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Sunday, January 18, 2015

History of IIT JEE

Someone asked me to answer a question on how JEE has changed over the last few years. That inspired me to write about the last 20 odd years that I have been at IIT Kanpur, and have seen the JEE process from close quarters. Of course, I could write about JEE of earlier times as well, but this was becoming too long and I don't have as authentic information for the earlier years, and hence I am restricting myself to the last 20 years.

Till 1996, we had three exams over two days, Physics, Chemistry and Maths. Each exam were of three-hour duration. All three would be graded, and the total would be used for ranking. In 1997, we had the infamous JEE paper leak. We had to conduct the exam again a month later. A lot of meetings, discussions, and arguments later, it was agreed that securing an exam for two lakh students (and growing) over 2 days is very difficult. Even before this paper leak, there were rumors that some ghost writers were giving JEE for others. Also, there were murmurs that grading almost 2 lakh copies in a consistent way was getting difficult despite a very elaborate process that IITs had to ensure consistency of grading. And therefore, we must go for a two stage process where both stages were one-day affairs, first stage was objective type, and only a few people would give the second exam, which would be long answers. It was easy to secure an exam where there were only 20,000 candidates, and also ensure consistency in its grading. The screening test was conducted in the first week of December. The result was announced around 1st Jan. The final exam was held in first week of May (which was the traditional date for JEE till then), and the final result was announced around 1st June. This was supposed to de-stress students. Those who would know that they are not getting into IITs on Jan 1st, would still have 8-10 weeks to prepare well for their board exams. Most good engineering colleges (including NITs, BITS, DCE, etc.) admitted students on the basis of 12th class marks, and what was happening earlier was that students studied both for JEE and 12th class at the same time, and did not do well in either. This new arrangement was expected to allow students to focus on 12th from January onwards, and hence considered very student friendly. Also, we believed that if there is a significant gap between the results of prelims and the final exam, then the coaching will primarily focus on prelims (much larger market) and final exam would see less negative impacts of coaching. On the other hand, if prelims and final exams were close to each other, then the coaching would focus on the final exam and hope that this also helps in the prelims.

This new pattern was introduced in 1998. At some point in time, the Ministry of HRD got into the act, and started claiming that they have received complaints from several principles of schools that once the students know the result of JEE prelims and if they are not shortlisted, they get depressed and spoil their 12th class exams even more than what they would have done if they were studying for 12th class and JEE simultaneously. We never believed that story. We were quite sure that if we were only admitting 4000, and we were shortlisting 20,000 then the guys who were not short-listed would be mostly those who would actually be expecting not to be short-listed and could not be depressed by knowing the result. They should be relieved and not depressed. (A few may be depressed, but the policies can not be made for few. One has to look for the larger good.) And more importantly, this was our feedback from school teachers and principals though we must admit that MHRD has access to a much larger number of teachers and principals than us. But the argument never made sense to us. We always believed that it was personal agenda of someone in the Ministry, perhaps with some encouragement from coaching industry, but one will never know.

But another development taking place around that time was that many private universities (deemed universities) started having their own admission tests (initial focus was perhaps profits in conducting that exam, since government was becoming tough with having capitation fee, and large application fee, admission fee, etc. And Supreme Court was telling all universities and colleges that merit must be respected in the admission process. So having entrance exams solved both issues - making money and be on the right side of law. Many state governments also created technical universities and affiliated all engineering colleges of the state to this single university, and the admission will happen through yet another common entrance exam. So one common exam in each state started happening. As admissions became more competitive, the issue of normalizing board marks also started raising its head. This problem was too solved by having an admission test. But having all these admission tests meant that our original argument of 1997 that a student who is told on 1st Jan that he can not get into IIT will now focus on school board exams was becoming weaker every year. In reality, the child will just start preparing for the other competitive exams.

So finally, we shifted the prelim from December to 2nd week of April, would declare the result by 1st May, and then the final exam will be 10-15 days later. I don't remember which year it was that we shifted the prelims from December to April.

In 2001, the central government decided that there should be only one common entrance exam for all engineering institutes in the country. The idea of AIEEE was born. However, every body rejected the idea. IITs rejected the idea. They would continue to hold their JEE. Most of the deemed universities who were having their own entrance exams rejected the idea. Most of the state governments rejected the idea and continued to have their own common tests.

