Monday, May 11, 2009

The architecture of learning

I arrived on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin in late August, 1986 and was stunned by what I saw -- this was larger than anything I could have imagined. My baggage consisting of a couple of battered Indian suitcases had been misrouted by the airlines -- TWA, I think; they were still in existence then. And all I had was the clothes I wore and a small complimentary bag containing a toothbrush, toothpaste and some other stuff which I received by way of an apology from the airlines (after I had harangued them about my condition for a while). Still a thrifty Indian at heart, I took a bus to the university campus from the airport -- fortunately, Austin airport was not too far from downtown (they've moved it since, I believe, just like they have done in Bangalore).

Yes, the campus of UT Austin is massive, and chock-a-block with structures. It's practically an entire city unto itself. Back in the mid-1980's there were about 65,000 students on one single campus. Now that's huge. My own undergraduate institution, REC (now NIT) Tiruchirapalli had only about a thousand students in the 1970's (plus a lot of barren land). UT Austin and U-Michigan Ann Arbor are perhaps the two largest (in terms of student population) single campuses in the US (and possibly, the world). Scale, baby, scale.

So how did they manage to schedule classes for those vast hordes of students? Of course, the majority were undergraduates. So here's what they did -- they built huge, I mean huge, lecture theatres. Used to be, you -- and perhaps a dozen other select acolytes -- sat under a tree at the feet of your Master. He -- they're typically portrayed as a 'he', right? -- would speak, and you would listen, and on occasion, ask questions. Perhaps he had a lesson plan. He had no chalkboard, no slide presentations, and few props, if any. No Exhibit A, Exhibit B. In cold places like Europe, they built classrooms, mostly occupied by monks, and later, students of a more secular sort. They had chalkboards, and seats and lectures. Students mostly listened, and took notes. They worked on problems and assignments, quietly, mostly individually.

Then came the industrial age, Max Weber, and the birth of the modern bureaucracy. A new class of employees called 'white-collar workers' was invented. Their primary purpose was to work with information. This called for an educated workforce to serve which purpose many new universities were built and expanded. The number and variety of programs grew. Many new corporations were created and thrived. The economy exploded. There was a rapidly increasing demand for information workers. It was getting expensive to build new universities and there weren't enough teachers to go around. It was far more efficient to grow the size of existing universities and expand the number of students enrolled in each individual class. At UT Austin, a freshman Chemistry class (a required course) would have as many as 800 students. In a single section. Held in a massive lecture theatre the size of a concert hall. Now play with that image in your head. Me, my mind boggles.

What have we done to the Architecture of Learning: from under the Banyan Tree to the Monster Sized Lecture? As the number of learners grew, we just scaled up, using technology. We figured that the learning process is pretty much the same regardless of numbers -- all that's really needed is to accommodate those numbers, provide comfort and shield them from the elements, amplify the information generated at the front by the teacher so that it physically reaches everyone, and we're home free!

Guess that didn't work, but who cares -- we still 'graduate' so many students, don't we?

No, we have a big, big, problem here that those running modern institutions don't wish to address -- when you scale up the numbers, you simply cannot use the same process (even on steroids) any more. You have to develop entirely new processes. The system is broken, and very, very badly. Razing all the institutions to the ground and starting afresh would be a fine way to go. But that ain't gonna happen. Yet. So we'll need to innovate in other ways. We'll begin exploring some ways from the next post on.

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