Published in The Republica on December 12, 2016
In common parlance, it is called the “window of opportunity,” the “golden hour” in emergency medicine, the “honeymoon” period in politics, and, simply, the planting season in agriculture. While something has just started, there is a critical period when people will pay serious attention, are more willing to change their habit, give the benefit of the doubt, and so on. The semester system in Nepalese public higher education is now in that kind of phase—and the window may be closing quickly.
In the case of Tribhuvan University, the nation’s largest public university system, the switch into semester system is based on a 2013 “operational guideline,” which is a fairly strong policy document with significant breadth and depth. To practically achieve the change in culture of teaching and learning that that policy envisions, however, TU leadership must quickly and substantively implement training programs for faculty members nationwide, create academic support beyond the classroom for students, and take on the role of advocacy and cheerleading themselves. In this piece, I discuss how the leadership can and should help tackle some of the major challenges before the window of opportunity closes.
Leaders of our public higher education must start by distinguishing actual roadblocks from irrelevant or low-priority ones. For example, lack of technology (which many academics I’ve talked to cite as a key challenge) has almost nothing to do with implementing or improving semester-based teaching. Effective teachers use available technology sparingly, thinking through, adapting, and customizing what they have. The other non-problem is that our professors’ English is poor. It would be nice to have a lot more technology as it would be to hear all our professors speaking bhatatata (fluently) in English, but if the question is about changing teaching/learning methods—for instance, from teacher-centered to student-centered, from exam-based certification to assessment-integrated learning—such problems are essentially irrelevant.
Then our academic leaders must delegate technical issues to administrative units and invest a lot more of their own time and effort on the educational side. The key technicality of the semester system is that we wanted to go from the annual to the bi-annual system in order to align our higher education to international standards, in terms of years to degree, disciplinary concentrations, measures of credit, and methods of accreditation. These include issues like four-year bachelor’s degrees, recognizable degree names, grade points and GPA, and affiliation with internationally recognized national institutions. Academic leaders should be under no illusion that achieving these technical goals is enough.
The leaders must also not stop short at logistical challenges of implementing semester system. Logistical challenges include producing results of final exams more quickly. They must instead focus on how to help teachers and institutions calibrate programs and pedagogy by using the more frequent assessment. They must decentralize examination, not just to minimize transportation of test materials and bureaucratic complexities but to facilitate a larger change in culture.
Third, they must address tensions created between internal and external assessment through teacher training, discussion with mid-level academic administrators (including at private institutions), and updates in policy guidelines. For instance, students get mixed messages when their professors evaluate their work in one way and anonymous examiners do so differently. As I observed during a research visit to universities in New Delhi recently, professors there address this gap by going back to the old system: they’ve started using the “internal” assessment to simply prepare students for the final exam—letting external exams cannibalize all kinds of assessment methods that they ought to use for rewarding student attendance and participation, improving presentation and collaboration, evaluating and changing their own teaching. The solution is to train teachers how to use “continuing” assessment methods that suit their different disciplines. Universities must gradually increase the “internal” credit from 20 or 40 to 100 percent so that institutions, departments, and teachers can determine what kinds of assessments are best for their students and how they can prevent grade inflation.
Fourth, academic leaders must help educate administrators, teachers, students, and the public alike that the semester system is not the objective of the change but instead a new method for a new kind of education for a changing world. If the traditional exam-based system taught and tested students on a package of knowledge, the semester system is an approach for teaching skills, including academic skills for life-long learning and professional skills for success in society. If for instance, in a hotel management course, the exam-based system taught and confirmed an in-depth understanding of hospitality—theories, practices, cases of success and failure, etc—the semester approach demands smaller classes and student-centered discussions, real-world research and internship experiences, and academic support at units like the career center. Even in more theory-focused disciplines, such as English Studies, professors now require students to do readings and activities before coming to class, ask them to work in groups and solve problems or critique each other’s ideas, analyze texts and take intellectual positions, and even find gaps in current knowledge and propose new theories or perspectives. In most discipline, professors also provide one-on-one support/mentoring to students.
Most of the above could be achieved without switching to the semester system, which is why the change must be seen as a more effective means for improving education and updating educational culture. As such, educational leaders must help institutions create the environment and resources necessary for the shift in teaching/learning culture, promote best practices, counter resistance, and reward teaching excellence. Professors who have used the lecture almost exclusive throughout their careers find it hard to switch gears; many of them are put off by colleagues who vilify the lecture as an always bad teaching method. Those who resist change may consider new methods foreign or silly; the lecture as a teaching method, which meant “reading from the book,” developed in Europe before printing press made books available for students. (No, our forefathers didn’t gather in village squares, scribbling notes on the wall, and, no, there is no need to “ban” lecture altogether, as many younger professors try to do, while giving lectures about how to use other methods!). The lecture method can be a powerful (and often necessary) teaching tool, depending on the size of class, nature of subject taught, teacher’s personality and skills, and students’ expectations and appreciation. The culture clash must be addressed.
Sixth, academic leaders must involve themselves in teacher training, leading by example and engaging others in ongoing conversations to address challenges as they emerge. Officials who crafted the semester system guidelines and those are overseeing the transition should observe teaching/learning in other countries (and, by the way, they must stop turning such visits into educationally meaningless luxury tours and opportunity for earning travel allowances); it is important to include teachers with officials and to not engage “only” in educationally empty formalities such as signing memoranda of understanding. We’ve seen this pattern repeat for decades now, with little or nothing to show for them. Only academic leaders who continue to update themselves through reading, conduct research, travel for professional conversations, and engage in serious collaboration—especially those who do not hesitate to get their hands dirty in the act of teaching and learning—can be trusted to bring about real change in our teaching/learning culture. In fact, committed educational leaders can learn a lot from online training and discussions, saving millions of rupees, if this method fits the objective.
Leaders must lead by example, shifting their attention from criticizing teachers and students. While an educational system and culture can only change when things begin to improve from the ground up, that is when professors and students are convinced and engaged, there is still a lot that academic leaders from the top down can also do by communicating their vision especially through action.
At a meeting with nearly a dozen academic leaders in Kathmandu the past summer, a senior scholar discussed a long list of roadblocks against effectively implementing the semester system, including many tangential ones. Fortunately, that problem-hunting tendency was balanced out by a “What can I do?” mindset among other leaders. Since then, an informal group of professors has created an online training program by tapping into the expertise of Nepali and American scholars (including me). I also came across robust professional development initiatives in private colleges in Kathmandu, which are worth promoting by accrediting institutions and their leaders.
If institutional leaders fail to tap into the kinds of positive energy that I observed in the capital and beyond earlier this year, the public will be blaming them for ignoring a critical “window of opportunity” for higher education in Nepal.