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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.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Premium Tatkal: Another wonderful step by Railways

I have been through this blog writing about dynamic pricing in Indian Railways. My logic is simple. Someone who can plan a journey 60 days in advance and someone who needs to travel on an urgent basis - both have a right to travel on Indian Railways. To have a transportation system in the country which says that you can use it only if you can plan 60 days in advance is downright rotten. Further, that those who can plan 60 days in advance should be given so much subsidy to thank them for their ability to plan that there is no money left to expand the transportation system is absolutely regressive. We then build a system wherein the benefit of this subsidy often goes to touts and other middlemen, and not to the traveling public.

Furthermore, while one can perhaps argue in favor of subsidy in non-AC classes of travel on the basis that they are used a lot by the poor (though this can be argued only if you define 98% of Indians as poor), no such argument is possible for AC classes. (We still argue any way claiming that 99.9% of Indians are poor and we must not discriminate against the poor's desire to travel in AC first class. Notwithstanding that cross subsidy through freight hurts all poor significantly, even those who did not travel and did not enjoy that cross-subsidy.)

So I was very happy when Railways finally introduced dynamic pricing last December and I wrote a blog about it. The budget brought many more special trains with dynamic pricing. However, most trains ran only on specific days, and sometimes cancelled at the last minute. Sometimes their timing would not be comfortable and so on. We needed dynamic pricing on our favorite trains, and the recent decision of splitting the tatkal quota into two and making available half of tatkal under dynamic pricing is a great step.

Of course, this is available only on a few trains, but I am hoping that at least on those trains I will be able to book a ticket after the mad rush of Tatkal is over and the IRCTC site start responding to your clicks. Yesterday morning, I checked for AC-2T berths on Shramshakti for the same evening, and I was pleased to see that 3 of them were still available. I suspect that it was because not many people are aware of this new scheme, since at 1850 Rupees, they were still a steal compared to the alternative of taking a taxi to Lucknow airport and buying an air ticket.

So my reaction to this is, a very positive step forward, but a very small step. We must do more. To have about 5% of all seats on Indian Railways on dynamic pricing is too little. I can see that within a few weeks, the scheme will be known to all, and then this quota will also last for a small time, and my desire that a last day ticket be available with high probability will not be met by this step.

As I have argued multiple times, there is really no need for subsidy in AC classes. And hence not just 5% of AC seats but at least 50% (if not 100%) of AC seats should be under dynamic fares. If the political class wants to continue heavy subsidies in non-AC class and have only 5% of seats under dynamic fares, it is ok with me. We need politicians to sell the scheme to masses.

By having 50% or more seats under dynamic fares would mean that it is not just Tatkal seats which are under dynamic fares but all seats. So I can buy a ticket any time. The current system forces me to buy the ticket either 60 days in advance or one day in advance. The new scheme has improved my chances of getting the ticket one day in advance. But I would want a system where I can buy a ticket 7 days in advance as well. So give some AC seats at subsidized prices to those who can plan well, but other AC seats should be given to those who are willing to pay the real cost and some profit to Indian Railways.

In fact, if we implement dynamic fares for a large number of seats, there will be no need for Tatkal at all. Seats will be available at a price even at short notice. But if Government wants to give away 5% of seats at lower price one day before the train journey, that is irrelevant to the whole transportation issue. (But a better system would be a lottery where everyone can participate equally, for example, register your demand the day before, rather than a lottery based on who gets through the IRCTC.)

Indeed, if we have dynamic fares for a large number of seats, it would be possible to get rid of most quotas as well. Most passengers, including the influential persons like MPs, would prefer a guaranteed seat at the time of their choice than face the possibility of not getting any seat through the Emergency or VIP quota and coming to know of it only at the last minute. (Have you heard of quotas at the airlines?)

Further, even AC 1st should be brought under dynamic fares. It is very strange to see AC-1st fare to be lower than dynamic fare of AC-2nd in the same train on the same day. (Or at least ensure that the IRCTC site offers a higher class with lower fare when one asks for premium tatkal ticket.)

So a great step forward, but many more steps needed in this direction.