Pondicherry University gives students freedom to design curriculum

Dr. K. Chandra Sekhara Rao explains how a well implemented Choice Based Credit System allows learning to be tailored to fit individual students’ needs.

As far back as in 1992, Pondicherry University (PU) became India’s first central university to introduce the Choice Based Credit System (CBCS), a flexible student-friendly learning methodology modelled on the lines of the Western higher education systems.

Contrary to imposing a fixed curriculum on students, CBCS allows learners to partially frame their own curriculum of study, keeping with their interests and aspirations. Introduced under the guidance of Dr A Gnanam, then Vice-Chancellor of Pondicherry University, the system is more relevant today than ever before, as job markets are becoming highly specialised, calling for focused knowledge and skills. 

The 5WH in brief

Who: Dr. K. Chandra Sekhara Rao, Head, Department of Banking Technology, Pondicherry University and member of the Choice Based Credit System implementation sub-committee

What: Is overseeing the implementation of Choice Based Credit System through which students can register for Hard and Soft Core courses of their interest, subject to their aptitude and prescribed norms

When: Started in 1992, ongoing

Why: Because each student can have unique career aspirations which are best achieved through one-of-a-kind course combinations

Where: Pondicherry University, Puducherry (A Central University)

How: By designing study programmes which can be completed by taking a mix of compulsory hard core courses and optional soft core courses from any academic department

Moving from fixed to flexible

In recent years, the University Grants Commission (UGC) has been urging universities to adopt the highly student-centric CBCS. Switching from a fixed curriculum to the flexibility entailed in CBCS is challenging. Professor Chandra Sekhara Rao, Head, Department of Banking Technology, and a member of the CBCS implementation sub-committee at PU explains why—“It involves adopting a whole new perspective towards the curriculum. It also entails a radical change in the level of autonomy conferred upon each faculty member and openness in the evaluation system.” 

Introducing freedom and openness

Here’s a look at some of the major steps that PU has taken to introduce CBCS.  

FREEDOM IN DESIGNING COURSES: CBCS impacts teachers as much as it impacts learners. At PU, not only the Heads of departments but also junior faculty are free to design new programmes and courses in keeping with market demand.

Of course, faculty who would like to introduce innovations must justify the need for their proposed programme/courses before a Programme Committee responsible for implementing and monitoring the CBCS. Student representation on this committee ensures the perspective of the student body is taken into account in designing the curriculum and in running the academic programmes.

“Programme Committee accords tentative approval for the proposed course structure, syllabus and delivery method. It also makes recommendations on the contents of proposed programme, budget, teaching aids, invited lectures, field studies, software, study tours, visits to industries, etc. Suggestions are made about the teaching methodology and assessment procedure,” explains Professor Rao.

Post approval of the committee, the proposed course is presented for approval to the Board of Studies, the School Board and finally to the Academic Council.

HARD CORE AND SOFT CORE COURSES: At the start of each semester, faculty lists the courses comprising the core curriculum for each study programme. Such courses are called hard core courses. Additionally, faculty circulate a list of soft core courses available in that semester, to students in their department and to those from other departments. Through this, students get to know what’s on offer, the faculty behind each course, the course credits, its prerequisites, a brief description of the syllabus and the time slot it will be delivered in.

Under CBCS, a course may be a mandatory hard core course or an optional soft core course for a student depending on the chosen programme of study. “Applied psychology would be a hard core course for a student of psychology, but it could be listed as a soft core course option for a student of business administration majoring in human resource management,” explains Professor Rao.

FREEDOM IN CHOOSING COURSES: Students must compulsorily take the hard core courses prescribed for the study programme they have registered for. They can earn the balance credits by pursuing soft core courses. As an example, to earn a masters degree in the arts or sciences or technology (with the exception of Nano Science & Technology and Electronics), a student needs to score a minimum of 72 credits—of which 48 to 60 must be earned from hard core courses and 12 to 24 from soft core courses.

Students have the freedom to choose soft core courses of particular programme of study and also from any soft core course offered by another department. A minimum of 12 credits and a maximum of 30 credits can be earned per semester through any number of courses. Interestingly, students are given three weeks after the start of the semester to drop any course—“because some over ambitious students end up taking on too much!” shares Professor Rao.

LOGISTICS: Getting the logistics right is critical to making a success of CBCS. Thus, the entire university follows one teaching schedule. One teaching period lasts for 60 minutes, including 10 minutes for discussion or movement of students to the venue of their next class. Buses ply between departments across the campus free of charge to facilitate students to commute between schools

OPEN EVALUATION: Under CBCS, faculty can use a variety of methods to more closely evaluate whether their students have understood the subject. Of the final result, 40% is the internal component and 60% is the outcome of the end semester exam. The internal assessment may be in the form of mid-term tests, assignments, seminar presentations. Even the end semester exam may be in the form of internship, project report, lab record, or a viva for certain papers. Every semester contains a comprehensive viva and all post graduate programmes entail project work in the final semesters. 

Student-centric learning

Introducing flexibility into the learning system allows students to gain varied knowledge, cutting across hitherto watertight to departments. Students can choose courses that are relevant to the programme that they are pursuing. A student enrolled for an MBA Programme can take optional courses in English literature to improve his communication skills, in applied psychology to understand people management, in computer sciences to be Tech savvy in a field which has pervaded all aspects of business, and so on.

Courses can also be chosen out of interest. Students with an interest in music or sports can pursue their passion seriously and earn credits for their efforts.

According to Professor Rao, “People talk of standardising higher education. We say why impose common curricula on students? We accept that students differ in their aspirations, and therefore need freedom to grow.”

Also, CBCS introduces a measure of flexibility in the duration to complete a programme of study. Whereas the normal duration of post graduate programmes is four semesters, under CBCS, PU students can complete a programme in as few as three semesters or in as many as eight semesters.

One of the biggest impacts of the CBCS is on the autonomy of individual faculty. Department heads take on more advisory than supervisory roles. Younger faculty are encouraged to make meaningful contributions to the curriculum. Teachers who deliver soft core courses well gain popularity. Such floating courses can then be offered more regularly. “Essentially, under choice based credit system, each faculty belongs to the entire university instead of to one department,” opines Professor Rao.

As well, allowing teachers to design new programmes and courses in response to market demand paves the way for super-specialised courses which are highly aligned to industry needs. Titles of a few recently introduced courses by the School of Management are cyber crimes & frauds in banks, HR in knowledge based organisation, cyber marketing & e-tailing, commodity derivatives, corporate financial statement analysis, etc—all very relevant to business today.  

Another key benefit of CBCS is it facilitates the transfer of credits between different departments and other universities in India and abroad. PU students can undertake courses at National Institute of Astro Physics, and IGNOU for instance, as it has entered into tie-ups with these institutions. Also, overseas students from Europe and SAARC countries enrol for study programmes at PU assured that the credits they earn in India will not be in vain.

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