Redesigning our universities [Republica Repost]

Published On:  April 26, 2018

Teachers and students and the public alike will be thirstier for new knowledge if university education is defined as and designed for putting research first

Would you feel comfortable having a major surgery by a doctor if their training only involved trial and error? Would you want to drive on roads and bridges built by engineers who learned to do so from textbooks written somewhere else in the world? How about economic and social policies that are based on guesswork, historical and cultural understanding on hearsay and mythology, natural resources never explored, environment not systematically preserved, agriculture failing to advance—through research?

Behind all of the above, the most important agent is the university. Unfortunately, our universities do not yet advance research sufficiently, whether as a mode of teaching and professional development of their faculty, as a skill for their students’ future careers, or as their own social responsibility. Other than some field work, some experiential learning, and some library research toward the end of some degrees, research is yet to become central to our higher education. And other than for a minority of scholars, research remains a ritual of documenting publication as and when required for hiring or promotion.

Defining by research

An emerging nation needs a robust culture of research advanced by its higher education. Research is necessary for expanding knowledge, accelerating economic and social progress, improving the labor force, and elevating the standard living and quality of life. Continue reading

Dangling Degrees — [Republica Repost]

Published in The Republica on Jan. 25, 2018.

“I am yet to make it,” said a scholar at a regional public university, referring to the doctoral dissertation he wanted to complete. “It’s very difficult to find time.” The word “banaune” in his sentence struck me because one doesn’t really sit down to somehow “make” a dissertation. It also reminded me of various recent conversations—and questions—about the “production” of scholars with advanced degrees, or dangling the “Dr.” title in front of their names, as many scholars themselves cite as the reason to get the degree.

Advanced degrees require extensive research, such as for the master’s and doctoral theses, and these projects demand extensive review of current and relevant knowledge in the discipline, intellectual positioning and proposition of new ideas on the topic of choice, collection and analysis of primary and/or secondary data, and problem-solving or theorization from the research. Some disciplines also require the presentation of new models or methods, designs or products, as modes of advancing new knowledge. As such, while graduate degrees are a means for advancing new knowledge, they also require institutions to provide their students and scholars the foundation of skills for problem-solving, presenting new ideas, and learning through experience and experimentation at the undergraduate level. Unfortunately, we have neither the foundation nor structure we need as yet. Continue reading

English Dreams — [Republica Repost]

Published in The Republica on Oct. 11, 2017

English, most of us believe, is an “international language,” one that offers greatest economic opportunity for everyone, as well as tremendous cultural capital and connection to the “whole world.” Facts related to these claims are a little more complicated, as I will follow up in the next essay; in this one, let me describe a few historical and geopolitical dynamics behind the above assumptions.

English has an interesting political history in Nepal. Although English speakers had reached the region in late 1700s, the rulers of a nation that was being established started learning “Angreji” as they developed a love-hate relationship with British colonizers in India in the mid-1800s. So, English facilitated geopolitical power struggles in the region, especially when Nepal’s rulers supported British colonizers during the 1857 Indian Mutiny, in exchange for favors related to national sovereignty and suppression of democratic forces at home. Similarly, while a permanent residence for a British envoy was established in Kathmandu in 1792, the language entered formal education when the first “modern” and also English-medium school, Durbar School, was established in 1853. The school was only meant for children of the ruling class, since the Shah-Rana regime (1846-1951) wanted to keep the country politically isolated from the world outside. But more and more people around the autocratic rulers kept learning it as a means of privilege and power.

In a striking case of politicization of English, the ultra-nationalist Panchayat regime tried and failed to make it inaccessible to the public. King Mahendra’s national education policies attempted to enforce a Nepali-only language policy, seeking to ban English while also destroying other local languages rather callously: “If the younger generation is taught to use Nepali as the basic language,” said the Nepal National Education Planning Commission of 1956, “then other languages [of ethnic minorities] will gradually disappear, the greater the national strength and unity will result. . . Local dialects and tongues other than Nepali should be vanished [banished?] from the playground as early as possible in the life of the child.” In fact, the regime used the national census to show the number of languages in Nepal declining from 44 in 1952 to 17 in 1971 (as we know, there are more than ten dozen languages now). Continue reading

Lazybones Versus Easy Kill — [Republica Repost]

Published in The Republica on Mar. 6, 2018

If the society has punished public institutions for their sluggishness, it will punish private colleges for the shallowness of the education they provide.

When I finished high school in the early 1990s, I looked up to an older cousin as one possible role model. He had an “intermediate” degree and proudly taught at a primary school. Two decades later, when his son dropped out of college and went abroad to make money, along with many of his peers, I found it shocking that the new generation didn’t pursue more education than ours.

Years later, I learned that there is nothing surprising about new generations deciding to skip college or to get a different kind of education. While fewer students than in the past are going to college in some countries, in others, their proportions are changing by gender, class, region, and so on.

