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Undergraduate Education
hallenrm
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Very recently i cae across a very interesting article related to the undergraduate education in some of the leading educational institutions across the world. The article is entitled: ‘Undergraduate Education: What Good is it? An International Perspective and its author is: Professor James Wilkinson, Director of the Derek Bok Centre for Teaching and Learning, Harvard University

Professor James Wilkinson wrote:

These reasons for a generalist curriculum are perhaps peculiarly American. But there are other grounds put forward by my own institution and others that have more universal validity. As we know, the state of knowledge today is constantly changing, especially in the areas of science and technology. The content of fields as different as cell biology, astronomy, neuroscience, and ecology is not what it was even five years ago; this means that whatever students learn now will begin to be outdated almost as soon as they leave the university. Disciplinary boundaries themselves reflect human convention rather than natural necessity. They, too, are currently shifting to accommodate new academic alliances in efforts to understand complex systems such as the brain or global warming. ...............................
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Attempts to define general education through content alone—be it a canon of books or a set of subjects—are doomed to failure. The sheer mathematics of time available and number of fields to be covered in order to acquaint oneself with the “accumulated thought of past generations” dictates an attitude of modesty when it comes to prescribing a general education. There is an inevitable trade-off between breadth and depth, in which more and more topics are covered less and less well. The old joke about what in the United States are called Western Civilization courses—in effect survey courses of European history from the Middle Ages to the present—is that if you unlucky enough to sneeze in the midst of lecture you miss the French Revolution. Simply covering a broad array of topics is not useful. Selecting a narrow array with the justification that these are the most important will ensure a querelle de précédence among academics, each convinced that his or her favorite subject is about to be offered up on the altar of curricular expediency.
What good is undergraduate education? In the short term, an undergraduate education that trains students in a particular line of work, be it forestry or nursing or materials technology such as plastics can be defended as long as the training involves sufficient hands-on practice. But such training has an increasingly brief shelf life, and, at least in the United States, is perhaps better left to the training offered by a business or industry once the college graduate has been hired. Long-term, a generalist undergraduate education provides a more flexible and, ultimately, more practical type of learning. That is presumably why the Sorbonne Declaration of 1998 and the Bologna Declaration of 1999 endorsed the adoption of a two-cycle system—undergraduate and graduate—throughout the European Union, in effect endorsing the British and American approach to undergraduate education over that of the Germans, and returning to the original conception of a university with elementary and advanced levels of learning.
So much for the content, the “what” of undergraduate education. Let me now turn to the “how.” Within the framework of what I have called a moderate generalist education, it does not matter nearly as much what subject matter our undergraduates study as it does how they study it. Of course it is important for them to be introduced to fields they have previously ignored through some sort of distribution requirement. And it is important for them to spend enough time on each intellectual area they study to gain more than just a cocktail party or “bluffer’s guide” acquaintance with its main ideas. But in the end, I believe that the best way to do this is through supervised...................
For many students, particularly those studying a specialist curriculum, what the university offers is a series of answers to questions they have never learned to ask, generated by a research process they have never been encouraged to understand. So if we want students to understand what we are doing, we need to introduce them to the process as well as the results of research. We need to take them into our laboratories and libraries, either directly or virtually. Now the argument against showing students what is behind the scenes is that this is inefficient. Surely it makes more sense to present the conclusions of research in a succinct and orderly manner than to confuse them with blind alleys and current debates? My counterargument is that undergraduate education is condemned by its very nature to be inefficient; efficiency is a mirage, or worse, an excuse. The first thing that an undergraduate education should teach students is what the faculty are all about—what it means to discover things. Critics of evolution in the United States assert that evolution is “just a theory.” This betrays their lack of understanding, not just of evolution, but of the scientific method as a whole. Of course evolution is just a theory; so is quantum mechanics, plate tectonics, and gravity. In the humanities, “theories” become “interpretations,” but the process of selecting the reading of Eliot’s The Waste Land that best conforms to your understanding of the evidence is every bit as much a process of discovery, and every bit as provisional, as a scientific hypothesis. Putting together theories about the world and testing them; interpreting a poem or religious scripture on the basis of evidence; examining economic data and offering predictions—all these are examples of what faculty should be aiding students to undertake themselves.
The skill that would be of most practical value to our undergraduate students, in my opinion, as well as the key to what we mean when we speak of educated men and women, is the ability to ask good questions and to work at seeking answers based on evidence. University faculty are extremely good at offering students their own answers, often to questions that the students themselves fail to ask or even to understand. Students who are given the task of generating questions on their own.............................................

