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.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

From Technology to No Technology

Technology has slowly been entering into multiple aspects of teaching and learning. Classrooms are one such space where people are trying to integrate technology in various ways. Colleges are pushing for the use of technology in classrooms. For example, in 2007, the College of Engineering at Virginia Tech made it mandatory for each incoming freshman to own a tablet-PC. The purpose behind this move was to change the way engineering classes are instructed at the university. However, at the other end, there are professors at various universities who are doing away with the use of electronic gadgets in classrooms. Tal Gross who teaches at Columbia University and Clay Shirky who teaches at New York University recently banned the use of technology in their classrooms.

Tal Gross, who teaches public health at Columbia University recently banned the use of laptops in his classes. He argues when students take notes using laptops in class, given their fast typing abilities, they tend to copy down almost everything that is said in the class. As a result, the classroom does not remain a place for dialogue and conversation anymore, rather it becomes an “exercise in dictation.”

Gross supports his decision by citing a research study conducted by Pam Mueller at Princeton University and Daniel Oppenheimer at UCLA in which 67 undergraduates were asked to watch a video lecture. Half of them were randomly assigned to take notes using pen and paper while the other half was asked to take notes using a laptop while watching the video. After that, the students were asked to take an exam. It was found that the students who took notes using pen and paper did much better than the ones who took notes using laptop on conceptual questions.

A few months before Gross pulled the plug, Clay Shirky, a social media professor at New York University, banned the use oftechnology in his classrooms. Shirky observed that distractions due to electronic devices grew over the years in his classes. Moreover, he notes whenever he asks his students to shut down their electronic devices, "the conversation brightens, and more recently, there is a sense of relief from many of the students."

Shirky’s move to ask students to shut down electronic gadgets was aimed to prevent them from multi-tasking and engage with social media. He reasons multi-tasking is bad for high quality cognitive work and cites a study from Stanford that suggests heavy multi-taskers are not good at choosing a task to concentrate on. He further adds “the problem is especially acute with social media, because on top of the general incentive for any service to be verbose about its value, social information is immediately and emotionally engaging. Both the form and the content of a Facebook update are almost irresistibly distracting, especially compared with the hard slog of coursework.”

Finally, Shirky cites another study that suggests participants who were multitasking on a laptop during a lecture had lower scores on a test as compared to those who did not. In addition to that, participants who were in direct view of another participant who was multitasking scored lower than those who were not. This suggests laptop multitasking distracts not only the one who is doing it but also the one who is sitting nearby and can see someone multitasking.

The above stories suggest technology is not always beneficial for students in a classroom. Hence, we, as educators, must engage in enough deliberation before asking students to use technology and electronic gadgets in classrooms.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Training PhD students about responsible conduct of research: Whose responsibility is it?

It is needless to emphasize the importance of maintaining ethical standards while conducting research. However, for engaging in ethical research practices, one needs to learn about the ethical standards. Most of the researchers start learning about conducting research during their PhDs. This means that they should start learning about ethical and responsible conduct of research as PhD students. But the bigger question remains: who teaches PhD students about responsible conduct of research? Is it the faculty who serve as mentors or advisors or supervisors to the student, or is it the university or the institution?

Titus and Ballou [1] conducted a quantitative study to figure out how faculty (mentors or advisors or supervisors) work with PhD students to educate them about research standards, and who (the institution or the faculty) they think is responsible for teaching PhD students about responsible conduct of research. For this study, Titus and Ballou selected 10000 R01 researchers who had NIH grants during 2005 and 2006, and had the primary responsibility of overseeing a doctoral student in the last five years. They surveyed the selected researchers using a web-administered questionnaire between October 2008 and March 2009 to answer their research questions.

In their study, Titus and Ballou found that more than half of the faculty did not 1) teach the doctoral students how to write grant proposals, 2) co-author a research paper with the student being the first author, 3) prepare an IRB or IUCAC protocol with students, and 4) provide data management guidelines to students. 30% of the faculty reported that either they did not have any guideline from the institution on their responsibilities for working with PhD students or they could not remember if any guideline was provided. More than 70% of the faculty believed it was their responsibility to 1) set standards for data collection, 2) provide training for data management, 3) provide policy on authorship, and 4) provide financial support to students. However, more than half of them believed that it was institute’s responsibility to 1) provide training in responsible research behavior, 2) provide training about IRB or IACUC regulations, 3) provide training in identifying research misconduct, and 4) managing cases of research misconduct. Less than 30% faculty reported that they had been trained to advise or mentor doctoral students and develop research skills in students.

The findings of the above study provide important implications for research institutions to train the faculty to work with doctoral students. At the same time, there should be a clear delineation of responsibility between faculty and institution for developing ethical and responsible research behavior in PhD students. Training PhD students about responsible conduct of research is an important part of their development as PhD students and both institution and faculty should hold hands to achieve this goal.

