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Monday, June 21, 2010

Important Pillars of Self Learning

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 Self Learning is the key to success in any field. A person capable of ‘self learning’ can adapt to new situation / environment and hence become a successful person or professional or innovator. Recognising the need of ‘self learning’ at graduate level, several forums including the AICTE started giving greater importance to it while accrediting an institute. However, the attitude and participation of the students in this aspect is minimal. Most of the students tend to continue with the approach followed at school level by memorizing the solutions and successive elimination of choices in multiple choice objective tests. The current situation can be stated as ‘Students are getting high marks, but their knowledge is shallow’, ‘our universities produce more than 1.5 million engineers but only 10% of these are employable by the industry’ .

Sometimes, I wonder whether our traditions and culture is against self learning. I keep wondering what would have happened if Ekalavya did not offer his thumb as ‘guru dhakhina’ to Drona in Mahabharat. But then, I am equally puzzled with the attitude in modern times because, there is ‘Drona acharya ‘ award and ‘ Arjuna award’ but there is no ‘Ekalavya ‘ award. Is it because we still believe in ‘Guru Brahma’ even though some of the ‘gurus’ show bias / discrimination?

Situation is worse for students graduating from rural and semi-urban educational institutes as they are not able to compete with students from city and metro colleges. In my view there are five factors responsible for this unfortunate situation. Unfortunate part is that there is no fool proof solution in sight. We keep on experimenting with a variety of ideas hoping that someday we come up with a good solution. I describe in detail these five factors in the following sections. I will also present several questions open for discussion / debate.
  • Reward and Punishment
  • Medium of instruction
  • Rural versus Urban background
  • Faculty retention
  • Discipline
Perhaps it is necessary to mention my background before I present some of these frustrating and sensitive issues. I come with a semi urban (vijayawada in 1950s) background. I did my elementary schooling in a verandah of a house with one unqualified but disciplined person. All my schooling was in Telugu medium. My degree studies at Vijayawada ( B.Sc) and Kakinada (B.E) were dominated by Telugu. It was in my M.Tech at IIT Kanpur I started practicing English. Now, after nearly 37 years after graduation in engineering I am in a position to revisit the issue and spell out problems experienced by me and others who could make a successful career. It is my exposure to artificial intelligence and interaction with engineering students from cities, towns and villages in several Indian states that strengthened some of the opinions expressed below. 

Reward and Punishment: It is well known that animal behavior is basically governed by reward and punishment. We are no exception. Except for few genuine saints, most of us are interested in rewards and are afraid of punishments. Students are no exception, further they are in an age group where they pay hardly any attention to these aspects. However, there will always be resistant to punishment, clamor for rewards in spite of failures. 

The best example for this is our education system design. Right from school level, there is no threat of failure. 7th standard public examination has been removed and there is an instant examination for those who failed in intermediate examinations! Situation in professional colleges is even worse, thanks to the pressure from parents ( who believe that their ward should pass examination, once college fees is paid, especially to self financed institutes.), university and regulating authorities who are interested in avoiding the wrath of failed students, several students are passed in spite of their deficiencies. It is the prevailing environment that is ensuring that students who do not deserve promotion or pass are passed.

To me, the same students shine well in universities in other countries like US, UK because of the punishment in the form of failures. Often institutes in India resort to fines as a means for punishment, my experience shows that hardly any one in the student community bothers about the fines. It is the unfortunate children from economically weaker section that are caught in this issue due to unavoidable circumstances like ill health. Once, I was told of a pathetic situation where several school children were not attending school. 

They used to leave respective homes in time and get back to home in time, but never attended school. On sustained persuasion, children came out with the actual reason; they were targeted and mobbed by the other well to do children. Recently, I came across a girl in second year engineering doing similar thing. She used to leave home at college time, return at regular college closing hours. Her attendance at the end of semester was zero. It was a puzzle for parents as well as faculty as the girl was not having any bad habits. She used to come to college, sit in the library and go back to home.

If we look at the statistics, in any university, the percentage of students failing in the final year will be far less than those failing in other years of the course. One may wonder where all these poor performers disappeared. Are they detained or discontinued? No, the real reason is all universities; educational institutes (self financed or otherwise) are lenient or liberal towards the final year students. A glaring example is, 90% of final year engineering students are given more than 90% marks in their project work and seminars. The industry keeps on saying that only 10% are worth employing. One could see a clear contradiction between the industry and universities on promoting students who do not deserve to be promoted. 

