Rebuilding Education: The Ahmedabad University Way

Ahmedabad University is developing a transformative education model through interdisciplinary enquiry, experiential learning, and collaborative approaches

The big challenge before higher education today is to remain salient to the lives of the youth of our country. Much of the educational experience of most students revolves around creating social and cultural spaces to engage with, examinations to receive credentials for the employment market, navigating institutional bureaucracy that refuses to understand needs of students and which thinks that it exists for itself, and lectures interspersed between all such activities. Learning is for examination and alas, much of teaching is also geared towards the examination. In fact, education has become one long season of testing from high school onwards. You literally are relieved the day you graduate with a feeling of “no more!”   

Enrolment at our institutions has been increasing. But the response to managing this change is what has taken universities further away from being centres for discovery of interests, from building deep perspectives on self and society and deeper understanding of disciplines, and above all, from becoming platforms to curate ways to help students learn how to become independent thinkers and yet remain collaborative partners. We manage our university organisations rather poorly. Besides, the sarkarikaran [bureaucratisation] of education by bureaucrats, politicians, and academic administrators is based on control and standardisation of institutions, its educational processes, and content. This is antithetical to learning. They also prevent change which is the essence of education. Simultaneously, Indian institutions’ low engagement with real challenges facing the society has made them lose much of the research abilities that they ever carried. Who will naturally study the reasons for the occurrence of encephalitis in Gorakhpur and Muzaffarpur if not academics in universities of these regions and in north India? The governments have squeezed the last breath of life from our institutions by denying research funds, and the institutions have been reduced to shallow disseminators of information and knowledge created by others. 

Education is about real people who face real situations and not imagined conditions about where they come from or where they will be employed. Yet, the educational environment that they encounter is one which considers all to be alike and provides no opportunity to customise education to one’s needs, interests, and abilities. Why should two graduates studying Psychology have the same pathway of courses at a university if the two are going to have different focus areas and career choices? Unless the focus shifts from the institution as a credential provider to the student as a central focus of its existence, such needs would never be met. There is another factor at play impacting universities: the external environment has been changing far more dramatically than what the over-regulated university has the capabilities to cope with. Technology, Climate Change and Urbanisation have been disrupting our lives, the society in which we live, as well as the world of employment. They have changed the way relationships are being built, the way learning can happen, the way things could get done or what could be done, and most importantly, they changed what was important to young learners and what they should learn. They are also changing the future of work. Old jobs are starting to decline and new opportunities requiring new conceptualisation, new theoretical basis for understanding issues, and new skills are emerging. The challenges that the society is facing are so complex that no single disciplinary knowledge is sufficient to address them. And yet, our universities silo learning. Education needs to be re-made. 

It was in this context that Ahmedabad University was established in the 21st century by a private trust, Ahmedabad Education Society (that was founded by nationalist leaders at the behest of Sardar Patel at the turn of the last century), to reimagine the classroom and build the foundations of a liberal education driven research university. Three cornerstones had to be set right – that learning and the student should be the central focus of its endeavour, that research should become the prime rejuvenator of an academic and that it should benefit the larger society, and that the organisation of the university should be responsive to support the prime purpose. It had to remain agile to address the needs of the future. Our model had to be homegrown and embedded in the context of the country, yet globally appealing. Five key ideas have defined the design of our learning environment at Ahmedabad. First was the acceptance that all students are unique individuals with their own hopes, talents, anxieties, fears, passions, and aspirations. Engaging them as individuals is the heart of raising achievements. Second, we had to build trust within the learning community. Examinations of the kind that are done in schools and colleges dent this trust. Building it again helped in motivating the young learner to engage with the learning process. The comfort that trust nurtures allowed students to seek, without fear, their own pathways to learn. This is being done in the classroom and everywhere else in the university and by all – professors as well as staff. Third, the heart of education is the relationship between the student and the teacher. Great teachers inspire students to learn by themselves. We have re-learnt this, for over half a decade, from many of our partners globally, who have helped us reformulate both the methods and purpose of the classroom. Creating ‘Learning Coalitions’ amongst faculty allowed us to understand the craft of building faculty and student relationship systematically. Fourth was a recognition that different activities require different times to learn: a group project may require more uninterrupted time while personal writing assignment may require series of short sessions. The semester and its schedules had to be addressed to create spaces for such flexibility in pedagogy. And fifth, one had to build attitudes towards ‘learning from others’. In doing so, we experienced what many others had already said, that a diverse classroom was superior for inducing original thinking and learning. Besides, that’s what most students do when they get out of a university. These and few other factors motivated our design of the university ethos, its processes, and the curriculum. 

