Monday, March 24, 2014

An American Ambassador Speaks of an Educational Revolution in Bangladesh

Dan Mozena, the American ambassador to Bangladesh, recently visited Silicon Valley in California to address the local diaspora on the importance of universal education in Bangladesh. The town-hall meeting was organized by Agami, a non-profit organization working to promote education for under-privileged children of Bangladesh.

“Lack of education is the biggest impediment to progress in Bangladesh,” said the ambassador to the gathering of over 100 Bangladeshi-Americans. “There has certainly been progress. Enrollment in primary schools is high. More girls than boys attend schools. The flip side is that by the third grade, 30% of the students drop out. At the grade 5 level, many students still cannot read, write or work with numbers.”

Dan Mozena, U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh,
addressing Bangladeshi-Americans in Silicon Valley, California, on March 23, 2014.
The event was organized by Agami, a Bay Area-based non-profit organization.
The ambassador emphasized the need for an educational revolution in Bangladesh, similar to the agricultural revolution that has made the country self-sufficient in rice and is expected to make Bangladesh self-sufficient in food within a decade. “Bangladesh is the most densely populated country in the world (160 million people in a land the size of Iowa), with the exception of city-state Singapore. For Bangladesh to become self-sufficient in food is nothing less than a miracle. Bangladeshis are among the most energetic, dynamic, creative, entrepreneurial and resilient people in the world. But it will take quality education to unleash all that potential,” observed the ambassador.

One of Bangladesh’s strength is its manpower, which the country exports to build other countries. “But this manpower is mostly unskilled labor, people carrying bricks on their head,” said the ambassador. What Bangladesh needs is to export skilled and semi-skilled labor. Bangladesh should send doctors and nurses and engineers to build the Middle East and South Asia, and, of course, use the talent of its people to build Bangladesh itself.”

Ambassador Mozena’s passion for Bangladesh is palpable. He has launched a massive outreach program throughout the country to bring the gifts of reading and writing to millions of kids. There are “American Corners” in Sylhet, Rajshahi, Khulna and Chittagong, with similar centers also planned for Barisal and Mymensingh. These “Corners” provide basic reference materials on the United States, Internet terminals, video viewing facilities, and English-language tapes, as well as guidebooks for students wanting to study at American universities.

“Currently, only 3,348 Bangladeshi students study in America. But there are 10,000 Nepalese students in America now. (Nepal has a population of about 28 million!) This is ridiculous,” said the ambassador. “I want to increase the number ten-fold, to 33,480. That’s what it should be for Bangladesh.”

Under Mozena's watch, the number of Bangladeshi students admitted to American Universities has gone up by 15-17% in the last 2 years. But it can be more, much more. Many potential students fall under the clutches of so-called facilitators, scammers by any other name, who extort money from them in return for filling out application forms that they claim will guarantee visas. “But our staff can smell these fraudulent applications from two blocks away, as soon as the students get down from their rickshaws! Is it any wonder their applications are marked with a ‘Denied?’”, asked the ambassador. “The steps for what students need to do, and what not to do, to get visas are clearly explained in the American Corners. If they had been honest, instead of playing games, they would have gotten their visas. These facilitators, whose fraud is off the charts, have destroyed, and continue to destroy, many valid applicants.”

The ambassador touched on the Edward M. Kennedy (EMK) Center for Public Service and the Arts (formerly United States Information Services or USIS) in Dhanmondi, Dhaka, located in a neighborhood that is home to 70,000 students. The EMK Center is a non-partisan platform where the youth can come together for open dialogue, responsible activism, individual and artistic expression, and personal and professional development.

He also focused on the Water and Sanitation Hygiene Program (WASH) that his office has launched in Bangladesh to ensure that school students, particularly girls, have access to clean, separate and secure toilets. A terrible and tragic fact about Bangladesh is that many girls are forced to drop out of school only because they do not have access to clean bathrooms and toilets. This can take a heavy toll on their health, especially during their menses. “It costs no more than a couple of thousand dollars to provide sanitary and hygienic facilities in any school to enable girls to stay and complete their education. My staff and I are funding such projects in Barisal, Mymensingh and other divisions.” The ambassador lauded Agami for working tirelessly to promote and fund such projects throughout Bangladesh.

