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Thursday, November 17, 2011

Teaching 500+ Students - Part 5 (Sleeping during the lectures)

When I was a student, I used to miss any class if I felt sleepy. It just seemed wrong to sit in the class and not pay attention. Things have changed with age, and perhaps with time. Now, I can peacefully sleep during seminars without feeling too guilty. And I have no problems with my students sleeping in my lecture, as long as they don't get upset with my lecture disturbing their sleep, and they don't snore and disturb others. Peaceful coexistence, as they say.

About a month ago, in one of my lectures, I noticed that a student was sleeping in the last row of L-7. (For the benefit of readers not familiar with IITK lingo, L-7 is lecture hall number 7, which is the largest lecture hall on campus with a capacity of more than 500.) When I say sleeping, I don't mean sitting with eyes closed and not paying attention. He was as flat as you can be on a chair with legs resting on the next seat. He had a handkerchief on his face so that the lights don't bother him. And, I am sure, though I did not check, he had ear plugs to make sure that my lecture does not disturb him. His body did not seem to be moving at all.

I became acutely aware of what W H Auden (an American Poet) had said about half a century ago, "A Professor is one who talks in someone else's sleep," and I tried to be soft, and I tried to ignore him. Sometimes there will be two students sleeping. I was curious, as to who they were, were they registered in my course, were they sleeping through the previous lecture as well, and why can't they sleep in their hostel rooms.

The funny thing happened two days ago. I decided to take a surprise quiz in the lecture. A kind soul went to the last row to wake up the sleeping student, gave him the paper. The student took a few seconds to look at the question, returned the paper, and went back to sleep. How important can a few marks be when you are day dreaming about your career, or your favourite heroine, for that matter.

Today was the last lecture of my course, and my last chance to find out. So I asked some students in the course if they knew who they were. Yes, of course, they were registered students in my course, and very hard working ones at that. They worked whole night, every night. Doing what? I don't know but I can only guess that playing computer games and watching movies on a small screen is a lot of hard work. And human body can only take so much. So one has to sleep some times. No user manual of life has said that one can only sleep in the night. And they were born in a free country, where they can enjoy a whole lot of freedoms, including freedom to sleep at will.

But students told me that the Warden of one hostel whose resident this student was, considered himself above the Indian constitution. He got the Hall Executive Committee to approve a rule which stated that students cannot be in their rooms when their classes are on. No respect for individual freedom. I guess this warden thinks that these students have come to IIT for studying. He himself should wake up and smell some coffee.

So sleeping in the room during the late morning hours entails a cost (fine) of Rs. 50. Sleeping in the lecture hall is free. And in the last row, disturbance is arguably less than what it would be in the wing. In fact, the C syntax that I was teaching must be acting as a lullaby for him. (Though I wonder whether the Physics lecture before my lecture was also sleep inducing? They apparently had slept through that too.) To add to their comfort, the lecture halls are air-conditioned. What more can one ask for. It is such an attractive proposition that I am sure the student would have gladly paid Rs. 50, if we insisted on that to let him sleep during the lecture. It is definitely better sleeping in a lecture hall than in the hostel.

But in my opinion, some things in the world must be be tax-free. Free Sleep is one of those things I feel strongly about. I am sure when the constitution was being drafted, the members were asleep. That is why they gave us free speech, when they really wanted to give us free sleep.

Oh! The joys of teaching a 500+ students' class.

Added on 18th November: Here are the links to previous posts on my experiences in teaching 500+ students:

Teaching 500+ Students - Part 4 (Extreme performances) 
Teaching 500+ Students - Part 3 (Excuses for Copying)
Teaching 500+ Students - Part 2 (Conducting Labs)
Teaching 500+ Students - Part 1 (Language Issues)

Monday, October 31, 2011

Dynamic Pricing of Tickets in Railways

Indian Railways is broke. A large number of their plans, particularly those relating to increase in capacity, are not moving forward because of lack of funds. Their operating ratio is over 90. That is, for each 100 rupees that they earn, more than 90 rupees are spent on the operating expenses alone. Obviously, no money is left for development work.

If you do not increase the passenger fares for 8 long years, and you have limited flexibility on the freight side of business, you are bound to land in the situation that Railways is in today.

With some increase in infrastructure, improvement in technology, higher efficiency, some more new trains can be introduced every year, but to really solve the problem of demand and supply, they would have to build infrastructure at a very fast pace. But for which they have no money.

In the last one month, the Minister and the officials have been talking about a middle-of-the-year increase in fares, which is good. The Minister has reportedly said that they don't want to get into the situation that Air India is in. They have already increase the freight rates, but given that they have a strong competition from trucks, they can't cover all their passenger traffic losses from freight. But I am sure no politician would want to increase the fares substantially in one go. And there is no doubt that the situation is so bad that a small tinkering with fares would not be of much help.

This is where dynamic pricing could help. And the good news is that the Minister is talking about it. (Read an article in Economic Times.) The Minister only needs to announce an increase in the normal fare, a fare that would be paid by only some of the passengers. Others pay the fare determined to a large extent by demand and supply. Just to give an example, if in the first 10 minutes of the reservation opening 90 days in advance, 10 percent of the train capacity is booked, the pricing engine would increase the fares. On the other hand 10 percent of the train capacity is not booked even 10 days after the reservation opens, the fare remains the same till an upsurge in booking is seen closer to the travel date.

The last minute tickets could be priced substantially higher than the minimum fare for the same on peak rush days.

Dynamic pricing has been completely accepted by public at large as applied by airline industry, except when the fares have become ultra-high, as it happened during Diwali time in 2010. Even in trains, the Tatkal rules of Laloo's times, when one had to pay the fare of end-to-end journey, and a premium on top of that with no cancellation refund, was accepted by public without much protest, though it would often be more than 2-3 times the normal fare, if one had to undertake the journey for only a part of the train route.

Dynamic pricing has lots of advantages, both for railways as well as passengers. Railways is able to get more funds, which can now be used for expanding the services. Passengers don't have to resort to bribing, finding loopholes, standing for several hours from early morning, 90 days in advance, so that they can get reservation on the day of opening, and so on. The VIP quota business can be thrown out, as with the new system, it would be possible to have some tickets available till the last day. Railways lose a lot of revenue, particularly in AC-1st and AC-2T because many people traveling on business do not want to book waiting list tickets. So for these classes waiting list is not long enough to take care of additional seats available when these VIP quotas are released for general public.

A system which allows some tickets at a relatively low fare on first come first served basis, and other tickets to be sold on the basis of market conditions, is also a fair and practical system. Selling all tickets at low fares 90 days in advance does not seem fair to those who cannot plan so much in advance. Selling all tickets through a lottery a few days before the date of journey is not fair to people who want to plan their vacations much in advance. Auctioning all tickets discriminate against economically weaker sections. But dynamic pricing takes care of all these concerns.

If one still has "fear of the unknown," it may be first introduced in upper classes, see the experience, and then take a decision to introduce it in non-AC classes.

Indian Railways could also introduce differential pricing for different seats in the same class. The pricing of lower inside berths could be higher than side upper berths.

Another pricing differentiation could be that the price of a short journey on a long distance train could be higher than the price of the same journey on a short-distance train. For example, Delhi-Kanpur ticket would be cheapest on Delhi-Kanpur trains, slightly costlier on Delhi-Allahabad trains, more costly on Delhi-Howrah trains, etc. Basically, encourage more long distance passengers on a long-distance trains, and you will find out that the long distance trains do not have many passengers from small stations, and therefore, those halts can be removed, and trains can be speeded up.

Another advantage of dynamic pricing (and the resultant availability of tickets closer to the day of journey) is that one can provide better service on super-fast trains. It may be worthwhile to recall that about a couple of decades ago, there were no unreserved compartments in many of the prestigious super-fast trains. They were added later on to enable those passengers to travel by these trains who have to reach their destination urgently because of some emergency, and they could not get reservation done in time. But now, if reservations are available closer to the date of journey, we could remove all unreserved coaches, replace them by reserved coaches, and make journey more comfortable for more people.

There are other ways in which Railways can get more revenue without having to increase the base fares by much. Currently, Indian Railways has a mechanism to book a ticket from a station different from the station where the passenger will board. This is, however, discouraged by Railways. If I want to go from Station 'B' to Station 'C', and if I try to book the ticket from Station 'A' to Station 'C', with boarding at Station 'B', the reservation engine will book me only against the quota of Station 'B', and therefore, it would be foolish to pay from Station 'A'. But if Railways allowed passengers to use quota of Station 'A', it is essentially increasing the fare of those passengers, while keeping the option to sell those seats between Station 'A' and Station 'B' and make additional money.

We need Railways for the economic growth of the country, and not just a defunct railways, but a vibrant railways, which is expanding to meet the growing needs of the nation. It has to be financially strong to invest in the future.

PS: On an unrelated note, I found this news item on Economic Times very interesting. It talks about a problem similar to Y2K problem in the context of railway reservation system.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Selecting a Dean

I had been thinking of writing about selecting the second rung of leadership in an academic institution for a long time, but this semester is not allowing me to write much. But when I saw Prof. Ram Mohan's blog on the same topic, I was encouraged to write my own views on it.

