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Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The quality of faculty

 I have been to numerous selection committees, and I am quite aware of the quality of faculty selection in our tier 2 institutions. As soon as you go beyond IITs, BITS, IIITH, IIITD, and a handful of other institutions, invariably the selection committee meeting ends with the Director making a request to the committee to recommend at least one candidate, any one who was marginally better than the others, so that the next semester's courses can be taught. In any of these committees, I always look at my role as providing my honest views about the candidate, and making sure that there are no biased selections. I don't look at my role as quality control (beyond giving my honest feedback). The primary stake holder in that hiring is the institute and not me, and hence they have to do quality control and not me. So, invariably, I will agree to recommend that one candidate, who could not speak a word about his thesis that he had just submitted, and who could not answer simple questions about the course that he had recently taught, and yet in my opinion, was the best amongst all those who were interviewed. Participating in such committee meetings can be very depressing as they expose this myth about India being the largest producer of scientific manpower. These candidates can hardly be called "scientific manpower" and yet they represent the best that our scientific manpower production factories have produced. What are we doing to our next generation, forcing them to study from these types of faculty members. And this is one reason why I always ask people to seriously consider studying abroad, if they can afford it.

A few weeks ago, I was in a selection committee to recruit faculty for a new institution. The new institution (which shall remain nameless) has this agenda of excellence that they would not want to recruit just about anyone. So they had shortlisted a set of people whose CVs looked pretty good, better than the most candidates that I have met in tier two institutions. Most of them were existing faculty members in our Tier II institutes, which included IIITs, NITs, IIMs, and a few select state colleges and universities with excellent reputation. (IIMs are certainly Tier 1 institutions, but only when it comes to management related programs.) If you were to select faculty purely on the basis of their CV and pedigree, it would be extremely tough to take a call. And I was really excited about a new place being able to attract such CVs.

All the candidates were told to bring in prints of a few papers of theirs, preferably those papers which were recent and in which they had a significant contribution. One member of the committee had a very sound strategy for the interview. He would ask the candidate which paper is the strongest work. He would then ask a simple question about something in that paper, and the result was often hilarious (actually, very sad, given that these represented the second tier of institutions in the country).

The hottest area of research amongst those was "optimization." Can you explain what is a generic problem of optimization (not in your specific context). Sorry, I don't understand the question. OK, you have this equation in your paper. Can you give us an insight into this equation. Sorry, no. I just copied this equation from Matlab help files. Do you think it is ok to copy from Matlab help files without understanding. What's wrong, everyone does it. But then this appears to be a central equation in your paper. Why are you using this one and not anything else. I don't remember. But this is your recent paper, with you as the first author. I am the first author, because I am the supervisor. How do you avoid convergence to a local maxima, and guarantee that you will find the global maxima. I don't understand the question. Do you know what a local maxima is. Yes, the points that are close to global maxima. Thank you very much, you can leave now.

There were a few senior professors as well amongst the candidates. There was a faculty member who said that he is very strong in Operating Systems. When we asked to narrow down the area further, he said memory management. OK. Why do we need virtual memory. Virtual memory is needed to allow a program of larger size than the physical memory of the computer. Really. But it means that if the physical memory in a computer is larger than the addressable memory, then we don't need virtual memory. Yes, we don't need virtual memory. If we can somehow enforce that all programs will be smaller than the RAM in the computer, we don't need virtual memory. Yes, we don't need virtual memory in such a situation. How would you ensure that two programs who are using the same address space will not conflict with each other's memory. Sir, I have been teaching OS every year for the last 20 years. My students have got jobs in top CS companies, and you are telling me that I have been teaching wrongly all these years. Yes, my dear professor, you have been teaching wrongly for all these 20 years.

I suspected this, but did not want to believe this. In the last 20 years, I would have asked this question on virtual memory to at least 100 potential MTech/PhD students, and till date, NOT EVEN ONE (other than those who have studied at an IIT) has answered it correctly. The sequence of exchange that I had with this senior professor of operating systems in one of the good institutes of the country, was exactly the same I have had with students from such colleges. And yet, I always believed that they were taught correctly, but they didn't pay attention. Or they are learning from poor quality text=books. I could not believe that they learnt wrongly because their professors did not know.

I can go on and on, but the summary is that most of these faculty members with great CVs did not know even the basics of what they were teaching, or what they were doing research in. They did not know that copying content from elsewhere was plagiarism. They did not know that they should understand what they write in a paper. It was almost as if the papers were generated with some automatic paper generating software.

And what is worst is that when we investigated further with these faculty members who all had substantial number of journal papers, it turned out that many of those papers were in paid journals with no peer review. And yet, they would defend the practice by saying that everyone else did it too.

Since most of these faculty members were young and recent PhDs from similar institutes (IIITs, NITs, and good state colleges), it also puts a question mark on the kind of PhDs being produced in the country.

