Saturday, June 3, 2017

Post GPP (Switzerland) Trip Reflection

I am sitting in a train running at 300 km per hour (186 miles per hour). While the view outside is nice, the train goes through really long tunnels. So to utilize my tunnel time, here are some of my experiences and learnings from the GPP trip:

The GPP trip got over two days ago. It was a fun-filled experience but exhausting at the same time. We visited 8 universities in period of 8 days, talked to professors, deans, and students at those universities. I found almost all of them to be very receptive of us. During my visits to the universities, while I was interested in learning about different facets of the higher education in Switzerland, France, and Italy, I was particularly interested in knowing how the universities handle the issue of linguistic diversity. Switzerland has four national languages – German, French, Italian, and Romansh. In order to ensure the mobility of students, the universities need to devise some system through which students who do not speak a particular language in a fluent way can still attend any university they want to without any language consideration.

However, what I found was very interesting. Universities, generally, impart instruction in the language that is spoken in the area. For example, in the Zurich region, the language of instruction is German, while in the Ticino region, the language of instruction is Italian in the universities. Some of the course are taught in English as well. In Zurich, one of the professors told me that the Swiss learn multiple languages while they are growing up. For example, someone growing up in the German speaking part learns to speak French and vice versa. Moreover, a lot of people learn English given the global presence of the language. During my stay in Switzerland, I did not find anyone who I could not talk to due to language gap. Almost everyone could understand and speak some level of English. Even while in France, which takes quite a bit of pride in its language, I did not have many issues when I was once lost in a cafeteria. While all the servers could not understand me there, they called in someone who could.

Another aspect that I learned about the Swiss higher education is its stress on quality. At ETH Zurich, I learned that while all the students who want to pursue engineering are given admission, after the first year, many who do not meet the standards are weeded out. This is not to say that students are not provided with resources to help them succeed during the first year. I found this to be in quite contrast with the US engineering education where there is a lot of push to retain students in engineering.

There were many more subtle differences among the education systems in different European countries that I observed and between European countries’ and the US education systems. Moreover, the way people behaved in general varied across different countries in Europe and different parts of Switzerland. Of all the people I met, I loved the most how Italians and Swiss-Italians conducted themselves. But more on that later as I am about to reach Rome soon! :)

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

On the Eve of Departure

Europe - a place I have head is very beautiful and a place I have wanted to visit for a long time. I still regret the fact that I was not proactive enough to apply for a summer internship in Europe during the junior year of college. But no more regrets! I am going to Europe tomorrow and am pretty excited about it.

The purpose for going to Europe is to visit universities in Switzerland, Italy, and France and learn about the higher education system in those universities, and at the same time forge research collaborations with those universities. Given my interest in learning about higher education and especially how academic cultures vary across the globe, I am really looking forward to this trip as this trip will unravel some of the intricacies of the higher education system in European universities for me. I am specifically interested in knowing how the universities that I will visit address the issues of diversity and inclusion, given they have a diverse student base that not only differs on the basis of race, ethnicity, and gender but also differs in terms of linguistic abilities.

While I am excited to be going to Europe, a part of me is nervous as well. I think there are two reasons for my nervousness. First, I have some kind of travel-phobia where the fear of unknown makes me very scared of traveling. Before travel, I am usually anxious about whether I am forgetting some important things that I should pack or if I will be able to reach to the airport in time or something else on similar lines. Second, this is the first time I will be traveling in countries which do not speak Hindi or English. And to be honest, I am a little scared about that aspect.  I have been to the Dominican Republic before where people speak Spanish but I went there with a school group and all the arrangements where done by our hosts to make sure we are comfortable once we reach. This time, I do not get to meet with the school crew until I spend three days there by myself. I was thinking about it yesterday morning - what happens once I reach the Munich airport and need to know specifics about the local transport system and nobody speaks English? What happens if I have to find directions on the street and I ask people and nobody understands me? I know that it will be not as bad as someone will understand and speak English (my English privilege), but as of now the fear of unknown dawns upon me.

While I aim to forge professional collaborations while I am in Europe, I aim to build personal friendships with many, especially the ones who will be with me as part of the school crew. I think there is something about being together in a foreign land that brings people together in unique ways. Needless to say, I am excited for the educational and cultural experience. See y'all in Europe!

