India’s chalk and talk problem

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There was an interesting piece in the The Chronicle of Higher Education earlier this month entitled India’s Company Classrooms Challenge ‘Chalk and Talk’ Colleges. The reason it is interesting, is that I’m not entirely sure the corporate universities are challenging the didactic pedagogy so commonplace in Indian institutions of higher education. In the Infosys case cited, the key difference, it would seem, is that PowerPoint is preferred to the chalkboard. The fact the wifi is turned off during class time would seem to indicate that Web 2.0 approaches to learning are yet to be readily accepted.

The Indian corporate sector has been complaining loudly about the inability of the higher education system to produce ‘job ready’ graduates for some time, some estimating that only one in four graduates possess the requisites skills. As a consequence, a new market player has emerged that is rather quaintly referred to as ‘finishing school’. This is not somewhere in Switzerland where the British aristocracy send their daughters to learn deportment, it’s a modest looking facility in the outskirts of an India metro where recent graduates learn the soft skills to enable them to participate as fully fledged members of the global workforce.

There is every chance that this segment of the Indian education industry will continue to expand for some time yet because success in education and success in the business world is chalk and cheese [pun intended]. Indian students will continue to ‘mug up for exams’ — a phrase in common parlance in the UK in the 1950s — because very little has changed within the Indian university sector since the 1950s. The focus is on teaching not learning, and testing memories not problem-solving skills. Industry, meanwhile, requires life-long learners and problem solvers.

Apologists for the system will no doubt point out that at every top university and leading corporate in the world you will find well-educated Indians. This, of course, is a product of the law of large numbers. These people have succeeded in spite of the system. Imagine what could be achieved if there were widespread acceptance of a learner-centric, technology-enhanced, participatory pedagogy with authentic assessment. To date, there has been very little incentive for institutions of higher education to change. With the opening up of the Indian education system to foreign competition, domestic institutions may be forced to reflect on their outdated practices.