As far as the industry is concerned, they are becoming more nervous at campus placements and are making mistakes as they fail to assess candidates based on short interview and/ or written test. Marks obtained in university examinations hardly reflect the capabilities. In this confusion, some of the deserving candidates are left out, leading to frustration in young minds (creates the impression –luck but not talent that works).
It is rare to find a fresh graduate writing one paragraph of consistent and correct English sentences. How could they get 90% in seminar where they were supposed to read and understand a new topic? Some institutes are of the opinion few lectures on English and fewer English lab sessions will improve communication skills. I doubt it. 

Some of the questions open for discussion are: 

How do we balance between talent and prestige?
In a short term, prestige of an institute is based on the results and marks secured in the university assessment, which may or may not be linked to the talent of the students. On a long run, it is only the students with talent that brings laurels to the institute. In fact, institutes are known for its students. Infrastructure is useful to attract merit students at admission stage, but it never becomes its strength. One could see the difference in presentation of well known institutes (in India and abroad) and ordinary institutes. Well known institutes project their strengths in terms of faculty and students (including alumni) achievements. Other institutes project infrastructure, buildings and equipment. One university in US highlights the number of Noble Laureates from that university right in the home page of their website. 

Concepts comprehension versus solution memorization: 
As long as the emphasis in internal assessment and university assessment is based on specific answers to often repeated questions, there will be hardly any motivation in the students to comprehend concepts. It is unrealistic to expect student to spend time and money in reading bulky text books if one can pass and even get good marks by reading ready made answers in books/ guides that cost a fraction of the cost of text book. It turns out that a student should have a strong determination and commitment to avoid reading these guides. Percentage of students utilizing library facilities versus the number of guides dumped at the entrance of examination halls indicates the trend.

Medium of instruction: 
Perhaps the most debated topic and often concluded in controversial decisions / implementations is the medium of instruction at different levels of education. While it is emphasized that the medium of instruction is ‘English’ in all professional courses, the implementation of it varies depending on the location of the educational institute. In metros and cities it may be nearly 100%, in remote rural colleges it might drop down to much less. People from all walks of life are keen in their children pursuing education in English because the IT industry which is the current craze of the people requires proficiency in English. The word ‘proficiency’ is misleading and often interpreted as ‘spoken English’. 

One could see a large number of spoken English training institutes all over the country. There are several attempts by governments ordering schools in rural areas to include English medium etc,. All these attempts will create a pool of English speaking people. However, many of these persons will not be able to carry out ‘self learning’ in the chosen field. At the best, they end up in call center or BPO jobs wherein a person need not understand the technical background. Even those successful in ‘self learning’ with vernacular language education, with huge effort and strong commitment might end up in call center or BPO jobs after extensive spoken English training. Note that this does not mean that people with only vernacular language education or even those without any formal education cannot learn on their own. 

There are several self made persons with neither formal education nor English medium schooling. Learning or self learning has nothing to do with the medium of communication or concept formulation as long as the person operates in the same environment (in this case same language). The moment, there is change in environment and shift in language used for communication, these persons will have difficulty in adapting to the new language. Let us take a look at a model of ‘learning’, ‘knowledge’ and ‘IQ’. Learning essentially comprehends concepts as a person moves or grows in an environment. Each word and phrase we learn is based on the underlying concept. If this is not done, a word will be a string of symbols without sense. Every person keeps on comprehending concepts and associated words ( for example when we say agriculture, persons familiar with this word might interpret it as related to green fields / coconut trees/ sugarcane fields grown annually with rain water etc,. If a person familiar with only Telugu language might feel the word ‘agriculture’ strange. But the same person could get complete concept of the green fields if it was told as ‘vyavasayam’).

As a part of learning, every person tries to arrange the concepts comprehended in two dimensional network (actually it is a multi dimensional network of neurons, for the sake of simplicity I am considering only two relevant for this note), corresponding to ‘knowledge’ and ‘IQ’. Knowledge is about how effectively and efficiently a person organizes the hierarchy of the concepts comprehended or formulates necessary ‘concept hierarchy’. A person with a good knowledge would have formulated a deep hierarchy. 

