Indian Computer Science (CS) & Information Technology (IT) Academic Reform Activism Consolidated Blog Document

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CS & IT: Internet Based Learning

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Extracts from a mail exchange with a friend on Internet Based Learning are given below.

Friend wrote: There are many arguments in favor of internet learning (hardly any new to you, I assume, but please humor me anyway):

  1. Like you said, we should separate the means from the ends. A degree should be given to anybody who has a certain amount of knowledge, irrespective of how he learned.

  2. It gives everyone access to the best teachers (and I use the word loosely, as in people who teach). A million people can watch a tech talk, but a million students can't attend a physical class. The average teacher I've encountered throughout my formal education is mediocre, almost by definition :)

  3. Internet education solves the debt problem, as you pointed out. It's expensive even in India. One lakh rupees per year for engineering is pretty common, and my cousin may go abroad because it's not much more expensive than in Bangalore (5-8 lakhs for engineering IIRC).

  4. It gives socially or economically disadvantaged people a way out, at least to some extent, when it becomes far cheaper to get educated. My car driver's son needn't drive a car.

  5. It gets rid of the regimented, industrial model of education. There's probably no better way to kill interest than in saying, "No, it's 10:00, so you have to stop this interesting class and attend this other class". We are not emotionless robots. The best time to learn is when you're motivated, which could happen on the weekend, in the evening, etc. And when you're motivated, the last thing you want to do is interrupt your flow. Ever since my 10th class, I'd sneak a peek around the class once in a while, and I'd see many more uninterested, bored or even slightly angry faces than rapturous ones. That has been my experience, too. Computers would be far less interesting if I learnt only in class. See this insightful talk:

  6. You can pick and choose the best of various sources, whether universities, or google tech talks, or what ever else. In the physical model, I have to pick one university.

  7. You can learn at whatever pace you find comfortable -- you don't get bored if the lecture is too slow for you, or unable to keep up if it's too fast.

  8. People won't find fault with you for asking too many questions :)

  9. You can dive as deep into a topic you want, at any time. In computer terms, you can choose between breadth-first and depth-first.

  10. You get to skip courses that are not practical (automata theory, as an example) or that you already learnt informally. And you can learn stuff you'd like to (Lisp and Smalltalk, in my case). When you have lifelong learning (and you have no other option in our industry), you can learn things when needed; no need to learn everything ahead of time just in case it's needed later. You forget, anyway.

  11. Shorter education periods, when you put all the above together. This wastes fewer years of people's precious lives, lets them contribute financially to their families if there's a need (like in my case), or just enjoy life. Any of these is more valuable than sitting in a dismal classroom. You can tell how much I hate formal education :)

  12. More interesting projects than today. Perhaps work on an open-source project when you're in college. This ties to our earlier discussion -- you should know how things work in the real world before taking an advanced course.

All this assumes motivated students, of course. Colleges can still exist for the mediocre students, but I'm more interested in freeing good students from the system.

Eklavya Sai responded: Your articulation of arguments in favour of internet based learning is excellent! Thank you so much for sharing these crisp & clear points.

While your focus has been on "good students", I think most of your points may be relevant for "mediocre students" as well.

Further, I feel that internet based education empowers the entire student community with more options for learning. And if teachers adapt then they may find internet based knowledge sources to be a vital teaching aid in improving their effectiveness as a teacher.


Eklavya Sai Maalik, October 4, 2011 at 8:49 PM

How wonderful it would be if AICTE/UGC embrace it by giving students the option of learning either by attending physical classes or by themselves on the net - and then having common exams like GATE exams for certifying knowledge of the graduating student.

Eklavya Sai Maalik, October 4, 2011 at 8:54 PM

Friend responded (edited slightly):

Yes, that would be nirvana!

I have a couple more points:

- Let people finish courses in whatever order they want. I started learning C in 8th class, and I'd have loved to put aside everything else till I finish BTech-level CS. And maybe even get a job straight away. After all, does Google care if I know what a deciduous forest is? Do I?

Who is to decide what's important? Some paternalistic bureaucrats/administrators in New Delhi? I don't see how I benefitted from so many dreary hours of history, geography, civics, etc. Even if you believe that knowledge of these subjects is important, dreary classroom lectures are an unproductive way of imparting this knowledge. Most students just daydream or are alienated by the system or, at any rate, forget the allegedly important stuff by the time they graduate.

So, unbundle degrees, and award people certificates for tenth class math or B.Tech. CS. After all, isn't it strange for a software company to demand that their employees know what savannah is, or what the Counter-Reformation was? This is what happens today, when you have a company saying that they require a certain degree from prospective employees. Instead, companies can just ask for qualifications that actually matter for their work. And students, or their parents, can decide that certain subjects are important even if companies don't care. Or they can learn later in life if and when they see the importance of something. You can't force an uninterested student to learn, anyway. This system takes nothing away, and gives flexibility.

And it forces each subject to prove its merit, rather than shoving it down students' throats. It provides an inbuilt safety value for quality — if a subject, or the way its taught, is not useful, students will stop learning them.

So, get rid of the notion of a tenth class or a BTech degree, and award certifications for each subject, and let people choose what's useful.

- Even if you don't agree with the preceding point — that all subjects should be optional — a weaker version of it is still valuable: let students complete courses in whatever order they want. A high-school student should be able to finish BTech CS courses, and then come back to 10th class geography, say. In addition to the fact that the best time to learn anything is when you're motivated, rather than forcing everything down into artificial categories that destroy interest, can you imagine the self-confidence and feeling of achievement and pride in himself a 12th class student would get if he's already at BTech level in his chosen field? The current system delivers the opposite feelings — lack of purpose, disempowerment and alienation.

Eklavya Sai Maalik, October 4, 2011 at 9:02 PM

Subject-wise certifications is a great idea. I think the Internet education possibilities can make such ideas feasible. But reform will be needed.

I am a great fan of "on demand" learning. As I myself have followed it extensively and benefited very well, I think.

History in school was boring - exams to be passed. History when read after I had some experience in life was extremely useful to know. You get an idea of how things have evolved. Helps in even understanding current affairs.

The wiki has been very useful to me in the last few years itself as I have learnt so much about a variety of topics using its free knowledge base.

Eklavya Sai Maalik, October 4, 2011 at 9:03 PM

Friend responded:

Glad to hear that. wikipedia has been a great boon to me, too.

Eklavya Sai Maalik, October 15, 2011 at 1:22 PM

Here's a great article dated May 2011 on How the Internet is Revolutionizing Education. In the first paragraph, it quotes the great self-taught thinker-scientist of the 20th century, Albert Einstein, “Learning is not a product of schooling but the lifelong attempt to acquire it.”

It has a wide sweep touching upon Internet Based Education initiatives of MIT, UC Berkeley, Yale, Stanford, Harvard, "some of the most selective universities in India" (presumably a reference to NPTEL), Open Culture, Khan Academy, Academic Earth, P2PU, Skillshare, Scitable, Skype etc. and concludes with views of journalists, education innovators & academics.

Eklavya Sai Maalik, November 14, 2011 at 4:45 PM

Fascinating article on how online education is seen as a threat by many teachers, and a Harvard academic's opinion on how teaching can become a "much more interesting profession" with online education. Clayton Christensen: Why online education is ready for disruption, now

Sunday, July 22, 2012

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