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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Mozilla @ SJCE -- Modern teaching methods are still a stigma and considered unreliable.

In my effort to get open source development into main stream academics at my engineering college SJCE, I have been working with the Mozilla Education team for some time now. With our college getting the autonomous status and also with great help from the MozEdu folks like Prof David Humphrey and Frank Hecker and after considerable persuasion (more about that in a different post) I could get an elective named "Learning Open Source Software with Mozilla" added to the curriculum of the 6th semester students. We (me and the members of the college faculty) decided to roll out this elective in the year of 2010. The next step for me, I thought, was to get at least one lecturer trained with the curriculum and in general get that lecturer involved with Mozilla development and practices. Also with Prof David making the videos of his lecture sessions available on the internet, freely for everyone's use, my plan was to give the lecturer a head start (w.r.t students) so that with the beginning of the next semester he could start teaching the students those parts which he has already learnt. In the mean time he himself can continue his learning by going through David's lecture sessions and other resources that would be available on the internet. I would be visiting the college on alternate weekends. I thought, may be I could take a couple of hours of classes on Saturday for both students and also the lecturer(s). I could have used my presence to answer the queries that the students and the lecturers had, or at least I could point them in the right direction. Apart from these fortnightly visits I planned to be in touch with the college folks continuously on the internet -- email, irc, skype, etc. I would be actively involved the first time this subject is taught. After that the lecturer would be considerably capable and also the subsequent batch of students would have their seniors to help them out. At that point the program will not greatly depend on me and will be sort of self-sufficient with people directly talking to the Mozilla developers and the community in general. As a bonus the students who studied this subject would get to carry out their final year project work with Mozilla, either in terms of some feature implementation or certain bug fixes or any such task. It appeared like a sound plan and I had even decided that we would try to get about 15 students for the first time and gradually increase the number.

Last Saturday (14-Nov-2009) I went to meet the HoD and the lecturer who was coordinating this from the college side to get things started. The meeting was a big disappointment. Our HoD made it absolutely clear that the this elective will be offered only if 50% of the students (which translates to about 70 - 80 students) take up the elective. So the idea of first starting with a small number so that coordinating things on the internet will be easier and all that was just blown away. The reason for this is apparently because there are not enough class rooms to teach more than 2 groups of students from the same semester.!! It has to be a 50-50 division between two electives. So though there are 5 or 6 electives available to the students, they actually have to choose from just 2 of them, based on the majority and not interest.

Well my plan was not killed completely, yet, as the ideas in it were sort of the perfect solution for "the lack of classrooms" problem. I put forth the rest of my idea saying the remote teaching and a lot of learning on an individual basis (by reading up the resources on the internet and interacting with the Mozilla devs) would virtually the necessity of a full blown class room teaching always. But the HoD flatly rejected this idea and said that he understood what I was suggesting but there are rules saying classes must be conducted for a fixed number of hours for any subject offered and it has to be the traditional way. Also the idea of training the lecturers in a, sort of, asynchronous manner was also not acceptable. He would want a training session to be conducted - typically a week to a month long session, may be with a certification at the end of the session. Moreover currently I have one lecturer ready to take this up but department mandates at least 2 or 3. Now I have an additional task of motivating at leat two more faculty members. For this I have to prepare a write up explaining what the lectures stand to learn/gain by taking up this new thing. After that if any of them express their interest in taking this up, I will have to train them and probably it has to be in the traditional way - not sure yet.

Another problem is the pace. The next semester will be starting some time in Feb or Mar 2010 and my HoD keeps saying "Lets go slowly at first and see. If not in 2010 we will offer this in 2011" !!.. :-( . I hope we can get this thing started in 2010 itself. Another year of idle waiting might just terminate the interest that I currently have.

All in all, the wall between open source and my college is appearing to be more and more thick. I intend to meet the HoD the coming Saturday again and try to convince him to give his approval for the "internet based learning" approach. Lets see how it works out.

Apart from this I talked to a bunch of final year students about carrying out their final year project with Mozilla and also about participation the upcoming design challenge. More about that in another post.

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