The government changed in 2004, and by now, the brand value of IIT system had become really big. So a new government and the ministry had to show that they knew how to run IITs better than the previous minister and the babus. There were genuine concerns that there were too many exams happening in the life of a 12th class student. Can we reduce the exams by one. From 2 JEE exams, can we make it one. Never mind that the second exam was given only by 20,000 students and removing that would have no impact on the number of exams by students at large. The ministry has to throw its weight and fool public. And the directors are all too eager to oblige in such situations. So we set up a committee. The committee looked at the data from JEE prelim and JEE final over the last few years and reported that the top 5000 in the two exams had more than 4000 common names. It said that the ordering of those 4000 was different in the two exams but that was considered statistically insignificant. Even if the same group give same exam on two different days, the ranking would be different, they argued. And, if there is very high correlation between the prelims and the final exam, why should we have the prelim exam at all.

There were many flaws in the argument. In fact, it was clear that everything mentioned was quite stupid. You don't find correlation by looking at how many people are common in the top 5000 and then ignoring the fact that their rank correlation was rather poor. Also, as it turned out, by removing the long answer type part, the whole coaching technique changed to solving the paper by elimination and tricks, and a lot more students started coming to IIT campuses who could not write a single sentence correctly (in any language, if I may add). So, having an exam that required long answers was ensuring that students learned more of desirable skills which was important even if there was strong correlation between the results of the two exams. (And in this case, the correlation was weak.) We also forgot that the idea of 2-stage process was to ensure security of the exam. We could check each candidate much more carefully when the exam was being conducted only for 20,000 students. We could require them to have stronger authentication. We could hold their exams in much better environment. Only good centers would be selected. You wouldn't lose out because the school did not have a diesel generator set and sufficient diesel to run that fan in your room while giving the exam. You wouldn't lose out because the desk you are sitting on is creaking and is making a noise. Later, we will also start receiving many complaints that there are ghost JEE takers whom we were unable to catch.

But the goal of JEE has not been to admit good students. That has been the side effect. The goal is to have a system which can stand the scrutiny of law and is apparently fair (any unfairness which is incidental and not planned is acceptable). If any system has these qualities and can also please the masters, that would be great. We got all these things right when we announced that from 2006, we would only have objective type questions in JEE, and there will be no preliminary stage. The masters were also getting worried that with almost all engineering colleges shifting to admissions through an entrance exam (AIEEE or something else), the focus on school education was getting lowered, and they wanted IITs to help. And the Directors obliged. The new rule about 60% requirement in 12th class was also added in 2006. (You can see that sometimes the Directors act very smartly. 60% was so low that in any given year, perhaps 1 or 2 in the entire IIT system would be disqualified as a result. So they could, in this one case, managed to please the masters with absolutely no impact on anyone.)

This made no dent on the problem, which was as expected by some of us. The students continued to give a large number of exams. They continued to ignore school education. In the meanwhile, another general election, another Minister, another set of babus. They too thought that they knew how to run IITs better, and the easiest thing to tinker with is the admission process, following the path of their illustrious predecessors. Another attempt at reducing the number of entrance exams, not realizing that "One Nation, One Test" slogan is just a slogan. The central government had no real authority to stop deemed universities or any state or private university from conducting their own exam. So they did two things, tried to merge AIEEE and IIT JEE, at least one major exam less, and tried to harass deemed universities through a variety of means so that they become more compliant and agree to stop their own exams (amongst other things). But it did not work. The number of exams that a student gives today is largely the same. But the pressure caused some restructuring. In order to show that the government has succeeded in reducing the exams, they decided that both the exams will be named JEE and one hoped that public is foolish enough to believe that JEE (Mains) and JEE (Advanced) are just two sessions of the same one exam, and somehow require significantly less preparation and effort than AIEEE and JEE. But the restructuring and renaming did mean that JEE (Advanced) which was the erstwhile IIT JEE would be taken by only top 1.5 lakhs of JEE (Mains), the erstwhile AIEEE.