Typically, in Indian institutions, the top position (Director or Principal or Vice Chancellor) is often advertised, and the decision makers (whether promoters, including government, or the board) often do consider a broad search, including people from outside the institute. There are some lacunaes in the process. As Prof. Ram Mohan says, the board (assuming that this is the body responsible for recruiting the top leader) must first articulate what type of skills it considers more important at that stage. This is hardly ever done. A combination of decent academic record with experience in administration is all that matters. But at least the search is wider.

But, when it comes to the second rung of leadership, there is very little focus on the selection process. And the result is an obvious one - you get some good Deans, and with others, you just pray that they won't do enough damage in the 3 years that they would be occupying the office.

First of all, there is no articulation of the job description. Somehow we all are supposed to be aware of it. While one may generally be aware of what are the responsibilities of say, Dean of Students Affairs, a document specifying the role will great help the search process. Also, what are the specific focus for the next couple of years, or what are the immediate issues to be handled will also help potential candidates and those who are involved in nomination or selection. If the goal of the Institute is to privatize the messes of all hostels, and you bring in a Dean who is philosophically opposed to outsourcing, it is not going to help the goals of the Institute. But, if the job description only included one line about managing the hostel, then no one will ask about the philosophy of outsourcing from the potential candidates.

Second, there is a need to think about the desirable profile. Not that a person outside this profile cannot be a good Dean. But having a desirable profile makes it easier to think of names to nominate and for shortlisting, etc. For example, Dean of Research and Development whose office is expected to provide support to all project investigators should be one who has handled several projects himself/herself. Dean of Students Affairs should be one who has handled student interaction either as a warden or in some other capacity. Dean of Alumni Affairs will have to be one does not mind traveling and meeting a lot of people. And so on. The profile may include desirable past experience, age profile, interests, etc. Again, generally speaking, there is no profile that is made available during most searches.

Thirdly, unlike search for Director or VC which looks at external candidates, there is hardly any institute in India who will look for external candidates for a Dean's position. This must change. Normally, a good institute would not recruit its own fresh PhDs as faculty. The reasons are many. But one reason is that we want the person to have had a diverse experience, and bring in a different perspective to the institute. In the same way, a few leadership positions being filled by external persons would bring in a new way of doing things, a change of perspective. And it becomes a tool to attract talent as well.

Fourth, in most cases, the process is very secretive. Not having a job description and a desirable profile is part of that secretive culture. It is impossible to find out who all were nominated, who were shortlisted, how shortlisting was done, why someone was selected as a Dean, etc. No transparency at all. Having a more public process (even in private universities) will result in better selections. It should be known to stake holders who are being considered, and how shortlisting was done. The shortlisted candidates may be asked to give a presentation on their vision and plans for the job. Such presentations could either be open to all stake holders, or at least their videos be made available to stake holders later on. This would result in people who are really passionate about the job and has some clear vision and plans for the job to be selected.

My colleagues tell me that secretive process is necessary since most faculty members in a good institute like IITs do not wish to become Deans. If they have to go through a transparent process, they will simply refuse. On the other hand, if they are selected after a secretive process, then they think it is their responsibility to take up any role assigned to them by the institute. So the secretive process helps the Institute in getting good Deans. Nothing could be farther from reality. While I don't deny that there are some faculty members who would agree to be a Dean after a secretive process and wouldn't have participated in a transparent process, but the number of such Deans is small. Most faculty who do not want to be an administrator will refuse to take up the role even after the secretive process. A lot of people who later turn out to be ineffective leaders as Deans, wouldn't have participated in the transparent process, but are happy to be Deans after a secretive process. And the transparent process does not mean that the Director or the board members cannot approach faculty members and encourage them to participate in the process. In fact, it is often necessary to do this in any selection process, if you want quality intake. We do this all the time for faculty selection, but somehow forget to do so when it comes to leadership positions.

Search for leaders often a long time. Hence it is important that the process starts six months in advance. The final decision should be announced about a month in advance of the incumbent's tenure coming to an end. It should be possible for the new Dean to spend some time as Dean-designate and observe how the previous dean carries out various tasks. This would enable the transition to be smooth.

I welcome readers, particularly those who are faculty members in Indian institutions, to write about any interesting mechanism that their institute follows to find leadership talent.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

NRN Speech at PanIIT

A lot of people have commented on NRN's comments during Pan-IIT at New York last week. So, I am not going to add something new to the debate, but just putting my views across.

What I find very amusing is the exclusive focus on the numbers, 20 percent good, 80 percent bad. If media were to be trusted, Mr. Murthy made several points during his speech. He criticized the coaching culture and considered that as one of the reasons for decline of IITs. He said that in current form, JEE is not the best admission filter. He said that graduates of IITs have poor English language skills. He also said that IITs will have to focus a lot more on research if they want to be in the top league of universities in 10-20 years from now. All the statements that a lot of people have been saying in the recent past. You may agree or disagree with any one or all of these statements, but people have generally remained civil in their disagreements. The only statement which has inflamed passions is the 20-80 percent thing.

Is it fair to lose all sense of fairness and ignore the entire speech of NRN, and only focus on one statement of that speech. Isn't it obvious that Chetan Bhagat wants to be in the limelight just before the release of his book, and that is why he is bringing in completely irrelevant issues to the table like what Infosys has done or not done. (And, what does he know about Infosys anyway.) My friends who listened to him live in New York tell me that it was a great speech, where he talked about a lot of issues, with the only controversial statement being this one about 20-80 percent. Same thing had happened earlier when NRN had given a speech in IIT Gandhinagar in July. People listening to him there thought it was a great speech with deep analysis of what is right and what is wrong, and were totally shocked next day when media just harped on one particular statement during the speech.

I have had the good fortune of meeting NRN on several occasions. And every time I am impressed with his ideas to improve education. And he does not only make statements. Under his leadership, Infosys had initiated PhD fellowships long before IBM and Microsoft started doing so. Infosys support for conferences and other academic pursuits has been remarkable. The Infosys Prize has become the biggest honor that a scientist can receive in this country. Infosys has been supporting IT education in 100s of colleges around the country. (One may argue that it is only due to self-interest, but whether for self-interest or otherwise, you cannot ignore that they are serious about quality of education.) Of course, Mr. Murthy has also been supporting excellence in education from his personal funds to the tune of 10s of crores of rupees. Here is a person who is really passionate about education, has remarkable analysis, great ideas, and who has done a lot. And we ignore everything he says, but we can't ignore that one line.

Having said all this, let me also take this opportunity to reiterate some of the things I have been saying in this blog. First, the coaching issue. A lot of people have been saying that it is wrong to criticize coaching centers. They are servicing a need of the society. But has anyone said that it is not a legitimate business. Has anyone said that Bansals, PACE, FIIT JEE and others are not satisfying a need of the society. If they weren't, they won't be in business. The point being made is that the pedagogy employed in coaching is very different from the pedagogy that education experts tell us should be employed for teaching kids at that age. Kids coming from coaching classes demand the same pedagogy after they come to IIT. Also, the attitudes that coaching creates are different from what one would expect from a well rounded school education. They focus only on short term success. You can't blame coaching centers for any of this. The real reason is competition for a few good seats in a vast country like ours. But can there be no other admission process that allows a bright student to focus on school education and still get admission in IITs (or other top colleges). Can we not minimize the impact of coaching (not because coaching is illegitimate business but because of its side effects). I am convinced that IITs can come up with better admission strategies, and some of that I have talked about in this blog earlier.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Advantages of Aakash

So, we now have the world's cheapest tablet. Congratulations to all who made it happen.

I am curious about one thing. What is innovative in Aakash. I am yet to see a paper, or a reference to a patent, or any design document which describes the innovation part of Aakash. If any of my readers know something in this regard, please let me know.

The alternate theory of Aakash is the following.

Most hardware vendors (like most manufacturers in most industries) think of products for the richest 1 billion of the world. The margins are decent with this sector of population, and if you are sure that your product will sell a few million pieces, you go for it. This market segment would prefer good quality, good specs, multiple things in one box, and so on. Of course, once the vendors are convinced that the 2nd or 3rd or 4th billion also will buy their product if the price is right, they will bring the lower versions of the product, which is happening in the phone market today, where the growth market is 4th or even 5th billion, who can hardly afford anything fancy. But it has not happened in other markets. The lower-end laptops, PCs, and now tabs are at best being targeted at the 2nd billion today.

How do you get a tab whose price point is accessible to the 3rd billion or even 4th billion. You either do an innovation, which others haven't thought of. (And, by innovation, I include the possibility of a technical innovation as well as a financial innovation - may be some company will subsidize the device in exchange of some advertisement rights.) Or you convince a vendor that there is sufficient market for the product at the 3rd or 4th billion level. And one way to convince a vendor is to tell him that I am prepared to give a written order of 1 lakh pieces, and will further purchase a million devices from the market. And then you sit with him to figure out what is bare minimum configuration, which is useful for the purpose it is intended for. And if the bill of material cost is more than the price point you have announced publicly, then quietly wait for 3 months, 6 months, a year, or 2 years, for the prices to come down, and if they stubbornly refuse to come down to the level that you desire, throw in some subsidy as well.

But whatever may be the mechanism of getting this price point, I am quite sure that this will have a strong positive impact on higher education in India. And because of this reason, I must congratulate MHRD for thinking of such a device and taking the project to its logical conclusion.