An Ahmedabad University education is premised on three unique characteristics: interdisciplinarity, experiential learning, and research thinking. The first changed the bucket system of building breadth, where students took courses in broad areas but their integration was left to the students, which often did not happen. At Ahmedabad University, faculty from diverse disciplines come together to examine issues from multiple perspectives, and provide much needed motivation to engage with complex issues, all within a course and a classroom. The cornerstone of this approach is our signature Foundation Programme that all students go through together, irrespective of their discipline or their major. An appropriate vision and incentive structure had to be put in place to achieve this goal. The second is based on the recognition that pedagogy is as crucial as content in inducing learning. And that doing is learning. Experiential learning takes many shapes through our ENABLE course format, which promotes active learning via project-based courses, field work, ethnographic studies, and most important, attempting to teach theory in a lab. The foundation programme is designed around thematic studios that enmesh such practice orientation with interdisciplinary enquiry. The studios in turn are designed around challenges facing the society that locates theoretical enquiry in a context, while building domain skills, perspectives, and developing an understanding of emerging innovations in these areas. All students also participate in a curated internship that helps them discover their pathways into the future, including a profession of choice. For obvious reasons, this construction of a stylised learning environment encourages pursuit of highly advanced theoretical material but the learner is also inducted into the parallel world of real issues that they face or will face in life. And that becomes the premise of the third unique characteristic of Ahmedabad University’s learning environment – research thinking. The idea is to help a student learn to ask the right question, engage in problem solving, and identify methods to explore the question. Every student either writes an individual undergraduate thesis or participates in a multi-school, group-based capstone project. In addition to learning to research and applying multi-disciplinary knowledge, they learn to work in teams, build project management skills, manage collective responsibilities, and learn to communicate clearly & effectively. Flexibility in choosing areas of learning and disciplines, ability to discover their interest and pursue them in depth, learning to work in large classrooms and small groups, and helping students build an ownership of their own learning facilitates development of students in this environment. The courses, projects, seminars, conversations and other co-curricular activities are all geared to build ways for developing inherent capabilities of critical analysis, independent mindedness, fairness, and volunteerism. The University makes these attributes salient by either building them in the curriculum or by curating focused programmes around them. For instance, The Nalanda is a small group platform where students engage closely with someone who is a deep thinker in an area, and is explicitly aimed at inculcating independent thinking. All of the above is being done at scale and not in very small classrooms. 

The challenge before Ahmedabad University is to constantly think of ways to make our environment remain prepared for a changing world. Our execution strategy revolves around shared governance, focused faculty hiring, and student advising. Ahmedabad is governed professionally by a board of governors who partner with the university in ensuring that our path is clear, the resources are in place, and relationships grow, while providing strong strategic perspective and oversight on the university. The faculty management is premised on shared governance and faculty-driven decision making through committees and inter-locking membership of university bodies. The decision making is goal oriented. Building such a responsive organisation required contemporary managerial practices and an administration that are able to provide high-touch and a seamless experience to all at the university. The university is continuously looking out to hire faculty according to a focused plan of building specific expertise, create adequate space for each faculty to grow in their own pathway where she competes with herself and collaborates with others, and there is adequate time and resources to pursue impactful activities. All had to have the passion to engage in this festival of student learning in this manner and remain fearless in experimenting. Research has to be impactful and stand to global scrutiny. The University has established a robust review process for all of its members, faculty and staff, that enables both the individual and the university to achieve their goals. And finally, we believe that the hallmark of our student engagement is a very empathetic and strong student advising system that guides and supports them through their journey at the university and beyond. 

Universities are supposed to be the most dynamic places in any society. They provide for talent, their research addresses key dilemmas of the society, they provide opportunities to a community to pursue what they are passionate about, and most important they help build citizens for a nation. They question our practices and provide ways to think better. It is our endeavour to build such a value proposition at Ahmedabad University.  

Knowledge is power, and our intention is to bring the power to you. We have initiated a thought movement that aims to strengthen democracy by bringing to you direct voices of important trailblazers and pathmakers, and reclaim deep and patient reflection as an important seed for relevant and sustainable action! Help us take this movement forward. Support Inter-Actions today for as little as Rs. 100.
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