[1] Titus, S. L., & Ballou, J. M. (2013). Ensuring PhD Development of Responsible Conduct of Research Behaviors: Who’s Responsible? Science and Engineering Ethics, 20(1), 221–235.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Learning Partnerships Model: The Future of University

With rising costs of higher education, more and more students are getting attracted to Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). MOOCs are cheaper and provide almost the same content knowledge to students as they would get from a course taught in a college classroom. Besides cheaper education, MOOCs also help students get past the barriers of time synchronization and co-location. While being enrolled in a MOOC class, a student does not need to be present at a fixed location during a fixed time. They can access the course content any time and from any location according to their convenience. This is why MOOCs are becoming more popular each day to the extent that some universities ask their on-campus students to take online courses. I myself have taken a 3-credit graduate level online course at Virginia Tech as the professor who teaches the course (or rather prepares the online material and coordinates its delivery) is not present on the main campus of the university.

If a student can learn the same content at cheaper price and with more convenience, it is reasonable to argue that their inclination to attend a physical university will go down. In such a case, the reasons for which a student might want to attend a university would change in future. Universities will have to move beyond the information-transfer model to something which will add value to students, and something which cannot be learned through MOOCs.

In the book Learning Partnerships: Theory and Models of Practice to Educate for Self-authorship (edited by Baxter Magolda and King), Marcia B Baxter Magolda notes the 21st century college education should help students develop systemic thinking, enable them to critically analyze the knowledge claims made by the authority instead of merely accepting it, help them construct their own knowledge and beliefs, and prepare them to be open to new possibilities. These skills will help students grow into “effective citizens” who can take ethical actions for the good of not just the individual but the society as a whole. In order to achieve the goal of developing students into effective citizens, Baxter Magolda suggests universities should create learning environments that help students attain three learning outcomes:  cognitive maturity, integrated identity, and mature relationships. Cognitive maturity refers to the ability to take mature and reflective decisions while problem solving. Integrated identity refers to the ability to make independent decisions, understand one’s own culture and backgrounds, and choose one’s goals and values. Mature relationship is linked with respecting others’ beliefs and identities, and integrating the diverse perspective brought by others with one’s own. Figure 1 depicts an integrated model of the three learning outcomes which universities should help students attain.

Figure 1.  An integrated model of university/college learning outcomes [1]

Baxter Magolda further suggests that these learning outcomes can be attained by employing the learning partnerships model (as shown in Figure 2) in the universities. A learning environment based on the learning partnerships model conveys knowledge as complex and socially constructed and situates learning in learner’s experiences. Depicting knowledge as complex validates learner’s capacity to learn. Situating learning in learner’s experiences conveys the idea that self is vital for knowledge construction. Such a learning environment helps students develop cognitive maturity and integrated identity. Finally, in order to help students develop mature relationships, the learning environment portrays authority and expertise as shared, and learning as mutually constructing meaning.

Figure 2. The learning partnerships model [2]

For universities to become the “centers for learning” in the true sense of the terms, I think, they need to move toward creating a learning environment based on the learning partnerships model. Such a learning environment will produce graduates who not only have the required knowledge to do a job but also are able to make ethical decisions for the good of humankind while executing the job.

[1] Baxter Magolda, M. B. (2004). Self-authorship as the common goal of 21st-century education. In M. B. B. Magolda & P. M. King (Eds.), Learning partnerships: Theory and models of practice to educate for self-authorship (pp. 1–35). Stylus Publishing, LLC.
[2] Baxter Magolda, M. B. (2004). Learning partnerships model. In M. B. B. Magolda & P. M. King (Eds.), Learning partnerships: Theory and models of practice to educate for self-authorship (pp. 37–62). Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Critical Pedagogy in Engineering Classroom

Critical pedagogy is the education movement aimed developing students into socially and politically aware individuals, helping them recognize authoritarian tendencies, empowering them to act against injustice, and employing democratic and inclusive classroom practices. The term “critical pedagogy” has been used by educators to refer to a broad range of pedagogies that employ critical theory, feminist theory, queer theory, anti-racist theory, multicultural education, and inclusive pedagogies. In this post, I will discuss some of the critical pedagogy practices employed by Dr. Donna Riley (currently a professor at Virginia Tech) while teaching a class called “Engineering Thermodynamics” as Smit College, an all women college, during Spring and Fall semesters of 2002. It should be noted that Riley uses liberative pedagogy as an inclusive term for critical pedagogy, feminist pedagogy, and radical pedagogy. Some of the classroom practices employed by Riley included:

Connecting learning to students’ experiences. Students learn the most from examples which they can relate to, based on their social and cultural backgrounds. Hence, Riley used a wide variety of thermodynamic systems in class as examples. Also, the textbook for the class was chosen such that it contained a wide variety of examples of thermodynamic systems.

Democratic classroom practices. Students were assigned teaching roles to teach parts of the course to the entire class. They were not only asked to develop modules to teach the class but also encouraged to relate them to their own lives. Also, the seating arrangement reflected the democratic classroom practices. Instead of sitting in rows facing the instructor, students were asked to sit in circles with each student facing and talking to the entire class instead of just the instructor.

