What’s new?

5th workshop by Current Science

The next workshop on Science Writing is to be held in Bangalore from 4th to 9th of December.

Here is the link to the application form: https://goo.gl/forms/tp2sn0aky0JeC9sx2

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Current Scientific Advancements In India

The fourth workshop on writing science that I organised for Current Science, Bangalore had a different venue. Their guest house facilities in Jalahalli.

ParticipantsCurrSciAug2017

Unlike the earlier workshops the participants could not see eye to eye. Literally, not figuratively, as you can see in the photograph above.

But in the end it worked out well. We had one session where we had to sit around: the role play of editorial board meeting. We went to the terrace for that session.

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You will see their output in the 10th September issue of Current Science. The column, Science Last Fortnight will be by these people you see in this picture.

Writing Science in Research-rich Environments

After two successful two-week workshops in 2014 and 2015 in IISER Pune, Vigyan Prasar extended the scope of the venue to IISER Thiruvananthapuram in 2016. This year Vigyan Prasar is catalysing two such workshops – one in IISER Pune and the other in IISER TVM. I hope more IISERs will join next year.

Here is the link to the advertisement that came out in Current Science 

 

Re-evaluating Evaluation of Media Students

Why should we rethink evaluation of media students?

  1. Media/journalism/mass communication is considered the fourth pillar of a democratic society. There are certain expectations from those who venture into this socially responsible role. The evaluation of media students must therefore take into consideration the capabilities of the individual student to assume this role.

In most academic courses, the evaluation is done by an exam. Exams can test the knowledge/memory of the students. But it does not evaluate the ability to apply the knowledge in real life situations of the skills necessary to undertake the task well. Hence, many Indian industrialists have been decrying the lack of skills and applications among those who are thus educated.

Given this scenario, we need to rethink the evaluation of media students such that the future fourth estate becomes strong enough to hold together the fabric of our democratic society.

Unlike other professionals such as the doctor who may bury or cremate his/her mistakes, or the lawyer who may shut his mistakes behind bars away from public attention, mass media students are bound to show their mistakes to the public. This often damages the credibility of the fourth estate. Moreover, some of these mistakes can be costly to society, unlike those committed by other professions. Hence the curriculum and evaluation of media students should consider these aspects of media as a profession.

  1. In evaluating students from non-professional courses, the marks of the students reflect the mistakes committed and the ignorance admitted by not answering. The students are penalised for their errors of omission and of commission. But no feedback is given to build the capacity of the students to overcome such mistakes in future. So quite often, the same mistakes occur again.

This, we cannot afford to do when we are conducting media courses. Media courses should enable students to make mistakes and facilitate learning from them such that when they become professionals, they know how to avoid such mistakes. Thus there has to be a shift from evaluation through giving marks to evaluation by giving feedback for improvement.

  1. Any profession has to have adequate knowledge and skills. But what we often discard in educational endeavour is the attitudes necessary for successful and productive work in that profession. In fact, orienting attitudes is a preliminary requirement for faster, quicker acquisition of knowledge and skills.

Thus a new system has to be evolved for evaluating mass media/journalism students that takes into consideration the relative weights of attitudes, skills and knowledge. We need to ask what are the attitudes needed for the students to survive and excel in their field of choice and mentor the students on the merits of their attitudes.

  1. In the last few decades, media industries have evolved rapidly. New technologies, techniques, and processes have transformed the media landscape. Given the recent advancements in science and technology, further changes in the mass media scenario are to be expected. We have to train students to be flexible and adaptable to the newly developing media environment. We need to listen to the demands of media industries.

In a series of meetings held under the aegis of the UNESCO which brought together academic and industry leaders in the journalism/media sector to formulate a curriculum for emerging needs, industry leaders such as N Ram, the then editor of the Hindu, reiterated that the industry needs people with content, not merely style. In media, content is king. The ability to deal with multifarious content is more important than having people skilled in journalism techniques and processes. So industry leaders would rather take in people with superior understanding of politics, economics, sports etc. and then allow them to adapt and adopt the techniques of journalism.

On the other hand, Bollywood and other entertainment oriented media industries look down on higher qualifications in content related areas. Mindless entertainment, that allows escape from unforgiving realities, calls for a different set of knowledge, attitudes and skills.

Between these extremes there is a spectrum of skills, attitudes and knowledge that the media industry demands from its new comers. The new evaluation system that we evolve should take into consideration these factors too.

  1. And lastly, the perspective of the students who opt for these courses – the main stakeholders in decision making about evaluation. They come with aspirations and hopes. And great expectations from the course. What they take away from it can and should be aligned to the broader social, political, economic, cultural and spiritual contexts of media as a profession.

Principles, modes and modalities of evaluation

A media professional should be able to produce, create and manage content. Thus the evaluation of the media students should be based on the content that is created/produced and presented with a minimum quality that is acceptable to the extant media industries.