Students also move back and forth between the public and private sectors, which is the focus of this essay. Continue reading

Translingual Benefits — [Republica Repost]

Published in The Republica on October 24, 2017

“Throw fast na”, said a teenager to another at the school I first started teaching, back in the mid 90s. “You ta what-like, what-like playing, yaar.” After listening to students in the playground for a while, I realized that they were actually speaking a certain type of English (teachers had to police and punish if they didn’t). I later learned that linguists call such language “pidgin”, a rudimentary means of communication developed by enslaved or colonized people, especially when they are isolated from other speakers or are prohibited against speaking their native language with each other.

The current educational condition in Nepal, where more and more children are forced to use pidgins like the above, is a dangerous social experiment. Just to be clear, English is an extremely important world language; but how we realize our “English dreams” is just as important.

In the last piece here, I described the historical/political dynamics behind the widespread belief that English is a global language that promises everyone greater economic opportunity and social advantage. Continue reading

Internationalizing Higher Education? — [Republica Repost]

Published in The Republica on Aug. 17, 2017

One of the words most frequently heard in discussions about higher education in recent years is “internationalization,” sometimes used for describing the adoption of “international” standards and sometimes in the context of educational “exchange.” There have been some encouraging new developments in both areas in the past few years, but many old habits also persist. Some of the bad practices must really go, while some emerging ones deserve a boost.

Perhaps the worst practice used in the name of updating education is our university officials going on expensive trips abroad without much of an educational purpose to begin with. Certainly, some of the institutional leaders and scholars do it with a vision, learn and bring back new ideas, and foster change. But, much more often, it’s all limited to signing memoranda of understanding (MOUs) with foreign universities, then some shopping and (nowadays) a lot of photo updates on Facebook—with little or no follow up with the signatories after the traveling heads of our institutions have returned home. This is utter corruption of the idea of creating exchange and partnership, and if it isn’t stopped, even honest efforts will continue to be seen with suspicion—both at home and abroad. Continue reading

Covering the Fields — [Republica Repost]

Published in the Republica on 17th Nov, 2015

Students, parents and society need to take popular beliefs and assumptions about different fields of study with a grain of salt

covering the fieldsAmid yet another crisis at home, one issue that worries me is how the education of younger generations is being affected. I’ve written about privatization and phony ideas about quality education that are making it increasingly difficult for the children of the vast majority of poor people to become successful on the basis of their talent and hard work alone. Rising cost of education is one of those forces that lead parents and students to ask the wrong questions about what to study and what career to pursue. So as they pursue higher education in the fog of crisis after crisis, how are members of Nepal’s young generation choosing what to study, what career to pursue?

Full article on Republica (Nov 17, 2015)

Continue reading

A Higher Calling — [Republica Repost]

Published in The Republica on July 10, 2017

“The system must change first,” said a colleague. “These things are above the power of mere teachers when it comes to changing higher education.” His argument was that only administrators, especially at the top, can prompt significant systemic changes and ensure major shifts in teaching/learning culture.

That was at one of the webinar (web seminar) sessions for which an inspiring group of Tribhuvan University professors were meeting a few months ago. To share a little more of the context, this informal group has been meeting every first Saturday of the month since last year. Building on a similar project at Midwestern University the previous year, three Nepali scholars at different American universities facilitate these one- to two-hour online training sessions. The group practices strategies for improving semester-based education in their classrooms and institutions. The professors, including scholars who are in significant academic leadership positions in both public and private/affiliated institutions, are essentially training themselves to train others in the future, using additional expertise from their colleagues abroad. The project has been greatly productive. And it has raised important questions about innovation and change in higher education. Continue reading

Marks for Life — [Republica Repost]

Published in The Republica on Jan. 4, 2017

As the semester system increases the proportion of internal assessment, private colleges can choose to abuse the marks on their hands—or they can use it to greatly improve higher education.

“Yes, we’ve already switched to the semester system,” said a dear colleague in Kathmandu last summer, “and that’s no longer a problem in private colleges like ours.” Since he had received advanced degrees from abroad, I assumed that he was personally involved in helping update classroom teaching and instituting academic services in his college. It was only later, when a group of professors were discussing how they used the “internal grading” of 40% that my colleague and I both realized that we hadn’t even touched actual topic. When instructors questioned whether their subject would even “allow” any alternatives to the lecture, we started talking about real change in teaching and assessment, student engagement and academic support, changes demanded by the new academic culture for which the “semester system” is a pathway.

Technical and logistical changes as required by curriculum and accrediting agencies are not really the topic educators need to discuss at this time. So, my question (if the semester system had been implemented) was vague and superficial to begin with. As I’ve indicated in this space before, the discussion about how to improve higher education should involve rethinking the very definition of knowledge and learning, as well as our relationship with students and our own roles in response to how they must create and use knowledge, now and in the future. Continue reading

Cheerleaders for Education — [Republica Repost]

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.