Thursday, April 23, 2009

Time to Re-examine!

As I think about the reality of doing a year in the university, one thing surely scares me -the prospect of writing examinations. I was always bad at exams. I have done much better in class but disappointed my tutors in examinations. Truth be told - that had nothing to do with my knowledge or my ability to comprehend. I was not disciplined, an adolescent habit which I corrected since; and I hated doing anything because I have to, a character trait which remained.

Whatever is my personal predicament, I think exams are meaningless, a very last century thing. Why make people memorize and write things when everything can be googled? I was reading Howard Gardner [Five Minds for the Future] and he makes the point that memorizing comes from the age people did not have enough books. Because it was costly to have a complete work of Shakespeare at home, one would learn to recite him from memory. Because you could not afford to buy an Encyclopedia Britannica, encyclopedic memory was at a premium. But, no longer!

Today, the problem is not the scarcity of information, but the overload of it. So, the critical skill is not to remember the date of treaty precisely, but the ability to spot a trend, often by synthesizing diverse information from different disciplines. The ability to shift through information, and to discard pieces which one does not know, is more important than that of collecting it.

As I say this, I know I am a book lover, and I keep buying books. I maintain a decent library, which is one of the big problems in my mobile lifestyle. But buying books are different from collecting information in your head. Besides, buying books is still a necessity, even in the age of Google, because while the information is becoming freely available, the knowledge required to analyze, synthesize and use that information remains mostly in the printed form. The whole discussion about books will soon go the way newspapers are going misses the point in this regard: Newspapers are often purveyors of information and entertainment, but books delve in a different area altogether.

But this is a discussion for another day. Coming back to the issue of examinations, we seem to be glued back in the past, which is not surprising, and keen to focus on skills in our learners which are no longer required. Oh yes, I know my mistake - this talk is so elitist that it overlooks the fact that most of the world's population do not have access to information as easily as we do - but then the solution is not to perpetuate an inherently inefficient practise; the solution is to make information more readily available.

For example, I watch with interest the work Room To Read is doing in developing countries. I have read John Wood's very readable Leaving Microsoft to Change The World and experienced first hand their work in some of Indian states. They are setting up schools, libraries and computer labs in remote village schools and that will change the information landscape of the world. I know one Room to Read is not enough, but then they will possibly inspire Entrepreneurs and Community Leaders across the world to do similar things.


We have come a long way from Gutenberg to Google. I am currently doing a graduate programme in Marketing in the Birmingham City University and there is no exam in the programme at all. I have already done two assignments - one case study and an essay on a given topic - and currently struggling with the dissertation. My problem is not scarcity of information as I say, the electronic libraries are more than enough to inundate me with all that I needed to know, but to synthesize the available information in the context of my work and use that body of knowledge to find answers to my research question. I do find this a far more useful way of putting my time and I do think I do learn a lot more this way than I ever would have preparing for an examination.

I do think we are coming at an inflection point in education. The technologies of education have developed enough, and a general consensus to use technology in education has now been established. The way education was provided has changed, including its financial model. Education is becoming increasingly global and countries/ nations are losing control over learning very quickly. New leadership in education is emerging in various countries and all the 'usual' practises are being questioned and challenged. This is indeed the time when we relook at our examinations - they need to become far more relevant and far less daunting to allow a learner to derive value other than the pieces of paper they are invariably attached to.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

You are doing your Graduation now? At the age of 40? Howcome?

Supriyo Chaudhuri said...

I am studying for a MA in Marketing. I kept studying while working all my life and found the experience enjoyable.

workhard said...

When i was in first year of college, there was an old retired x army man in my calculus class.. so whats the big deal of ppl doing graduation at 40..

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