These are times when education and learning are undergoing a paradigm shift. One of the basic tenets being challenged is who should be at the centre of learning? Or who should ‘own’ the learning process? It used to be teachers for time immemorial – be it the Western formats or the Oriental and Indian way of education.
The guru was completely in-charge of the learning process. The guru decided the pace, subjects, assignments, sometimes even the duration of the learning period. This philosophy is rooted in the principle that the guru, as the custodian of learning, would know what works best.
Today, we have a lot more learners than ever in the history of mankind. Also, the number of subjects and complexity has increased multi-fold. It is impossible for the guru to have the kind of comprehension that was once possible. So, the onus of learning is shifting from the teacher to the learner. This is particularly pronounced in higher education – tertiary levels.
We are already talking about learner-centric models for universities. Some other developments have also enabled this. First, the content is available everywhere (not just inside the universities/colleges). The advent of digital storage and the internet has created a fundamental shift in the knowledge repository and access. Second, the requirement (for learning) is changing so rapidly.
For example, if I am learning about alternate energy, in the four years, things have changed so dramatically – that the original curriculum has become obsolete. The third is the attitude and approach of the current generation. They don’t want to put education and work in two different compartments – maybe that is the order of the day.
Hence in my view, universities have no choice but to be flexible. I think it is feasible and we are seeing this happening in some globally reputed universities already. Can the learner have the choice to start and stop learning?
Let’s explore how this can be made a reality. First, the learning process needs to be broken into logical phases. Each phase should have an entry criterion - some basic proficiency and an accepted benchmark achieved by the learner – and an exit criterion – an assessment that certified the proficiency level of the learner.
This is more at the undergraduate level, where the building blocks of higher learning are achieved. It could be in any discipline – which is taken up as the major or primary learning objective. It should be complemented with secondary learning objectives – which can be provided as minors. For example, if automobile engineering is the major and has a phase-wise learning structure, the learner could choose ‘microprocessors and computing’ or ‘multi-modal transport in modern cities’ as minor or could choose to have a complementary subject like ‘creative writing’ or ‘classical dance’.
These majors and minors can be paired by the phases and choices provided for the student to choose them phase-wise. After phase-1, students can have a choice to move to phase-2 – provided they have cleared the required threshold in phase-1. I am not deliberately mentioning a time period for the phase. It need not always be annual.
Continuing this example, if the same student were to continue phase-2 later, then the credentials of phase-2 need to be valid. For example, if he/she chooses a different minor, it could be phase-II for the major, but phase-I for the new minor chosen.
With respect to the recognition, universities should have the flexibility to decide on that would constitute a certificate, a diploma, an advanced diploma, a graduate degree, an advanced graduate degree, post-graduate degree etc. As a part of this process, the universities need to introduce ‘credit banks’ for its students.
In future, once the students get assessed, they can choose to bank the credits they had obtained from their learning into their account with the university’s ‘credit bank’. There should be interoperability of these credits across the various ‘credit banks’ of universities. This is crucial to give learners flexibility across universities. Ideally, this should be universal – very similar to the ‘equivalence’ that is in practice across nations today.
Technology is going to play a crucial role in making this flexibility feasible. In fact, the whole proposition of multiple entry and exit is possible because of digitisation and technology-led management of student affairs. Apart from the management angle, online formats also bring in a lot of options for students. Universities should also consider flexibility in also accommodating courses floated by other universities/standalone bodies–to increase the repertoire of courses offered.
Overall, multiple entry and exit under the National Education Policy 2020 will give the much-needed freedom and flexibility for the learner. This will also take university education beyond the physical boundaries of the campus and bring about ‘perpetual enrollment’-which will facilitate life-long learning. Hence universities should grab this golden opportunity where the regulator is creating an enabling environment.
They should work on the statutes, processes to build a flexible learning curriculum and programme. Very important is for universities to work with their teaching and non-teaching staff in terms of new capabilities that are required to manage the flexible environment.
I believe the notion of ‘completing’ one’s education is increasingly becoming an old theory. One will just take a pause in their education journey. Why don’t we give the learner the choice of when to take that pause and when to resume?
(A version of this article appeared in MoneyControl.com, 07 August 2020)