Let us take arithmetic as an example, a person is taught concept of numbers, type of numbers, number representation, arithmetic that could be performed on numbers at elementary school level, at next level the person is taught complex numbers, real and imaginary numbers, equations based on numbers etc, perhaps at the peak of learning about the numbers the person is familiarized with the universe in non linear spaces. 

IQ is about correlating the concept comprehended at that moment to those that are comprehended in the past and organized as ‘concept hierarchy’. Let us continue with the same example of ‘agriculture’. The phrase ‘ agriculture is not economical these days’ can be understood by a person who could link ‘agriculture- as a process’, economy as a consequence and ‘these years’ by correlating to the yester years. A person with low IQ might end up in linking not all three, two in some cases and none in few cases. The person with lowest IQ ends up in seeing every concept as an independent entity. 

Let us now turn our attention to engineering education, students are taught new topics and newer concepts in most of the subjects. For each subject there will be some pre-requisites, which mean that students should be familiar with concepts that are just one level below the current concept in the hierarchy. It is at this juncture, the medium of instruction at previous years / semesters is going to play a key role. 

Students only familiar with lower level concepts in different language might find it difficult in evolving neither an appropriate hierarchy nor a meaningful links to other concepts, unless the students somehow learn mapping between vocabulary in vernacular language and English. Normally this does not happen as long as the student studies in the area where his/her mother tongue is practiced. As a result, those students face difficulty in getting plum jobs after graduation. Even those that learn mapping while studying / working in other regions will do only after spending considerable time and effort.

This issue becomes even more complex in the case of students from self financed colleges, especially from rural areas. Every management is keen in having very good results irrespective of the medium of instruction of the admitted students. Faculty in these colleges might be required to explain important points (from the examination perspective) in vernacular language if many students are not able to comprehend the same in English. In particular, newly started colleges will be under pressure to outperform/ reach the level of existing colleges. Explaining important points in vernacular language gives good results, but leads to the situation that very few students get placed in IT companies, which by and large operate world wide. In their eagerness to produce good results self financial institutes might show consideration to vernacular language in the initial years. This becomes a practice in the subsequent years and becomes an unwritten norm. 

Often the IT companies comment that students lack communication skills. In my view this is mainly because these students fail to link terms in English (related to concepts) to those covered in the class. Moreover, students trained with important points covered in vernacular language may find it tough to clear the competitive examinations and also university examinations if the questions are twisted or indirect. Net result is that these colleges produce very good results, satisfying the parents, students and authorities, but unemployable graduates.

Natural intelligence of a person is also playing an invisible role regarding medium of instruction. The role of ‘approximate reasoning’ was not clear to me till a recent episode. I used to observe that some students write irrelevant answers during examinations. I was not able to understand the reasons and I used to think students memorize the entire book and thus get confused. Recently, me and another colleague of mine were attending a student function called ‘EECON’ – the text written on the banner was ‘Electrical and Electronics Engineers CONfederacy’. In the first instance me and my colleague read the last word in the banner as ‘conspiracy’ and started wondering why ‘conspiracy’. Later on we found out that both of us have not heard about the word ‘confederacy’ in the past. Apparently, our brains carried out approximate reasoning on ‘confederacy ‘and ended up in matching with word ‘conspiracy’. Then, I could understand the difficulty of students with vernacular language medium background. Their brain carries out approximate reasoning on new words in class room and often ends up in gathering wrong impression. Similarly, in the examination / interviews they might end up in writing the same wrong impression. It may take a long time before this can be rectified.

Co-operative learning is another model that is being experimented. Here, a student well versed with English vocabulary (mostly from English medium) is flanked by the students with difficulty in following lectures in English. These students are expected to translate the key concepts if necessary in vernacular language. Most likely this model helps the students with difficulty in following lectures in English, but dampens the interest / enthusiasm of the students providing translation. This is because of two reasons, firstly not every student might be willing to translate, which they cannot spell out for the fear of victimization. Secondly, they may not have enough time in the class to digest and analyse the validity of concepts. The time they spend for analysis might now be spent in translation. Perhaps institute might feel the impact of this strategy only after several years, when the news that merit students with English medium background are required to help other students irrespective of their interest spreads in the student community. This in turn might drive away brilliant students to other institutes around big cities even though these institutes are ill equipped. 

