Limelight on innovative education in US and India

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“I can get done more work so much faster than at school,” Riley Slater, 11, said about schooling at home. Photo by Jenna Schoenefeld for The Washington Post.

NEW YORK – In the dystopian reality brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, there’s a glimmer of hope now and then, led often by news of a vaccine showing good progress. The limelight, nowadays – where general talk is focused, is also on education issues in the two largest democracies, the US and India, where current challenges are bringing forth new digital innovations, breakthrough technologies, and exciting reforms, which augurs well for the future.

As the US prepares for a new school year, debates are in full throttle stateside and nationwide on in-person re-openings, vs. hybrid model; or whether to fall back to the fully online version, which was implemented this Spring without much warning, but will no doubt, come with interactive enhancements, where it’s implemented.

Students and parents often find heated arguments futile, as scenarios change on a daily basis depending on Covid numbers; fresh advisories, quarantine rules. Travel restrictions are issued with tweaks, almost every week.

Teachers, in unions or otherwise, are torn with what path to stick to – fearful as they are of their own safety. They are heartened, no doubt, by rapid strides in interactive technologies available to make teaching and learning online more acceptable, gaining traction in national conscience.

School districts, meanwhile, are in war mode, trying to procure as many laptops and chrome books as possible – even as computer related supplies dwindle globally, reminiscent of lack of PPEs in the initial stages of the pandemic.

Some education experts, like Daniel Rosensweig, CEO, Chegg, and Paul LeBlanc, President, Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), however, see the situation as ripe for massive digital change in learning, for the better.

In a joint column for the World Economic Forum, the duo argue that there’s opportunity to address many of the inequities in higher education, especially for the not-so-wealthy: increasing costs, greater debt, limited access and curriculum, and a failure to effectively utilize technology to benefit the modern student. They come down hard on traditional college campuses, who they reckon are trying to protect an antiquated business model, which has lost relevance in today’s pandemic-ridden world.

They recently launched the career accelerator, Thinkful, a collaboration in which any Thinkful student can use their existing credits to transfer towards a traditional degree at SNHU. An online master’s degree in computer science from Georgia Tech is another example of educational innovation and it is now the largest such program in the US.

Rosensweig and LeBlanc wrote in the Forum: “…Partnerships across the learning ecosystem and a recognition that high-impact learning can take many forms in many settings – many digital – can help address the urgent problem of getting people back to work and ready for a workforce that is changing at a ferocious pace. Universities will increasingly find that their value-add is in recognizing and validating and lending credentials to learning, and less about the curation and delivery of content knowledge.”

They rounded off by urging that “This is a call to action to forever change the nature of higher education throughout the US.”

India, too, after a long time, had something else to talk about, apart from animated discussions on Covid-related ravages, lost days of cricket, and national security issues: education reforms.

A new National Education Policy unveiled by the Indian government this week, wants to turn the traditional model of teaching in India on its head, by doing away with its rigid emphasis on rote learning. The startlingly refreshing changes, when implemented, would be aligned closely to current school education in the US, and the western world, where emphasis is more on essential and experiential learning and critical thinking.

Also on the cards for the next-gen Indian students in middle and high school are internships, vocational training, a digital credit bank which will be used for college credits, and delinking the mainstream subjects of science, commerce and humanities, in the classes 11 and 12, to give more freedom to choose subjects and careers. It’s again on the path like education in the US, where a major and minor in college could be radically different, but accepted.

A huge plus is also giving the option to retake board exams in the 10th and 12th, to enhance performance, and overall school performance getting recognition, along with a common entrance exam for most universities, apart from medical schools.

Undergraduate college degrees would also be made into a 4-year time frame, if desired, with the fourth year devoted to research. Again, this is the time span in the US for a degree out of high school, and would hugely benefit Indian students who want to pursue higher education overseas, without having to enroll in a graduate program in India, to finish a fourth year before they look into a master’s or Ph.D. programs.

The new education policy aims to increase the Gross Enrolment Ratio in higher education including vocational education from 26.3% (2018) to 50% by 2035. A total of 3.5 crore new seats will be added to Higher education institutions, according to notes issued by the Indian government.

India also approved a plan to allow top world ranked foreign universities to open campuses in the country, though with tuition caps and restriction on how to use profits, would be a tough call for those willing to accept the challenge.

A Reuters report said government officials have been pushing the move to allow foreign campuses as more than 750,000 Indian students study abroad, spending billions of dollars outside the country every year.

The welcome change comes as part of a policy to increase public spending on education to nearly 6% of gross domestic product from around 4% now. The government is seeking to expand access to higher education to 50% of high school students by 2035, aiming to add about 35 million new places for students, and achieve universal adult literacy before that date, Higher Education Secretary Amit Khare told reporters, the Reuters report said.

The reforms would also include directives such as making school education compulsory from the age of three and encouraging the study of Sanskrit and other Indian languages as well as the use of technology.

Nearly half of the 248 million Indian students studied in private schools in 2019, according to government estimates, as teaching standards in the majority of state-run schools remain low amid a shortage of teachers, poor regulation and inadequate funding, the report said.

Khare also informed that there are over 45,000 affiliated colleges in India.

“Under graded autonomy, academic, administrative and financial autonomy will be given to colleges on the basis of the status of their accreditation. E-courses will be developed in regional languages. Virtual labs will be developed and a National Educational Technology Forum (NETF) is being created,” Khare said.

While criticism poured in on use of regional languages as the medium of instruction till at least the beginning of middle school, and if teachers in India would be able to adapt to the changes required to give a more exploratory and free-ranging style of education to their students, here’s the most heartening fact to keep in mind: the changes, if implanted well, would make Indian students flourish in a world run on innovative ideas and technology.

(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him: sujeet@newsindiatimes.com Follow him on Twitter @SujeetRajan1)

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