Even though the number of 1.5 lakhs was decided as 5 times the number of CFTI seats (including all IITs, NITs, and IIITs), when NITs and IIITs decided not to take students from JEE (Advanced), and the number of seats reduced to 10,000 (from 30,000), no one in the IIT system had the guts to relook at this number and say that the advanced exam should be of 50,000 students alone (5 times the number of seats), which would allow us to have long answers. Having had JEE machine graded for almost 10 years now, it would be very difficult to find examiners for long answers. We have realized for the last 10 years that multiple choice questions reduce the number of court cases, and that is certainly more important than figuring out who is the best student to admit. The focus of IITs is also shifting to research. So if some good students go to NITs, it will be good for IITs. The chances of them coming to us for doing research is higher than our own students staying back to do research.

What is the future of JEE? Well, I am sure one day some committee will study JEE (Mains) and JEE (Advanced) and declare that both exams would have selected the same set of students for an IIT, and hence JEE (Advanced) should be abolished. There will be huge tussle between CBSE and IITs as the money involved is huge and the potential risk of damage of reputation is high if something does not happen right with the exam.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Can I study History in 11th class?

My daughter is in 10th class, and a few months ago, we asked her what she would like to study in the 11th class. And she replied with the question that is the title of this blog.

It seems a simple enough question with a simple, obvious answer. Of course, you should study what interests you. And we have seen her interest in history. I can sit with her and watch history videos on Khan Academy. She had attended all lectures given by the famous historian and indologist, Michel Danino, who visited IIT Kanpur for the previous semester. She had gone on a trip to Dholavira last year to see the largest Harappan site in India.

But there was one small issue. We wanted her to study in a school where it is not assumed that only those students who did not get admission to science or commerce streams study arts and humanities. So the search for the school started, and it wasn't an easy search. Other than perhaps in Delhi, there are hardly any places where this condition would hold. So eventually, we dropped this condition, and said that any school which has a CBSE affiliation (since she has been in CBSE schools for the first 10 years), and has history in 11th class, and is considered a good school overall would do, and of course, we will search for the school only in cities where rest of the family would be willing to shift as well.

And, this is when it became frustrating. The number of schools which offer arts and humanities subjects in 11th class is abysmally small. I had heard all along that we have a serious shortage of students interested in science, and that is why DST spends a huge amount of money on the INSPIRE program, that is why we opened so many IISERs at huge cost. I guess I wanted to believe the propaganda of my colleagues. It has turned out to be completely different. Everyone wants to study science, and no one really wants to study subjects such as history, psychology, etc.

I tried to ask around. We still have a very large number of students doing Bachelors of Arts. Why is this not getting reflected in the enrollments in 11th and 12th classes. And that is when I heard the following explanation.

OK. So you are interested in history. You should study history at the college level, why would you want to study history at the school level. You are interested, that is not good enough reason. You first have to secure admission at a good history program at the college level, and remember to secure that admission, they will not look at whether you have studied history at the 12th class level. Your total marks will get counted. So the best thing would be to study subjects that are hugely scoring, and over a period of time, science subjects have become hugely scoring. And since in that history class at the college level, 90% of the students would not have done history in the 11th and 12th class levels, the college and the university have no option but to follow a curriculum that assumes that you have done no history in school. So, if you study history in school, you get no benefit (like being able to do more advanced courses) at all at the college level. You just repeat everything there.

So unlike science and engineering programs which require one to study science subjects at the 12th class level, history programs do not have any such requirement, and smart kids and parents have figured that one should not study subjects based on interest but based on their scoring potential.

Of course, my daughter wants to study history just because she likes it and has not yet decided that she really would take up history at the college level, and hence the above suggestion that she just takes up scoring subjects (read, science) and delay her interests by two years is not entirely satisfactory.

Now that I am getting more interested in school education, I am realizing that the problems of school education are worse than the problems of technical education that I have so far been writing about.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Professors of Practice

When a good university thinks of faculty recruitment, it thinks of research. Research brought in money from funding agencies (with huge institutional overheads, it was profitable business to do research). But more importantly, research brought in prestige. And prestige attracted better faculty, and better students. And all this attracted even more funding, including philanthropic funds. Balancing the books was important and high quality research was necessary to raise those funds.