Some of the questions that are open for discussion are:
  1. Should an engineering college enforce English medium instruction at some stage or not? This question becomes relevant if most of the graduating students are going to be placed in industry / organizations with in the state or not.
  2. Should an engineering college separate students with vernacular language medium of instruction at entry level and conduct special classes? Can this be done without impact on students integrity?
  3. What could be the future approach / strategy of an institute regarding students from other regions(with different native language) and students from other countries?. Some of the universities / institutes are building relationship with universities from abroad for dual degree etc,. For ex: Vellore institute of technology has sizable students from Rwanda, recently JNTU signed MOU with a Swedish University, IIIT Hyderabad has collaboration with couple of universities in USA.
Rural versus Urban background
Realising the need for promoting engineering education in rural India, government encouraged self financed institutes to set up engineering colleges in rural areas. This facility was used by some people and misused by some others. Result is a cluster of engineering colleges around major cities and big towns, scattered colleges in the heart of rural areas. Each college has worked out its strategy regarding infrastructure, faculty and amenities. There are colleges that run buses to a distance of 70 kilometers for the benefit of staff and students. The position of faculty in IT related departments, level of students admitted into some of the IT related departments remains as a concern in many of these institutes. IT industry is picking most of its entry level people ( fresh graduates) from metros, cities and big towns, seldom they come to rural engineering colleges. Therefore, it remained as a challenge for self financed institutes in rural areas to live up to the expectations of the IT industry, shunning the other local industries. One major reason for students, parents and institutions craving for placing graduates in IT industry is the salary and other benefits in IT industry, which is at least 2 to 3 times the salary in other conventional industry at entry level. Further, the growth rate in IT industry for talented people is much higher than conventional industry which is by and large is saturated / stagnated.

In essence, every institute ( especially self financed ones) are forced to tune their strategy to market forces and encourage its students to pursue IT job oriented studies irrespective of the stream a student has been admitted. A student needs to be very much determined / interested in a particular field to sustain interest in fields other than IT. This combined with the fact that by and large students from rural schools have vernacular language as medium of instruction is creating a new situation which was not envisaged. 

The situation is that most of the seats in popular institutes (based on placement, infrastructure, results and advertisements) are filled with good rankers of the respective entrance examinations. Students sticking to their village schools, intermediate / degree colleges in semi urban areas are left with few or no seats in these good colleges, though located right in the middle of their villages. These good colleges are tending to be only for elite because only few from rural India can pay the seats under management/ NRI quota and most of the merit seats are filled by students who have studied and attended coaching classes in town / cities. As a result, steadily the students from rural schools are pushed into newly started colleges which are in the process of establishing basic infrastructure and good faculty. It is inevitable that such institutes promote instruction in vernacular language to get acceptable results as discussed above.

Some institutes are started with a mission of promoting engineering education in rural India, but ended up in preferred institute for students with urban background. We could find a number of institutes located in a small town, but entrance test to these institutes are conducted at major cities. These institutes have a sizable population of students from other countries, but hardly any student with rural background. 

Another development that was not foreseen at the time of starting self financed institutes in rural areas is the institutes mission or philosophy. It was felt that a self financed institute operating on ‘not for profit ‘will help in the development of region through engineering education to youth from surrounding villages which in turn leads to the growth of rural India. Understandably, these institutes were never intended to be charitable. Now the situation is different, these institutes are not able to cater to the needs of local village youth; therefore, it makes sense to switch from not-for-profit mode to for-profit mode. Justification is very simple, make some profit and utilize part of it towards the development of the surrounding villages.