Taking responsibility for one’s own learning. Students were required to take responsibility for their learning in that they were asked to do metacognitive reflections on what was working or not working for them in the class. They were also asked to do assignments in which they reflected on their learning of various aspects of the course.

Ethics discussions. In order for students to be develop as ethically responsible individuals, they need to learn the impact which an engineer’s work has on the society. To develop such an ethical awareness, Riley and her class watched and critiqued videos on “energy in society”, critiqued the textbook used for the class by analyzing the aspects (e.g. alternate energy, environmental applications of thermodynamics, energy system in developing countries) which were missing from the textbook. Also, students were assigned ethics problems to reflect on.

Breaking the Western hegemony. In order to decenter the male hegemony of the Western civilization, Riley discussed examples of thermodynamic inventions done by non-Western and non-male inventors. Also, some of the assignments required students to make interracial and intercultural connections in thermodynamics.

Normalizing mistakes. By normalizing mistakes in the process of learning, Riley fostered a classroom environment in which students were comfortable attempting problems (sometimes even on the black board) in class and learning from their mistakes. Another strategy used by her for normalizing mistakes was acknowledging when she herself did not know something.

Discussion of history and philosophy. Riley discussed the history and philosophy of the development of thermodynamic laws to demonstrate to the students that the process of discovery does not lead one to an absolute truth. Instead, making mistakes is acceptable in the process of discovery. Students were also required to reflect on how the knowledge of history and philosophy of thermodynamics helped their learning.

Assessment techniques. The assessment of students put a greater emphasis on participation. Moreover, a flexible grading system was adopted. Students were asked to work in pairs on some exams. In the second offering of the course, problems were given to the students only as a learning exercise and not as an assessment tool. Moreover, continual course feedback was taken from students to improve their learning experience.

One of the critiques of critical pedagogy is that it does not provide specific classroom practices. It just suggests that teaching and learning should be contextual and aim at raising critical awareness among students. A lot of times educators do not know how to apply critical pedagogy in their classes, especially in hard and applied sciences, due to a lack of knowledge about how to apply it. I hope the practices noted above can be adopted to and adapted for any classroom and any discipline.

P.S. The complete paper in which Riley discusses her experiences of applying liberative pedagogy in her classes can be found from: Riley, D. (2003). Employing liberative pedagogies in engineering education. Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering, 9(2), 137–158.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

What should students pursue, interest or money?

I was attending the 47th North American Power Symposium during 4-6 October in Charlotte, North Carolina when I had this interesting conversation with a professor from another university. I told the professor that I did my Masters in Electrical Engineering and then I moved to Engineering Education to pursue my PhD. The first reaction which the professor had was in form of a comment in which they told me that it will not be very beneficial for me in terms of the salary which I will earn after graduating from my degree program. I think the assumption which the professor made here was that a graduate with an education degree will earn less than the one with an electrical engineering degree.

There might be some truth in what the professor said (although when I compared the salaries of professors from Engineering Education and Electrical & Computer Engineering departments at Virginia Tech, I did not find much difference between them; but for now, let us go ahead with the assumption that electrical engineering professors earn more than their counterparts in engineering education). It might be difficult for me to compete with electrical engineering graduates in terms of the salary which I will earn after my graduation, but is that all I want from my education? A big fat salary? Or does it have to be more? Is there a bigger purpose for me and for others that leads us to pursue higher education?

If I look at the current narrative about the higher education, it seems like students see it as an investment in terms of time and money and the expectation is that this investment will pay off once they graduate from the university. And this is why a lot of their time and energy is focused on taking classes or engaging in activities that help them secure a high-paying job. This is not to say that all students look at higher education only as a means to get a high-paying job but the number of students who do so is significant. And this is very evident in my own discipline, engineering. In fact, I have myself fallen into the trap of taking classes and engaging in activities that, I thought, would eventually help me get a high-paying job.

I am not against having a desire for a high-paying job. In fact, with the rising costs of higher education, one needs to ensure that one has a well-paying job by the time they graduate so that they can payback their student loans. Issues arise when people start constructing their academic lives around money and jobs; and ignore various avenues of learning which are essential for personal growth and development into a responsible citizen. Moreover, there are other issues with focusing one’s higher education entirely on getting high-paying jobs. The economic landscape is changing rapidly and it is possible that the sectors which are high-paying now will no longer be high-paying a few years later and vice versa. So, if students pursue money while they are in college, there is no guarantee that they will succeed in that pursuit as there might not be many high-paying jobs in their fields few years down the line. Moreover, the charm of money fades away after some time and if one does not find their work interesting and satisfying, one might encounter dissatisfaction with their career and life.

In my opinion, students should follow their interests while they are pursuing higher education and try to get into careers they love. Even if they do not make a lot of money as compared to those who pursued money, they will still love what they do and hence live meaningful lives. And when the going gets tough, doing what they love will keep them going.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Why is "Behave like a Roman while in Rome" attitude problematic?

