Development of a FOSS-based CSE Degree Program – Discussion Note # 1
i) The Background :
Our engineering education programs, including those in the CSE/IT areas, are designed and implemented under the assumption that every subject is taught by an expert teacher to a class small enough as to enable direct and regular personal level interactions between the teacher and the students.he students are also assumed to have chosen their particular program of study because of their interest, aptitude and passion for the subject. In this scenario, the transfer of knowledge and skills takes place directly from the teacher to the student with in the university or college premises, and books, laboratories and other material were to only supplement and enrich this process. In this ideal world, the students after graduation took up jobs in the industry that were directly related to, or derived from, what they had learned in the universities.
The regulations, curricula and syllabi used, methods of teaching-learning employed, types of examination and assessment processes used, etc. were commensurate with these assumptions and premises, and in form, they continue to be so. Situation on the ground in the field of engineering education have however undergone such profound changes that there is little in common with its present shape and the original assumptions and premises underlying it. The teachers mostly have very little knowledge or skills as they possess neither any industry experience nor any research experience of any sort. The classes and labs are so large and crowded that there is practically no direct interaction between the teacher and the students. Most often, the only reason that the students turn up in the class rooms and laboratories is because of the regulatory requirements that they obtain a minimum percentage of attendance in the classes held. The students themselves have no particular interest in or aptitude for the subjects being taught to them; they are mostly there because they need the degree to get a job. And finally, as and when they do land jobs, most of them have little resemblance to what they were supposed to have learned.
The irony however is that the system of admissions, curricula, syllabi, teaching and examination that the university administers itself has remained much the same as before even while the reality under its feet has totally changed! Even where IT and Internet tools and resources are brought into play to alleviate some of the problems, they are only marginally effective because the larger system design into which they are being introduced remain pretty much the same as before. Most glaringly, how well the student has assimilated the subject is decided largely based on a 3-hour closed book written examination at the end of the semester or the year!
The ultimate proof of the near-breakdown of our engineering education system is in the fact that upwards of two-thirds of the graduates of this system are considered “unemployable” by the industry! The economic, societal and human costs involved here are staggering, and the situation has got to be rectified in some manner at the earliest, at least in the CSE/IT areas which cover the bulk of higher technical education enrollment in India today.
ii) The Proposal :
In the field of CSE education at least, the approach and methodology of FOSS could have a substantial relevance to the above scene. The following are some of the well known aspects of FOSS that are relevant to the education scene --
1. Its learning-by-doing approach where practice goes hand in hand with theory is conducive to effective learning and skill development where the students' interest is retained and enhanced.
2. There is no sharp distinction between the 'class room world' and the 'real world'; what one learns is mostly what works 'out there', thus reducing the gap between the class room experience and the real world experience.
3. The incremental way in which FOSS tools and technologies are created and distributed gives great opportunity to students to learn the process itself, in addition to the product.
4. Mainstream software industry is increasingly relying on distributed and collaborative ways that emphasise reuse and conservation, and exposure to FOSS processes in the classroom itself prepares the students for such a world.
5. As industryy-quality FOSS software tools and resources are freely and openly available, much of learning can be done through building real-world applications and solutions using them.
6. The student can be evaluated continuously,transparently and meaningfully as he/she keeps learning through doing in a manner visible to all; unlike today where the limited methods available for examination and evaluation decide the process of teaching-learning itself.
7. Today there is great concern for the need to integrate some education on values and ethics into the main stream engineering curricula itself. A FOSS-based education system can address this at least partly due to its emphasis on freedom, sharing, collaboration, openness, common ownership, reuse and conservation, etc., as against total individualism, secretiveness, competition, etc.
If the CSE education process can be substantially grounded in FOSS, that should be good for producing both high quality SW engineers as well as better human beings.
For us in India, it is particularly relevant that many of the characteristics of the FOSS process enumerated above are quite similar to those that Mahatma Gandhi attempted to build into his own design of an educational system for the free India - such as the Nayee Taalim. Some of its key ideas were: (i) Learning and skill development should be a part of the social productive processes itself, and not abstracted and isolated out of it (ii) Learning should primarily emphasize and draw up on what is found in one's immediate real-life environment and context, and not a context that is remote, artificial and unconnected to one's living surroundings (iii) the principle is “learning through doing” and not “doing after learning” - and the doing that is a part of the learning itself should produces articles of economic and social value (iv) through its productive component, professional education should fund itself -- “an agricultural university that can not support itself through doing agriculture is not worth having”! Consequently, rural crafts and agriculture had a central place in the system of education envisaged by Gandhiji – pottery, carpentry, spinning, weaving, dyeing and cloth making, leather work, metal work,horticulture, gardening, agriculture, irrigation, animal husbandry, etc. He believed that much of the physics, chemistry, biology, technical skills etc could all be imparted through such a craft-based education. That a FOSS-based education would have many things in common with this approach should be of considerable significance and relevance to us in India.
Even in more recent times there have been similar efforts at implementing the concept of 'learning through- doing' in professional education. An example is the Madras Institute of Technology where the Electronics Graduates of the fifties, sixties and the seventies were mandatorily required to start assembling and testing a full super-heterodyne broadcast radio receiver right from the first year when of they would still not have been exposed to most of its theoretical foundations. By the time the theories of radio frequency stages, low-noise amplifiers, non-linear mixing, distortion, high power amplification, etc were taught to them in the classroom, they had already encountered the practical manifestations of the same in their radio-making exercise and therefore were able to fully comprehend and appreciate the theory --doing pretty much went hand-in-hand with learning. While we need to understand the reasons why such experiments were subsequently abandoned, it is possible that Internet and FOSS have made many of those reasons not valid any more, especially in a field like CS and IT education.
