Quality of IT Education – Where do we begin?

Niraj suggested that an article about the quality of IT education in Goa for the ECAP issue would be nice. It started a chain of thought about what exactly do we mean by quality of education. Is it just about the courses we teach and how well we teach them? Is it about how well the students do in the exams and how useful is their education in their working life? Perhaps, we need to look a little deeper. Rather than worrying about the content and delivery, we need to worry about the entire process. We live in an age of information and entertainment. Can our education system remain immune to these changes? Can we continue to teach at a leisurely pace in a tedious and boring way when the attention span is becoming shorter? Even more so, what do we teach when the volume of knowledge is becoming so large?

These are issues not just for Goa but for entire India and, probably, even much of the world. Since Goa is a small and literate state with a very cosmopolitan outlook, it is possible to explore and implement alternative methods very quickly here, provided we have the will. Believe me, the solution is not computers with LCD projectors. Powerpoint, Open Office or multimedia presentations can be even more tedious after the novelty wears off.

Where do we begin? A lesson learnt the hard way in programming is that it takes far too long to implement a new system if you throw away the existing one and start from scratch. The best solution is to start with what we have, identify the major bottlenecks and solve these. Hence, let us look at the current visible bottlenecks.

The first and foremost is our examination system. It is the examination system which prevents the curriculum from being revised at the required pace. Teachers are more than willing (and I assure you that those who aren't will fall in line!)

We probably need to move towards two types of examinations. The first type is the one which certifies that a certain level of competency in a subject has been achieved. There is no grade or class but just an assertion that the student has developed the set of skills necessary for programming in Java, or can apply and use data structures effectively. This type of exams should be used for the foundation courses and whereever appropriate. The advanced courses must move towards grades and given by the instructor only. (The instructor should be able to justify his grading to an external auditor.)

The certification examinations can be driven by IT and, hence, can be very frequent. A person may appear every day should he so choose. My conviction is that a person just cannot clear suitably designed tests by just mugging. He must be able to apply what he has learnt.

The advanced courses need to have a lot of freedom to determine their flow. The flow can be determined by the interests of the teacher, the interests of the students or influenced by recent events in the world. None of this is possible if the teacher and the students are constrained by the swords of the syllabus and the examinations dangling over their heads. Teachers should also have the freedom to have more lectures or more labs, Students have come to college to learn. They like freedom but not free grades. My assertion is that students are very unforgiving to teachers who do not teach regardless of getting easy grades.

I do not expect any of these suggestions to be accepted during my life time; but I hope that some thought is spent on our examination system and an acceptable alternative found because I do not foresee any significant improvement in the quality of our education without this change.