A couple of weeks ago, I reached my Contemporary Pedagogy class ten minutes before the class start-time and started charting with one of my classmates who had also arrived almost the same time I had. Somehow, the conversation started drifting toward writing and I argued that the professors (at Virginia Tech or any educational institution) should be cognizant of the fact that different cultures have different writing styles. For example Asian cultures follow a circular writing pattern and on the other hand, the dominant writing style in the USA is linear. Hence, when the professors are evaluating a student’s work, especially an international student or even a domestic student from a different cultural setting than their own, they should be at least cognizant, if not considerate, of the student’s culture and look at their writing with the knowledge of student’s cultural background in mind. This is important because in the absence of knowledge of variation in writing style among cultures, the professor may judge student’s writing and hence their level of understanding of the subject matter poorly in case there is a writing style mismatch between the professor and the student.

While I was making this argument, another classmate who belongs to the majority group (white male) jumped in to the conversation and presented a counter argument by saying “Behave like a Roman while in Rome.” I find this attitude of the white guy very non-inclusive and even oppressive. However, this is not to say that he was intentionally trying to be non-inclusive or oppressive while making his comment. It is very much possible that he was unaware of his own privileges and the oppressive nature of his comment. And my aim for writing this blog post is not to point fingers at anyone. It is just to express my own feelings and if that classmate of mine reads this post, it is to educate him and many others who might be unaware of their privileges and the non-inclusive structure of the university and education system.

In order to understand why the comment made by my while male classmate non-inclusive and oppressive in the context of higher education in the US, we will have to go to the history of higher education in the country. The first colleges and universities in the country were set up to educate ministers or to provide education so that the graduates could take up public employment in Church and Civil State. The universities were accessible only to the dominant majority i.e. the white men. It was not until the middle of the nineteenth century that females and other racial minorities were given access to college education in the country.

In such a case where the universities were only open for the white males and were run by them, it is easy to understand that the education system was structured according to what the white males deemed appropriate. In other words, the university structure was designed in a way which was suitable for the white males. And the same argument can be made for the accepted behavioral styles including writing styles in the university and the academia. The styles of behavior and academic writing which seemed appropriate to white males were adopted and others were deemed inappropriate. While the universities opened for females and other racial minorities almost 150 years ago, I argue that on a structural level, universities have made little changes to accepting what is appropriate and acceptable; and what is not. Thus, the structures which govern the universities are still very “white male-ish” in nature. And hence, the university structures are not very inclusive of minorities.

How does this non-inclusive structure lead to oppression? Universities expect all the students to follow the rules, guidelines and structures and adapt to those. For a minority student who was taught a different set of behavioral patterns and social etiquette in their cultural setting, the guidelines which the universities ask them to follow might be strange and unfamiliar. Thus, what universities are asking them to do is to forgo what behavioral styles they learned as appropriate in their cultural settings and follow the behavioral styles which the universities espouse i.e. the style favored by the dominant group. When students try to adapt to the new set of behavioral patterns as asked of them by the universities, they face disconnect with their own cultural heritage and hence suffer isolation. They are neither able to identify with what they learned at home about appropriate conduct and behavior nor they fully learn the new style of behavior. And a lot of times, this difference in the behavioral styles is seen as an inability to learn. This perpetuates further oppression and segregation of the minority students.

I know it is not easy for any professor to learn about all the cultural styles whether it is related to writing or behavior. However, only by being cognizant of the fact that differences exist one can move a step forward in creating an inclusive learning environment. This is how a professor can start putting in efforts to understand where students are coming from and what values they bring to the classroom. This, instead of asking students to “behave like Romans while in Rome,” will create an inclusive learning environment in universities.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Inclusive Classroom Lessons from the Movie Freedom Writers

(A still from the movie Freedom Writers. Image Source:

In my Education and Anthropology class last Thursday, we watched the movie Freedom Writers. I am a movie buff (In fact, based on my innumerous references to movies in class while teaching, last week one of my students, Nicholas, asked me, “Ashish, are you the movie guy?”) but very few movies make me think as deeply as this one did. Based on a real-life story, the movie tells the tale of a high school in Long Beach, California. Erin Gruwell joins the school as the new English teacher. She is given the responsibility to teach English to “at risk” students who come from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds and most of them have a long history of racial and gang violence. They do not see a future for themselves and do not see how school is helping them in any way. Gruwell, a first time teacher, works her way through the administrative struggles to ignite her students’ passion for learning and helps them envision a future for themselves. How does she do it? Through inclusive pedagogy! She teaches us the following four important lessons about creating inclusive classrooms:

Validate students’ capacity to learn: The first and foremost requirement of making a classroom inclusive of students’ needs is to have enough trust in the students that they can learn and succeed. We fail the students a lot before they encounter actual failure if we do not lay our trust in their abilities. When the entire school treated her students as a burden, Erin believed in her students’ abilities and kept putting in efforts to provide new learning experiences to her students. She even took up two part-time jobs after her regular job so that she could buy books for her students and take them to museum trips.