Professor Nasreen Rahim of Evergreen Valley College (EVC) in San Jose, CA, is working with the International Student Program to provide online General Education (GE) classes to students in Bangladesh. The idea is that if students can complete these low-cost online community college courses, they have an excellent chance of transferring to American universities. She is also developing an online Teacher-Certificate program that can potentially evolve into a Bachelor’s Degree in the future.

Ambassador Mozena vigorously approved of the idea. “Many Bangladeshis think only of Harvard when they consider studying in America. But there are many other excellent educational institutions in America. Besides, Harvard or other ivy-league schools may not be a good fit for many Bangladeshis. For them, community colleges may be the best choice!” He exhorted Professor Nasreen to pursue her project with passion and patience until she succeeds.

Dan Mozena was born and raised on a family dairy farm in northeast Iowa and spent the first two decades of his life milking cows and doing the daily chores of a typical family farm. He began his schooling in a one-room country school with a total student population of 12 spread over eight grades. He graduated from Iowa State University in Political Science and History and later from graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in Public Administration and Political Science. His diplomatic postings took him to New Delhi, Lusaka, Kinshasa, Angola and other parts of the world.

Mozena’s farm experience instilled in him the importance of straight talk and hard work. His early schooling taught him the value of quality education as the key to a meaningful life. His experience in Peace Corps and in developing countries as a diplomat convinced him that ordinary people are capable of performing extraordinary deeds.

He has brought all these qualities to bear on his role and responsibility as the U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh, a post he has held since November of 2011. He believes in the strategic importance of Bangladesh as a moderate, tolerant and secular democracy. Although obstacles remain, such as corruption, violence, political instability and the tendency of the government to remain a prisoner of the past, allowing other nations to surge ahead while it stumbles and falls, ambassador Mozena is convinced that through hard work, innovation and creativity, combined with the impetus provided by America’s soft power, Bangladeshis can transform their country into a beacon for other nations to follow. He urged his audience to visit to see how they can combine their considerable experience, expertise and resources to launch innovative programs on nutrition, healthcare, education and other worthy projects in Bangladesh.

Ambassador Mozena’s message came through loud and clear for the Bangladeshi diaspora of California’s Silicon Valley. They were sufficiently energized by his inspiring words and example to commit to several educational and healthcare projects to empower the marginalized and the under-served segment of the Bangladeshi population.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Student Perspectives on Improving Education

(Every year, foundations, think tanks and various other organizations produce lengthy papers detailing what‘s wrong with the state of education in our public schools and colleges, and what can be done to improve it. Yet nothing happens. Billions of dollars are spent on technology but the scores don't budge, and the same (if not more) percentage of students continue to drop out of school or take forever to graduate. The tomes that the education experts and the educational-industrial complex produce to rectify public education have one thing in common: they rarely reflect what the students themselves think! It is as if they are convinced that students aren’t capable of analyzing what’s wrong with education, yet the pundits are full of suggestions as to how to foster critical thinking among them. The irony is obvious to everyone except to the tome producers! This is the second and final article in a series on what students think is wrong with our educational system and the meaningful and practical steps that can be taken to improve it. You can read the first part here.)

Jamie believes that what ails higher education in America is the high cost of tuition. If students can be stress-free and debt-free, their interest in mastering the subjects, and hence their scores and graduation rates, will rise. Tying learning outcomes to real-world standards and offering year-round classes will also help.

