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.

Generalizing Generations–Here We Go Again

A quick, fun post.

Since I read about a dozen books on this subject when writing a seminar paper in a popular culture course during graduate school (around 2009)—-including Dan Tapscott’s Growing Up Digital and others that categorized and generalized younger generations—-I had been itching, fretting, impatiently waiting to learn what would come after generation “Y.” I’ve had sleepless nights thinking about different possibilities.

Finally, there it is: it is called the Generation Z (the now young people born around 1995). We’ve started seeing a plethora of articles (books are coming) about this group of humans, most of the writers first generalizing up to their necks and then more or less quickly cautioning readers against generalization, most of them painting the new generation as distinct, some going uber optimistic, and others essentially focusing on how to monetize our understanding of the new human species.

Exactly what I was waiting for. Continue reading

Beauty and Power of Multilingualism

 During the past year, I came across a lot of news items (including some based on scientific studies) about the benefits of multilingualism. There was so much on this issue that I sometimes wondered if the scientific and sociological studies were essentially a part of rather political responses to the ongoing redistribution of economic and geopolitical power around the world …. Living in the US, a society where monolingual policies and assumptions are (understandably) prevalent in most walks of life, I was pleased to see the emerging appreciation of multilingualism because I think this will only have positive outcomes on local and global levels.

Full post here

Continue reading

F Words of Effective Academic Writing

Are there any tricks for getting straight As on written assignments in college/university in the US? I think there are. I share some below.

Of course, not all academic writing will demand these features (and indeed, they may sound more like they come from journalism than general academic writing), but these are expected commonly enough in academic writing that you can treat them as general guidelines for most courses and contexts in college and university. In most of my classes, where I teach general to specific and advanced academic writing skills, I encourage students to implement these strategies and features as well as they can. [Edit: I’ve added #1 to a previous list of 7]

1. Fleshing Out Your Ideas

Many students say they are “good writers” or “bad writers” on the basis of their ability to produce grammatically corrected and properly edited prose. As I discuss in another post (titled “Bad Writers are Welcome“), both groups often don’t realize that good writing cannot be defined outside of what the context and purpose are, and even who the writer and audience are, with particular instances of writing. So, for instance, a letter written by a fourth grader urging the US President to “make a playground near my school” will not be “effective” if you take out identifying information and tell the recipient that the letter was written by a school Principal! So, no, there is no good writing per se, and if you’ve considered yourself a “good writer” on the basis of your grammatical and editing skills, you may be in for a B or C (if not worse)–unless, first, you “flesh out” your idea for the assignment.

Fleshing out the idea–or clearly thinking through what you want to say, developing the outline, and generally understanding how you want to organize and connect your ideas–may involve extensive research (especially if you’re writing a research-based assignment). You may only need to read the assignment carefully and/or talk to the teacher in order to develop the idea off the top of your head (though this type of assignments are rare in college). To learn (more about) what you want to write, you may need to go out in the world, work in the lab, do general research online, and/or have to read and develop your ideas by reviewing available scholarship on the topic. You may be the type of writer who writes and rewrites outlines as you develop your idea, write a preliminary draft or drafts (which you may not save or use), or write about what you plan to write before you start writing. Whatever you approach you (have to) take, you must “flesh out” your idea.

Imagine that you have an apple orchard a few miles away from your house, and one weekend, you’ve invited your friend to go apple picking. You think about this idea before you take your friend to the orchard, right? You won’t simply find yourself and your friend in the orchard when you wake up one day! You will talk about it, probably have details about how you want to make the experience enjoyable for your friend–or at least you will develop that idea in your mind (if not in interaction with your guest) before you implement the idea.

2. Framing Your Paper (and your paragraphs)

Many students seem to have learned to write “creatively” in high school, so they try to convey their ideas in subtle, indirect, and complex ways. That style (which they may have picked up from reading works of fiction) is often engaging to read, but writing in college also demands that they follow conventions of different genres in different disciplines.  Continue reading

I Wish it Was Just the Dentist

No, it is not just the dentist. Just too many people seem to define “writing”–even after I specify it as the teaching/learning of basic to advanced academic writing in the university–in ways that make me sad.

As she was about to start her work on my teeth last week, my dentist, a wonderful professional who works at a service provider two blocks away from where I live, asked me where I work.

“Stony Brook University.”

“Oh, you are a teacher? What do you teach?” Continue reading