Tech education is in a muddle, a serious muddle, and we hope to see some unravelling in 2022. Tech education has been under tremendous pressure for a radical transformation since the turn of this century. The last decade saw a lot of churn in terms of seeking new directions, new methods of pedagogy, new tools of assessing learning, and a whole lot of discussions related to teaching and learning. Just when we thought we were getting a good grip on what needed to be done, the pandemic struck, and the challenges in effective tech education took a turn for the worse. We were confronted by an existential crisis — can technical education be even imparted when students are off campus? While this debate is universal, India saw an even bigger crisis in tech education with a deepening divide in the quality of education, made worse by incredibly disparate levels of internet access for students on the one hand, and lack of preparedness of the faculty to use digital tools for effective teaching on the other hand. Then, just when most institutions were preparing to welcome students back to the campus and get them to laboratories for hands-on work, Omicron struck. Students are back in their homes, campuses are deserted, and we are staring at a future of an entire batch of tech graduates with severely compromised education.
When we think of tech education in 2022, we usually get caught into the fancy ideas of innovations in ed-tech, be it high quality video lectures, podcasts, e-classrooms, online quizzes and exams, virtual labs, or AR-VR labs. While all these innovations are admirable and welcome, the far more serious issue of how to train engineers for the modern day’s challenges remains unaddressed. In today’s world, complex problem-solving ability coupled with excellent communication skills is what is expected of engineers. The competencies to solve complex problems require a training that calls for individualized learning and a continuous apprenticeship with an expert, such as a faculty member engaged in engineering research or practice. What we clearly understand is that good education needs a lot of personal attention; and technology doesn’t change that.
The problems of tech education are at several levels. At global level, most thinking universities are preparing for a tectonic shift from traditional departmental curriculum to more integrated, interdisciplinary training, with a lot more emphasis on experiential learning. Because most information is readily available, the information-relay centric teaching has to transform radically — an idea much more easily understood than practiced. While the world of engineering education struggles with which traditional courses to drop to make room for new ones, the much bigger question of what 21st century engineers need and what is the best way to train them for it takes a back-seat. Here in India, the disparity in the quality of engineering schools is so much that a very large proportion of engineering faculty are not even aware and are perhaps just not trained enough to even comprehend this problem. This is why I stated that we have several levels of problems. More than two thirds of engineering schools in our country will just rush in 2022 to get the students on campus, push them to finish all the “labs” in order to complete the requirements of the degree, and get them through their current year or graduation. They will simply not have either time or bandwidth to see what new ed-tech innovations of 2022 can do for real engineering education. Some of the top institutions have taken the lead to create good quality multi-media learning modules but there is hardly any innovation in real pedagogy that aligns with the current research findings about active learning.
One thing that is sure to happen in tech education this year is a much more widespread integration of multimedia content in courses. There has been a substantial increase in the adoption of IT tools for teaching, evaluations and examinations, communication, and administration. These augur well for increasing the overall efficiency, not necessarily quality, of education delivery. There is likely to be some adoption of virtual lab technologies and, perhaps, in some elite institutions, introduction of AR-VR technologies for real learning. While the latter seems to be making inroads in several top schools in the world, limited resources in Indian institutions are likely to limit their use to some senior level labs or for mere show by some well-endowed institutions. The AR-VR technology certainly holds a lot of promise for impacting learning in a significant way.
It is easy to get sucked into the notion that doing all manner of high-tech things is good for education, but they may not be. I sincerely hope that 2022 forces us to think more seriously about significant changes in tech education, not merely cosmetic ones.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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