Deisy thinks that investing huge sums of money on educational technology has not matched the expectations of its proponents. Laying off teachers while installing the latest gadgets in classrooms to “improve and enhance” education has set education back. Online classes are not as effective as regular classes. In fact, for many students, online classes do not work at all. As Deisy sees it, we need to get back to the basics. While technology can help, schools should invest more on hiring good and inspiring teachers and less on hiring managers and administrators. We all lose if schools are treated as businesses. Education may have a business part to it but it can at best be secondary. As long as we focus on the true purpose of schools and colleges, which is to educate and help students develop critical thinking skills, they will do well. “If, instead, all we focus on is “innovation” through technology, there will hardly be any progress.”

Michael sees textbooks as a barrier to higher education, both in costs and content. “I have compared our community college books to texts used at San Jose State University, and they are very different in rigor and complexity. I believe community colleges don't prepare you enough for state universities. For example, most community college students don't realize how much harder universities are,  that they will have to adjust so rapidly. This leads to students failing and wasting money on units that are not completed.”
Danilo Guasticci Rahim 1. I believe that there are many things about the educational system that are very beneficial and helpful to the learning experience. However, there are many things that could be changed about it. A big thing that I have noticed that
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Keenan is reluctant to blame teachers alone for what is wrong with our education. Most teachers are dedicated, selfless souls who contribute much to shaping minds but are poorly compensated in return. Unless students take responsibility for their own learning and motivate themselves, not much will change. “I take responsibility for my life. It saddens me to see that many of my friends look for excuses when their results do not match their expectations. Hard work and good study habits are critical.”

Eduardo doesn’t agree with the pessimistic view many hold about the American education system. “I believe our education system is outstanding compared to other countries because it gives us a lot of opportunities and a lot of financial help if we need it. There’s always a way or another in which you could receive a decent education. I have had access to good education and have received help when I needed it. Thanks to our system, I am well on my way to becoming the first person in my family to go to college and have a good carrier.”

Krithika feels that more money should be spent to increase the number of certain classes offered per semester. “Almost every semester of my community college career, I have been faced with the dilemma of filled classes, and have had to delay taking the classes until the following semester. Important classes such as the biology, physics and chemistry classes are offered every semester but each is offered only one class per semester. This is frustrating because the classes get quickly filled and there is a restriction of only about 35 students, so those who did not get the classes that semester need to wait to take it in the future. Lack of more classes forces students to extend their education at community colleges to more than two years. This creates a cyclical effect where students who have more units in a college get priority during registration and often fill up classes so that incoming students are forced to wait.”

For Gurleen, the real problem is that schools have become a chore for many, a boring place where nothing of importance happens and time and money are wasted. She is baffled by this mindset. “School is where you get to expand your mind, where you are inspired to become life-long learners. After all, education is a journey, not a destination. If we can encourage kids at a young age to love school, then they will be more willing to go to college. In community colleges, things are a little different. Students have many choices but they also are beginning to confront the harsh realities of life. The coursework itself is not challenging, but balancing work and school is. I know that over the years I’ve had to put school on the back-burner because medical expenses, bills, work, family life had gotten to be too much. I know this is the case with many of my peers. Unfortunately, not all teachers and colleges are accepting of that. Instead of making life easier for students, who have to juggle responsibilities, they make it harder. In 2011 I was rear-ended driving to school. The accident left me out of school for 3 weeks. I was given Fs for all my classes that semester because it was too late to drop the classes. Instead of helping me and allowing me to get Ws, the college ruined my academic history. After I recovered, I went to talk to a counselor who told me my major, nursing, was too impacted and that I should just drop out of school for a while. It is never acceptable to tell students to drop out of school, particularly when they have to miss classes due to medical reasons. Counselors nowadays are asked to see 600 students or so per semester. Because of this, they can only see students for no more than 15 minutes. If teachers, counselors and administrators become more understanding of what students have to go through day in and day out, things will improve. The graduation rate will go up significantly.”

For Garcia, the real problem lies with parents who force their children to enroll in colleges even when they are not ready, either emotionally or intellectually. “Success in community colleges is largely based on independence and determination. Students with these skills tend to be the most successful. If a student doesn’t have these traits, he or she should do something else, either a job or some kind of internship, where these skills can be developed.”