Some of the key issues to be resolved are:
  1. Should there be reservation for students from rural /semi-urban schools in rural engineering colleges? This could have impact on the management policies. If the objective is to provide good opportunities to villages around an institute, there is need to reserve certain percentage of seats. But, then this might impact the popularity of the institute and its ranking in the university / accreditation by AICTE.
  2. Model to be followed : The choice between ‘Not- for-profit versus for-profit’ is both philosophical and emotional. A person having sufficient finances and desire to provide engineering education to rural students might set up an institute with ‘not for profit’ model. It is observed that as the time progresses and institute becomes popular, this gets changed to ‘for-profit ‘ model either by the decedents of founders or by market forces.
  3. Admission of students from other countries and Persons of Indian origin: In order to create a universal brotherhood attitude there are attempts to admit students from other countries. Few colleges in metros are able to make use of this provision. Most of the other colleges end up in admitting children or relatives of NRIs. Students from institutes without genuine foreign students might find it difficult in adjusting to the cultural and social practices in other countries. Traditions and cultural aspects of rural India, which is much different from city culture complicates this aspect further.
Faculty retention
Faculty plays a key role in nurturing self learning amongst students. Every institute will have some brilliant students who could be guided / mentored to perform in par with the best in other institutes. It is only the percentage of such students that may vary from institute to institute. IITs may be having many bright students, NITs might have good number of bright students and other institutes might be having only a handful of brilliant students. This is obvious from the profiles of successful professionals and institutes from which they have graduated.

It is well known that a faculty member should have worked and contributed to the growth and progress of a field or area before he/she can mentor or guide students with confidence. The main issue which many of the institutes in India are facing is the lack of faculty who could motivate students. Recruiting and retaining talented faculty is a major challenge, in particular to the institutes that are located in rural and semi-urban areas. 

At times these institutes are forced to select faculty with little or no talent and then put them through a controlled environment. Many institutes have extensive faculty development programs on paper, but the out come of these programmes are for the sake of regulatory bodies rather than to improve teaching learning process. The best example to quote in this regard is the protest from private Engineering college faculty association on AICTE stipulation that a faculty member should be qualified in GATE examination before he/she can be sponsored to part time / sequential summer schools scheme for M.Tech / M.E. 

In general there is a reduction in the original scientific work done from Indian soil. Recent report indicated that out of more than 50,000 papers published by various DRDO scientists, only fewer than 10 are referenced by others. This can become apparent from the resumes of faculty members aspiring promotions. There is large number of publications, mostly in conferences that too unreferenced conferences. It is luxury to find a resume with publication of reputed international / national journal. In the departments related to computer science and information technology the situation is even worse. 

Senior faculty would be from any discipline with basic degree and / or post graduation /PH.D in anything but the core problems of computer science, information technology. It is obvious that the students taught by these faculties will not have basic knowledge to launch on self learning. They end up in maintenance type jobs leaving out the software development jobs, which are highly remunerative and often places a youth on fast track of career growth.

Institutes for their part are unable to change the situation for the sake of retaining the recruited faculty irrespective of inherent deficiencies. Senior faculty becomes at best managers ensuring university results but not students of quality acceptable to industry. Industry is in short supply and is on look out for able hands for software development, which they are unable to find. 

Some of the questions open to discussion are: 
  1. Reward and punishment for faculty: In the current situation where in a faculty can switch between institutes at the blink of eye and more than 300 engineering colleges in Andhra Pradesh, it is very difficult if not impossible to implement any punishment measures. Therefore, the educational institutes are forced to put up with faculty who could never inculcate self learning.
  2. Retention versus recruiting talent: Retaining talented faculty members, especially those in 25-45 years age group has become a big challenge for even the best institutes. Market value of these talented faculty coupled with shortage of talented and experienced persons in this age group in IT industry is resulting in constant brain drain from academic institutes to industry. Educational institutes end up in retaining people not interested in joining IT industry for some reason or other. This view is not applicable to persons dedicated to teaching profession. However there seems to be another problem with teachers of this nature. They tend to give pedagogic type of instruction even at senior students level. They also tend to ignore recent developments and latest research results.
  3. Faculty from industry: Some institutes tried this method with varying percentage of success. Industry people tend to be very strong in practical aspects especially in those areas/ products their company is active. Seldom they keep updated on research and development which is back bone for any academic activity. People from R&D divisions of big companies might possess both academic and industrial talent, but are difficult to be convinced, more so by a rural engineering college.
This is one of those words often misused in every walk of our life. More than often it is used to cover up deficiencies in the processes and systems. Lateral thinking and inquisitive queries / questions from students are considered as an act of indiscipline. Age old practices like regular attendance and sustained repetition of the lessons told by teachers (Gurus) are still considered to be essential even in some professional colleges. Creativity is given secondary treatment. I was told by one popular professor in engineering college, who has won best teacher award for several years, the best method to teach engineering students is pedagogic in nature. I fail to understand how a student trained with lectures pedagogic in nature can analyse technical problems in the field and come up with realistic solutions!