Friday, March 17, 2017

More on Visa Hassles

So, the last time I wrote about the challenges in figuring out the forms and documents that are required to apply for a Schegen visa. The latest news is I applied for the visa and appeared at the Swiss embassy in Washington DC last week, and today I received my visa. Yayyyyyyy!!! Hopefully, there will be no more immigration hassles before I reach Germany (my first destination in Europe).

The visa interview went rather smoothly. My appointment was at 9:15 am on March 9. I reached the embassy at around half past eight along with Rabih, who is also going to Europe with the Global Perspectives Program (GPP) group. We waited for half an hour before we got inside the embassy. When it was time, they called my name and I went in for the interview. The interview went smoothly in that the officer asked me about my purpose for going to Switzerland (and Europe in general) and how I will fund the trip. They also asked for proofs of my enrollment at Virginia Tech, details about my stay in Europe, and my medical insurance. A complete list of the documents required to obtain a Schengen visa can be found here.

One of the requirements for obtaining tourist visa to visit any Schegen area is that the visitor needs to provide proof of stay in the Schengen area, either in the form of hotel reservations or letter from family or friend that specifies that the visitor will stay with them. I had already gotten the required letter from my friend in Germany but the officer wanted my friend to email the letter directly to them. So, my visa got approved on the condition that the embassy receives a letter from my friend directly.

The next morning, I got an email from the embassy that said my medical insurance for the trip was not adequate as it did not cover the entire duration of the trip, and I needed to purchase another insurance that covers the entire duration of the trip. The university had only purchased insurance for the duration of the GPP program. And the visa officer had earlier told me that they do not accept Aetna, the insurance that I currently have. After spending many hours in figuring out the documents that were required to apply for the visa and traveling to DC, I now had to spend more time in figuring out how to extend my insurance duration. It did take an hour and $60 to get that.

So, each time I apply for visa, the entire process of obtaining the documents and making sure I have all the forms filled up correctly seems more difficult than actually planning the trip abroad. At these times, I really feel jealous of people who can do visa-free travel to most countries. More about that in a later blog.

P.S. 1) I had done a blunder in filling out the visa application form. In the place of birth field, I had filled in Blacksburg and in the country of birth filed, I had written USA. The visa officer corrected that for me.
2) The Swiss embassy had minimal level of security I could have imagined for an embassy. There were no security guards at the entrance.
3) There were no restrooms (for visitors I guess) in the embassy.
4) The visa officer did not take the visa fee from me. She told me that as my purpose of visit is study, I do not need to pay the fee. This is interesting because someone else who is going on the same trip was asked to pay a visa fee of 60 euros.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Trip to Europe and Visa Hassle

The new year brought good news for me in that I was accepted as one of the 15 participants to the Global Perspectives Program (GPP) offered by the Graduate School at Virginia Tech. The trip entails visiting universities in Switzerland, France, and Italy to learn about higher education in those countries. And to add to that joy, the Graduate School pays for most of the trip to minimize the financial burden on students. I assume this learning experience would be one of its kind where one is not only gaining knowledge along with traveling abroad but also having all this experience with minimal cost out of one's pocket. Everything great. But is it?

The first challenge I have been facing is in obtaining the Visa for my travel. Given I am an Indian passport holder, I require a Schengen Visa to go to either Switzerland, France, or Italy. And there are multiple hassles in obtaining any Visa (I have applied and obtained Visa for the USA and Canada in the past).

So my hassles in trying to obtain a Schengen Visa started with finding out the right website to figure out what I need to do in order to apply for the Visa. And it was not easy - there were numerous websites that gave information about which documents I need or how I can apply for the Visa but none of them were official. So, while I had the information, I did not know how much I could believe that information. After talking to many people, I finally found out the website of the Swiss embassy that gave me more legitimate information about what I need to do to get a Schengen Visa.

