would give a lot of flexibility and freedom.

Work and Evaluation

The present state of academics is pathetic. Students are forced, by means of mandatory attendance, to sit in lectures which they don’t want to attend. But no one can force them to stay awake! So what happens in the end is that, the teacher goes on explaining some equations while half the class sleeps and the remaining half pretends to listen. It’s a criminal waste of time and energy.

As for labs, there are some fixed experiments that are repeated year after year by students, without gaining any insight into the subject. It is sad to note that results are stressed upon and what matters is that you get the “correct” output at the end of the stipulated three hours. And of course, no lab is complete without a report! Each student has to turn in heaps of paper, when a common report(preferably “e-report”) would suffice. Talk about saving trees!

Making the Change

What is needed is an honest introspection. Do we really care about learning? Or is it enough to carry on this hypocritical caricature for four years and pass out with a degree? We should first accept the fact that the current system is a miserable failure. Whoever said that a student would learn everything if you explain something to him/her for three hours a week? Make them do actual work and evaluate them based on the work, rather than conducting meaningless exams which everyone mugs up for, anyway.

I can speak of a few courses where we can change today, if we want. For example, Computer Architecture. Why can’t we remove the sessionals and instead give the students a project to design a processor? It can be given a weightage like 30 or 40 marks out of 100. And if the teacher is particular about conducting a test, (s)he can take a quiz to test the student’s concepts, instead of giving those hypothetical numerical problems to solve. We can safely get rid of them, because while doing the project, the student would have gained much more knowledge than solving these problems for a lifetime would.

I don’t expect everyone who reads this to agree unanimously with me. But my conversations with many people involved with education gives me confidence that most of us are fed up with the pointlessness of the current system. I want to do something to change it for the better. At least I keep telling as many people as I can, as often as I can, that all is not well under this veil of reputation, in the hope that when enough people are convinced about its truth, they will act.

Losing myself in the night

I lay in the night
Gazing up at the stars
While the gentle breeze
Caressed my weary limbs
And breathed some Life
Into my parched mind.

Everything was still
‘xcept for the clouds
That slowly filled the sky
To hide the stars from me
And their distant rumbles
Broke the silence.

How tranquil it was…
Wonderful it was to forget myself
and melt into the night which
turns loneliness into Solitude.

Now I hear faint laughter
From inside. They’re partying.
When at last my friends come
Out into the night
Will they see what I see now?
Will they feel what I feel now?

–Yours truly

Sail Transport Network

“The great age of sail didn’t end, it just took a break”

Over the past 100 years, all basic human activities like agriculture, transport and trade have all become heavily mechanized and highly dependant on non-renewable and polluting energy. We have built up an empire with no foundation- in fact, I would rather call it a sand castle in the air. We, as a race, are about to enter that point of our evolution when we realize this fact, and are forced to modify our culture to be in harmony with Nature. One of the biggest dangers to this evolution, apart from the actual destruction of the life-sustaining environment, is that during these 100 years of complacency, we have lost huge repositories of invaluable traditional knowledge.

One of these is Sailing. Just imagine- could there be a more efficient mode of trans-continental transport? It was the mode of transport and trade for many centuries- even millenia- before the steam engine pushed it to the sidelines. Now that we are about to enter an era of inevitable enlightenment(wonder how fast we can get rid of those nasty gas-guzzling smoke-spewing airplanes), sailing is bound be a valuable skill. That’s why I think we should all hail and support the activities of the Sail Transport Network.

“Sail Transport Network is a movement. For thousands of years, wind energy moved people and goods all over the world without pollution. Today, dwindling, geopolitically sensitive oil is used for every form of transportation and commerce. Even e-commerce with computers is dependent on forms of petroleum, and trucks and cars clog roads to a deathly degree.

The Sail Transport Network is dedicated to finding answers to the problems of tomorrow by looking back to the way it worked before. Trade, exchange, and travel are the basic triad of intercultural connection. If we can reduce the dependence on oil in these three areas, we will have reduced the majority of oil dependence in the world, while establishing through STN a model for sustainability in the new post-oil, greenhouse-ravaged world.

There once was a time when you could walk down to the local harbor, and see nothing but great sailing ships. These ships stirred something in the soul of humans then, and it is that same stirring that can bring us into a cleaner, more sustainable future. The great age of sail didn’t end, it just took a break. Now is the time to take up the sheets again, as it were, and sail into a future of sustainable trade that doesn’t cause wars for non-renewable resources.”

Children and Education

I had learned to realize how precious children of four and five were, and wanted to become as one of them.

• They have no thought of self deception.
• They trust people and do not doubt at all.
• They know only how to love and know not how to hate.
• They love justice and scrupulously keep the rules.
• They seek joy, live cheerfully and are full of life. They know no fear and live in security.

Most of these beautiful children would eventually become adults filled with suspicion, treachery, dishonesty, injustice, hatred, misery, gloom. Why? Why couldn’t they be brought up to maintain the beauty of their souls? There must be something wrong with education.

–from Nurtured by Love, by Shinichi Suzuki