Why am I sure that this will have a positive impact. Well, institutions in India are generally averse to bringing in technology in the teaching learning process. We don't know who is going to maintain those things. We don't want to be seen as elitist by insisting that students own some devices. And a lot of faculty isn't good at technology adoption anyway. All solvable problems, but who has the motivation. But institutions in India are also very aware of what MHRD wants, and would like to please the minister and his secretaries. It is obvious that if MHRD is putting in a huge amount of money and wants this to be a visible project, it is going to ask Directors to write reports on how Aakash is being used, how it is making a difference, etc. And a few Directors will want to make sure that they have something to tell MHRD. They will ensure that we pluck at the least the low hanging fruits. Can we do at least some sort of video recording of the lectures, and make them available on our servers for students to go through them later on. Can we ask each course instructor to prepare a playlist of youtube videos relevant to that course, which students can see on Aakash in their free time. Once a few institutes show that technology adoption is not a serious problem, and it really helps in the teaching learning process, I am sure others will join in, and we would have improved the quality of higher education in this country.

And, I am sure, if indeed we have a few million devices with students, private sector will bring in innovation so that the students can make use of these devices more effectively.

A similar experiment is underway in Tamilnadu where the state government is giving away laptops to all students. An excellent  blog article by K Satyanarayan on implication and details of the TN government scheme is a must read for those interested in this topic.

Update on 9th October, 2011:

In today's newspaper (Sunday Times, Kanpur edition), there is an interview Suneet Singh Tuli, CEO of Datawind, the manufacturers of Aakash. He talks about three "innovations" or reasons that have kept the price of Aakash low. The first one is that they shift the burden of processing from the client device to backend servers in the cloud, that reduces the cost of processor. (I read this as an admission that the device is not meant for any computation, but is just a web browser and a video player, and hence we have used a real low end processor and small amount of memory.) Second, he claims that they are a lot more vertically integrated than the average manufacturer who buys 50 parts and puts together the device. Datawind componentize it - they buy 800 parts. (It is not clear how much this can save.) And last point is interesting. Aakash connects to their app store, and they are expecting some users to buy some apps from them. This is likely to result in some profit for them, and help them keep the cost of Aakash low.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Teaching 500+ Students - Part 4 (Extreme performances)

This is in continuation with my experience of teaching the first year programming course to 500+ students. We had the mid-semester exam on 14th September, and the copies were returned on 21st. We did the computation of total marks of all students in lab assignments, quizzes, and mid-semester exam, and put them on the moodle on 21st. I then asked those students who were figuring in the lowest 10 percentile to meet me individually. Out of 50 students, only about 25 came to see me. And I asked each one of them what problem were they facing, and what could our team of instructor, tutors and TAs do to help them.

The most common issue, as expected, was that of language. While they were getting adjusted to learning in English, their skills at understanding spoken English was still below par. So they really were dependent on the slides of the lectures, and hardly understood anything I did on the black-board. Some people who claim that now they are used to lectures and can understand fully, but still said that they have missed so much of the background in the first 2 months that it is difficult to understand lectures now without knowing the material covered earlier. (I am asking these students to go though the material in the forthcoming mid-semester break, when some members of our team would be available for some help.)

But hardly anyone talked about home sickness, medical problems, poor time management, too many extra-curricular activities. The second biggest issue was that the second year students were forcing them to participate in various student functions. For every activity in the hostel, the first year students are the bonded labour. During "Takneek" (an internal technical competition), the first year students would be told to report at midnight. If they felt tired and slept in their rooms, someone will bang the door soon after midnight, force you to open, use the standard hostel language (read abuses), and ask them to come along. And they need to work for hours. If they didn't sleep in the night, they had to miss the morning classes. Most students still manage to keep afloat, but I was talking to those who were anyway having some problems with academics. For them, missing classes was a disaster they could not recover from.

Strangely though, most faculty members and students I talked to, refuse to call it "ragging." Ragging is only when something bad happens in the first couple of weeks of the semester. This is common across all hostels in all colleges and universities. (Sure, people said the same thing about beginning-of-semester ragging, before Supreme Court intervened.) This way, they get exposure to variety in life. See, most people manage and don't complain.

The hold of the second year students is absolute. Within the first few weeks, they have brainwashed the first year students that the only group that will help them with all sort of information during the placement season, a few monsoons from now, will be those who are 1-year senior to them. So they must listen to them. And, of course, they should never approach any faculty member for advice. They will always give you advice to earn less, it seems. They will brainwash you about doing MTech and PhD. They will brainwash you as to why you shouldn't prepare for CAT and should always go for "core" jobs and not "finance" jobs. So, if they want to be happy in life (read, make more money), they should avoid talking to faculty.

I advised a couple of students whose performance is really poor, to drop the course, and not have an undesirable grade on their transcript. They admit that the chances of their passing are remote, but, Sir, the second yearites in the hostel have advised us that dropping a course is a sign of cowardice. We can't live in the hostel with the stigma of having dropped a course. We would rather have an "F" grade on our transcript. (One of those students is in such a bad state in several courses that getting an "F" grade in this course could mean that he might be asked to leave IITK. While, if he drops this course, he is almost guaranteed to stay on. But he won't drop the course.)

Very interesting hostel dynamics, which I never realized before. There are advantages of teaching a large first year class. You get to understand your students far better.

We also wanted to do something for students at the other end, that is, those whose performance is in the top 10 percentile. We are organizing lectures on "python" over Saturdays, and there will also be labs, and these students will get support from tutors and TAs, if they decide to take up a project. While we were not in a position to provide extra lectures and labs to a very large number of students, there was tremendous pressure from a lot of students to allow them to learn "python." As of now, we have told them that we will try our best to organize lectures on python in January. Let us hope we are able to do this.

Friday, September 23, 2011

JK Center for Technician Training

On Monday this week, I was invited to the inauguration of a center for technician training in Kanpur. Though I have heard a great deal about the importance of skills training, vocational education, and other such keywords in various conferences, I must confess that I know very little about that category of education. My knowledge about ITIs for example, is limited to discussion on IITians for ITIs in various Pan-IIT events. So I was naturally curious and decided to go and check it out.

The center was being inaugurated by Mr. Yadupati Singhania (Chancellor of Sir Padampat Singhania University, Udaipur), whose vision it is to provide low-cost, high-quality technical training to a large number of youths across the country, without provisioning a large amount of subsidy every year.

The center has been operational for about 6 months in temporary space, and has now become fully functional in its own swanky building. It provides training similar to ITIs in three disciplines - electrician, mechanical fitter, and modern carpentry. But there is a difference. The training period is only 3 months, as opposed to 2-year period of an ITI course, and that is where the low cost kicks in. Just imagine the cost of lost wages for 2 years, while doing the training from an ITI.

The team has studied ITI program in great detail, and have also visited technical training centers in different parts of the world. They realized that there are too many holidays in an ITI, and in fact, one hardly attends the course on 180 days a year. Even on those 180 days, the incidents of something going wrong are also high - sometimes faculty is on leave, sometimes the machine is not working, sometimes there is no electricity. On top of all this, there is a lot of repetition, a lot of old technology being taught, and so on. And they realized that it would be possible to provide a similar skillset to a young, motivated person in about 3 months only. He has to come to the center every day, six days a week. No time to waste - you are either in a lecture, or you are in the workshop. No canteen breaks.

Batch size is kept small, a maximum of 30 students in each trade, so that the trainers can give personal attention to everyone. The workshop was amazing. Can you imagine a CNC Lathe machine in a center to train technicians. I was proudly shown all the latest equipment that the industry works with and is available for training there. The lecture room had a projector and a screen, along with Internet connection so that guest lectures are possible through skype. And the quality. There were many industry leaders from local industry there, who vouched for the quality. The first two batches have graduated, and the placement has been good.

Of course, it would be difficult to sustain this with a single batch, and as I said, they have no intentions of this being a charitable activity of JK group. The idea is to soon expand into multiple batches. When one batch is having lectures, the other will be in workshop, and vice versa. Also, the center will eventually operate 14-16 hours a day so that there can be morning batches and evening batches - make as much use of the wonderful infrastructure that they have, and reduce costs as well.

The students who were graduating on Monday had confidence written all over them. They could even speak a few sentences of English. They have been exposed to a bit of computers - can check their emails, for example. They were smartly dressed - ready for the real world. Each one was given a bag which had a tool box in it - their most prized possession.

The comparison with the ITI could not be more stark. The center is situated in one corner of the ITI campus, using only 5% as much space as the ITI, and will be producing many times more technicians than the ITI, and the chances are that they will be equally well trained, if not better, than ITIs, at zero cost to the promoters (as opposed to huge budgetary support that ITIs get).

I was told that the goal is to replicate this model through the franchisee route all over the country. They themselves are setting up a second center, this too in Kanpur city, which shows their confidence in their own model for technical training.

What I found very interesting is that the team behind this dream has a significant IIT Kanpur presence. The three member Project Management Council - Mr. Yadupati Singhania, Mr. Manoj Pant, and my batchmate, Dr. Rajnish Karki, all are IITK alumni. There were at least 20 industry leaders at the function who were IITK alumni, some of them have recruited the graduates, many had offered advice and other forms of support.

I am confident that with IITians getting into the area of skills development, India will be able to exploit the demographic window of opportunity that it has over the next couple of decades. The era of private sector ITIs has arrived.

Here is the link to JK Center for Technician Training.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

GATE Eligibility - No to 3rd Year Students in 2012

I first read about change in GATE eligibility in Prof. Giridhar Madras's blog. I talked to a few colleagues at IITK also, and like the comments in that blog, here too I heard that the major reason for not allowing 3rd year students to give GATE was that they can't handle so many students.

