Learning Over Education: Connecting Indian undergraduates outside of university lectures

Most of my learning during the undergraduate years happened outside of university lectures. Instead of sitting in a large room and listening to my professors, I learned by making connections and collaborating with people who shared my interests.

For example, even though sometimes they were far away, I didn’t miss any opportunity to attend an open source conference during my last two years of college. Traveling from Bikaner (my hometown) to Bangalore (the IT hub of India) could take a three-day train ride as I couldn’t afford plane travel being a student, but I realized that these events offered opportunities to learn and excel that my less resourceful school could not provide. I wanted to be a part of this community, by hanging out with geeky people and learning about new technologies.

Initially, not only were the open source organizations new to me, but the usage of most of the technical terms in these conference sessions were quite scary. Most of the time I was quiet, but I enjoyed listening to people having thoughtful conversations with each other. A tremendous energy flowed in all the session rooms, where there were people willing to learn, hack, code, and collaborate. These conversations, willingness to learn, and plunging into a welcoming community led to my first contribution to an open-source educational software. In addition, I also managed to find a job right after finishing college with a startup organization, whose founder I met at one of these conferences.

Before coming to the Media Lab, I was under the impression that a top-down culture of education is prominent in India only, but I was surprised to find out that many schools worldwide take a similar approach to learning. In my work, I try to change that. I use technology to help people experience what it means to be in control of their own learning, not having to wait for someone else to tell them what to do.

Last semester I took a course at the Harvard Graduate School of Education that allowed me to learn about and explore the art of effective facilitation (Teaching and Learning: The Having of Wonderful Ideas T440). During the course I practiced some of the strategies of good facilitation and thought a lot about how I could apply them in an online environment. Combining my experience from the Harvard class and some ideas I took away from reading “The great peer learning pyramid,” I decided to start a “Meet Your Peer Buddy” conversation series for undergraduate students in India who otherwise have mostly experienced an education model that focuses on absorbing lots of information.

The goal was to connect undergraduate students from less-elite universities, who typically have limited access to resources and campus recruitment, with new opportunities to network with employers and think about the work they may want to do after graduating. We thought deeply about the problem that during their academic careers, students develop a set of skills, but find it hard to relate them to real-world jobs. One of the goals of the event was to encourage informal conversations that could help students to establish direct connections with people from the job market pertaining to their area of interest and desired skill set.

For the first event of the series, we invited facilitators from diverse backgrounds including designers, engineers, and entrepreneurs who expressed their interest in hosting individual breakout conversations about their favorite topics. We wanted to support the curiosity of learners and make them feel comfortable enough so that they wouldn’t hesitate or feel shy about asking questions and communicating with the speakers. One challenge for facilitators was to come up with questions, problems, or scenarios that could spark discussion instead of simply presenting “established facts.” Participants were encouraged to bring their perspectives to the discussion.

Students showed great enthusiasm and had varied motivations for participation. Some took it as an opportunity to learn about new tech innovations and current job trends, while others were excited about mingling with working professionals. We promoted the event to a number of undergraduate colleges in India and 130 people signed up. The event unfolded with a live broadcast in the lobby, introducing the facilitators to give participants a sense about their background and their topics of discussion for the breakout groups. Many had done background research about the facilitators and thought about the questions they wanted to ask beforehand. After the event, we conducted a survey. About 1/3 of all participants took our survey, out of which 70% said that they listened and spoke during the breakout sessions, which shows that students were active participants rather than just listeners. One of the facilitators commented, “The experience was good, participants were a bit reluctant to start the conversation but when prompted they were sharing their views.”

As a result of the event, one of the participants got an internship offer to work with a startup organization owned by one of the facilitators. The good feedback, the enthusiasm we observed during the event, and the fact that it can lead to further opportunities motivate me to do more experiments like this in the future.

UPDATE > The next peer-buddy event will take place later this year. If you wish to participate, sign up for the event here and I will send you a reminder closer to the date. A huge thanks to storytellers: Himanshu, Jaideep, Kunal, Manu, Paras, Priyaank, Rahul, Ritu and Vivek for participating in the event.

Originally published at unhangout.tumblr.com.