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Going beyond multidisciplinary education

EducationWorld September 2019 | Teacher-2-teacher

The draft National Education Policy (NEP) 2019 prepared by a nine-member committee chaired by eminent space scientist, Dr. K. Kasturirangan, which is under consideration of the Union human resource development ministry, accords high importance to multidisciplinary education in undergraduate colleges. In fact, the committee has recommended that the duration of the currently three-year bachelor’s programmes in sciences and commerce be extended to four years with the first year devoted to the study of liberal arts subjects.

This recommendation is as welcome as it is overdue because premature streaming and specialisation has almost destroyed the higher education system. It’s now well-known that of the 15 million graduates entering the country’s jobs market every year, 75 percent lack the general knowledge, soft skills and even technical know-how to execute the core tasks of their job profiles. A McKinsey report of 2008 indicates that only 25 percent of Indian engineers are employable by respectable foreign and Indian multinational companies.

But although the draft NEP report recommends a switch to multidisciplinary college education, the quality of graduates certified by India’s higher education institutions is so poor that NEP 2019 in its final form should opt for interdisciplinary rather than multidisciplinary undergrad education. In a multidisciplinary approach, each discipline contributes a piece of the jigsaw resulting in an addition of parts. Interdisciplinary education, on the other hand, integrates the domain knowledge of several disciplines, pedagogies and knowledge creation processes, and problem-solving methodologies to produce a multiplicative effect.

The foundation of interdisciplinary education is based on the core proposition that students can create their own understanding and knowledge of the world by integrating new experiences with alternate ideas through theoretical exploration and practical exposure. It enables students to break away from traditional learning paths, and to break out of the silos of knowledge absorption and creation.

To encourage a broader paradigm of learning, education institutions need to provide enabling facilities and platforms for students to learn skills and subjects beyond their regular study programmes. Class projects should involve students and faculty from diverse disciplines. Experts from different walks of life should regularly interact with students to promote freedom of enquiry and broaden their mind-sets. College campuses need to be transformed into tinkering labs of ideas from various domains. Such liberal environments will also motivate students to work in teams and learn to respect and discuss alternative view-points.

Promotion of interdisciplinary learning provides educators and faculty a wide canvas to design innovative and stimulating assignments and projects. For instance, a class project could require students to build a mobile-phone app to monitor and remotely control soil-moisture levels. Such interdisciplinary projects would add depth and encourage students from different faculties to work in mutually supportive teams. Moreover, study programmes can be designed to enlarge interdisciplinary learning. For example, a course on algorithms in computational biology. Such broad projects and assignments could result in designing an entire gamut of interdisciplinary study programmes such as a B. Tech degree in computer science and social sciences.

To promote intelligent and socially beneficial research the Achilles heel of Indian higher education — experts in computer sciences could be encouraged to collaborate with peers in the social sciences to solve problems in social-media analytics. Such interdisciplinary collaborative projects between students enrolled in widely divergent study programmes are possible and desirable. An expert in liquid crystals could work with a material scientist within the domain of applied physics to develop new types of sensors.

Thus the possibilities and probabilities flowing from the promotion of interdisciplinary education are enormous.

Here are some other benefits:
• Students are likely to become engaged when they are free to combine subjects of their choice
• Learning can acquire greater meaning and the experience is likely to remain embedded with students for a lifetime
• Students learn to consolidate knowledge after synthesising ideas from different perspectives. This develops their critical thinking, problem solving and research capabilities and pushes them to think beyond boundaries
• When particular industries experience downturns or disruption, engineers with a degree in interdisciplinary studies will be better equipped to nimbly switch to sunrise industries
• Interdisciplinary education nudges students towards undertaking entrepreneurial ventures.

To sum up, interdisciplinary knowledge strengthens the cognitive capabilities of students. It helps them to cross mental borders, respect other people’s points of view and communicate their ideas to people in other domains.
One hopes that when NEP 2019 assumes final shape and form, it will venture beyond multidisciplinary degree programmes to promote interdisciplinary education in India’s languishing institutions of higher learning.

(Prof. Ranjan Bose is director of the Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology, Delhi)

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