June 10, 2013

Meeting true educational innovators, and visiting Gandhi's university

(not a bad day)

Well, my ambition for shorter, more frequent posts may not be totally successful...three meetings today, so even though I'm staying caught up, this may not be a particularly short post. I've been in Ahmedabad since Saturday night- yesterday was "off"; I did a lot of reading up on the people and institutions that I'd be meeting here, caught up on some email...yes, and read the local (English language) newspaper by the pool. I'm starting to feel like I have a reasonable basis of the beginnings of a superficial understanding of the issues of the day here. (Particularly amusing was, surfing the web yesterday and coming across this link in the economics blog Marginal Revolution on some pretty weird results on the all-important 10th and 12th grade general exams here in India, discovered by a hacker who looked at aggregate score data. Worth a read if you are a statistics nerd.)

My morning's meeting was one of the liveliest and thought provoking discussions I've had in my time here. Anil Gupta, professor at the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad, coordinator of the Honeybee Network, Executive Vice Chairperson of the National Innovation Foundation, and coordinator of SRISTI (Society for Research and Initiatives for Sustainable Technologies and Institutions). He studies and promotes "grassroots innovation"- but that's really selling him short; he's interested in valuing and promoting the wealth of information in traditional/rural communities, and also, more generally, how we create contexts for knowledge sharing so that all can share in and benefit from what the community knows.  He had a series of recommendations for universities that would connect them more closely to communities; that students and faculty communicate their results not only by academic publication but also, consistently, in a means and a language that can be appreciated by the general public; that all subjects of studies be acknowledged as a part of the dissemination of results (unless they opted out); that faculty and institutions be encouraged to share some fraction of profits from research, whether it be patents or honoraria or what have you, with the community from which the knowledge derived...these would all be difficult to implement as mandates, but I think we could start at least by encouraging and recognizing some of these behaviors where they occur.
His focus on taking learning out of the classroom certainly resonates; effectively he's promoting a kind of community based teaching and learning, but where the community is contributing a bit more actively to the learning than in the model I'm at least familiar with. He also has started this spectacular platform: techpedia.in whereby problems within the community that need to be addressed can be made public, and students with relevant interests and expertise can work on them as projects.  
The conversation also wandered to that...what appears to be global...lament; that we still, in education, overemphasize specialization. While specialists are clearly needed, there is this at least partially uninhabited niche for the synthesizers, the integrators, the generalists. Yes, our style of liberal arts bachelor's degree does emphasize a certain breadth...but that doesn't automatically, in and of itself train students to really make connections across that breadth. You get some of that, for sure, just because individuals will see connections...but what would it mean to really train people to do that? Seems like something to think about for years.
Second meeting was a bit of a change of pace; Dr. S. Iyengar, Vice Chancellor of Gujarat Vidyapith, a university founded by none other than Mahatma Gandhi. It maintains the guidelines and principles Gandhi set out in the 1920s for the university; students must live on campus, and in addition to academic subjects, students must study crafts. There is the idea that education here includes modeling a life that is based in Gandhian philosophy. It is a fascinating example of an explicitly values-based or character based educational institution that is nonetheless secular. I can't, off the top of my head think of a comparable institution in the US, though I would assume there are some. The meeting with the vice chancellor was in effect an overview of Gandhi's philosophy regarding education-  I was required to purchase a copy of Gandhi's autobiography from them when I confessed I hadn't read it (for $2, so I'm not complaining). A lot to think about; I said I saw two goals for higher education, which can be in tension with each other- preparation or skills based training for a specific career, and the personal growth and development of intellectually engaged and contributing citizens and community members. Dr. Iyengar said he didn't believe Gandhi would have seen those as separate things. I do get that ideally they're part of a coherent whole- but I think we have a ways to go to achieve that, and are sometimes put in a position where we are defending-in some circles- the inclusion of anything in education that is not explicitly career training.
Again, a lot to think about. The campus is really cool; they have a tribal research institute with reconstructions of traditional buildings and dress for tribes which live in Gujarat, and a museum with pictures of convocations led by Gandhi, and materials (clothes, medals, gifts) from another Chancellor of the university, Morarji Desai, who became Prime Minister of India. 
So much for staying caught up. I will have to leave an account of my last meeting today for tomorrow, as I need to prep for tomorrow's meetings...then off in the evening to Bangalore!


Another exciting day for you! Your comment abouts his promotion of "community based teaching and learning" and the platform: techpedia.in "whereby problems within the community that need to be addressed can be made public, and students with relevant interests and expertise can work on them as projects" sound eminently useful and something the Gephardt Institute would be interested in with the CBTL courses. Nicole Durel's "Olin Outreach" specifically comes to mind. I've also been reading Holden Thorp's "Engines of Innovation: The Entrepreneurial University," which speaks to many of the same ideas. Fertile ground here at WashU for liberal arts with a social impact!