Listen and understand: To make the teaching inclusive, the teacher needs to listen to students’ needs and understand their needs by being cognizant of the sociocultural backgrounds they come from. For assignments, Erin Gruwell asked students to tell their own stories through an anonymous journal. These stories not only helped Erin to know her students better but also increased her students’ confidence as they started believing that their own stories are as important as any other story and others need to know their stories.

Have instructional materials relevant to one’s background: Students, in any classroom, come from diverse backgrounds and the same educational material might not cater to the needs of all the students. Erin Gwen soon realized that her students did not see value in learning about Homer and his works. Hence, she changed the texts to the ones about the lives of teenagers in times of violence and war so that her students could relate their own experiences with the texts they were reading.

Bring in your own personal identity to relate to students: While a teacher needs to have deep sympathy with their students’ oppressed histories, they also need to empathize with the students to relate with them on a higher level. And this empathy can only be evoked by the teacher if they bring their own personal identity and history to classrooms and relate others’ intense experiences with their own culture and identity. Erin Gruwell does that almost perfectly when she brings her own Jewish identity and the history of Jewish oppression to relate it with her students’ identities and histories of oppression and violence.

In Erin’s case, most of her students had a history of oppression and violence and all of there were identified as “at risk” students. Students in our classroom might not fall into those categories. However, we can still make the classroom more inclusive of students by understating their identities and aspirations. As, educators we need to understand the classroom context and devise our instruction accordingly. And that way, we can move toward "inclusive classrooms" in true sense of the terms.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Open Access: A Social Justice Approach

In the present system of publication of research articles, most of the publishers charge some money from the users to access research papers. While it is understandable that publishers need money to print a paper copy of any journal article and make it available to the users, charging users to access online copies of journal articles is unjustified. Publishers do not have to pay any money to those involved in the process of publishing. Researchers conduct research using research funds which come from the government or private funding agencies. Peer-review of journals before publishing is done by academics as part of their “service” to the discipline. In such a case, asking people to pay to access online copies of research articles is unreasonable. And to add to it, the price to access journals has increased exponentially over the past three decades. Such a system of publication promotes and reinforces the exclusionary tendency of the academia and is ethically unfair.

By asking students and researchers to pay to access the research work done by other researchers, the current system of publication restricts those who cannot afford to pay to access research papers from learning about the research work being done by researchers. This reinforces the exclusionary tendency of the academy and promotes elitism. In such a system, people who have sufficient amount of money can pay to access the latest research and build on it. However, people who cannot do have such an access due to monetary constraints are not even aware of the research being done by researchers. As a result, they are systematically excluded from accessing and contributing to the research being done in a particular field.

Besides being accessible to limited number of people, this system of publication is ethically unfair to the general public. A lot of research is funded by the government in the form of research grants. This money comes from the taxpayers. Asking the public to pay again to access the research work which was done with taxpayers’ money (in other words, their money) is asking them to pay twice for the same thing.

In order to make research more accessible to people, the academy should move toward “open access.” As the name suggests, open access refers to the unrestricted access of journal papers and their unrestricted use to advance research and Scholarship. In a system of open access, researchers will upload their work on an online database and this database will be made available to anyone who wants to access and build on the research done by other people. This system will be more inclusive of people who cannot afford to purchase research papers and hence are denied access to the latest research being done in any field.

Friday, September 25, 2015

The Credit Hour System in US Universities

In the United States, the credit hour system is used to calculate the academic work done by a student in universities, both at the undergraduate and the graduate levels. Students need to earn a specified number of credit hours in each degree program to be eligible to be awarded the degree. Apart from computing the amount of academic work done by students, credit hours are also used to compute the tuition and fee for students and determine their academic status. For example, at Virginia Tech, the tuition for each credit isUSD 437.25 for in-state undergraduates for the academic year 2015-16. Similarly, there are different fee amounts for each credit at graduate level and out-of-state enrollment. Moreover, full-time enrollment is defined as enrolling for at least 9 credit hours at graduate level and 12 credit hours at the undergraduate level. In order to obtain an undergraduate degree, a student is typically required to earn around 120 credits. In order to earn a graduate degree, the requirements vary starting from 30 to 90 credits depending on the type of degree.

In order to complete an undergraduate degree in four years, one needs to take 15 credits per semester on an average. According to the US Department of Education, to earn 1 credit, a student needs to spend 1-2 hours per week in-class and 2 hours of preparation time out of class. This means that a student who takes 15 credits per semester is required to spend 15-18 hours of time in class and 30 hours of time out of class. This sums up to almost 45-48 hours of academic work each semester. I think this is a very high expectation from students, especially considering the fact that students need to spend time on extra-curricular activities and co-curricular activities in college for which they do not get any credit. And if a student does a part-time job besides attending full-time college, something that a lot of students do, the number of hours which they need to spend on school and work easily add up to around 55-60. This means students have very little personal time in college. In order to meet their job and college requirements, a lot of students neglect their health and social life. This, in turn, leads to heath and psychological issues for them.