As a media student, the onus is on the students to produce/create and present it as a portfolio to be examined by media leaders and to be consumed by the public. The onus is on the institution to provide facilities and to facilitate the production of media content by the students. The onus is on the faculty to guide and provide feedback on each production such that in time, the products gain the quality and credibility required by the media industries.

The students have to go through and appreciate the work culture of media houses during the course, producing and presenting and revising assignments within deadlines. It is the media products that are evaluated. It has to be done in an open and transparent manner, because media is for the public to judge.

It is, however, media gatekeepers who evaluate the projects. The media gatekeepers get to see the quality of the students graduating from the course – an outcome that is very useful to students looking for placements.

80% of the total marks are allocated to the assignments done by the students. The marks are often given not to individual students but to groups. Thus there is an evaluation of being a team member – an attitude that is necessary to survive in media industries. When marks are given to the group, the group members share the marks equally.

20 percent of the total marks are given to the exam at the end which tests the students understanding of the media landscape in the country, the ethics of media, principles and theories of mass communication, techniques of mass media research… This is evaluated by the professors, readers or other teaching staff within or outside the academic institution.

This method of evaluation, I believe, will change the way knowledge and skills are transacted within academic institutions where mass media / journalism courses are conducted. It will also lead to a revolutionary change in media industries and help them to grow stronger as the fourth pillar of society.

Why do scientists in India write so badly?

Every fifteen days, I have to read 3-5 papers for Current Science, the most prestigious interdisciplinary journal in India. While reading some of them, I am filled with despair: why do some scientists in India write so badly? Compared to papers from China in the same journal, papers from India often read badly. Though India was a British colony and therefore, Indians routinely learn English as a second language.

Why?

I started studying English from the 3rd standard. I calculated the number of hours spent in English classrooms: 45 minute classes every academic day for 180 academic days per year from 3rd to 10th standard; and then one hour classes in plus 2 and plus 3; by the time I graduated I had spent more than 7 man years in English classrooms! In spite of that, subject verb agreement and use of articles go totally wrong when I write. I wouldn’t be publishing anything except for my wife who spoke English as a first language at home.

Why?

I have met people with an MA in English Literature, who can’t speak or write in English. Though I did my Masters in Science, I am lucky that I can at least express myself in the language. But that is not the case with many of the scientists meet. I once interviewed an INSPIRE Faculty on video. Out of the half hour video, I could not find even a single sentence that can be used in the programme that I was making without making the person look uneducated. After more than 7 man years spent in learning English, we can’t speak English.

Why?

To me, the answer is simple. The British set up the educational system in India. They set it up to create manpower to help them run the huge and diverse country. They needed clerks, policemen, army professionals etc. They did not want anybody who would talk back to them and that too, in their own language. So they set up an educational system that is appropriate for their needs.

45 minutes of English followed by 45 minutes of Mathematics that helps you to forget the English you learned a while ago, followed by 45 minutes of Science that helps keep mathematics out of the minds of children who otherwise might get fascinated by Maths – a regular variety show to keep the children engaged, to keep them out of harm’s way and out of their parent’s hair – the pedagogic design is successful because it creates a win-win situation for all concerned. The system has worked so far and very well indeed, even after the British left.

What the British did not really anticipate is that a few might escape the net. In spite of the fact that it created a citizenry who cannot appreciate the poetry in mathematics or the mathematical precision and brevity in poetry, the system allowed survival and growth of a handful who could think and act on their own. So the British had to, ultimately, leave.

But despite the numerous documents, policies, plans, reforms and so on, the educational system in India has not diverged from the essential path that was set. Even independent India needs clerks, policemen, armed forces…

But then, we also need thinkers, artists, scientists who have the ability to take up tasks that need focused attention for hours, days, months…

Language and Education by Immersion

Indeed, it is possible to get children to speak and write English in a few months. If children are immersed in a language, any language, when they are very young, they pick up the language quite easily, without anybody trying to teach them over 7 man years. It does not take an educationist to recognise that children at certain age groups have immense ability to learn to speak languages. Let alone the three language formula followed in India, one can conceive of an educational system that follows a 5 language formula and is more successful and that too in shorter time. But then the strategy would be to immerse children in a particular linguistic environment, rather than breaking it up into 45 minutes per day. But that can’t happen in an educational system.

Of course, we need the present system. We cannot afford to shake its foundations since we still need to run the country. We need people who will not question. We need people who will be disciplined enough to sit in a chair from 9 to 5. People who can shift focus from one issue to another without any time to find the interconnections, implications and impact of their decisions and actions. It is easier to rule this complex country only with support from such people…

However, the harm that the system does to future scientists is multiple. First, in science classes, the students are repeatedly told that it does not matter whether the spelling or grammar is wrong, but that all the points have to be there in the answer sheets to get good marks. Except, of course, they should not write ficus for cycus or sulphide for sulphite. So the future scientists grow up disregarding spelling and grammar and do not mind if the communication is scrambled. So far as all the points are there, you will get good marks.

Second, by splitting science into theory and ‘practicals’, we assure that the students do not ever understand the relationship between the two. Thus, you may learn the theory in the first academic month and do the ‘practicals’ in the last month. You may also do the experiment in the first month and learn the theory in the last.