Maybelle believes that peer-to-peer transfer of knowledge is the key to success for community college students. “Students who are good with a subject should help those lagging behind. Teachers can help set up blogs or social media to facilitate these types of interaction for their classes. In this age of social media, learning from peers can really advance education and increase graduation rates.”

As Emily sees it, one of the most frustrating things in college is trying to get the classes you need. “One of the best things colleges could do would be to cut down general ed requirements. Many of these requirements are unnecessary and pre-historic. They have no relevance in the lives of students. That way we could get our degrees in two years and move on with our lives. The other thing that must be addressed is student loans. Student loans are out of control. The cost of tuition has gotten so high that many students cannot even think of attending college. My parents are well-off, but since they had to put my sister, and now me, through college, they are just about broke. College education should not be so expensive.”

For Courtney, education will improve only if the attitude of people in charge of education – teachers, counselors, deans, administrators – changes for the better. The number of caring and competent teachers and counselors are too few. Unless they learn how to address the needs of students in a caring and professional way, as opposed to indulging in favoritism and carelessness, very little in education will improve.

Danilo finds the whole system of teacher evaluation deeply flawed. “Some of my teachers in high school were flat out horrendous because they were not evaluated properly or often enough. I would end up getting discouraged because I believed my teachers were not doing a good job teaching and I wasn't learning as much as I should. It was very frustrating.” Danilo wants a more rigorous system of teacher evaluation. Even more, he wants colleges to act on the evaluations. He feels that the evaluations are only for show, just going through the motion, that colleges are not sincere about removing teachers who aren’t doing their job. “We have to remove incompetent teachers from our schools and colleges and hire the best possible teachers, irrespective of age, experience or gender. If we do that, education will progress by leaps and bounds.”

Ares believes that if teachers become more active with students, education will become more meaningful. This includes more group work assignments and informing students about their progress every week, so that remedial actions can be taken when necessary. Teachers should walk around the classroom after assigning problems and see how the students are doing, helping where help is required. Teachers should also encourage students who are ahead help struggling students. This empowers students and promotes learning. Unfortunately far too few teachers do this. They just lecture and then leave. Teachers need to become more conscientious about their responsibilities and keep up with all the new tools and techniques of teaching that have proven to work.

Christy thinks that technology can be a good educational tool but the way it is used now does more harm than good. “Everything has become so internet-based that professors have lost touch with their students and their academic goals. Teachers have started viewing their actions in the classroom as a “job”\ rather than a passion. They no longer interact or connect with their pupils. However, learning is a two-way street between the teacher and the student. Great teachers make learning a joy but unfortunately there are too few of them. Colleges should hire the best teachers because a single bad teacher can easily ruin lives. Perhaps when colleges are hiring teachers, they should include one or two student representatives to interview the teacher as well.”

Monday, March 03, 2014

Thanking God at the Oscars

To speak of God without irony is foreign to Hollywood. It is simply not done, particularly if you carry your fan base in your heart and want to come across as a suave sophisticate to a significant portion of humankind.

Which is why Matthew McConaughey’s Best Actor Oscar acceptance speech Sunday night stands out for its outrageous courage and candor.

“First off, I want to thank God, because that’s who I look up to,” said the 44-year-old “Dallas Buyer’s Club” actor. “He’s graced my life with opportunities that I know are not of my hand or any other human hand. He has shown me that it’s a scientific fact that gratitude reciprocates. In the words of the late (British actor) Charlie Laughton, ‘When you got God you got a friend and that friend is you.’”

Strident atheists may have left McConaughey alone had the actor not included the words “… it’s a scientific fact …” in his speech. But they must be fuming (evidenced by the uproar in the Twitter-world) because the actor invoked God and science in the four sentences he said to millions of viewers with what certainly came across as heart-felt conviction.

But what exactly did the actor mean when he said, “gratitude reciprocates?”