The situation gets even worse in graduate school. A lot of graduate students do a 20-hour assistantship besides their full-time graduate level academic work which is 9-12 credit hours per semester. At Virginia Tech, a graduate student on any assistantship is required to take 12 credit hours per semester. Although the in-class hours for graduate students is less than those of undergraduate students, due to the nature of graduate courses, the out-of-class hours per credit are greatly increased. Even if we assume that each credit in the Graduate School at Virginia Tech requires a total of 4 hours of academic work (this is only 1 hour per credit more than the undergraduate credit requirement), this would mean that each graduate student with a 20-hour assistantship needs to spend 68 hours on academic work and assistantship. Needless to say, this is impractical considering this is required of them each week of a semester.

However, this is not to say that students actually spend the same number of hours per week as discussed above to obtain their degrees. Studies have shown that students, especially undergraduates, spend a lot less than 3 hours per week to earn a credit. I myself have earned a graduate level degree at Virginia Tech but do not think I spent 4 hours per credit for all the credits I earned for the degree. But whatever number of hours students actually spend to earn their degrees, in theory, the requirements seem too difficult and taxing.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Stanford Prison Experiment

Yesterday, I watched the movie The Stanford Prison Experiment at The Lyric and I was mesmerized and hence today I watched it again. The movie absorbed me not only because it was a nicely made movie which captures the essence of the experiment which was conducted 34 years ago but also because it teaches so much about human nature, how our behaviors impact others, and what kind of responsibilities we have in order to ensure that our behavior does not harm others’ well-being. Given that I myself am an educator, and teach the first year engineering classes at Virginia Tech, it made me think of my position as an authority and how my comments, remarks, and attitude toward them in and outside the class might affect my students.

Given the fact that students see the instructors as an authority figure in class, especially in the undergraduate classes, I think I carry with me an immense amount of power when I enter a classroom to teach. I have the power to not only shape their learning but also direct how they see the world and see themselves in it. I can provide a learning environment which increases their confidence in their own self by validating their capacities to learn and by situating learning in their experiences. Such a learning environment will lead to a development of intellectual power, reflective judgement, self-confidence and integrity in my students. At the same time, by portraying learning as shared among their peers, I can teach them to value others’ cultures and viewpoints.

I do not only have the responsibility to ensure that the students develop self-confidence and respect for others through my teaching but also have the duty to ensure that I do not do anything which psychologically hurts them and hinders their development as a citizen who is capable of taking ethical actions for the common good. This becomes even more important while teaching the first year college students. The first year is the initial step for the college students to understand the world. This is the first time when they are away from their parents and actually live their lives on their own. They start to interact with the world without an immediate safeguard from their parents. At the same time, it is a time when they start thinking about their majors and career paths. This is the period when they beginning their journeys to find an identity of their own. With all of this happening to them at the same time, it leaves them in a very delicate and psychologically fragile state of mind. In such a case, any insensitive or inappropriate comment from an instructor about their abilities to succeed might have a huge impact on the students. This in turn can adversely impact their development as effective citizens.

While I realize that I carry a huge responsibility on my shoulders while teaching and interacting with the first year students, I believe that the responsibility which educators carry while interacting with students at any grade level is equally huge. I just hope that we, the educators, keep on doing our work with utmost honesty and student interest in mind.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

I Do and I Understand

Curiosity is an inherent human nature. We want to learn about the world around us. And we have been doing so since the day we were born. When we are curious, we actively engage with the world around us and in that process learn about it. Unfortunately, our education system undermines this basic instinct of human beings. It treats students as passive learners or empty vessels. And the job of the instructors is to “fill students’ minds” with knowledge. Classrooms are treated as places to transfer information where the instructors act as the “sea of knowledge” who aim to transfer their knowledge to the students.

However, this system of knowledge transfer does not lead to students’ learning. Yes, the students do get some information in this process but they do not necessarily understand it. And they forget it after some time. Students are not empty vessels which can be filled with knowledge. They have a mind of their own. They think and construct knowledge out of what they hear, see and experience. And they learn in this process of knowledge construction.

If we want students to construct their own understanding, the only way to do that is to engage them in the process of learning instead of delivering content to them. And the way we can engage students in the learning process is by involving them in activities which lead to their learning. When students are engaged, they can learn the most difficult and intricate topics. This is because while they are engaged, they try to connect the new information to their long-term memory. This, in turn, leads to their understanding of the topic they are trying to learn. As the author James Paul Gee notes in his book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, kids tend to learn even the most complicated of video games because they are deeply engaged in the process of learning it. There are multiple instructional strategies which can be used to involve students in the learning process. These include, but are not limited to, project-based learning, problem-based learning, case-based teaching, discovery learning, collaborative learning, co-operative learning and peer-teaching.

An old proverb suggests, “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” If we want students to understand the content, we need to engage them in doing activities instead of making them hear lectures from the instructors.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Are Grades Credible?