Our labs have limited equipment and the population of students is large, so we have to do the experiments in batches. So this is the only way we can impart science education to our students. Sorry for being a developing nation. Even if it means we create a citizenry that do not completely comprehend the relationship between theory and practice.

Third. Even if you do not understand, if you can reproduce the text in the theory exam you get good marks. Even if you don’t know why you are doing a particular step in an experiment, if you can reproduce the expected results in the practical exam, you get good marks.

The learning that happens in the system is apparent in some of the papers that I read. Besides the tendency to be long winded – the more pages you can fill, more marks you may get – besides the attempt to make things sound more complex than they really are – confuse the evaluator a little to get some benefit of doubt and hence more marks – you will also find Materials and Methods sections that read like recipes – just follow what the procedure/protocol says.

Sometimes I wonder whether it is cultural. I had seen some fourth century documents on mathematics that says do this do this, do this and you will get the answer. The ancient teachers too, never cared to explain why.

The worst case is when scientists, like students in exam halls, write down all the points. And do not care to put related points together to bring out the relationships between them. That is when I feel like doing hara-kiri.

I do not really care about the educational system or science education in India. But I would definitely like to read papers which are better written.

And I find quite a few papers in Current Science that are so well written that I feel healed. I do not lose hope. Something can be done in spite of the system. In fact, the existence of the system could be leveraged to improve the quality of Indian scientific writing.

That is what my experiments in the last few years have shown consistently demonstrated in the area of science writing. A column titled Science This Week in Sakaal Times that reported science done by scientists in Pune that ran for 10 Sundays and the column titled Science Last Fortnight in Current Science that is still running may be presented as evidence.

But science writing is distinct from scientific writing in that it targets the public whereas scientific writing targets other scientists in the same discipline. So perhaps I am jumping the gun and making wild speculations and claims…

I request for a chance to demonstrate that it is indeed possible to improve the ability of Indian scientists to write reviews, scientific articles and papers. Organise a workshop in your university of institute. Call me to conduct it.

 

 

 

 

But, because of English, our own languages are going down. In a science journalism course in Kerala there was not a single student who wanted to write in Malayalam. In another 10 years, the language is going down. If the trend continues, many of our own languages would thus deteriorate.

It is not a matter of English. It is a matter of learning. Good libraries in all schools is what we should be campaigning for. It is easier.

Computer and broadband access for all school children may be cooler. But posited in the future. But a library in every school would bring out the unused books in good Samaritans’ hands. If a person wanted to learn, he or she should have adequate resources close at hand.

And it need not be just English. Books in English and in local languages must be available easily for children who have learned to read. The flow of information is the key to transformation. Not the language used.

 

 

 

Experiments in Capacity Building for Science Reporting on TV

For the last one and half years, I have been focusing on the capacity building of people with PhDs to report Indian Science. And I am satisfied with the results. We now have a trickle and a minor push now can convert it into a torrent. We are almost ready to break through the barriers of print media in India.

So it is time to look at TV – work on print, radio and TV have to be synergised to get optimum results since India still has too many illiterates and semi-literates, though first generation learners have burgeoned in recent decades. Thus it was that an experiment was conducted at the Amrita School of Arts and Sciences, Kochi.

Last year, I had done a one-week workshop there for M A students in Journalism and Mass Communication and the results were pleasing. So I was invited to conduct a course on Science Communication as a paper for their M A Visual Media students.  The course was conducted in my typical immersive workshop format. But given the complexity of the technology and techniques used in TV, I requested for two one-week workshops separated by a month or two and the authorities were flexible enough to allow me that freedom.

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Can students of Visual Media who had no exposure to science after 12th standard, learn to read and understand scientific papers and write about them? Will they be able to report advancements in science on TV medium?

The first workshop produced content scripts for news based on recent papers by scientists working at Kochi and Ernakulam. These content scripts slowly evolved into shooting scripts and the students started shooting. Fourteen students made news stories and compiled them into a news bulletin during the second workshop. The amount of learning-by-doing that happened was incredible. The students used their own DSLR cameras to shoot and recorded the interviews on their cellphones. Only two of them had any previous exposure to TV production.

The output was surprisingly good. Take a look at the news bulletin.

What difference would there have been had I trained people with PhDs instead of students who had exposure to science only up to the 10th or 12th standard?

Demand and Supply of Indian Science News

The third workshop in Current Science will start from the 7th of August. And I realised that I had not reported the 2nd one, held in April. A very different workshop was also to be held in April, as part of a paper on Science Communication for Visual Media students. And then there was another workshop on science writing at the Venture Centre, Pune. One workshop after another and my own writing and video production under deadlines left me no time to report them.

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You can see a report of the Workshop on Writing Science, held from 3rd to 8th April at Current Science, Bengaluru, here. One of the participants, Baskar, collaborated with me in writing the report.

The output from the workshop went through some more collaborative editing and was published as Science Last Fortnight in Current Science.