This is yet another manifestation of the arrogance of IITs. If you can't conduct this exam, then give it up. It is not your exam. It is MHRD's exam. This is not just for admission to IITs and IISc. This is for admission to ALL MTech programs in the country, where the stipend is charged to MHRD. CBSE has had no problem in conducting an exam for 12 lakh candidates, and should be happy to conduct yet another exam. CBSE has done a far superior job of conducting AIEEE than IITs have done for JEE (at least the way exam is conducted - I don't want to digress by discussing the paper content). And I am sure CBSE can do a far better job of conducting GATE than IITs can. If CBSE refuses to conduct, then we can consider outsourcing it to BITS Pilani, Merit-trac, Prometric, and any number of other players. All of them have huge experience of conducting large public exams.

Have IITs ever bothered to ask other universities when GATE should be conducted. Note that IITs have a small number of MTech seats. Others admit more MTech students than IITs do. But there is no mechanism for anyone to give any inputs. Most universities would want to start the admission process earlier than April, and therefore, would want GATE to be held earlier than February. But IITs won't listen. I know of some places who were seriously considering keeping some seats for "early admission" for those who would have given GATE in the 3rd year. But that won't be possible now.

GATE has also become a way to test your basic knowledge in your field of engineering. Many students would give GATE in the 6th semester, and if they get good score, highlight that in the CV for placement. The industry values such students, but this can't be done any more.

In fact, even at IITK, if someone sent us an email in March telling us that s/he has got a very good GATE score (better than our typical cutoff for calling for MTech admission), we will try our best to invite him/her for summer internship in the hope that next year s/he will join our graduate program. That would no longer be possible.

For many years, there is a talk about GATE becoming a multiple day, online exam. But trust IITs to not do that. Only a few disciplines will have an online exam even after trials for a couple of years. They are so afraid of technology.

All this because IITs and IISc can't find enough invigilators and they are too rigid to consider alternatives. They could have had, for example, more subjects in online format, and spread offline papers on to 3-4 sessions by having the exam on Saturdays as well, thereby reducing the need of faculty members going to various centers.

They have increased the cost of JEE application fee to Rs. 1800. They could have done a similar hike for GATE as well, and use that for solving problems (like going for online exams in more subjects, paying more for larger and better exam centers).

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Teaching 500+ Students - Part 3 (Excuses for Copying)

Continuing with my experience of teaching the first year programming course to 525 students, I am today writing just a short note. I wanted to share some of the excuses students have been giving me when we catch them using unfair means in labs and/or quizzes. And, believe me, I am not making them up.

  1. (This is about a quiz, where we had multiple versions of the paper, and this student had written the answers which were correct for a different version of the quiz paper.) His explanation was that he was writing random characters and random numbers. There is a small but finite probability that it will result in the answers that will exactly match the answers given by the neighboring student. I should offer him stronger evidence of copying than just that his answers don't make sense for his questions, but are answers for questions given to his neighbor.

  2. What I have done is not copying. This can be called cheating in an exam, but not copying. And you have always been saying that copying will result in an "F" grade. You have been silent about cheating. Since I have done cheating and not copying, I should be given a lighter punishment.

  3. My program has been written by a senior, who is not even doing this course. This is not copying, but just taking help from friends. If someone who is doing this course had written the code, that would be wrong.

  4. I did not copy from any classmate, but searched on google, found the code for the problem, and submitted it. What is wrong in that.

  5. I have only seen function definition, variable declaration, for loop, while loop, if conditions, and few other things that I did not understand. But, believe me, I did not copy 100%. (Yeah sure, there was indeed a one line difference between the two submissions.)

  6. Sir, moss (the software developed by Stanford University) is saying that 96% of the lines are same. It is obviously wrong. See, I changed all the variable names, and deleted all comments. So, there is hardly any line which is same. You are using a buggy software.

  7. We are so used to copying in other courses. Even previous instructors of this course ignored copying. It is difficult to remember to do things differently in just one course. (The implication being that I should change, not him/her. And remember, these are students who have just joined IIT less than 2 months ago.)

  8. And this is from a faculty member (thankfully, not from IITK). When everyone is making 1000s of crores, you are trying to teach honesty. You are spoiling their careers. They should become more practical and a better fit in today's society.

I don't want to give an impression that everyone is cheating. In fact, that is a small minority. But the excuses and arguments that they come up with are truly remarkable, and I just wanted to share some of the gems.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Teaching 500+ Students - Part 2 (Conducting Labs)

This is to continue describing my experience of teaching a class of 500+ students. If you are interested, you can read the earlier post.

Last time, I had described my dealing with students who did not know adequate conversational English. This time, I am describing how we are conducting labs.

We have divided the batch into 5 groups, each of about 105 students. There is one lab of 3 hours per week for each group. For each lab, there are 8-9 persons (2-3 5th year dual-degree MTech students, and 6 1st year MTech students) to help students with any difficulties.

Normally, the first 3-4 weeks are hell for students who are looking at a computer screen for the first time. Too many questions, and too few people to help. So we requested all MTech students to do extra duties in the first 4 weeks. First two weeks, there were 6 extra MTech students in each lab, and for the next two weeks, there were 3 extra MTech students in each lab. The labs have gone extremely smoothly as a result, much better than what I could have imagined.

The first week was a bit of chaos. The MTech students themselves were new to campus, and trying to settle down, and understand the computing environment, find out where the labs are, and what they are supposed to do. In the past, instructors have not conducted labs in the first week for these reasons. But I was adamant. I was willing to not have a lab only on the first day of classes. From day 2, labs must start, and those who miss the lab of day 1 would have an extra lab on the weekend. I must say that the dual-degree students were huge help in this week and a couple of students went to lab on each of the five days. Without such dedicated students, I couldn't have managed this course. The first lab was to just remove their fears of the computers. They would learn how to send/receive email, attachments, searching for stuff through google, and a few other miscellaneous tasks, including playing computer games. A bit of linux commands too, and getting familiar with moodle. No programming, not even typing a given program. I didn't want to scare students.

The second week was to learn an editor, typing a program (which was given to them), knowing about the compiler, and running the program. Again, a very comfortable exercise, just to start the love affair between the students and the computer.

But the third week was different. The real labs started now. And the labs were very different from what their seniors had told them. We used to ask them to write 3-4 small programs (20-25 lines sort of stuff) in every lab. By the time they completed the course, they would be comfortable writing a 50-line program. This won't work for me. I would ask them to write at least a 50-60 line program in the lab, and the hope is that by the time they complete the course, they would have written at least one 150-200 line program.

Earlier labs would ask them to write some standard program from the end-of-chapter exercises. But now, they had to understand a more real-life situation and write a program for that. No rocket science. Just produce a telephone bill, or a shopping receipt, or project the train arrival time, or whatever, but a real-life context is important (not always, since I have to think of 5 problems of roughly equal difficulty, all of which can be done with the limited amount of programming that I would have taught till that week).

Since I can't expect students to write a 50-line program in a 3-hour lab, I would announce the lab problems at least 2 days in advance. So they can think about the flow chart, may be even try out some coding in their free time. But announcing the problem in advance has its own critics. Many students spend far too much time on them. Some students, after solving their own problems, even try to solve problems of other lab batches. Some have truly fallen in love with the machine, while others are just trying to catch up with those who already knew programming. Yet others find the air conditioned environment of Computer Center rather conducive to work (and sleep). But it is all my fault that they don't seem to be spending as much time in other courses.

Then the grading. Normally, the grading is the responsibility of the MTech student, who is as new to the system as the first year BTech student. And grading was done in the lab itself, with no record of program that was shown. And it was not surprising that the average of the class would invariably be a healthy 9 out of 10. This meant that almost all students wrote programs for all small exercises that were given in all labs, even though the students were not told about what program they have to write till the beginning of the lab hour, and within 3 hours, everyone had submitted, that too correctly, and had been graded. Something was not right.

I have insisted that all lab assignments must be uploaded on moodle. So if I want to check some submissions randomly, I should be able to do it. I would also give a very detailed grading policy every day - what to check, how many marks for what features including comments and use of proper variable names, etc. And grading should mostly be done offline (which is now possible since all assignments are uploaded), so that the TAs focus only on helping students in the lab. The lab average is a more realistic 6 out of 10 with a proper spread of marks on both sides. But students are not complaining. The amount of help they are getting, again thanks to all the graduate students, is something that they probably did not expect. Some of the TAs would be available even on weekends to help the students with their programs.

While we provide all the help to the weak students, one complaint that we keep hearing in IIT is that we don't do enough to encourage good students. Well, there is something for them too. We are starting the process to identify the best programmer in each section for each lab, and their names will be announced not just to that section, but to all the students. And soon, we will offer these students a chance to do a large project in lieu of the exam.

We tell our students one simple thing. We will work hard to provide all opportunities and support. But they should also work hard. Short cuts won't be tolerated. In other words, copying in a lab is a strict no-no. Some of them don't seem to understand this. Nowhere, the lab is taken seriously, I am told. We start using the services of MOSS server at Stanford today. Since this has been announced that we will use MOSS, and anyone copying will be failed in the course, I don't expect students to take chances.

Friday, August 26, 2011

IIMs want a gender-balanced classroom

Apparently, IIMs see a value in having a diverse classroom. In the front page news report, aTimes of India informs us that many IIMs will add up to 30 marks for female applicants, when they decide the merit list for admission.