I am convinced that Discipline without individuality (creativity/ lateral thinking) leads to slavery and Individuality without discipline leads to lawlessness. It is the balance of these two conflicting parameters that plays a key role in an individual’s career growth. Some people feel that attendance is an indicator of discipline and is also an essential aspect of success in examinations, employment opportunities and career growth. While I agree that attendance helps average and below average students, it dampens the creativity of bright students and creates unnecessary nuisance in lecture because of students indifferent to teacher or topic or studies. Once I was challenged by students “you please sit in the lecture of xyz teacher for 5 minutes, then we will sit for the rest of 55 minutes”. Their complaint was that the teacher is reading from the text book. That teacher hardly explained or correlated the point with examples from industry or real life. Institutes that have adopted a soft corner on attendance issue lead to large scale absenteeism of students which the institute has to cover up. Over the years, not only bright students who could read text books and digest content, the average and below average students also were not attending classes. For these students, ready made guides and cook books provided the much cherished alternative than run the mill lectures in the class room.

The situation is not much different in the institutes that are strict in attendance. Most of the time students are found to be doing things unconnected with lecture in the class room, it could be writing laboratory record, copying assignments, lecture notes of missed lectures etc,. Very few students, especially those in high achievers range are focusing on the topic of the lecture. Making attendance compulsory has its adverse effect because of students indifferent to studies or subject or lecturer. These students tend to converse with / disturb other students. Frequent punitive measures taken in a class room might lead to unnecessary controversies and/or unpleasant situations. I was told of an interesting case in one of the district level officials meeting on Child labour prevention. Inspecting squad found a boy working in an agricultural field and caught him. He told them that he is studying in the village school. They took the boy to the school to confirm it. To the utter dismay of the squad, the student is not only in the rolls, but is marked present for the day. On further investigation, the school head master revealed that unless they show that at least 50 students attended the school, the students will not get mid-day meals, therefore they ensure that at least 50 students are always present. I do not know if this is an example of win-win case for all concerned, students attending school gets education plus mid day meal, students absent can carry out work in fields, authorities can fill up their reports with decent attendance in schools!.
In another meeting the college authorities brought out another interesting trend in students. Most of the universities state that a full time student should have minimum 75% attendance, with an additional 10% concession if the student produces medical certificates. The point discussed was that even good students target 65% attendance rather than 75%in final year once they are placed in campus placement. The debate was should the institute discourage company’s campus placement such that attendance goes up. One senior faculty member indicated it should be 85% but not 75%. Quite surprisingly none in the meeting cared to understand the student psychology. A good student after getting placed in final year will find the class room lectures irrelevant to the job he has got. Instead of forcing these students to sit in class and listen to run the mill lectures, these students might be mentored or monitored to take bigger challenges in life like topping employees in the company they are selected. I am sure that will set a new target for these students. It is needless to state that this could be tough to plan and even tougher to implement, especially in those institutes with faculty with little or no industrial experience.

Some of the questions that are open for discussion are:
  1. Drawing the line between indiscipline and individuality: This is a big challenge in an individual case and it is even bigger challenge in the case of institutes dealing with thousands of students with varying background. I am not clear whether institutes should keep shifting the goal posts dynamically as per the students behaviour and existing market forces.
  2. The role of attendance and its impact on a student’s career: This in interleaved with internal as well as external assessment. External assessment could be by regulating authority or industry. In my view every student will be interested in learning things that are challenging. Identifying the common interest amongst a class of 60 students and incorporating it in curriculum is a daunting task. This could be the reason for prescribing curriculum that is acceptable to all but not beneficial to many. History shows that the institutes with limited number of students and a focused vision like IIMs / IITs are able to achieve this. On the other hand, the institutes / universities with large organic strength find it difficult to adopt.
  3. Pedagogic versus interactive lectures: As long as the mission of an institute is “get some how at least 85% results”, there will be hardly any motivation on the part of students and faculty in carrying out interactive lectures. May be the institutes are following the same path some of the governmental agencies are following. I read once a news item, district education officer instructing all schools with results less than certain percentage to increase school hours, extend to Sundays if necessary and ensure good results in the subsequent year, or else the school will be closed. Such an instruction is clear indication of failure on our part to understand the difficulties of students, and then force a method that is fragile and unsustainable.

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