Over the last few months, I have written a lot about innovation. The need to embrace innovative solutions to our unique challenges cannot be overstated. In this regard, universities and institutions of higher education need to play a critical role. The innovation deficit in the country of 180 million people is due to a number of reasons and the universities, particularly large public universities that cater to the masses, need to do a lot more. However, there is one more piece in this puzzle that needs to be emphasised. The quality of teaching in our institutions of higher education needs to be prioritised, celebrated, and incentives need to be created for faculty members to improve their ability to communicate effectively. While there are many among our students who have innate ability, there is a much bigger group of people who have the potential to make an impact if they are provided appropriate mentorship.
Instructors in Pakistan, pretty much like everywhere else, can be classified into three broad groups. Those who are outstanding teachers and have the ability to deliver outstanding lectures, those who should never be condemned to teaching, and those who perhaps have the capacity and even interest but need mentorship, guidance and support. The third group is typically the largest and the one we should be most concerned about. The Pakistani higher education system, like many in the developing countries, is struggling with an exploding student population. Our teachers are overburdened, sometimes teaching three or more courses a semester, and there is an expectation and often a desire of having some kind of viable research activity. In these circumstances, not only the quality of teaching suffers tremendously, there is also little reason to engage in innovative pedagogical tools. With little support for teaching innovation from the university administration, the incentive to any given lecturer to innovate in his or her approach, and to use new tools of knowledge transfer, are non-existent. Here, I want to emphasise that new tools do not necessarily mean using technology. While new technology has added a lot to teaching innovation, it is not the only route to innovation. Innovation in teaching has a lot more to it besides technology-based instruction; it has to do with increased student engagement, incorporation of topics of contemporary complexity in arts, sciences, ethics and aesthetics, assessment mechanisms and creation of more sophisticated methods to achieve learning outcomes. I wonder if there is any incentive for an instructor to incorporate our own unique national challenges, be it technological or social, into a classroom experience?
So what can be done? In my mind, there are three major approaches to address this national shortfall in innovation in learning and teaching. These are based largely on my own experiences, and I hope that others will contribute to this debate as well. First, HEC (in whatever provincial form it exists today) needs to do more than pay lip service to education. It is not just about a single course in national teaching training or some kind of a certificate that is going to do the trick. Within its grant mechanisms, it needs to make sure that proposals from the teaching faculty also discuss ways in which they will create new and innovative tools for disseminating knowledge in the classroom. Second, there needs to be separate grants for innovations in pedagogy and learning. By creating an incentive for scholars to develop new approaches, rooted in our own culture and society, I am sure we will be able to change the current stalemate. Finally, a national celebration of innovative teachers, just as we celebrate our entertainers through government and media, will encourage others in the profession to seek excellence.
A classroom experience can be transformative in shaping the life of a student and can create a remarkable potential for him or her to make a profound impact on society. In a society that desperately needs both innovation in action and innovation of thought, such experiences are needed today more than ever.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 8th, 2014.