This reminds me of a blog article that I wrote long time ago. In that article, the focus was JEE and admission to IITs, and I had argued that something had to be done to improve the gender ratio in our top academic institutes. One of the suggestions I had at that time was to add some marks to the JEE score of girl applicants.

I went through some of the reader comments on ToI website, and you find the expected arguments. If girls (may I say ladies, since all applicants to IIMs are adults) are good enough, they should come in on their own merit. They don't say it, but the obvious implication is that the ladies are not good enough. How come they score well in school, and their marks are marginally higher than the boys in school. There is an answer to that too. One comment says, "girls are good at cramming, while boys have better brains." I thought schools teach more of concepts, and coaching for admission tests teach more of tricks. But I let it pass.

Some others have commented that ladies are not interested in business administration. (Coming to IITs, it would translate to girls not being interested in STEM fields.) Of course, what is the basis of this sweeping statement. The comments are silent on that. Why would a girl who chooses to study science subjects in 11th and 12th class would suddenly decide in 12th class that she is not interested in pursuing under-graduate education in STEM fields. Is there any data to support such a statement (data showing that after 12th class, they change their discipline and study non-STEM fields). Well, the data from engineering admissions show that the problem of gender imbalance is only in the top 50-100 colleges. This debunks the theory that girls are not in IITs because they are not interested. I am sure similar data from management schools other than the top 50-100 would show that ladies are indeed interested in business administration, but they are not getting admission to top 50-100 schools.

One possibility that readers on ToI website would not want to consider is that perhaps the admission process inherently favours the men. One reader suggests that this is not the case by arguing that CAT is very simple exam. It checks things that any good student should know. Well, if that is the case, why is CAT coaching next only to JEE coaching in this country. And if the admission process has an inherent bias against ladies, then wouldn't it be in the fitness of things that that bias be counter-balanced by adding certain marks to ladies' score.

Of course, the difficulty that one faces is that there is no easy way to compute the effect of that bias in terms of marks. And hence, an academician would like to stay away from calling such a thing as an exercise in removing bias. Also, to suggest that this is being done to counter biases in the admission process, would imply that one admits that the admission process is not perfect. Any honourable academic should admit that there is no perfect admission process, since admission process amounts to predicting success of individuals in the long run, where the situation would be very different from the situation at the time of admission. And if I could see the future so clearly, I wouldn't be an academician. I would probably help more people (and make more money too) by telling them their future. But admission process is managed by a specialized breed of academicians, called academic administrators. And this breed finds it extremely difficult to admit even the obvious.

But what is there in the name. As Shakespeare said, "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." At least some academic administrators are showing leadership and solving a serious problem. Let them call it gender-balancing. Let them call it diversification of student body.

By the way, this method of countering the biases, is followed in all top schools in the world. If, from your admission application, it is obvious that you had a particular hardship or a situation which would adversely affect your marks, that is taken into account while deciding the admission. In India, we are so afraid of any subjective evaluation (for good reason, I must quickly add) that we can't do such a thing on a case to case basis, and therefore have to apply any process identically to a large group.

This method of countering biases is extremely powerful for the simple reason that you could identify a large number of biases and decided on a year-to-year basis how to counter for each such bias. I can see that in future, this has the potential to replace reservation system. I should ideally check for each applicant what all hardships one has gone through, and give additional credit to that applicant to counter the bias introduced by that hardship. So, one may give certain amount of credit, if the applicant did not have access to a city school. One may give some credit, if both parents are non-graduates. One may give some credit, if one of the parents was always away defending the borders in a warlike situation. If tomorrow, we come up with a transparent system of finding out the financial status of an applicant, then that could correspond to some credits. If we can do all this, then our education system becomes truly inclusive, and we will no longer need a reservation system which only looks at one parameter - caste. But that is a long way to go.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

I Support A Strong Lokpal

I went to Ramlila Maidan on Sunday. It was an amazing experience. There must have been at least 20,000 people in the ground, while another 5,000 would be outside, either waiting in line to get in, or just came out, or just shouting slogans, etc. But with this kind of crowd, everything was running so smoothly. Except for the 500 meter stretch from the New Delhi Metro Station to Ramlila Maidan, all other roads in the vicinity had regular traffic. I don't think anything of this type is possible when we have meetings organized by political parties.

A few random thoughts on the protest.

Let us recall that initially Delhi Police had tried to put all sorts of restrictions on the protest. There can't be more than 5,000 people otherwise there could be danger to law and order. Do they ever say that to political parties. There can't be more than 50 cars parked at the protest location. Do they say that to political parties. Rallies by political parties often bring a large part of the city to a standstill, and despite being banned by the courts, the bandhs continue to be common. What does Delhi Police do then.

India Against Corruption (IAC) is being charged that they don't have respect for the parliament since they are demanding that LokPal should be able to investigate corruption charges against MPs. Let us see what the two sides are saying. IAC is saying that a few MPs may some time take money for asking questions in the Parliament. They may some times take money for voting in a particular way. And these few MPs must be investigated quickly. Government is saying that if MPs can be investigated by LokPal then it will become difficult to run Parliament. I read these statements as IAC saying that there may be a few MPs who will indulge in an act of corruption occasionally and in those occasions, they must be investigated. On the Government seems to feel that so many of MPs are corrupt that it would be difficult to find quorum (which is 10 percent of the strength) in the house. Which side has respect for parliament and which side does not. You figure that out.

IAC is saying that Prime Minister should be investigated if there is a credible complaint against him/her. (By the way, I do not fully agree with that. There should be some safeguard and a single person or a small group should not decide that the complaint is credible or not.) But Government view is rather strange. It says that PM can be investigated only by an agency which is to be directly under the control of PM, and no other agency (and this agency is CBI). Either the Government should say that PM will not be investigated by anyone, or it should agree to PM being investigated by some independent agency (whether LokPal or not). But to argue that PM can only be investigated by an agency which directly reports to PM is so moronic.

It is being said by the Government and many intellectuals that having an independent statutory body can lead to stalemates. That there can not be bodies with too much independence. Hmm. The Constitution already provides for independent judiciary, and thank god for that. The judges of High Court and Supreme Court can only be impeached, and we are noticing only the first impeachment of independent India now. Today's politicians would not want anyone with too much independence. The constitution already provides for an independent Election Commission, whose Chief can only be impeached, and cannot be removed through an executive decision. An Election Commission which has largely remained independent (though politicians have tried interventions like enlarging the commission) is a major strength of Indian democracy today. The constitution already provides for an independent Comptroller and Auditor General, who can only be impeached, and cannot be removed through an executive decision. And this has certainly helped the nation in uncovering some corruption. Chief Vigilance Commission was supposed to be another independent authority, though the process to remove the Chief is somewhat simpler. One does not need impeachment proceedings, but a process involving Supreme Court has been defined. If all these independent bodies have not created problems for Indian democracy, and indeed strengthened it, an argument cannot be made that mere existence of an independent body is a threat to Indian democracy. (But still, I think I will prefer, if the LokPal can be removed not by Supreme Court, but by Parliament through impeachment proceedings. The accountability of independent commissions have to be to the Parliament - just like CEC and CAG.)

A few intellectuals and of course some politicians have criticized Anna's methods of putting pressure on the Government. They quote Gandhi who apparently said that breaking of law as a protest is an acceptable strategy only against a foreign rule, and not against your own government, and hence "Satyagraha" is not a desirable form of protest in independent India. Sorry, I don't get it. Which law is Anna breaking. He only threatened to violate the restrictions imposed through promulgation of section 144 by Delhi Police which states that not more than 5 persons can be together. Section 144 can be applied only under the circumstances where there is a reasonable fear of violence and threat to public safety. Despite repeated requests, Delhi Police has not been able to bring forth any evidence which shows that there was any fear of violence or threat to public safety. Also, again the point I made in the beginning, will Delhi Police ban all form of protests, all forms of rallies, all bandhs in future. (If they promise to ban all rallies and bandhs and anything else that inconvenience citizens of Delhi, then I wouldn't mind them stopping one of the most peaceful protests of our times. But to stop only the peaceful protest, and not others, that is not cricket.) The only difference between Team Anna and other rallies has been that Team Anna wanted to do things in legal ways. They sought permissions. Others don't bother to seek permission to burn buses, stop trains, block highways, and so on. And if someone does not seek permission, you can't deny permission. You can only deny permission to those who seek it.

Protesting and putting pressure on legislators and the Government is an integral part of democracy. it can't run without citizens having the right to put such pressure. You can't have a democracy where you only have one vote in five years and you have no rights in between.

Finally, why is it that the Government has been able to successfully ignore IAC despite the huge support that IAC has all over the country. It is willing to offer some face saving to IAC, but no more. In a mature democracy, any MP would be worried if so many people are protesting for the same cause.

The root cause for this is the Anti-Defection Law or the 51st Amendment to the Constitution of India, which banned change of parties by any legislator. This was passed in 1985. The act essentially says that we are not represented by an individual, but by a party. The party knows that I may try as much as I can to convince my MP or MLA about my view point, if party rejects that view point, this MP or MLA can do nothing. It does not have that final and most potent weapon - to vote on the basis of his own intelligence, views, and what will benefit his constituency. So we can all try convincing our local MP to support a stronger LokPal than the one this Government intends to create, but at the end of the day that MP is powerless, and is subservient to party. And given that there is no internal democracy in any party anyway, a few people will control the agenda of every party. And while the individual MPs may be jittery, the party knows better. It knows that the next election is 32 months away, and the Indian public will forget what ever is happening today. May be they will lose a couple of states in the next few months but they reckon that they were going to lose them anyway.