But should universities only focus on knowledge creation, and not work on knowledge dissemination. Universities were ready with an answer. Research and teaching are two sides of the same coin. Good teaching leads to innovative ideas coming from students in the class, which can be pursued as research. And good research, of course, meant that the faculty member will have deep insights into the discipline, would be able to bring the state-of-the-art to the classrooms. Since good research implied good teaching, and research was easier to evaluate, and in any case the goal of the university is neither knowledge creation nor knowledge dissemination - it is simply prestige and prestige is to be enhanced through research - we might as well focus primarily on research credentials of the faculty applicants. The past research output was an excellent predictor of success, the success being defined as good quality and quantity of papers, patents, and other such measurable output on one hand, and the ability to not make a complete fool of oneself in the class on the other hand.

But over the last two decades, some of these equations have changed. Research problems which can be addressed by a faculty supervisor and his/her PhD student with just a paper and pen are few, if not non-existent. The research infrastructure is getting costlier and costlier. And funding has not increased at the same pace. Now, getting funds from a funding agency is much more difficult than to have a paper published in top journal/conference, with acceptance rates in single digits in case of US. At the same time, state support to education is coming down. Balancing the books is becoming extremely difficult. And guess what. Even with reduced state support, it is turning out that the tuition paying students are the real important source of funds. Universities need to attract more of these students. Teaching has suddenly become important. But prestige is still brought in by the research output.

College enrollment in the world just keeps rising, requiring more and more teachers. Eventually technology (e.g. MOOCs) will reduce the need of teachers, but that is not happening now. In the disciplines where the shortage of faculty is most acute, universities have become smarter. They no longer chant the mantra of teaching and research being the two sides of the same coin, and good research being necessary for good teaching, etc. The new mantra is that a practitioner of a discipline can also have deep insights in that discipline, they can also bring in the state-of-the-art knowledge to the class, and of course, by not needing millions of dollars in research funding, they are significantly cheaper to hire, even if salaries are comparable to that research professor. (And in many cases, the salaries too are lower.)

In certain professional fields like medicine and law, it was always known that a practitioner is actually better in a classroom than a blue-sky researcher. Business schools too have stressed on visiting faculty from industry to give that insight to students which researchers might not be able to give. But over the last several years, other disciplines too have been forced to revisit the "research and teaching being too sides of the same coin" mantra.

Frankly, this mantra never made sense. Active research is not the only way to learn the subject, just implementing projects or practicing the discipline can also cause learning. And on the other hand, teaching alone does not give you great ideas to pursue, all collaborations and interactions can give you those ideas. The real use of that mantra was to justify an exclusive focus on research by arguing that it would ensure good quality of teaching. But repeating that mantra had its cost. It kept a large number of potentially great teachers outside the classrooms. It was a way to improve and maintain the importance of full-time research faculty, but now the same research faculty is being overloaded with teaching duties, and suddenly they have woken up to the possibility of having some faculty members with a greater focus on teaching.

This brings us to "Professors of Practice" which was always there in medicine and law disciplines, and to a large extent in business schools. While the exact description differs from one university to the other, this is primarily a way to attract persons who have been working professionals in their respective disciplines, typically through a contract of 3-5 years, and renewing that contract based on performance as a teacher. However, some universities have also seen this as a way to retain their existing faculty members who after an active research life would like to increase their teaching commitment and would want them to be evaluated for their teaching contributions instead of their research contributions.

This is a win-win situation for all stakeholders. Universities get more faculty. Students get smaller classes and better teachers. Research focused faculty gets lesser teaching loads. There is greater interaction between academia and industry. There is really nothing that can go wrong with this model. The only concern is how would we recruit such people. Over the last 50 years, universities have honed the art of evaluating research output of faculty applicants. They involved outside professionals in checking the CV, write recommendation letters, be part of selection committees, etc., but in checking the teaching quality, it would be difficult to do all this. However, I do not see this as a major concern. When we ask a candidate to give a seminar, let us judge that seminar not on the basis of quality of research, but from the perspective of a teacher, and then we are only talking about a 3-5 year commitment and not a 30-40 year commitment.

As a first step, universities can strengthen their existing programs to involve professionals - visiting faculty, adjunct faculty, etc. Have more of them on campus, give them a deal which they can not refuse. And we can make a real dent in the shortage of faculty on our campuses.