The proposal therefore is to get eminent educationists, university administrators, computer scientists, FOSS experts, industrialists etc to brain storm on this and come up with an alternative CSE curricula and syllabi based strongly on the philosophy, approach and methodology of the FOSS Movement. Such a program is meant ultimately to produce high quality SW/IT engineers and better citizens for the country – at the very least to make some contributions towards eliminating the monster of “ un-employability” of our CSE graduates.
iii ) The Problem Statement
The question that NRCFOSS/AU would like to ask is: "Can the unique features and strengths of the FOSS Movement/Experience help improve the CSE Education scene in India?"
Many of the constraints under which our CSE education system works now as outlined in para (i) above are not easy to remove quickly; one may have to learn to live with them for quite a bit longer. For example, the quality of CSE/IT teachers that we are likely to have in the majority of our colleges, or the level of preparedness and motivation of the students coming to these colleges, etc. The idea here therefore is that the effects of some of these constraints can perhaps be mitigated a bit by introducing certain well-defined and streamlined steps - Methods and Processes - that are inherently more suited to our educational environment. As is well known, the dependence on individuals' capabilities, particular contexts etc. can be somewhat nullified by having streamlined Methods and Processes which, if followed meticulously, is sure to produce some level of results irrespective of the specific talents of the individuals involved. The classic example is from the history of science in Europe itself- once the Methods and the Processes of doing modern Science were analysed, understood and abstracted, the was disseminated and deployed widely in the society so that, not just geniuses alone, even ordinary people with training in these Methods and the Processes could deliver decent quality science. How this step transformed the role and scope of science in European society and made it the engine of progress, is all history.
The suggestion therefore is to integrate into the learning environment some of the methods and processes underlying the FOSS Movement that are of relevance to the education context. This would not be possible to do in the existing educational structure as such; certain minimum modifications in the regulation, curricula, syllabi etc. would have to be made to enable this to be done. If this is done and if the integration is smooth and strong, then that itself could help improve the quality of CSE education some what, even if some of the other limitations of the present scene persist for longer. This in any case is the hypothesis behind this proposal. (In this context, it may be useful to recall that the NRCFOSS programs with Indian universities so far has only been to add some FOSS content with out in any manner touching the methods and processes. While this has given FOSS some level of acceptability and respectability in the academic circles, there is need to go further and introduce FOSS Methods and Processes also into the system – as proposed here).
iv) Some Initial Thoughts.
To kick start discussions, some preliminary thoughts are being shared to illustrate what could be attempted- Three topics that receive considerable attention in our CSE curricula are : Programming Languages, Operating Systems, Data Bases. There are often more than one theory and lab course for each of these topics, spread over many semesters. Instead of having them taught merely as Lectures and Labs as happens now with an examination at the end of the semester, can a large component of open collaborative/group work be included in each of these areas, running continuously over many semesters, through which the students learn and practice many aspects of the topics? While traditional lecture-exam component would still have some weight-age, bulk of the credit would be decided by how a student performs in, contributes to, the open collaborative work on the topic that would be well defined in the regulations and curricula. This component will be similar to how a FOSS community operates, and there would be an expert (mostly from outside the regular teaching staff) who will act as the mentor for it. While this is attempted in the three broad topics mentioned or more, the rest of the degree program can continue to run as now, and if the results look promising, then slowly the entire program can be migrated to this mode. Note that (i) the entire educational system need not be altered to start this experiment, (ii) this does not call for any substantially higher resources etc., and hence should be implementable in many places, though initially a few pilots alone will be attempted.
It is evident that lot of careful thinking and design by CS educationists and FOSS experts are needed to introduce even this level of FOSS method into the regulations and curriculum – an Expert Advisory Committee will be formed for this purpose as a part of the NRCFOSS/AU activities. Some UG level pilots will have to be run in a few universities/colleges that are willing to volunteer for it, and given the cooperation that NRCFOSS has been receiving so far, this may not be impossible to realise. Part of the costs the universities would have to bear towards this would be paid for from the NRCFOSS Project so that even if these experiments do not entirely succeed, the universities do not loose much. (While these trials will be in the traditional brick-and-mortar institutions to start with, it is conceivable that the idea can be extended to online educational programs as well at a later date.). If the pilot projects can demonstrate how the FOSS method leads to measurable improvements in the quality of the graduates, then the same can be scaled up through integration into the national technical education programs of the government applicable to the entire country.
Given that such an exercise would have to be carried out systematically over a period of some 3-5 years in a few campuses before its effects can be assessed, it is likely to need much larger funding and support than is available in the present phase of the NRCFOSS Project. The exercise right now is therefore to get the process launched and complete the preliminary works, while looking for larger support. It is also the fact that “FOSS -basing CS Education” has relevance even beyond the Indian context. For example, Europe has a strong FOSS Movement, and a number of universities there, particularly in France, have already started the process of FOSS-basing their PG programs. Preliminary contacts have already been established with a few key French players in this area, and a separate note will be presented to the Advisory Committee on the French scene outlining possible collaboration plans.
It is hoped that the sheer nature and size of the challenges associated with helping to transform the massive Indian CSE/IT educational scene would excite and motivate the Indian Academia and FOSS Community.