So, if you want to push your viewpoint, you have to push much harder. One crore people is not enough to convince the Government that they can lose elections 32 months away.. You need 10 crores, and IAC does not have 10 crores on the streets.

The Anti-Defection Law has brought in political stability which was very much needed in the 1980s (and I suspect that if we repeal that act today, the situation may once again go back to what was there in the 80s). But that political stability has come at a significant price. We have all been dis-enfranchised to some extent.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Teaching 500+ Students - Part 1 (Language Issues)

In an earlier post in the summer, I had mentioned that I will be teaching the first year programming course to 500+ students, and I wanted advice from my readers on how to handle such a beast. First of all, I thank all those who responded. Your suggestions really helped me. This is the first time I am teaching such a large class. The last time I taught a large class was 17 years ago, when I taught Pascal to about 200 students.

525 is a very different beast. I thought I was well prepared. With 1 lakh lines of code under my belt, I was confident of knowing C language much better than Pascal that I taught 17 years ago. I had sat with several weak students last year and tried to understand what problems weak students face in this course. I went through videos of the first programming course at MIT and Stanford. I went through example lab assignments at several other universities, and the entire archives of this course at IIT Kanpur, for the last 6 semesters - all PPTs, lab assignments, and the works.

But when it started, I did not know what had hit me, and I still haven't recovered. Blogging was the first casualty. Google+ came at the wrong time. I have joined but don't follow anything. My active social life has come to a screeching halt. I guess this is my destiny for the remaining part of the semester. Today, after having spent the good part of the day in the office, I decided enough is enough. I got to blog.

At least point out the issues that I face, and hopefully the collective wisdom of the readers will help me sail through. The biggest issue is the language. No, I am not talking about 'C'. A fairly large number of students, in the initial survey said that they don't understand spoken English. This number is more than 15 percent, almost 100 students. They claim to follow the powerpoint slides. My natural way of teaching would have meant that while there are slides being projected on a screen, I would use blackboard to explain the finer points. This revelation meant that a lot more would have to be put up on the powerpoint, even though I may still use the blackboard on the side.

About 50 students said that they would like to be tutored in Hindi. And what came to me as a shock, some students do not follow even written English.

And this caused a debate in the department. I decided that I will request a graduate student to provide extra help to those who are weak in English. So he holds a session on Sunday for an hour in which he speaks in Hindi. I also encourage students to come to my office and ask me questions in Hindi.

Am I doing the right thing. Some faculty members don't think so. They point out that English is the official language of instruction at IITs, and therefore, it is the responsibility of the student to make sure that s/he learns sufficient English prior to coming to IIT Kanpur. By agreeing to offer help in Hindi, I am discouraging them from learning English. Second, it will increase expectation of students that in other courses too, the faculty would explain in Hindi, and a majority of faculty members are not from Hindi belt. So that would cause problems. Third, this is discriminatory with respect to non-Hindi speaking students who are also poor in English.

My take is different. The collective wisdom of the leadership of all IITs and indeed this country (because such decisions are taken at the cabinet minister level) has decided that students cannot be tested even on basic language skills. That we can't even specify that they must take English as a language in 10th or 12th class. This leadership has also decided that JEE will happen after 12th class, and not earlier, and that the schedule will be such that admissions will be offered only a few days before the semester starts. So, there is no scope for running a remedial course prior to the semester. With such decisions, one must expect that there will be students who would be weak in English.

What am I supposed to do. Ignore 100 students in the class. I do respect the fact that the same leadership has decided English to be the official language of instruction at IITs. I do not speak even one sentence in Hindi during my lectures and tutorials. I do not have any course related information on the official website of the course in Hindi. All assignments, quizzes, and exams are in English, and no translation is provided to anyone. But it is difficult to digest that even informally, I should do nothing about such a large set of students, who have worked really hard to reach where they have reached. I believe that a bit of compassion and support at this stage will make a huge difference to their learning experience. And I think not understanding the course content for several weeks till they learn more of English would be an insurmountable hurdle in doing well in this course.

Will this put pressure on all other faculty members to offer some support in Hindi. Will this discourage these students from learning English quickly enough. I don't know. Till I am officially told to do otherwise, I cannot refuse if someone asks me informal help in Hindi.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Inefficient Land Use by Elite Institutes of India

Recently, there was an article in ET which talked about inefficient utilization of land by our educational institutions. It primarily focused on IIMs, but what the author says is applicable to IITs and other Institutes as well.

Prof. T T Ram Mohan, in his blog mentioned that it is important for Indian institutions to have a residential campus, and hence the student density cannot be comparable to that of foreign institutions. But he does seem to agree that the class size should be higher to justify the amount of land that IIMs have.

In this regard, I remember my discussion with the Architect of IIT Kanpur more than a decade ago. Kanvinde (senior) was visiting IITK and I asked him a question that I was curious about ever since my student days. Why did he design the Faculty Building to be a six-storey building, while all other buildings in the academic area were restricted to three floors. He told me that the original brief to him was that the academic area had to be designed for 20,000 students (yes, I asked him twice, if he really meant TWENTY THOUSAND, and he did). The first phase would be for 2,000 students. Even in 1960, when land was not considered such a scarce resource, it was not so free that we design an Institute with a student density of 2 per acre (we have more than 1000 acres of land). The planning even at that stage was that of 20 students per acre. (By the way, it took us 30 years to have a student strength exceeding 2,000.)

Of course, amongst other buildings that he designed early on, he did not want to have multiple storey lecture hall complex, because movement of thousands of students within 5 minutes of break time between lectures would be very difficult. The library could not be much taller since books are too heavy a load. And before he could design the next building in the academic area, he got a revised brief. Just to concentrate on 2,000 students, and not worry about future growth. So all the buildings after that had a maximum of 3 floors.

Fifty years later, we are still at only 5,000 students. Even the 20-year future planning is not getting us anywhere close to 20,000 students for which the land was apparently given by the government.

By the way, IIT Delhi has a density of more than 25 students per acre, and they provide similar quality of education as IIT Kanpur. So, one can't really argue that an ultra-low student density is necessary for excellence. And IIT Delhi cannot really afford to tear down all its old buildings and construct taller buildings instead. We have empty land, and can construct tall buildings on them. So the land we have can actually support a much higher student density. Even on fully residential basis, it should be possible to support 50 students per acre easily. That is ten times the size of current student body.

Of course, many at IIT Kanpur will argue that the issue is not that of student density, but of absolute number of students. One cannot maintain excellence when the size becomes too large. Fair enough. (Actually, I don't fully agree with that. I think we haven't explored more efficient administrative structures. But that is for another blog some other day. For now, let me agree with this, to avoid digression.) But if that is the case, then the government has clearly made a mistake by giving us so much land. They thought in 1960 that such a large institute is possible. Let the Government correct its mistake by taking away the unused land. Let it set up other educational institutions on that land. Let there be a cluster of educational institutions on the land which has not been utilized for the last 50 years, and is not likely to be utilized for the next 50 years.

I am giving example of IIT Kanpur only because I am most familiar with this campus. The student density of most IIX campuses is extremely low.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

IISERs Await Legal Sanction to Award Degrees

In the past I have written about new IITs not having legal sanction to award degrees. But recently, I came across a news item that IISERs are in worse situation. Two of them were started in 2006, and the first batch has completed five years of stay, and the academic curriculum that was told to them. They were promised a degree, which was illegal. No one can promise a degree without having the authority to award the degrees. IISERs did not have that authority. People trusted the two Directors. After all, they were appointed by the Central Government. The Government had promised funding and was indeed providing money. So the fact that they were doing something illegal was ignored. It was just a technicality that would be taken care of soon.

But "soon" turned into weeks, months, and indeed years. And now after the first batch of students have completed their curriculum, that technicality hasn't been taken care of yet. So they cannot have a convocation and they cannot receive a degree. Without a recognized degree, the students' careers can be in serious trouble. Would there be a Tandon committee equivalent to investigate this.

In the meanwhile, government has started 3 more IISERs, 8 more IITs, and several more NITs, etc., all without the parliament conferring the right to award degrees to these institutions.

Just imagine what would happen if some private person puts an advertisement in the newspaper saying that s/he is starting a college which will give degrees.

UGC has strictly told all deemed universities and those who want to become deemed universities that they can give degrees to only those students who are ADMITTED AFTER they were conferred the right to award degrees. But such rules are implemented selectively and who is the promoter matters. If the government has a stake, then rules are mere technicalities.

I hope Parliament will pass all appropriate bills to grant university status to all new IISERs, IITs, NITs, and others, in the monsoon session which is starting in a week.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Should IIT Directors be Shortlisted by Board

There was a recent newspaper article, which mentioned that IIM Ahmedabad may be allowed some more autonomy. In particular, it mentioned that if the modifications to MoA are approved by the government, the board will shortlist just three candidates for the post of Director, and send them to the Ministry of HRD. MHRD will have to pick up one of the three persons.

I believe that such a mechanism would be ideal for not just IIM Ahmedabad, but most Central Government Educational Institutions, including IITs and NITs.