And yet in a country where the quality is determined primarily by the amount of money their graduates can get in the market, these institutions are rated very high by the society. So there is no hope of any improvement either. If they are all doing very well, where is the pressure to change. The only positive of these institutions is that they have successfully created a culture of self-learning (necessity is the mother of invention), which will ensure that their alumni keep learning on their own throughout their careers.

But is this enough for the "Make in India" to succeed. Are we really on our way to harness our demographic dividend.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Do you want to kill your ward?

Obviously the answer to the provocative title is a strong NO. However,  your reply in negative does not exonerate you of the charge of causing stress, anxiety, and even depression. And yes, this can on a few occasions even lead to him/her taking the irrevocable final step.

Yet another young life with a bright future will be lost. Yet again, the media in the country will ask what are the top educational institutes in the country doing to ensure that these things don't happen on their campuses (with the obvious implication that it is alright to lose a young bright life outside these few campuses). The curriculum, the pedagogy, and everything else be scrutinized with a fine comb. Suddenly, the press will become expert on everything related to education.

IITs have tough competition. What does this mean, and who is responsible for it. Is having five courses a semester too much load (if yes, then close down all engineering colleges, they all have more courses than this). Is having an assignment every other week too much. Or should we just do some theory in lectures and ask questions in the exam from a set of pre-defined important questions. No, that is not what brings stress to the people. What brings stress to the people is their relative position in the class. And ANY system you create, if students are going to be worried about their relative positions, they are going to be stressed.

People say IITs put too much focus on academic performance, on this one number, CPI or CGPA. Shouldn't an academic institution worry about academic performance. And what is this too about too much focus. Yes, there are some academic decisions based on academic performance. But by and large, the institutes invests huge resources in creating avenues for non-academic pursuits. If there are awards for academic performance, there are also awards for projects, awards for sports performance, awards for leadership, and everything else. How many faculty members in an IIT will ever consider you less than a human being just because you are not in the top half of the class. The chances are that it never happens. It is the parents, the neighbors, the relatives, who worry more about your CPI and CGPA than IIT faculty. And they are the cause of stress and even depression, and not IITs.

The goal of most students in an educational institution is to get a good job. Who puts that focus in their mind. Certainly not the institute. Almost no faculty in IITK would tell students that the goal of IIT education is to get a 50 lakh or even a 10 lakh job. Most will actually tell them that they should think beyond placements, may be go for higher education, do what is their calling, be entrepreneur, and so on. So why do people get depressed when they don't get a job on day 1 of the placement. It is the parents unfortunately. Students are scared of calling up parents and telling them that their friends have a job and they don't. Even if they have confidence in themselves that they will get jobs on day 2 or later, they don't know how to get their parents off their back.

When a student falls sick, particularly depressed, the counselor tells us that the student needs family care and affection more than anything else, and we suggest that s/he goes home. It is the parents who don't want him/her home. He will manage, is always the statement that we hear. Do they know more than a professional counselor. But to them, the worry is not child's health, the worry is, what will people think, and the financial loss of a delayed graduation. Has anyone in an IIT ever said that you must finish your under-graduate in 4 years. We have a credit based system, and everyone is free to take 5 years to complete. No, the pressure does not come from the Institute, it comes from parents. For them, their own position in society and the money is so important that they are willing to play dice with their ward's life. (And of course, less than 0.01 percent of the students will die. So they can all say at the end, we told you so. Except that we can't tell that one parent, we told you so.)

I will get about 1000 calls/emails/messages in the counseling season asking for advice on what college/program to join. 900 out of these 1000 will ask me directly - which places have good placement. Out of the remaining 100, most are not asking the question only because they have read my blogs and know my strong view that quality of education is more important than placement statistics, and it is easier to find out about the quality of education than to find out about the placement statistics. These parents are guilty of pushing their wards on the path that will certainly have stress and anxiety and may have depression as well. Only very few will commit suicide and everyone else will believe that they are better parents, they knew how much to push, the other parents perhaps didn't, or even that the Institutes are responsible. But sorry guys, you just got lucky. You tried your best, but your ward survived, just because 99.99% will survive. It didn't have to be that way. All of them could have not just survived but enjoyed the college life.

And many of those students survived because IITs helped them survive. Because the counseling system works there. Because the other students are more compassionate than parents. Because the faculty works hard to help the weak.

When people say that parents left the child in your custody and parenting now is faculty duty, they are just passing the buck. First, they have not left the child in our custody. They call up every day, ask the score in every exam, ask for relative performance, and interfere in every aspect of student life. They don't realize that the student is now an adult. Second, faculty members can not be parents, should not be parents. That is not their job. By doing that job, we are being unfair to the tax payers. Being a faculty member is a very expensive proposition, and it is wasteful to use such an expensive resource for parenting, something that they may not be greatly skilled in. They should better do teaching and research in their time.

So, the next time you ask me about the placement statistics of this college or that college, think about it, you could be pushing him/her to take the extreme step.

Please focus on quality of education, and stop blaming IITs for every suicide.

Monday, April 27, 2015

How do people select engineering colleges?