But my pain did not get over here. Once I figured out which documents I need to apply for a Visa, the list seemed unfair and almost like a nightmare. I am required to provide them with a medical insurance during the period of my stay, which makes sense. But they also require me to get my travel tickets and hotel bookings for my entire stay. The Graduate School has been helpful in getting the tickets and accommodation confirmation well ahead of time, but what do I do for the duration when I travel on my own in Europe? How do I plan a trip so much ahead of time and also get my hotel reservations done? And never to mention that I will have to travel to DC to appear for an in-person interview.

I hope the Visa interview goes smoothly but I sure will write another post about it if it does not. And definitely, I will write more posts about Visa policies across the wold and how it is skewed in favor of "richer" countries.

Till then, Tada!!

Monday, November 30, 2015

Role of the Professoriate in the 21st Century

Like everything, the role of professoriate has been evolving in the 21st century and it will further keep on changing. Gone are the days when professors lectured large classes and students carefully listened to them while taking notes in their notebooks. Technology has brought about a major shift in how we learn. At the same time, there has been a lot of push from education researchers to implement learner-centered pedagogy in classrooms. And finally, academia has started to realize the inherent discrimination and exclusion that is propagated by the current education system and there is a need to impart education that is not only inclusive but also geared toward raising critical consciousness in students. The following paragraphs elaborate these points in details.

Use of technology: Students in the current times live in a digital world. They are connected to the Internet most of their day, are avid gamers, have shorter attention-span, and are experts in multi-tasking. They can get the same information being conveyed to them by the instructor in a classroom on the internet using their phones and hence do not necessarily need to pay attention to a lecture being delivered to them. The educators of the 21st century need to make use of the Internet and other technological advancements to engage students in the learning process and help them learn better.

Learner-centric pedagogy: Education research suggests that students learn and retain the content better if they are actively engaged in the learning process. At the same time, student-centric approaches increase student motivation to learn, build on students’ prior knowledge, help improve the transfer of learning from classroom to the real-life situations, and increase student metacognition. Hence, educators should move away from the lecture-based model of teaching to project-based and problem-based approach to learning which are student-centric.

Inclusive and critical education: Critical education aims to raise social and political awareness among students, help them recognize authoritarian tendencies in the classroom and the society, and empower them to raise voices against injustice and discrimination. Such an educational approach departs from the "baking system" of education which teats students as passive receivers of knowledge. Instead, critical education treats students as active agents in the process of knowledge construction. The teachers, instead of acting as "dispensers of knowledge" act as "transformative agents" who help students transform reality by constantly interacting with it. The present day education should aim at promoting critical consciousness in students. Also, education should be inclusive in that it provides opportunity to all the students irrespective of their class, race, gender, nationality, sexuality, and other identities to learn and thrive without discrimination and prejudice of any kind.

As the future educators, it becomes our responsibility to keep up with the changes in the nature of teaching and learning. We need to devise teaching strategies that effectively use the technology around us to foster students’ learning, use approaches that are centered on the students instead of being focused on the teachers, and, most importantly, get rid of the banking model of education. We need to create a learning environment that empowers students from all backgrounds and identities, and raises critical awareness in them.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Professional Code of Ethics for Engineering Educators

Few scholars have stated that engineering education should be considered a profession. A profession is characterized by a code of ethics that the members of that profession accept and follow. To this end, the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) recently came up with a set of ethical codes for the members of the Engineering Education profession. These codes of ethics address the responsibilities that engineering educators have toward their students, improving their professional competence, ensuring honesty and integrity in their work, and social justice.

First of all, there is an acknowledgement of the fact that engineering educators are also members of their own technical disciplines and conduct work in their own disciplines. For those who do work in their own disciplines, they are expected to follow the code of ethics of their own discipline including holding “paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.” In addition to the ethical cannons from one’s engineering discipline, engineering educators are expected to follow the ethical cannons outlined by the ASEE.
There are a total of fourteen ethical cannons outlined by the ASEE. The first three of them define the responsibilities that engineering educators have toward their students. These responsibilities include ensuring graduates have an understanding of their professional and ethical responsibility, encouraging students to work for human welfare, and encouraging students to understand the societal and environmental impact of their work.

Cannons 4 and 5 address professional competence and improving competence. Cannon 4 suggests that engineering educators should take responsibility only in the area of their competence and cannon 5 suggests that they should take active steps to maintain and improve their expertise.

