Higher education around the world is changing, and its changingfast. The digital era, with online courses, electronic resourcesand real-time interaction with faculty thousands of miles away isgoing to drastically change the way we teach, interact, engage andultimately learn. With programs such as MITx and similarinitiatives started globally, knowledge will no longer be confinedto the ivory towers but will reach those who have not had theopportunity or the means to access it. With increasing mobile phoneaccess globally, "m-education" and innovative ways to accessresources through cellular phones will continue to change thelandscape of higher education. Despite this remarkably exciting era in higher education globally,there is a danger lurking in the shadows of this revolution. |
Onlineeducation will have a significant influence on curriculumdevelopment and will have a long-term impact on fostering a cultureof innovation in the developing world. While we are focusing oninnovative tools to address the gaps in access, we are becomingless concerned about what education can and needs to do forinnovation itself. There is little doubt in anyone's mind that some of the biggestchallenges seen in the developing world, particularly inengineering and health, need local sustainable innovative capacity.There is also an obvious direct correlation between localinnovative capacity and strong higher education institutions thatfuel this innovation. So these rigorous courses, from the bestplaces in the world, should help these institutions in thedeveloping world, create the best possible capacity to innovate.Right? Well, not exactly.
In the developing world, where supposedly these open-access andonline programs will have the highest impact, there is a tendencyto rely too much on the ready-made courses. Growing up in Pakistanand working very closely with a number of engineering institutionsof higher learning in Africa and Southeast Asia, I am cognizant ofattitudes that may develop towards these courses and resources.There is a general feeling that the courses developed at some ofthe best institutions in the world, for a number of reasons, willbe better than the courses developed at home. There is some meritto that argument. But lost in this feeling, is the sense of whatcurriculum is meant to do, what is the role of local context andhow does curriculum aid in developing and sustaining a culture ofinnovation. A quick scan of engineering curricula in a number of developingworld universities would suggest an uncanny similarity with thecurricula at institutions of highest repute in the developed world.While learning from best practices is a robust strategy, it shouldnot be at the cost of innovation.
At a recent meeting with highereducation officials in Ethiopia, I was told that the curriculum inagricultural engineering was identical to the one taught at aninstitution in Texas. While the Texas curriculum, for obviousreasons, focused on Longhorns, the need for that emphasis in acountry without a single Longhorn seemed less obvious. Similaremphasis on subtleties of stem cell engineering where basic cellculture facilities were not available in the labs, orbio-nanotechnology in the absence of any Nanotech fabricationfacility in the country are equally alarming. Now, I am not arguingthat we should not teach about the latest trends and the coolestdiscoveries in our classrooms in the developing world, I am onlyproposing that we strike a balance between local context and thecurriculum. Recently, I had the opportunity to analyze curricula of biomedicalengineering institutions in Pakistan.
Among other things, I wasalarmed at the lack of local context in the curriculum. As I probedfurther, I was told by one of the officials in charge of thecurriculum that it was based on the curricula in biomedicalengineering of the leading institutions around the world. Thatargument, in itself is very solid. But somehow, that does not fitwell with the overall mission of the program, which is to fosterbiomedical innovation in Pakistan.
Innovation in Pakistan, and thevalue of the local needs, market and context do not appear anywherein the curriculum. Institutions all around the world, and particularly in thedeveloping world, have to ask tough questions at this junction ofinformation overload. The balance between access and relevance,between the cool and the contextual is going to be hard to achieve.The curriculum at any institution in the US is neither designed noroptimized to meet the needs or challenges of Ethiopia or Pakistan.That said, the fundamentals of engineering are also universal. Sohow do we take some and leave the other? This is where thetemptation needs to be reined in. The question that we have to askis what is the real value of this digital educational revolution?How does an engineering institution in the developing world viewit? Is it like a "walker" that helps us transition from crawling towalking and eventually running? Or is it a narcotic that isattractive, stimulating but at the end addictive and detrimental tolocal innovation? We should ask this question before it is toolate.
Follow Muhammad H. Zaman on Twitter: /mhzaman.
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