What I found interesting in the world of higher education last week, with some added thoughts and views. I work for the Times of India Group. All views are personal.

The Real Disruptor

Have just finished reading Hire Education, a new publication from the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation. Co-authored by Michelle Weise and Clayton Christensen, it takes a look at the popularity of online competency-based higher-ed programs and its disruptive power to rattle the traditional higher education citadel.

Competency-based learning is a new approach that has emerged in the US higher education market, and is best understood in contrast to the dominant credit hours model. The credit system leads to the student gathering his degree upon the completion of say, 120 credits. Credit or credit hours (they are used interchangeably) are best understood as follows  “each credit hour corresponds to one hour of lecture time in class per week. For instance, if you take a 3 credit class, you would have 3 hours of instruction in class.” 

Under the competency-based learning model, each course that a student takes is mapped to certain competencies, in turn linked to specific learning objectives, such as “can independently research an academic topic, and summarize findings in writing”. Upon completion of a set number of competencies, say 120, he or she graduates. The learning objectives can be set for general educational outcomes as detailed previously, or specific job-related outcomes, say “can write a threaded program” in a Computer Programming course.

Credit-based Model Competency-based Model
Time fixed, learning variable Learning fixed, time taken for mastery of concept varies
Teaching is aimed at a mid-range level so as to accommodate a wide range of skills Through technology, teaching can be customized to proceed at each one’s learning pace.
‘Balkanized’ curriculum – little thought to interdependencies and pathways between concepts learnt Modularized interdependent curriculum, with a ‘knowledge map’ of learning pathways and progress on the same clearly visible to students and instructors
Unlikely to get too much one-on-one time with the professor who has to research, teach, course design in addition to mentor Competency-based models have lead-faculty for curriculum design, subject-matter experts, instructional designers, student mentors etc, and in most courses some minimum fixed time is provided for mentoring

Hire Education is a useful read for those in the Indian higher education sector. A lot of what it details and recommends is particularly relevant to the Indian context, which suffers from an even greater mismatch between academia and industry than the US higher-ed market.

The Indian market does offer potential to leapfrog, as it presently doesn’t have the credit-based system (other than in a few new-age colleges), and one could argue that enlightened colleges could skip the credit-based phase and move directly to a competency-based approach. This is unlikely to happen on a mass-scale for the following reasons

1)   I don’t see the chief regulator, UGC, allowing this easily. Even in the more evolved US market, as Hire Education points out, it has not been easy for competency-based institutions to get accreditation
2)   Technology is a key requirement for competency-driven models to take off – personalized learning pathways depand a robust, well-designed learning platform. It will not be easy for Indian colleges to understand and invest in such technology. For such tech-driven learning platforms to take off, you need specific talent such as instructional designers, curriculum experts, counselors etc all of whom are in short supply in the Indian market. It will also need decent internet speeds, which is again an issue in India.

Still, there are learnings for some of the enlightened Arts & Science colleges, affiliated to state Universities. One of the challenges for these colleges is employability, as a direct result of a curriculum which doesn’t aid in acquisition of business competencies and a lack of industry connect. Putting in place a 6 to 9month diploma that runs parallel to the last-yr of college (the degree is too valuable from a certification point of view to replace), built on a competency-based approach leading to acquisition of workplace skills could be hugely beneficial to all – students, the colleges themselves and employers. To make the product even more compelling, the diploma could provide for short-term internships at local companies for the students to bone up on corporate smarts.

Could a reputed body such as Hyderabad Sind National Collegiate Board, which has launched 17 colleges including the well-known ones such as HR, TSEC etc, offer this across all of its institutions? They certainly have the collective muscle to push this through.

More than one college, it might help if a clump of colleges under one common sponsor such as HSCNB, or under a university comes together with an industry body such as FICCI or CII to create a competency-based diploma readying students for corporate careers. This is given the challenges in getting corporates to accept the diploma, as well as to enable internships.


Is Programming akin to performing open-heart surgery or is it like Welding? A WSJ article debates the same. While the article has lots of interesting snippets for lay readers  – most CS undergrad programs teach theory and not much hands-on programming; a new engineer at facebook has to take 6-weeks of intense programming classes etc, it struggles hard to come up with a definitive answer.

For that we have to go to the comments section, where I quoting verbatim from a comment made by a John Simpson. He says “Rather than saying that programming is a trade, it would be more accurate to say that there are a lot of different types of programming. This is because of the tools that have been developed over the decades to make computers easier to deal with. Developing new tools to enable an ever wider segment of the public to use, and program, computers requires programmers. And as the tools for making computers easier to use get better, more possibilities open up for finding new ways to use computers, which requires more new types of programmers. And different types of programming require different skill sets, some of which can be learned in a 16 week course, some of which require an advanced degree or its equivalent, and some of which require something in between.” Crystal, eh?


Why cant a MOOC be produced with Avatar-level quality than be a collection of pdfs and piece to cameras? Well, there is of course Great Courses. But on a more serious note, the answer lies in the fact unlike Avatar or Game of Thrones, where it is the content and content alone that people come for, thereby incentivizing studios to up their budgets, in higher ed it is content + certification + signaling + experience (time spent immersing / socialization etc) that brings in the paying consumer. In fact if certification and signaling are sufficiently strong, they can overcome poor content as well, as we can see with Indian higher-ed institutes such as IITs. Why is why, I am willing to wager that we are never likely to see anything at even a 1/100th of Avatar scale in the MOOCs.


Jeff Selingo wants us to rethink the College Major.


What is life at TCS, Infy like? Or What Engineering students can expect from their future employers


Meanwhile engineering seats in lower-tier institutes are going abegging


The Full-Court Press or how to get more women into Computer Science as they do at Harvey Mudd College; one fascinating snippet – Receptionists at Silicon Valley VC firms wear low-cut blouses and short skirts.


An interesting brand extension for a financial brand – HDFC moves into schools.


Every year, as part of a celebrated near-25 year tradition, Stanford GSB 2nd yr students pass a note to their juniors.


Opportunities for the IITs, especially the newer ones, to offer humanities and social science courses.


There is lotsa money in US College sports, and it is only going to increase, though only 20 programs cover their costs.


After Asia, it is now Africa’s turn for Global B-Schools to expand to.