Thursday, June 14, 2012

What creates a great educational experience

While it has nothing to do with education, it was a first hand experience of advantages of a better team.

We were short of manpower. The folks in control allocated a person for a month while he was waiting for his assignment. The problem - he did not know how to code! We gave a small assignment to get him interested and the result was awful for all concerned. We were unhappy but he was even unhappier.

I got enough courage to ask him to do some work which everyone around me hated. I was trying to see how not to make him very unhappy. It came as a surprise - he jumped at it. He WANTED to write the user documentation. He spent an amazing amount of effort in this task. The result was excellent and surprisingly useful! He spent enough effort to make sure that the structure and style was in place such that the programmers could very easily add/modify the documentation as the project evolved. The user document remained current for the next three years the project was on.

A great team is not just a collection of great people. The mix is very important. A great place learn needs a similar mix. The most memorable example:
Jobs later said, "If I had never dropped in on that single calligraphy course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts."
I wonder how many of our premier institutions offer a course on calligraphy? And I wonder if IIT-like environment will expose one to a person like Marshall Mcluhan or his ideas:

  • Only puny secrets need protection. Big discoveries are protected by public incredulity.
  • Computers can do better than ever what needn’t be done at all. Making sense is still a human monopoly. 
Another known - students learn from each other. 

So, the question which should be asked is that what mix of students will maximize the learning by the students. Can selecting the best students as per some metric, no matter what, ever be the answer?

What I find frustrating is the fuss over a common entrance test. The troubling aspect is the effort to turn it into a common metric. SAT has been used by most colleges in US for decades. Yet, it is only one input. Each institution has its own selection criteria. It seems ridiculous for each institution to create its own entrance test. How can anyone have such faith in the outcome of one exam? Blaming coaching for the less than satisfactory input is equivalent to burying one's head in sand.

I wish institutions should fight for an ideal mix of students, which may be based on desirable goals like
  • A healthy mix of male and female students
  • A diverse student population - class, caste, religion, region, 
  • A mix of long term goals and aptitude - academics, management, research, entrepreneurship, etc.
Certainly not quotas but multiple optimization formulas which take multiple goals into account along with results from an entrance test, academic performance - from KG if desired and other factors. Each institution can have its own set of rules but maintain transparency given the shortages. Why not follow the misquote of Chairman Mao:
Let a thousand flowers bloom
Institutions should keep improving the goals and the optimization metrics based on the learning outcomes rather than worrying about creating a test which will beat the coaching classes.

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