Published: May 20, 2013

Helping India’s educators teach new lessons

India’s education system is making gains in increasing literacy and providing primary education to its population, but many—especially the poor—still get left behind. To better meet the needs of all students, a team of faculty from MSU has been tapped by a foundation in Bangalore to help prepare the Indian state’s educators. 

The MSU team is collaborating with the Azim Premji Foundation, named after an Indian business leader and philanthropist, in support of the foundation’s work in developing a new university that better prepares educators and works to improve the quality and equity of India’s education system.

Punya Mishra, professor of educational technology in MSU’s College of Education, is part of the MSU team that helped the foundation build Azim Premji University. Established in 2011, the goal of the university is to create new talent and knowledge for India’s education system. Mishra says Bangalore still faces high dropout rates and low literacy, but better educated teachers—and new educational models—will lead to better-educated students.

With its top-ranked graduate programs—including elementary and secondary education programs ranked first in the nation 18 years in a row by U.S. News & World Report— MSU is a natural partner in this endeavor. By partnering with universities and foundations, MSU researchers are helping create an education revolution that will make a lasting impact.

Faculty profile: Punya Mishra

Punya Mishra

When Azim Premji, one of the richest men in India, wanted to improve elementary education in the country, he had his foundation create a graduate school of education unlike others there.

Two years ago, when Azim Premji University (APU) administrators wanted to improve the way they educate teachers, they began a partnership with MSU’s College of Education.

“When they decided to start investing, they actually went across the world to identify a university they could work with,” says Punya Mishra, MSU professor of educational technology and leader of the project. “They went to Harvard, they went to MIT, they went to Berkeley, they went to MSU, and they went to Toronto.  And finally, MSU was the institution they decided to partner with.”

Mishra says the in the end, he thinks the final decision came down to two major factors.

“One, the strength of our college,” Mishra says. “I think that the College of Education, the faculty, and the other people in the college are just top notch, and they could see that once they visited different places. The second piece is that you can find top-notch faculty in a lot of places, but there is this commitment to practice, commitment to making a change as opposed to doing research for the sake of doing research. It’s that land-grant ethos that I think connected with them very deeply.”

While APU stands to benefit greatly from the expertise and experience of MSU faculty and administration, Mishra believes the partnership will be valuable to MSU as well.

“As a College of Education, we need to be engaged with the world,” he says. “India is a big piece of this world, of the future we are growing into. It is the largest educational experiment in the world, with 1.2 billion people and a student population of 250 million. There is a lot of stuff happening and for us to engage with them is wonderful.”

Mishra says APU has an advantage over other Indian universities in the foundation it has built. The university is intimately involved in teaching, running schools, and training teachers.

“They have boots on the ground,” Mishra says. “That becomes a huge advantage. What is done here, going in and influencing learning in the classrooms, has a much greater potential than other universities have.”

Mishra began his education in electrical engineering and discovered he wasn’t interested in being an engineer. He earned a PhD in educational psychology with and emphasis in technology and has been at MSU for 15 years. For him, this project brings a lot of personal gratification.  

“I am originally from India, that’s the country I grew up in,” Mishra says. “Everything I am today is because of the education I had. To be in a position where I can, in any little way possible, contribute back to the education and learning environment of my home country means a lot to me.”

The partnership will continue on a rolling basis with an evaluation every year and a new agreement if both groups feel there is something to be gained. Mishra would love to see it go on forever, but he says he is realistic and knows at some point it may end.

“We cannot measure the success of the university in five years,” says Mishra. “What we are doing is setting the foundation for 100 years from now.  What I would like to see is that MSU and APU continue this relationship in whatever form it may be and that we’re seen as partners in this great educational enterprise.”

Field Note: A support system for student success

Kristen A. Renn is a professor of Higher, Adult, and Lifelong Education in the Department of Educational Administration at MSU

How does a new university decide how to support student success? What programs and services are most important to offer first? Who is responsible for providing them?  These are the questions that the student services team at Azim Premji University (APU) is striving to answer.

For generations, universities in the United States have provided an array of student services, from residence halls and recreation activities to academic and career advising. Outside the United States, such services are much less common, and students are expected to take care of themselves. 

Yet with the unique mission and structure of APU, established in 2011, campus leaders are looking at ways to promote academic, personal, and professional success for a diverse student body. Students come from across India, speaking more than a dozen languages, to take classes in English and to live and learn in a community that crosses cultural, religious, and social boundaries. APU is creating an array of student support services that reflect its mission to work toward a “just, equitable, humane, and sustainable society.”

We asked ourselves what student services such a campus community would require. In the case of APU, it started with a writing center, to ensure students who are differently prepared to undertake a rigorous academic program in a second (or third or fourth) language can succeed. Faculty mentors act as academic and, in some cases, career advisers. A mental health counselor works with students in transition and in distress. As APU’s first cohort of students prepares to enter (or reenter) the workforce, job placement has become a priority.

What is strikingly different from the provision of these services in the United States is that at APU, faculty and students are responsible for most of them. Rather than a cadre of student affairs professionals, as we have at Michigan State, APU relies on the leadership of a talented and intuitive staff member, Padma Nayar, and a student services team of faculty who have committed to holistic student success in and out of the classroom. In addition, student leaders plan activities such as community service projects, job placement for soon-to-be graduates, and a recent campus festival.

APU has the opportunity to consider the best ways to serve students in a mission-driven institutional context focused on justice, equity, humanity, and sustainability. These are also the core values of the student affairs profession in the United States.

At MSU, we prepare new student affairs professionals to work in a variety of institutional contexts to support student success. APU is a living laboratory for considering how to think about student support from the ground up, how best to provide services and programs, and how to think about student, faculty, and administrative responsibility for creating a holistic living and learning environment. The opportunity to watch dedicated colleagues accomplish these tasks gives me new perspectives on how we practice student affairs in the United States and how we prepare new professionals to serve students and institutions.

A wall at a local elementary school in Bangalore, India. Photo by Kurt Stepnitz.

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