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I believe that this article is a must read for all those clamouring for quality of education in Indian Universities!
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vimarsh
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Thanks hallenrm for posting inspiring thoughts of a Professor at Harvard University. But, what about our community - the University of Delhi? Today in Times of India, I read some revealing thoughts of a Professor of Physics and Astrophysics, Professor Shobhit Mahajan, who is incidentally a member of Vimarsh too Very Happy I would like to add them to this thread Smile

Professor Shobhit Mahajan wrote:
An undergraduate curriculum is basically a formal academic plan for the learning experiences of students in pursuit of a college degree. The term curriculum can have many definitions, but we can broadly define it as including goals for student learning (this could be skills and knowledge), content (the subject matter), instructional methods, activities, instructional resources (materials and settings) and finally, evaluation.
Given this broad definition, it is clear that a lot of attention needs to be paid to the development of curricula since it is ultimately that which will decide on the efficacy of education to meet its stated goals, namely of producing not only degree-holding individuals, but in fact a literate and educated population in the broadest sense of the term. However, the situation in our universities on this front is dismal.
In most Indian universities, the curriculum is designed not by the people who will be responsible for teaching it, but instead by committees with minimal real representation from college teachers. The college teacher is the fulcrum around which education at the tertiary level revolves. This is not only because he/she is the person most informed about the actual ground reality but is also the person who has the potential to excite students about the subject. Unfortunately, his/her inputs into critical things like curriculum development are mostly ignored. This has a major impact on the quality of teaching since there is no sense of ownership of the curricula.
The curricula themselves in most places are outdated and uninspiring. Even where curriculum revision takes place frequently, there is little connection with reality in terms of capabilities of teachers to teach the syllabus, the infrastructure required to teach and most importantly, the level of the students. For instance, introducing new experiments in laboratories, without adequate preparation makes it impossible for colleges to actually undertake them. Or, introducing new subjects (like microprocessors, computer programming, genetic engineering, etc) without training faculty members (who in most cases may not be familiar with them) leads to teaching becoming a farce.

INTERDISCIPLINARY APPROACH

Curriculum, thus, is reduced to putting together a lot of content in a particular subject without any attempt to integrate the other components mentioned above, namely, delivery, evaluation, instructional resources, etc. This whole exercise becomes even more facile in the case of the so-called ‘interdisciplinary’ subjects.
Although we tend to think of interdisciplinarity as something novel, it has been the dominant paradigm in the pursuit of knowledge for the most part in human history. From the times of ancient Greeks to the Middle Ages, subject boundaries for knowledge were fairly porous. Only with the immense growth in knowledge did specialisation become the norm in academics.
However, a few decades ago, it was realised that in a few areas, crossfertilisation between disciplines has the potential of enriching them individually. What is more, it was realised that certain tools used in some subjects were eminently suited for completely different ones. For instance, the tools used in Chaos Theory, initially a branch of physics and mathematics, found use in areas as diverse as economics of the stock market and ecology.
From this, it was but a small step for the growth of interdisciplinary courses, which exposed students to the tools and concepts of two entirely different disciplines. Though this approach of uniting two, hitherto, separate subjects yielded dividends in research, the experience in pedagogy was somewhat mixed. In certain institutions, mechanisms like joint teaching and appointment (across disciplines) enabled the success of interdisciplinary studies, but this was the exception rather than the norm.
However, in the Indian context, the experience has been, by and large disappointing. The interdisciplinary courses floated in universities are invariably caught in various traps, not the least of which is the syllabus being a simple minded concatenation of the individual syllabi into one, thereby losing out on the connections at the interface — which is what makes the subject interesting. Add to this the orphan syndrome that is of the course being not owned by anyone and we have a recipe for disaster.
What is required is a variety of initiatives, which empower the faculty into designing the curriculum, teaching it and evaluating students. In the case of interdisciplinary studies, what needs to be added to this is an appreciation of other disciplines and a paradigm shift towards cross-discipline collaboration. Sadly, in our context, where collaboration even within a department is frowned upon, this seems like a distant dream.
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hallenrm
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Yesterday, while i witnessed the Interactive rounds of Science Quest, an annual competition between undergraduate students of DU, i was really struck by the futility of the present system of Undergraduate education, whether in Sciences or Arts. The goal of the undergraduate science education is to nurture scientists for the nation. But, it is evident that save a small percentage, say at most 3% of the total number of students that enroll for a science course, most of them are really not interested in the subject. Many of them come to the university just to pass time, till they are ready for marriage or family business. In the course of the time they spend in the university, the society loses an opportunity to nurture citizens, who can be valuable for the development and growth of the country.

