Farewell To Education

In my personal little universe 3 years ago, the planets and the stars imposed a gravitational field which constrained me. Fortunately, the need to change while remaining in my tiny world also provided an appealing opportunity. I had always wanted to teach – may be after retiring. Now I could start half a dozen years sooner.

The first year of teaching engineering was very exciting. We focussed on improving the labs. We used thin clients, which allowed us to have almost double the number of workstations within the same budget. We introduced Linux, open source databases and various other applications. My objective was not just to save money but a conviction that students must be exposed to a variety of environments so that they can learn and make decisions with more information. The wider range of exposure also prepares them for coping with changes, which are inevitable in the IT area.

After the high, the decay started. Water is there but the horse refuses to drink it! Something did not seem right - students of computer engineering and information technology not particularly enthusiastic about programming. Some may have decided to make a career in management but not such a large majority! Each semester I tried to correct what I thought were the problems but the impact was minimal.

It was clear that I was on the wrong track. I chanced upon a website on connected mathematics (http://ccl.northwestern.edu/cm ). The goal of this project was to help learners at all levels make sense of complex, non-linear phenomena. It was clear that I had not understood the complexity of the issues involved. I was not dealing with individual students but with a collection of students with interactions between them. The behaviour of the students was a consequence of the environment in which they were operating. That is why the same students would become pretty good programmers after joining a company while avoiding it during their studies for a degree.

I looked at my laundry list of the problems and realised that I could address none of them. Each item in the list may not have meant much but collectively, the impact was overwhelming. So, why get frustrated, especially when the gravitational fields had weakened considerably.

My (partial) laundry list of the environmental issues follows:

  1. A class size of 60 or more is too large. We are no longer dealing with a group of individuals but with a crowd. “We have unanimously decided to mass bunk.”

  2. Compulsory attendance. It is the wrong solution to solving the problem of disinterested students or tuition classes.

  3. Teachers are allowed to teach but are not qualified as examiners. That is clearly putting the cart before the horse.

  4. Every college in a university has the same syllabus. “You can choose any colour as long as it is black.” A teacher cannot innovate.

  5. A common final exam. The examiner, in order to ensure fairness to all colleges, is constrained to set a question paper which follows a well understood pattern. Our question papers invariably become a test of memory. Anything else would risk a front page coverage, “Out of syllabus paper”.

  6. The governments impose a ridiculous amount of paperwork and inflexible rules on colleges in order to tackle the problem of some unethical teaching institutions. We wind up penalising the honest institutions. A small headline in a paper, “Fed up with corruption, NRI donates college to the University.”

I do not know about my students but I learnt a lot in the last three years, including ridding myself of a 30 year itch to teach.

Written: Jan 2006