ANYA stared hopelessly at her physics exam as she couldn’t remember much of what she had studied the previous night. She struggled to make sense of the questions and wondered how the information would be useful. Many students go through the pressure of exams every year, cramming content meaninglessly. Much of what needs to be learnt to go through life isn’t taught within the confines of a classroom. Millions of students who aren’t academically high performing might do much better if the learning environment were to evolve to serve their needs and give meaning and purpose to their learning.
The concept of experiential learning took root more than 50 years ago but few of our universities have adopted any semblance of it. By the time students get to university level, they need preparation for careers and life in general. Most skills in life require hands-on learning; after all, who can learn to pay taxes or file tax returns without trying it? Driving, budgeting for monthly bills, conducting experiments for innovations, entrepreneurial ventures and so forth, are all life skills that require experiential learning. Research shows that children retain more through hands-on learning, which implies we can provide a more productive education and get better results if we open up the avenues for it.
We may want to expand the boundaries of our education so we can make it more holistic and relevant to life’s experiences. Many students leave school or college without learning about other cultures, especially marginalised ones. Yet most get a degree without any experience of citizenship or knowledge of human rights, what constitutes a peaceful society and conflict resolution. These are tangible needs in the chaotic maze of consumerism, pandemics and wars that are the driving force of our world today.
How many of our local colleges help students grow their networks while studying? How many connect them to industry experts so they can learn from mentors or get involved in meaningful projects? The traditional internship opportunities are usually few and far between and reserved for the more upmarket universities in our country. The boundaries between industry and universities need to be fudged further, to allow for a fluid symbiotic relationship where opportunities arise as a matter of course and not for a select few at a designated time of the year.
How many of our local colleges help students grow their networks?
The current times have seen massive transformation in organisations, and higher education institutions in the country will be called to action in terms of preparing students for the challenges that lie ahead. What role these institutions will play, and how well they respond to the economic and social needs of society, depends less on budgets and infrastructure and more on their vision, planning and initiative. Since the 1980s, the internal governance of higher education institutes in Pakistan has been characterised by bureaucracy resulting in delayed accountability, lack of ethical practices and archaic mechanisms.
The inception of the HEC promised to change all that but, as we go through another shock wave of economic upheaval, it’s become clear that our higher education is being thrown back into the deep recesses of regulatory constraints. For example, students who could’ve taken open-book exams virtually — just like the rest of the world — were not given the opportunity here, but held back, forced to lose time and wait out the lockdown until their return to in-person exams. While we take our time to respond to the need for change, lagging behind the world as we resist the opportunity to evolve, students lose precious time.
However, there is a flip side to the coin. This time around, the students are far more independent than in the 1980s — they are aware of their own potential empowerment as agents of change and the possibilities that the virtual world has opened up. The higher education institutes are not the only canopy within which students thrive — they have extended boundaries way beyond their country and culture and can now study, live and work in a parallel system, and sometimes in multiple worlds, where they can connect, collaborate, learn and earn from sources other than their own physical environment.
Twenty-first century university students are part of a more diverse international community than ever before, and they can jump social hierarchies more easily than their parents’ generation. They are more likely to break away from teacher-focused approaches to interact with, learn from and make a socioeconomic impact on their communities, and often across a wider audience and context. There is lots to be learnt from what is working in higher education worldwide. We can only hope that it doesn’t take us another decade or two to jump onto the bandwagon.
The writer is senior manager, professional development, at Oxford University Press Pakistan and is a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, UK.
Published in Dawn, October 31st, 2021