What is the dire need of the nation today? While we do need a few scientists to man our research establishments, we need many more to manage people and crucial projects. One witnesses everyday, how we suffer in our daily life only because of mismanagement. Everyone has to manage various aspects of life, be it the family, the immediate environment, personal resources including health, or associates. Are we educating our youth to meet these challenges?

It is my opinion, that we fail more often then not!

So, what can the the University do?

I think it is time that it starts mulling about changing its undergraduate education. Instead of the age old courses called B.Sc. or B.A. or BBA, the university should mull over the idea of a changeover, say B.M. (Bechelor of Management) in such a course students would be made more proficient for managing their life (health, environment, relations, associates etc.).or an integrated education course I have talked about.
The course would include elements of various sciences and arts. Though it may not include the sterile practicals, but instead include experiments much more relevant for the daily life and survival of a person in todays society Smile
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vimarsh
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Interesting, but I am a bit skeptical and have a question om the pragmatic aspect of your suggestion Question Where would the university find teachers for such a course? Remember the faculty of a university has certain propensities, they are trained to interact with students in a certain way, and transact certain kinds of courses in a particular manner. Thus the teachers the university has employed over the years would not be ready for any such change because they would be very uncomfortable in a changed university system.

Imagine a chemistry teacher in a college, teach anything beyond what s/he has learned when a student Exclamation
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hallenrm
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A good question indeed! Yes it can be a herculean task, but then where there is a will there is a way Smile

A possible solution would lie in the retraining of the existing teachers. You may very well ask, where is the time for such a training, because normally there are hardly any free teachers; the University/college recruits only as many teachers as are absolutely essential for conducting the courses. Since this would be a new kind of courses and the existing teachers would be busy in taking the classes of the existing courses Exclamation

I think it may require a mission task approach. Some additional faculty (motivated and devoted teachers) would need to be recruited over and above the numbers absolutely essential,just like the Indian IT companies do. A batch of teachers can then be retrained in institutions like ILLL; even the present infrastructur of such institutions would need to be beefed up, perhaps by winding up a present college Idea
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rmh
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An ideal system for undergraduate education, in any university could be what is known as Inquiry Education. I read about it on the Wikipedia yesterday and I would like to quote what i read:

Quote:
Inquiry education (sometimes known as the inquiry method) is a student-centered method of education focused on asking questions. Students are encouraged to ask questions which are meaningful to them, and which do not necessarily have easy answers; teachers are encouraged to avoid giving answers when this is possible, and in any case to avoid giving direct answers in favor of asking more questions. The method was advocated by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner in their book Teaching as a Subversive Activity.

The inquiry method is motivated by Postman and Weingartner's recognition that good learners and sound reasoners center their attention and activity on the dynamic process of inquiry itself, not merely on the end product of static knowledge. They write that certain characteristics are common to all good learners (Postman and Weingartner, 31–33), saying that all good learners have:

* Self-confidence in their learning ability
* Pleasure in problem solving
* A keen sense of relevance
* Reliance on their own judgment over other people's or society's
* No fear of being wrong
* No haste in answering
* Flexibility in point of view
* Respect for facts, and the ability to distinguish between fact and opinion
* No need for final answers to all questions, and comfort in not knowing an answer to difficult questions rather than settling for a simplistic answer

In an attempt to instill students with these qualities and behaviors, a teacher adhering to the inquiry method in pedagogy must behave very differently from a traditional teacher. Postman and Weingartner suggest that inquiry teachers have the following characteristics (pp. 34–37):

* They avoid telling students what they "ought to know".
* They talk to students mostly by questioning, and especially by asking divergent questions.
* They do not accept short, simple answers to questions.
* They encourage students to interact directly with one another, and avoid judging what is said in student interactions.
* They do not summarize students' discussion.
* They do not plan the exact direction of their lessons in advance, and allow it to develop in response to students' interests.
* Their lessons pose problems to students.
* They gauge their success by change in students' inquiry behaviors (with the above characteristics of "good learners" as a goal).
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Undergraduate Education
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