Grades are used in the education system to assess the level to which students have achieved the learning objectives of a course or an assignment. Grades also act as feedback to students to indicate what they have learned and the deficiencies in their understating. While this system of giving feedback to students using grades has adverse impacts on students’ motivation and learning, I argue that grades do not necessarily say much about students’ learning and their ability to apply learning to real life problems. This is because the problems which students are required to solve on assignments or tests to obtain a grade are different from real life problems. This diminishes the credibility of grades to assess students’ learning.

Real life problem solving requires collaboration. I cannot think of any profession which does not require one to work with others. An engineering product is an outcome of the collaborative effort of all the people working on the product development team. A researcher is required to collaborate with other researchers to conduct their study. An airplane pilot needs to collaborate with other members of the flight crew and the ground staff to fly the plane. A surgeon needs to collaborate with other members of the medical team to perform a surgery. However, a majority of assignments which students submit for grade and almost all the tests which they take for grades are based on individual efforts. There is a possibility that a student works better when put in team as compared to when the same student is asked to do a task individually. Similarly, a student who does well on individual tests might not perform as well while working on a team. As a result, the grades which a student gets on individual work does not say much about their ability to apply their learning in the real world setting which is based on collaborative work.

Real life problems require the use of tools such as computing tools, drawing tools, design tools to solve problems. A lot of problems asked in the tests and assignments require students to do mental work. A good grade on a test may indicate proficiency with mental work but does not say much about whether one has learned the required skills to solve problems using tools in real life situations.

Real life problems are context-dependent. On the other hand, the questions which students are required to do for assignments are mostly abstract and devoid of context. For example, while writing an essay or an article, the writer needs to consider who the intended readers are, the kind of knowledge the readers will have about the topic and other such contextual details. However, such contextual details are usually missing when students write something for an assignment or a test. As a result, one cannot conclude whether the student has acquired the skills to write in a given context and for a given set of readers even if the student gets a perfect grade on an essay assignment.

There are a lot of skills required to solve real life problems. A lot of times, these skills are a part of course learning outcomes. However, all of these skills are difficult to measure. For example, it is difficult to measure students’ learning of teamwork and ethical issues in problem solving. As a result, the grade which a student gets in a course at the end of the term might not be based on the evaluation of all the skills which the students are required to learn from the course.

To answer the question I asked in the title of this blogpost, I would say that the grades which a student gets on a test or an assignment are not credible; and we need to stop valuing grades as much as we do and treating them as a measure of student’ learning. 

Monday, September 7, 2015

Mindless Learning Through Standardization

Standardization is the buzz word in the current education system. The curriculum which is taught to the students is standardized, the way that curriculum is taught to them is standardized, the tests given to the students are standardized, and the remedial actions taken when the students do not do well on the standardized tests are standardized. While this standardization is clearly visible in K-12 where students are required to take a standardized test at the end of each grade level, the higher education is also not untouched by standardization. College courses are designed around learning outcomes which the students are expected to achieve by end of the semester. These learning outcomes are then measured through tests and assignments through the semester. These tests and assignments are standardized in that they are the same for all the students in the class.

Any kind of standardization ignores the fact that each student in a classroom is unique and different from another student. Each of the students has different aspirations and comes from a different social and cultural background. Each student has a different way of leaning and a unique way of demonstrating their learning. A standardized way of teaching and evaluating students’ learning might not be relevant to each student. As a result, some students might not find what they are learning in class to be useful. This, in turn, kills their curiosity to learn by engaging with the course material. They instead become passive receivers of knowledge and find the process of learning boring and disengaging.

As a result of this, the only motivating factor which students see in a course is the grade which they get at the end of the semester. Hence, they turn all their attention to getting a better grade instead of critically engaging with the learning material. This is where they start mindlessly engaging in the process of learning. Mindless learning is characterized by low attention to the context of learning, lack of alertness to distinctions, and ignorance of multiple perspectives. Paying low attention to learning contexts might lead to a non-understanding of the context, which in turn hinders the process of transfer of learning from classroom to the real world. A lack of alertness to nuances might lead to misconceptions in the minds of the learner. Misconceptions further hinder students’ learning. Ignorance of multiple perspective prevents a well-rounded development of a student.

To realize the full potential of education, standardized learning environments should be replaced with customized ones which cater to the needs of each student and help them engage in mindful learning.

Monday, August 31, 2015

And You May Contribute a Verse…

While answering the question ‘what is good among the struggles, failures, and emptiness of life?’, the famous American poet Walt Whitman, in his poem ‘O Me! O Life!’ says, “That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.” Here, he refers to life as a powerful play, the sequence and progression of which is beyond any individual’s control. However, at the same time, the poet gives immense power in the hands of each individual by noting that each person “may contribute a verse” in this powerful play. In other words, a person can use their voice to contribute to and shape the ongoing conversations in their life.

