Beginning in March 2020, as COVID 19 travelled insidiously across continents destroying lives and livelihoods, the education of millions of students was disrupted globally. For international students, disruptions were compounded by campus closures and travel bans, many of which continue. 19-year old Arjun who flew from college in Indiana in March, for Spring Break to visit family in Bangalore, could not go back. Mallika could not return from Pune to Chicago and Kartik from Delhi will not join Freshmen semester in California. Arjun, Mallika and Kartik are among the over 200,000 Indian students studying at universities across the United States. Of these, over 24,000 are undergraduates, some enrolled in 4-year engineering programs, but mostly at Liberal Arts colleges. For thousands of such Indian students, classes have begun remotely. Return to campus-life remains unpredictable in December 2020 or Spring 2021. Until then, education is about logging in across time zones, sometimes for a class on Calculus or Chemistry beginning at 11pm – not ideal for student learning outcomes!
Can we, for just a moment, imagine a scenario whereby these students could enroll for the year at an Indian university and carry credits back when travel eases? Would it reduce both student-distress and parental anxiety about these uncertain times? Within caveats of revenue-sharing and so forth, could this be a win-win for both Indian universities and US-based ones? Currently, this is not an option. However, as the pandemic challenges our ways of working, learning and living, existing modalities for cross-border partnerships will undergo disruption too. What may new innovative models of inter-institutional partnerships look like? Apart from infrastructure and resources, what may be some key elements in the course curricula that Indian HEIs (Higher Education Institutions) could draw from other high-quality internationally competitive undergraduate Liberal Arts programs?
I offer reflections here on two specific areas of undergraduate education which I believe are key elements well-integrated in most competitive international undergraduate programmes. At Indian HEIs however, they receive scant attention, except at a handful of niche institutions. One is Critical Thinking, the other is Research Skills. My reflections draw upon over 25 years of teaching internationally beginning with several years at University of Delhi, followed by teaching in Liberal Arts programs at Tel Aviv University (2006-2008), Georgetown and American Universities (2009-2017) and IILM University, Gurugram (2018-2019). Teaching within diverse educational systems, drawing upon best practices and continuously reflecting on my own pedagogy, convinced me that Critical Thinking and Research Skills needed to be part of every student’s intellectual toolbox. The upheavals of 2020 have only strengthened that conviction.
Critical Thinking is anchored in curiosity, pushing students to identify and nail down issues and then pursue the process of ‘problem-solving’. It’s about exploring possibilities above and beyond, and in the process questioning existing methodologies, paradigms and assumptions almost compulsively. It’s a hard course to teach. Yet, when anchored in a project-based pedagogy, I found that it fell into place. Peer-learning, team- building, self-reflection emerged in the process of group problem-solving. Indeed, with some conscious changes in the Syllabus design, Critical Thinking can be integrated into existing courses. This pedagogy would equip students with a set of analytical skills to sift, synthesise and self-reflect. In short, be ready to absorb disruption.
My second takeaway is about teaching research, both as a course component and a skill. At most Indian HEIs the attention this receives is too little, often too late. Typically, it is delivered as trainings or a stand-alone module. In fact, Research Skills can be taught in integration with core thematic area courses with built-in course time and assessment weightage. I tested this pedagogically a few years ago, while teaching Advanced Research Methodology courses to Sophomores (3rd year BA) at American University. I designed course-content that fit the requirements of a thematic area. Into this, was built a rigorous Research Skills component. A 3,000- word research paper was required for the final grade. The opportunity to allocate course hours to teach the rigors of a well-written literature review, abstract, references, bibliography et al, yielded rich dividends, reflected in some fine research paper submissions by students. Students acquired an important intellectual skill, also enhancing employability.
To get competitive with international standards, I believe both Research Skills and Critical Thinking need to be taught early. Undergraduates need to experience the process of research, sift through sources, evaluate different perspectives and build arguments around a question. In fact, since the rigors of research involve the process of thinking critically, both of these key skills can be woven into courses. They are subject agnostic and fit across disciplines.
Just a few weeks ago, India’s new National Education Policy (NEP) was announced, generating both support and criticism. However, the NEP’s stress on a four-year undergraduate program, its recommendations on multi-disciplinarity and its emphasis on Critical Thinking augur well. If implemented successfully, these can be transformative and infuse undergraduate programs at Indian HEIs with academic rigor to match the best programs globally.
About the Author
Maina Chawla Singh Ph.D.
Maina Chawla Singh is an academic, researcher, speaker and instructional designer with several years of international teaching experience. She has taught Liberal Arts courses at Georgetown and American Universities, Washington DC, Colorado College, USA, Tel Aviv University and Haifa University, Israel, and University of Delhi. Dr Singh is the author of two academic books and several internationally published journal articles. Dr Singh’s doctoral and post-doctoral publications have been multidisciplinary, intersecting History, Colonialism, Gender, Migration, Diaspora Studies, Israel Studies and History of Medicine, Dr Singh has lectured widely, including at Yale, Oxford, Cornell, University of Michigan (Ann Arbor), UPenn, Johns Hopkins University, University of Southern California, BYU(Utah), Cleveland State University, College of Wooster and Colorado College.
Dr. Singh has credentials in Instructional Design and Blended Learning from American University, Washington DC and has received awards for teaching with technology. She serves on the editorial collective of “Gender and History” (Wiley, UK) and as a trained manuscript reviewer, she engages with several international journals. Dr Singh has wide-ranging cross-cultural exposure and has lived / worked in diverse cultures including in Japan, Russia, Ethiopia, Israel, France and USA.
In 2018, Dr Singh was founding-Director of ‘Centre for Teaching, Research and Learning’, IILM University, Gurugram. Currently, she is a consultant, engaging with projects on Syllabus Design, manuscript review, career and college counselling. Dr Singh offers a range of Webinar trainings for researchers at Technical/ Engineering Colleges on “Research and Publication Skills”; “Teaching in Digital Classrooms”. During Lockdown Dr Singh has founded “Go-Publish” an online network for researchers seeking to enhance scholarly publication skills. Dr. Singh is fluent in Urdu, Hindi, English, Punjabi and Russian (basic).