The Board members have a greater stake in the Institute, since they have been involved in policy making at the highest level, and would, in general, be able to judge the suitability of the candidates in a better way. This is not to say that MHRD has not been doing a good job of selecting Directors. Most of the Directors are indeed very distinguished and have reasonable amount of administrative experience. And a few who have not performed, would get selected in the modified scheme as well.

But, two things will happen if Board takes the role of selecting a panel of 3, out of which MHRD must select one. One, MHRD delays the whole process in a large number of cases. For example, a large number of NITs were without a full-time regular Director for several months. The boards will not delay sending the list, one hopes. Second, there have been many instances of Directors spending more time in Shastri Bhavan (MHRD offices) than on campus. With this change, the probability will be higher that Directors will feel more accountable to the board than the ministry.

Further, if we look at the system of selection of Directors in recent times, MHRD usually bunches multiple appointments. If they have to select 10 Directors, they will short-list only 15 candidates, and do a joint interview of all 15, and then take a decision on which 10 to be selected and which NITs they should be sent to. Earlier practice was to shortlist 8-10 candidates for each position of Director, and hold the interviews/discussion separately for Director of each Institute. But with increase in the number of institutes, this is no longer practical. This effectively means that the shortlisting becomes extremely important, which is not good.

Also, the board has internal representation in terms of two faculty members. It is important that the internal stake holders have at least some say during the selection process of the Director.

A process at the level of board is also likely to be more transparent.

So once IIM Ahmedabad is given this flexibility, we should ask for the same for all other central government institutions.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Stop Ragging

IIT Kanpur has just opened its portals for a new batch. These are young men and women (well, mostly men), most of whom are going to stay outside the comfort of their home for the first time in their lives. When you meet them, you immediately see the advantage of Kota. Those who have lived in hostel for their preparations are the confident ones. Others are shy, and a bit scared. Excited about the new journey, but worried about the first couple of weeks.

Most of them have heard of ragging. How could they not. They all have signed a declaration that they will not indulge in ragging of their batchmates. The declaration has been signed by all students of the Institute. It has been counter-signed by the parents. They all agree to accept any disciplinary action that the Institute might take, if they are caught ragging. The Institute has these posters all over the place asking students not to indulge in ragging. They have all been assigned a student guide and a faculty counsellor. They have been given mobile numbers of these people and others to report any ragging. There will be surprise checks in the night in the hostels by anti-ragging squads. Wardens will be on alert. But these freshers know that that is not enough. They have already been told infinite number of times that they will not be treated as equals for some time. They will have to follow orders, which they do not wish to follow. They will be embarrassed, laughed at, and warned not to complain. A complaint will only make sure that the fun activity (fun for whom?) is changed to physical ragging. Worse, they are told that if they resist ragging, no senior will ever help them in the next 4 years. The poor fresher does not realize what a blessing it will be to not interact with most seniors in the next 4 years. And, by the way, we call it "introduction", since "ragging" has been banned by Supreme Court. Will SC ban "introduction" next.

To be fair, there is none of those physical harm, or discomfort, generally no abuses on IITK campus. But this does not mean that there is no ragging.

Simply defined, ragging is any form of abuse of new students (“freshers”) by existing students (“seniors”). It could be an act by seniors which could cause annoyance or harm (psychological or physical) to the freshers. Ragging could also include seniors forcing the freshers to carry out an act which could be embarrassing.

Ragging is, no doubt, a menace in our institutions of higher learning, which in its extreme form has even resulted in deaths. University Grants Commission (UGC) has framed rules that every higher education institute is required to follow in order to curb ragging. Besides the obvious sort of measures, which I mentioned above in respect to IITK campus, there are some extreme measures too, which include a compulsory FIR within 24 hours of a ragging case coming to the notice of the institution. It is suggested that as per the Supreme Court guidelines on curb of ragging, the police will treat the senior students accused of ragging humanely and not as a criminal. There are supposed to be district level committees, with representation from police and district officials.

While the ragging appears to have reduced in the last few years, its prevalence is still unacceptably high. One of the serious problems in curbing ragging is the “zero tolerance” policy that everyone is recommending today. In my discussion with a Dean of Students’ Affairs at a reputed institute, it turned out that they feel helpless. If a minor case is reported, they would like to give a small punishment commensurate with the act, which would act as a deterrent to others from repeating the act. Now, they do nothing, and would simply destroy the complaint and give an oral warning at most. If they were to punish the senior student, there would have to be a record of complaint and punishment. If the record says that it was a ragging case, someone could ask them why they did not report the matter to police as per the rules. It would be difficult to argue for an Institute that they did not file an FIR because they did not trust that police will handle such cases with sensitivity.

But when the institute trashes ragging complaints and give only oral warnings, the message to the student community is loud and clear. That the institute will tolerate ragging till it reaches a level where they feel it is justified to involve police. No academic institute wants to involve police and district administration for small matters. By insisting that they do, UGC and others have actually tied the hands of the institutes in their efforts to curb ragging.

If an institute wants to curb ragging, it is extremely important that first small steps be recognized by the administration and prevented. The first step in ragging is identification of freshers. Different institutes have different ways to identify freshers, but invariably this will involve seniors controlling what juniors wear. Sometimes it could be that they wear proper pants and shirts along with dress shoes all the time (while seniors would wear T-shirts, or shorts, or slippers to distinguish themselves from freshers). At other times, it could be a specific hair cut that is imposed. Or it could be a specific colour of the uniform. Academic administrators ignore this as they don’t want to interfere in a “good” tradition of the campus which teaches the freshers how to present themselves. They don’t understand or do not wish to understand that such differentiation will lead to discrimination. If at all the freshers need to know how to present themselves, then the best way is for the seniors to demonstrate that. And in any case, this sort of teaching is not necessary in the first week of their stay on a campus. (This happens on IITK campus also, I am told by some first year students.)

There are other “traditions” on some campuses, which lead to hardships to some students and therefore come under the ambit of ragging. The freshers are forced to contribute a small amount for a party. The amount is small enough (like Rs. 200) that it is difficult for only a few students to afford. The seniors would organize a party outside the campus where the anti-ragging committee members are not likely to make a surprise visit. And it really is free-for-all ragging. While many institutes forbid seniors to go to the hostel rooms of freshers and vice versa in the first month, but they will refuse to take responsibility of anything that happens outside the campus. The institutes need to make sure that anything done against the will of the freshers, including a small financial contribution, or a party outside the campus, has to be stopped.

One of the reasons why it is difficult to stop ragging is that the first year students do not know anyone on campus. They do not know how serious the Institute is about stopping of ragging. They cannot trust the anti ragging committee, or simply feel shy of approaching them. When seniors know that no complaints will be made, they are not afraid of rules. So the focus in the first few days should be to make freshers comfortable on campus. Also, there should be so much interaction between faculty and freshers that not just the shyness goes away, but seniors also notice the close interactions. They know that during such interaction, some fresher may actually complain about ragging.

When I was at LNMIIT Jaipur, we would ask the freshers to join the Institute a week before the seniors would come. In this one week, there would be an orientation program, where there would be several lectures on general topics – not about their course, but on campus life, time management, stress management, values, and so on. Since these are more interesting topics in the beginning than Physics and Chemistry, it brought a lot more interaction between students and faculty, and that too at a time when the only seniors on campus are those who have been carefully chosen as volunteers to help the freshers in settling down. We also organized several matches between faculty and freshers in different sports – cricket, badminton, table tennis, etc. - further cementing the ties. The nature of interaction would vary from one institute to the other. But there must be some interaction, if ragging has to be curbed. In IIT Kanpur, one faculty member is assigned responsibility of talking to 5-6 students. He would meet them, invite them to have a meal at home, and interact with them so that they feel comfortable to discuss any problems, including ragging, if the need arises.

A place where discrimination usually starts is the mess. The fresher can be easily identified there, because he would not be aware of the culture of the place, and would be asking simple questions. Invariably, the seniors would either ask freshers to sit with them where they can carry out verbal ragging, or they will ask the freshers to stand last in the queue, just to discriminate against them. Our solution at LNMIIT was to make sure that at least one faculty member is eating in the mess during every meal in the first couple of weeks.

Another strategy adopted was to find any news item where a student had been punished for ragging in any university in the country, and forward that news item on email to all students. This is sending a strong message to students that if such an incident happens on our campus, we will not shy away from taking a similar action.

Yet another strategy is to involve parents. Students do not want their parents to get any negative news about their behaviour on campus. So when there was a suspicion that someone may have indulged in some ragging, we would call up his parents, and tell them that if their son is caught later on with some proof, the punishment will be serious. Parents will ensure that he does not do anything silly again.

We also adopted community punishment. We told all students that if there is ragging in any hostel wing, and if we are not able to identify specific individuals who were involved, then the whole wing will be fined. This ensured that if there is even one student in the wing who is opposed to ragging, will make that ragging does not take place in his wing. And one will find such students in every wing. And once you have ensured that there will be no ragging in the hostels, you have already won the war.

It is possible to eradicate ragging from our institutes and universities. If there is a will, there is a way.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Derailment of Kalka Mail

As I have mentioned in the introduction to my blog, I will write mostly about education, but sometimes, I will write about other issues as well. This post is related to my older passion, trains. The worst train disaster of the year happened in my backyard a few days ago. Kalka Mail derailed and lots of coaches climbed on top of each other, resulting in more than 60 deaths and over 250 injured. There is enough speculation in the media about the cause of the train accident, and I will wait for the report of the Chief Commissioner of Railway Safety before believing any of the theories being forwarded by different people.