The ability to contribute to the ongoing raises a basic question: How does one do it? There need to be some channel or medium through which an individual can put forth their opinions and viewpoints. The Scholarship in any field is limited to the researchers or the ones who have made their mark in the field. The print media is similarly not accessible to the common masses to express their viewpoints. And both the Scholarship and the print media, at times, are guided by the dominant narrative and have ulterior agenda and motifs. In such a case, it becomes difficult for anyone to present an opinion especially if it does not go along with the dominant narrative.

Social media which includes, but is not limited to, blogs, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram, provide a means for people to share their beliefs with the world and eventually engage in a conversation with others on topics which they are interested in. Once can use one or more social media platforms to post their viewpoints on a topic and similarly be aware of others’ viewpoints on the same topic by following others on the social media platforms. Moreover, through social media, one can connect with people with similar interests and passions and eventually form a tribe which has the power to bring about changes which an individual alone cannot.

Social media not only provides a platform to express oneself and communicate with others but also serves as a platform for academic collaboration, teaching and learning, and engaging in a social dialogue. There are multiple blogs (some of which are referenced here) which are dedicated to history, medicine, and business among other disciplines. These blogs can serve as resources for students and faculty alike. Blogs can also be used as an outlet for students’ works as is being done in the ‘Contemporary Pedagogy’ and ‘Preparing the Future Professoriate’ classes done at Virginia Tech. Some blogs allow multiple authorship and thus those provide avenues for collaboration in academia and in the process of learning.

Blogs and other social media platforms foster interaction among learners. This interaction helps people construct knowledge from a constructivist viewpoint. Unlike the traditional teacher-centric model of education, social media provides a model of learning which is centered on the learner in that the learner engages with the rest of the world using social media and learns in collaboration with others. Collaborating with others to learn also helps the learners to integrate multiple viewpoints in their learning unlike the traditional model where the learner is exposed to only the teacher’s and/or their classmates’ viewpoints.

In a nutshell, while Whitman suggests that the good thing about life and the world is that one has the ability to change them through their efforts, social media provides one with the opportunity to channelize those efforts so that they bear fruits.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Mission Statements of Universitites

As the name suggests, mission statements represent the purpose of educational institutions. These are the milestones which universities aim to achieve and hence serve as a guide to institutional practices. A lot of times, mission statements are aspirational in nature i.e. they suggest what the intuitions aim to achieve in future and are working toward it. While there exist similarities in mission statements of different universities, there are also considerable differences in their mission statements. These differences differentiate one educational institution from the others. In this blogpost, I will compare and contrast the mission statements of two universities, Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee (IIT Roorkee) and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech), from which I hold engineering degrees. I did my undergraduate from IIT Roorkee and my Masters from Virginia Tech, both in Electrical Engineering.

The home page of the official website of IIT Roorkee states that the institute’s mission is
“To create an environment that shall foster the growth of intellectually capable, innovative and entrepreneurial professionals, who shall contribute to the growth of Science and Technology in partnership with industry and develop and harness it for the welfare of the nation and mankind.”
IIT Roorkee is primarily an engineering university in India, owned and run by the central (or federal) government of India. It is a small university with a total student population of less than 10000, including undergraduate and graduate students. Since IIT Roorkee is primarily focused on engineering, its mission is to “contribute to the growth of Science and Technology.”

The mission statement of Virginia Tech states:
“Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) is a public land-grant university serving the Commonwealth of Virginia, the nation, and the world community. The discovery and dissemination of new knowledge are central to its mission. Through its focus on teaching and learning, research and discovery, and outreach and engagement, the university creates, conveys, and applies knowledge to expand personal growth and opportunity, advance social and community development, foster economic competitiveness, and improve the quality of life.”
Virginia Tech, located in Blacksburg, Virginia, has a student body of around 30000, which means it is almost thrice as large as IIT Roorkee in terms of student enrollment. Although the name of the university has the word “polytechnic” in it, students can study diverse disciplines at Virginia Tech including liberal arts, humanities, social sciences, music, and theatre. This is probably the reason why the mission statement does not explicitly mention words like technology or engineering. Rather it states that the university focuses on “teaching and learning, research and discovery, and outreach and engagement.” One notable information provided in Virginia Tech’s mission statement is a public land-grant university. There is no information provided about the type of university IIT Roorkee is in its mission statement.

One thing which stood out to me while reading Virginia Tech’s mission statement was its goal to foster “economic competitiveness.” IIT Roorkee’s mission statement does not mention of any kind of competition. I think the reason for this is the nature of social systems present in both the countries. While India is a welfare state where the government has the responsibility to ensure the welfare of all its citizens, the USA thrives on a capitalist system where money and profit guide organizations with little government control in the lives of the people.

Despite having notable differences, the mission statements of both the universities have some similarities as well. Both the universities aim to contribute to the welfare of their respective nations and the mankind in general. Both the mission statements mention individual’s growth as one of their aims. And finally, both the mission statements promise generic qualities such as growth of intellectually smart individuals, research and discovery, entrepreneurial mindset, engagement, welfare of the nation and the humankind. This is in accordance with some of the skeptics who suggest that mission statements use vague language and present generic outcomes.