Cannons 6-9 outline the need for honesty and impartiality in the work of engineering educators. Engineering educators are expected to respect others’ intellectual property by “by properly attributing previous works and sharing appropriate credit with co-authors, including students” and avoid any conflict of interest in their work. Also, they are expected to build their reputation on the bases of their work and professional collaborations made by them.

Cannons 10 and 11 address the issue of social justice by suggesting that engineering educators should treat all persons fairly and demonstrate respect for colleagues and students. Cannon 12 obligates engineering educators to maintain the confidentiality of their students and colleagues. Cannon 13 addresses the issue of fair assessment of students and colleagues and cannon 14 asks engineering educators to support other colleagues in following the code of ethics.

Recently, there has been another code of ethics drafted by some scholars [1] in the field. I believe this will create a dialogue among engineering educators to reconsider the code of ethics suggested by the ASEE. As the discipline evolves, the code of ethics that engineering educators follow will evolve.

[1] Alan Cheville and John Heywood presented a paper at the 2015 IEEE Frontiers in Education conference. In the paper, they discussed a draft code of ethics for engineering educators.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Education in Ancient Kemet

Last Monday, when Mr. Tim Wise was giving a talk at Virginia Tech, one of the members of the audience noted that her friend thought education in Africa is about learning how to throw spears. She thought that this viewpoint of her friend stemmed from ignorance and wanted Mr. Wise to suggest strategies to engage with people who are living with the “luxury of ignorance.” While Mr. Wise suggested suitable strategies to engage with people who are ignorant, he handled this topic in a much nuanced way noting that the African education system was appropriate for the local contexts and was aimed at preserving the nature instead of destroying it for personal benefit. He further added Africans had a very advanced education system long before most of the world. In this blog post, I will discuss the education system in ancient Kemet (ancient Egypt) that was prevalent almost 3000 years before Christ.

The goal of education system in ancient Kemet was not seen primarily as the acquisition of knowledge. Rather, it was seen as progress through the successive stages of rebirth to become one with God. This unity with God could be achieved through studying the nature and understanding various natural phenomena. Other goals of education included achieving unity with oneself, unity of the tribe, and unity with the nature; development of character and social responsibility in a person; and development of spiritual power. The degree to which a person could become godlike was determined by the degree to which one could overcome certain natural flaws or impediments of the body.

Education was carried out through the process of initiation. Each initiate (or student) was separated from the everyday environment and was placed in a setting that enabled them to become closer to nature. Each initiate carried out a disciplined study of the natural phenomena under the guidance of masters (or teachers). The masters modeled the behavior that the initiate were expected to learn. Also, the masters nurtured the experiences of the initiates so that they could learn higher level lessons.

During the initiation process, each initiate was deeply immersed in an interactive and comprehensive process that had much time devoted to examination of signs and symbols, and learning of stories, proverbs, songs and dance. While learning was done by individuals, the method adopted was seen as a collective effort than an individual effort. There was a lot of emphasis on interaction with the masters and other initiates during the learning process. During the education process, one was challenged with the problems of conscience. This developed critical thinking and a sense of responsibility in individuals. Besides developing critical thinking and social responsibility in students, ancient Kamites maintained an education system appropriate to the environment.

Education was carried out at temples. Each temple had a library and teachers of various disciplines. The various disciplines taught included astronomy and astrology, geography, geology, philosophy and theology, and law and communication. It is estimated that at one time, there were 80000 students studying at a university called Ipet Isut University in ancient Kemet.

Scholars believe that the Kemetic education system is the parent of the western education system and one can see many aspects of the Kemetic education system in present-day education system in the West. I think we can learn a lot from the education system in ancient Kemet. The current education system, especially in the West, focuses on individual gains over social responsibility. This is why we see people engaging in rampant destruction of the environment for personal gains. We are developing technology to harness the natural resources instead of better understanding the nature as was done in ancient Kemet. We need to bring the educational goals of social responsibility and preservation of nature to our current education system.

P.S. The information presented about the education system in ancient Kemet in this post has been taken from the essays written by Asa G. Hilliard in the book The Maroon Within Us. More details about the ancient Kemetic education system can be found in this book.