This post is really not about this particular accident, but about how easy it is to do the right things which we still do not do.

In the year 2000, we imported a new coaching technology from LHB. This was the first major design change of the coaches after 30 years, when Integral Coaches started getting manufactured. LHB coaches are a huge improvement over IC coaches. Not only they look nicer, they are lighter, they have more capacity, they have much better ride quality, they require significantly less maintenance, and most importantly, a HUGE improvement in safety.

The coaches have anti-telescopic feature, that is, when there is an accident the coaches don't tend to climb on top of the next one. The coaches have crumple zones on both ends to take the brunt of the pressure in such situations. The coupling used (CBC) is stronger and the coaches do not separate out during accident. All these save precious innocent lives during accidents.

There were some initial hiccups in adopting technology for Indian conditions, and starting the indigenous manufacturing of coaches based on LHB design. But, all the problems were sorted out in about 3-4 years.

Now, if LHB coaches are so much better than Integral coaches, why do we continue to produce Integral coaches and only a small number of LHB coaches. I suspect that we do so because Railways is broke and cannot afford to buy LHB coaches. Remember that train fares have not been raised in the last 8 years, exactly the same time that LHB technology has been around in the country. (And that too despite a greater than 100 percent increase in the running costs during the period.) LHB coaches require almost double the capital investment, though one will save in the operating cost during the lifetime of the coach due to significantly reduced maintenance requirement.

If you look at the estimate of how much would be the cost of running a train using LHB coaches versus Integral coaches (including costs of all infrastructure, salaries, etc.), it is estimated to be higher in the range of 0 to 5 percent. That is, the pro-LHB folks would say that there is no additional cost because of huge savings in maintenance cost, while on the other extreme, some people believe that the cost may be higher by up to 5 percent.

Even if we assume the worst case, railways could have easily increased the fare by 5 percent in the last 8 years. That is about half a percent per year. I am sure Indian public would have easily paid that much extra for a much safer travel. And this extra cash would have helped Railways in procuring LHB coaches. If a decision was taken 8 years ago to produce only LHB coaches, today about 25 percent of the coaches of the Indian Railways would have been LHB coaches. That means all Superfast trains in the country would have had an LHB rake, including Kalka Mail, and within a few more years, we would have had an LHB rake for all mail/express trains as well.

Railways decided to be populist and not increase the fares, leading to a situation where Railways could not afford to introduce LHB coaches at a fast enough rate. This leads to increased deaths in accidents like the one happened last week.

There is no free lunch. We either pay in rupees, or we pay in blood. Unfortunately, the choice is not ours. The payment method is decided by Rail Bhavan.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Technology Enhanced Learning

The biggest challenge facing the tertiary education sector, and particularly the technical education sector, is the dearth of high quality faculty. The experts tell us that with the use of technology, we can extend the reach of good faculty on one hand, and enable better learning despite poorer faculty on the other hand.

In the 80s and 90s, many attempts were made at recording lectures of faculty members. These lectures were initially distributed as video cassettes. As technology progressed, we started using VCDs and DVDs. Now, such lectures can be downloaded through Internet. Distribution of lectures through a television channel has also been tried (and continues even now). However, the quality of such videos left much to be desired. When these were recorded in a studio setting, the lack of students made it appear artificial. And when actual classroom recordings were done, the lights and camera angles left much to be desired.

When the video technology did not do wonders, the experts did not blame it on the quality of videos. They instead argued that the problem is lack of interaction. The questions that students may have had are not being answered immediately in this model, as the communication is one-way. So the videos could at best be used as supplementary material, just like books.

Without interaction, student would soon lose interest. They suggested that a classroom lecture should be beamed live to distant locations with at least an audio back channel for the remote student to ask questions. The interaction would make sure that there is sufficient interest in the remote students. The earlier such attempts were again beset with quality, but latest systems genuinely give remote students a sense of almost being part of the class. They can watch the lecturer, the board, and the presentation material, as clearly as the students in the local lecture hall. They can ask questions. They can be watched by lecturer all the time.

However, distance education based on video conferencing has its limitations. The cost is still high as all remote locations need to have decent quality cameras, and high quality audio. But that cost is rapidly coming down. The bigger problems are the logistics issues. The timetable of different institutions needs to be synchronized in some way for lectures of one institute to be available for the students of the other institute(s). This is not practical many times. The curriculum of all the institutes involved in such a setting will have to be same as well. Again, this may not be possible. Also, a lecture with an audience of 1000 students, whether local or remote, can not be truly interactive. So the video conferencing as an interactive mode of classroom does not scale up beyond a point. And, if interaction is going to be limited or non-existent, why spend significant amount of resources on this mode. Why not go back to what we were attempting in the 90s, video recorded lectures that can be played any time, any where.

There is another problem in this whole discussion. We started off with the premise that the technology will help extend the reach of good faculty, and will enable students to learn despite poor quality faculty. The good faculty has no incentive (and only disincentives in terms of increased workload) to extend his/her reach. And no body wants to admit that they are poor quality teachers. So, if playing a video in my class is an admission that I am poor quality teacher and hence I am showing a video delivered by someone else, then I will never show a video in the class.

So we need to develop applications of technology through which we can claim convincingly that it is helping the quality of learning irrespective of whether the local instructor is good or average. There should be no stigma attached to the use of technology.

Recently, I visited Waikato Institute of Technology, an Institute in Hamilton, New Zealand. There I watched an instructor teaching his class. He started teaching his class and during the class, he would take a break and show a video on a related topic. He had interwoven his own teaching and these videos so nicely that the overall learning experience was excellent. The videos were mostly searched from youtube. He told me that he spent a lot of effort in searching for videos on related topics. He would then watch parts of those videos, and after a painstaking effort, would choose those videos which perfectly blend with his own lecture plan. Of course, he was there to answer any question that the students may have. So it was not a passive session, but very much an interactive one. Showing such videos broke the monotonic delivery of the lecture, and therefore the students were more attentive throughout.

He also made another interesting point. He said that today’s generation is what he called the “i-pod” generation, which is always listening to music. That meant that they are listening to a different voice every few minutes, and they would get bored if they were to hear the same sound for 50 minutes. A video lecture of some other expert also caters to their need to listen to different sounds.

After this experience, I started visiting sites of the best universities in the world, and they all have lots of video lectures available for download and viewing by anyone in the world. I watched a large number of them, and realized that these were a great resource for learning. (I must add here that many of these would be inaccessible to our students because of the accent of the speaker.)

So a new model for enhancing learning using technology seems to be emerging. An instructor can now search for videos on a per topic basis, choose the best one, and play them in the class. She is available in the class for answering any questions. So there is interaction in the class. Since the instructor is not dependent on only one source, the differences in the curriculum are no longer important. There is no need to synchronize the timetable. The infrastructure needed in the lecture hall is only a projector, which is standard equipment today in most classrooms across the country. The instructor can download the videos on the laptop a priori, or if the Internet connection is good and is reliable, then they can be shown right off the Internet in the class. The downloaded content or the links could be put up on the course website, so that students can look at them again any time, any where. The videos can be short 5-10 minutes that is embedded into a larger lecture, or they can be 45-50 minutes, a replacement of the lecture (but with interaction with the instructor).

A significant value of the model is that it enhances effectiveness of both an average instructor as well as a good instructor. A good teacher too can use such resources from the Internet to enrich the experience of her students further. So there is no stigma that an average instructor would feel in using this.

The role of the local instructor continues to be very important. While in selecting the appropriate video lectures, she may take help from others, but is still responsible for delivering those parts of the course for which no good videos could be found. Also, she has to manage interaction in the class, answering all questions. Further, the assignments, projects, etc., are still her responsibility. So she continues to have the respect of the class, and that aids the learning process.

In summary, using selected high quality videos that are integrated properly into the teaching plan of an individual instructor, can enhance quality of teaching. A large number of free videos are available, and the infrastructure requirement are minimal. And hence, this could be a model for "Technology Enhanced Learning."

The largest repository of video lectures in India has been created under the National Program for Technology Enhanced Learning (NPTEL). This is a joint program of seven IITs, and Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, funded by Ministry of Human Resources and Development. They have developed a large number of courses for engineering students. The biggest advantage of these videos is the familiar language/accent of the instructors.

The other good source for such lectures is MIT’s Open CourseWare (OCW). Massachusetts Institute of Technology has put all its course material on the web. One section of the website is OCW Scholar, where the lectures have been annotated, along with all the assignments and their solutions. There are discussions groups associated with each course, where any learner can participate. The content is so rich in OCW Scholar that MIT claims that it can be used by independent learners to gain knowledge. A large number of universities in the world are increasingly putting up similar course videos and other content on the web.

If one is looking for short 5-10 minute videos on a topic, then youtube is the best resource to search. For some topics, particularly Mathematics, Khan Academy has excellent videos, starting from primary school to college education.

There are lots of other resources, and I have only listed a few here. If you know of some really wonderful resource, please mention that in the comments.

Of course, when an institute or a university decides to encourage its faculty to use these educational resources on the web, they must understand that these resources (at least with the current technology) are to enhance learning, and not to replace the instructor.

Note: This is an edited version of the article that has appeared in the latest issue of EDU magazine, Teaching Tools for Generation iPod.