Unless the actor himself explains, I think what he meant was that if you are grateful to God, particularly for all the undeserved blessings of life, He will give you riches (not merely wealth) beyond imagination. Not only can you not imagine them, you cannot even comprehend the direction or the source from which they will come.

As for quoting Charles Laughton (1899-1962), whose movies include “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “Witness for Prosecution”, the idea here (I think) is that if you trust in God, you become comfortable in your own skin. You learn to trust yourself and your instincts. You become self-aware and your capacity for empathy increases. No matter what befalls you, good or bad, you recognize that you are being tested in some way, and so you do not become arrogant or fall into despair.

It takes guts to do what McConaughey did on the 2014 Oscar night in front of a world-wide audience of millions and for that, we say “Amen.”

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Don't be a Slave to Intellectual Technologies

Nicholas Carr created a stir with his article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” in the 2008 July/August issue of The Atlantic magazine. That was almost six years ago, surely equivalent to several decades in the frenzied pace of the Internet era.

The article morphed into a book called “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.” It was selected as one of the two books by ‘Silicon Valley Reads 2014’, a community engagement program (from January to March, with over 100+ events) that asks everyone in California’s Santa Clara County to read, think and discuss important cultural shifts occurring in our lives.

Carr’s provocative question is whether searching and surfing the Net is rewiring our neural circuitry to the extent that we no longer know how to read a book deeply as we leapfrog from one hyperlink to another. Do our smartphones, iPads and social media help or hinder our connection to the written word? Is there such a thing as too much information?

As part of the Reads program, Carr spoke on these urgent issues at the Evergreen Public Library in San Jose, California, on March 1, to an engrossed audience. Technologies we use today are not the usual labor-saving devices, said Carr. They are, rather, intellectual technologies we use to think with and express ourselves. They have an effect on shaping our thoughts, much like maps and clocks did centuries ago. Cartography was not merely the use of maps but different ways of thinking of places and events far beyond what our senses told us. The mechanical clock changed our sense of time, from natural, cyclical flows to measurable, discrete units of seconds and minutes. It made possible the scientific method.

As Carr explained, today's digital tools have unleashed a new intellectual ethic not associated with older technologies: They encourage us to think in certain ways but equally tellingly, prevent us from thinking in other, and often more creative, ways. 

We carry our smartphones and tablets with us all day long. They intrude into everything we do. Without our even being aware of it, they condition us to juggle fast-paced information continuously, limiting our attention spans to no more than 10 seconds. We are after the gist and not any type of deep engagement with what we consume on the Net. Add up all the emails and texts and Facebook and Twitter alerts every day and soon we find ourselves in a permanent state of distraction. We don’t need to go after any information because information is constantly streaming into our gadgets. We have become slaves to our gadgets, bending our habits to their dictates, always multitasking just to stay afloat on the ever-changing ocean of information.

This is a problem because, as Carr sees it, it keeps us from thinking that requires attention for an extended period of time. Our working memory gets overloaded while our long-term memory atrophies. They key to knowledge is associations and connections between facts, information and insights. Without sustained attention and concentration, no deep connection and associations can form in our minds. No reflective and contemplative thoughts are possible when we are connected to our ‘always-on’ gadgets more or less 24/7.

Nicholas Carr speaking at the Evergreen Public Library on March 1, 2014,
as part of the Silicon Valley Reads 2014 program.
The danger, Carr warned, is that our malleable brain adjusts to this new reality. It is less able to focus as it awaits the stimulus of new information every few seconds. This troubling shift means that we are less able to distinguish the important from the trivial. Carr quoted from David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College: “Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.”

We have allowed technology to control our mind, Carr said, and so we are in danger of not knowing how to think. We indulge in superficial thinking and stay away from deep thinking because that requires effort and demand attention.

Companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter have financial stakes in keeping us distracted. The more we jump from one unit of information to another every few seconds, the more these companies can target us with advertisements and the more money they end up making. It requires guts to resist their titillation but unless we make a conscious effort to do so, our slavery to our gadgets and to the Net will permanently change our thought processes for the worse.