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Experiential Learning: A New Quest

Eavesdrop on a conversation among recruiters. More likely than not, you will find the talk all about finding people with the right skills — not qualifications. An India Skills Report for 2014 by Wheebox, an online talent assessment company, says that only 10 per cent of MBA graduates and 17 per cent of engineering graduates in the country are actually employable.

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Eavesdrop on a conversation among recruiters. More likely than not, you will find the talk all about finding people with the right skills — not qualifications. An India Skills Report for 2014 by Wheebox, an online talent assessment company, says that only 10 per cent of MBA graduates and 17 per cent of engineering graduates in the country are actually employable.

“The best talent in the country from prestigious B-schools is in mediocre jobs — selling diapers and Disprin instead of innovating.” This is a frequent lament of Deepak Menaria’s, co-founder and chief gardener of entrepreneurship school Lemon School of Entrepreneurship (LSE). He and a clutch of other edupreneurs are now experimenting with new models of education to offer experiential learning to students to give them the skills they, and the job market, will really need.
Another report, Higher Education in India - Vision 2030, produced with Ernst and Young for the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry shows the staggering skill gap in different sectors — 75 per cent in IT, 55 per cent in manufacturing, 55 per cent in healthcare and 50 per cent in banking and insurance.
These reports show the sheer futility of vocational degrees and the importance of the right skill set.

T. N. Hari, HR head at online grocery firm Big Basket says, “Mostly, what youngsters do at the workplace is different from what they studied. Companies hire people from prestigious schools for their smartness and tenacity. They take a gamble on these qualities — not their domain knowledge.”

One may well ask what the point of consuming gallons of learning material is, that too at a great personal cost.

Manish Jain, co-founder of Swaraj University says, “We are trapped in this ridiculous model that assumes human beings are mere resources. Depression is on the rise, family structures are breaking down, there is a deep disconnect with nature. And, our education system isn’t helping with any of this growing emotional churning.”

Rethinking Education
No marks, no exams, no degrees and no fixed curriculum.  That’s the formula adopted by an Udaipur-based university, aptly named Swaraj University, in the spirit of a ‘people’s university’. The belief behind the university, says its co-founder and alternative education pioneer Manish Jain, is that every person is talented and intelligent. “We have to find out where their real strengths lie. So we accept everyone who has a desire to learn.”

The university has a ‘self –designed’ two-year-programme where each student, known as a ‘khoji’ meaning seeker, designs the curriculum according to his or her own goals. For instance, if the student is interested in arts, media, or social entrepreneurship, that makes up the syllabus, and students work on real-world projects with the right mentors to help acquire the technical, business and leadership skills to attain those goals.

Similarly, LSE’s Menaria says it is important to empower students to decide what they want to learn. “The idea is to break fear away from education. We are attuned to studying for the fear of parents and society which gets us into the habit of learning under supervision. Letting students decide what they want to study means the learning will be for life.”

Professors at the Swaraj University are not regular PhDs. “We don’t care about their degree, though no university in the world allows that,” says Jain.“But, that’s the biggest drawback: judging people on the basis of that one piece of paper. Our focus is on getting domain experts who are active in their fields and like working with youth.”

A Space For Ideas
“Education is changing. Teachers are no longer people who know everything. They are facilitators for curious students,” says Namrata Mehta, director of Innovation at the Center for Knowledge Societies, New Delhi. She teaches students at Adianta School of Leadership and Innovation to flesh out their ideas.

Delhi-based Adianta School has industrial experts as mentors who have successful companies, or are branding and marketing experts. Take for instance, Namit Arora, a former Silicon Valley executive who has worked with startups and companies such as Nokia and Cisco. At Adianta, he conducts ‘self discovery’and ‘professional obituary’ workshops. These help students identify and come to terms with their strengths and weaknesses. A key question they explore is that given life is short, what pursuits are worth devoting 40-50 hours a week to and why. His students finally write a ‘professional obituary’, in which they project 30-40 years into the future and write about the professional careers they would have led. In this way, his students reflect on who they are, what’s important to them, and what measures of success and rewards are worth pursuing.

Self Awareness
“Self-awareness and a focus on personal growth helps students be authentic and yet be successful,” says Anuradha Das Mathur, founding dean of Vedica Scholars Programme that offers an MBA-like programme for women with an equal focus on liberal arts, communication and personal growth. Vedica courses intend to make students aware of their strengths and choices, adds Mathur.

Another important focus of Vedica Scholars programme is on the context that comes from liberal arts. “In a world where business, community, government, society must come together to solve complex problems, context is critical for management students,” she says.

“As we see it, there is a big gap because management studies and liberal arts are taught in different schools,” she says. “Since these two don’t talk to each other, management students lack context and liberal arts students often don’t have an outcome-oriented approach that is necessary to getting things done. This is, partly, driving what we want to do at Vedica.”

Learning Journeys
At Swaraj, Jain explains community living is a core skill that needs developing in the 21st century. “We have become more and more individualised and people are not able to deal with conflicts or work well in teams. So we take our students on learning journeys to experience diverse realities of the country,” he says. “We also practice ‘Buddha listening’ where students learn to listen, observe, empathise and connect.”

“To have the freedom to experiment with different pedagogy styles, we didn’t get the school accredited from the governing board,” says Menaria of LSE. “If one is serious about entrepreneurship, degrees shouldn’t matter. If we comply with university or government bodies, we will have to follow their guidelines, assess students, give them marks. We didn’t want to get caught in that loop.” However, he admits, that there was the initial fear that students would question the authenticity of the programme. Surprisingly, this was not the case.

But is a programme without a degree and the unusual formats, workable in real life. Jain points out that it is: “It is an entirely practical model with which students learn for life because they are the decision makers and are driven by their own motivation and passion.”

Swaraj University has tie ups with 300 organisations willing to give a chance to students without a degree, but with portfolio of real experiences. Together, it is possible to ‘heal from the diploma disease,’ as Jain puts it. He aims to bring 10,000 more organisations onboard. At the LSE and Swaraj University, the second year of the course is dedicated to work on students’ own ideas.

Learning From Mistakes
This format, Jain says, introduces them to a ‘pedagogy of mistakes’. “The students try to build their enterprises and learn through making mistakes.” Students have facilitators who guide and support them in learning. Often, they also assist in getting internship at the right places to learn.

Siddharth Yamkar, a first-batch student at Swaraj Univeristy dropped out of an engineering school in Ahmedabad because they would only teach theory. “I wanted to learn how to make machines, and for two years I didn’t learn anything about building products,” he said. He then joined Swaraj where he interned at four companies. Now he runs his own startup for solar lighting and thermal products. “What they really helped me with is in understanding what makes me happy.”

[email protected]; @sonalkhetarpal7

(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 14-12-2015)