Recently, I wrote a blog on how to choose an engineering college? I do realize that the methodology that I ask people to adopt is too time consuming, and watching IPL is more important than doing research on colleges where one may be interested in. I also realize that quality of teaching, quality of research, quality of infra-structure, quality of all other parameters regarding your career can be summarized so beautifully by one word: placements. With these things in mind, I actually started looking at quora questions regarding choice of engineering colleges and what answers do people give. There was another reason for checking out quora. I have recently decided to spend the next two years in IIIT Delhi, and wanted to understand what do people who join competing colleges think IIITD is lacking. And may be, I could help the Institute in improving on those issues.

However, I was in for surprise. IIIT Delhi is a Delhi Government institute, and just like all other Delhi Government engineering colleges, it too has an 85% quota for Delhi students. So, obviously, we compete mostly with other Government engineering colleges in Delhi. (Of course, we also compete with engineering colleges outside Delhi, since they too attract students of Delhi.) So a typical question in quora would be to compare various Delhi government engineering colleges.

And a typical answer would be as follows.
I am a student of one of the government engineering college (not IIITD) in Delhi, and I have looked at the website of all colleges, have friends in all colleges, and therefore, I know everything about all colleges. So the credentials are proven. IIIT Delhi faculty is absolutely the best. In fact, in my own college, we get taught by temporary faculty members. None of my faculty members are doing any research. The infrastructure at IIIT Delhi is awesome. Of course, it is because they are new. (The implication being that this great infrastructure will be useful only for the next few batches. Give them 20 years, and they will be as bad as us.) It is easier to get a hostel room in IIIT Delhi than in our college where we have a serious shortage of rooms. And you know what, they get air-conditioning in their rooms in the night. We don't have AC even in our classrooms. Their curriculum is great. They have so much flexibility. They have several courses offered against an elective slot. If we have an elective slot, our department will offer either one or at most two courses. So no real electives.Their Director is truly a visionary guy, and he really thinks about the future of his students. Just look at his blogs. (Of course, we are proud to say that he was also acting Vice Chancellor of our institute for a few months.)

Having written all sorts of things about IIIT Delhi in superlative terms, by now, the student's conscience starts hurting him, and he has to now justify his own decision of joining his college. So he constinues: When their first batch graduated in 2012, the placement was an issue. Our college has a real awesome placement. (The implication being that I joined my college because at that time, there was huge gap between the placements.) But there too, they have been improving every year, and for the 2015 graduating batch, the placement is almost the same, but still not at par with us. (Notice, how placement is really that last straw he is clinging to. Not willing to admit that even placements have become excellent in IIIT Delhi.)

Having read all this, I am like, wow. If the students of our competition are saying that we are so great, then we don't have to worry about anything. People will just come. But not so soon. Then you read the last paragraph.

There is one serious problem though. The faculty members at IIIT Delhi actually give assignments in the courses. In many courses, you have to write a lot of programs. They are even tough on cheating, and do not allow copying. You should be willing to focus on academics a lot more, and work very hard. They will really make you learn a lot of computer science. And some people will thankfully elaborate further. You have worked really really hard to get a good rank in JEE. You must have worked towards it for at least 3-4 years. You should choose a college where you can study less and still get good marks, and good placement. So that you can focus on non-academic pursuits like sports, cultural activities, and so on. That will also help you in placement.

 And then some people will point out that the tuition in IIIT Delhi is higher than other colleges. (Though IIIT Delhi is giving very high value scholarships to top students, which will ensure that these people don't choose one college over the other for financial reasons, besides liberal fee waivers to people with economic difficulties.)

And that brings me to the question. What is the goal of a college. Why are you working so hard for that JEE exam. Why does motivation go down drastically as soon as you enter the portals of a college. It is obvious to me that student life is important. At that age, having fun is important. (Heck, at all ages, having fun is important.) But is having fun so important that you would proudly ask others to join the college where the faculty is mostly ad hoc, does no research, gives no assignment, does not provide feedback if at all an assignment is given, since in such a college you can get good marks without studying. Is it really true that companies don't look at technical knowledge and competence and only worry about soft skills. And, of course, it goes without saying that IIIT Delhi student community is also very active in extra-curriculars.

Anyway, the debate appears to be settling down to: If you want to go into a technical, research or academic careers, then join IIIT Delhi. If you want to go for an MBA, IAS, finance/management jobs, or anything else which is non-technical, then join other colleges. And everyone is happy with this settlement. Other colleges can claim that they get more students in the top 2000 ranks than IIIT Delhi. IIIT Delhi faculty is happy that they get students who actually are interested in CS (or ECE, whatever I am saying from CS perspective, is true for ECE as well) and are motivated to do hard work.

And it is not just IIIT Delhi. I hear similar statements about IIT Kanpur (it is too academic, of course, for IITK there are several other issues as well). I hear the same about IISc and IISERs. (Don't go there unless you are willing to work hard.) Why would a student who has really worked hard to get admission, now plann to go to a place where he wouldn't have to work hard.