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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.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

History of Computing in India

Recently, I read Ross Bassett excellent paper titled, "Aligning India in the Cold War Era: Indian Technical Elites, the Indian Institute of Technology at Kanpur, and Computing in India and the United States." This paper talks about history of computing in India, and the relationship of US and Indian academicians and technical people. It was published by JHU in October 2009, and is available here.

A couple of interesting points.

On page 14, it says, "Part of the reason the Indian government sought different sponsors [for different IITs] was to introduce a variety of ideas into its engineering institutions."

It is obvious that the government of the day was very aware of the need of experiments in educational institutions. Today, most stake holders want similarity across all educational institutions. Most states have a technical university, which will force same syllabus in hundreds of colleges affiliated to it. A state like UP is trying to create common syllabus across all state universities for all programs, including BTech, BA, BCom, BSc, BEd, and so on. Everyone is being encouraged, if not forced, to admit students through a single exam.

Another interesting observation is the undergraduate institute of Computer Science professors in top 10 CS Departments of US. In 2008, the author looked at the background of all Indian professors (those who did undergraduate studies in India) in the top 10 CS departments of US. There were 38 such faculty members (almost 4 per department, that is a lot). The two IITs dominated this group - 11 from IIT Madras, and 10 from IIT Kanpur. (5 from IIT Delhi, 4 from IIT Bombay, none from any other IIT.) I guess this reflects the migration of undergraduate students to US in 80s and 90s, which was perhaps a lot more from IIT Madras and IIT Kanpur at that time.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

IIIT Delhi: An Innovative Admission Process

This appears to be a month when I will write less about my ideas, and write more about the innovation in higher education that some institutes are carrying out. Today, I want to write about the novel and innovative admission process that IIIT Delhi has adopted for its under-graduate program. (Actually, one can learn a lot from their PG admission strategies also, but I will focus on UG admission today.)

First, the mandatory disclosure. I am a member of their Academic Senate. However, I have attended my first meeting only recently, and share no credit for this innovation.

First a bit about Indrapastha Institute of Information Technology (IIIT) Delhi. It is an Institute solely focused on IT education and research, set up in 2008 by Delhi Government, and is a university empowered to give its own degrees. Within three years of its existence, it has built an awesome reputation. Excellent faculty. A visionary Director.

The process for under-graduate admission starts with the question: What type of students do we want. A question that is rarely asked by universities and colleges in India. As a first cut solution, one will argue that we want students who know their science well, and have an aptitude for engineering or more specifically IT. Aptitude! They already are different from everybody else. But they go much beyond this initial answer.

Should we admit students who have reasonable aptitude and are excellent in science. Or should we admit students who are reasonably good in science, and have excellent aptitude. Most institutes would vote for the former (that is, if they at all think about it this way). It is then perhaps assumed that 60% (or whatever) marks in 12th class is sufficient indication of reasonable aptitude. So they will have a test based on Physics, Chemistry and Maths, and rank applicants based on score in the test. But IIIT Delhi is different. They think aptitude is lot more important. So they will consider 80% marks in 12th as sufficient academic preparation, and take an entrance test which tests aptitude. The ranking is based exclusively on this aptitude test. (As an aside, this is the method for selecting students from within Delhi. They do admit some non-Delhi students which is done through AIEEE. They do not ask them to come to Delhi to give the aptitude test.)

The story does not end here. The next question they ask is whether it is really important for someone studying IT to know a lot of Physics, Maths, and Chemistry at the 12th class level. And their answer is that just like engineering colleges are starting to offer basic biology related courses in their curriculum, the requirement of even Physics and Chemistry knowledge is to a minimal level, and if needed, that knowledge can be imparted in the Institute. So, the eligibility is just Mathematics with any other 4 subjects in 12th class. So, they are creating an opportunity for students who have done Maths, Commerce, Economics, etc., in the 12th class, to get into a BTech (IT) Program. It is interesting and I certainly admire the courage of IIIT to conduct this experiment. (I am told that not many people from non-science streams applied this year. Perhaps the message did not go across. Hopefully, more students will take advantage of this from next year onwards.)

The minimum eligibility is 80% marks in Maths, and 80% marks overall in 5 subjects in 12th class. They say that the cut-off is on the higher side since they do not want a very large number of students to apply for a small number of seats. And you fill up their form after the 12th class result is out. They are not in the business of creating a huge profit through their admission process. Their cut-off is high enough that students who only did coaching by ignoring their 12th class completely are less likely to be eligible. In their own little way, they are encouraging school education in Delhi, without burdening the kids with the pressure to get close to 100% as some of the colleges in Delhi University do.

And finally, they seem to have done their home work well in terms of how to judge aptitude for IT. So the exam consists of five areas: Comprehension, Data Interpretation, Mathematical Ability, Analytical Ability, and Decision Making.

The entire process is online. One fills in form, takes the print out of the admit card, and just reaches the examination center. From the last date of filling up the form to the announcement of results, it takes only 18 days. (There is no typo. It is not 18 weeks.)

The admission process and many other innovations being carried out at IIIT confirm my belief that leadership is extremely important for the success of an institute, even more so for a new institute.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Why I Like the 5-year Integrated PGP at IIM Indore

IIM Indore announced a few days ago that it is starting a 5-year Integrated Post-Graduate Program in Management (IPGP), for students who have finished 12th class. There is a lot of debate on the net whether it is a good move by IIM Indore. Apparently, Directors of some IIMs believe that it will lower the value of brand IIM. There is also some debate on whether it is a good idea to have an undergraduate program in Management. A lot of people believe that the basic undergraduate education should not be in management. There is also a debate on whether students should join this, considering the high cost of the program. Also, if, for some reason, the student decides to drop in between, then s/he gets a diploma and not a degree after three years of studies.

I am pretty excited about this announcement for several reasons.

In general, any well thought of experiment in education space excites me. There is a severe dearth of experiments and new models for higher education. If an IIM is doing it, then they certainly would have given it a lot of thought and done a cost-benefit analysis from its own perspective and from the perspective of its potential students. It may fly or not fly in the future, but as Prof. Kelkar (founding Director of IIT Kanpur) used to say, "if educational institutions won't do experiments, who else will."

IIM Indore is planning to teach lots of different things in the first 3 years. These will include Maths, Computer Science, Biological Sciences, History, Political Science, Literature, Economics, Finance, Ethics, Law, and a lot of things related to business management. They will also include a foreign language (I hope they consider English as Indian language), and soft skills. This will really be a very broad based program, unlike most undergraduate programs in the country. I think there is a need to get out of the thinking that undergraduate is a terminal degree and is meant to create a specialist out of you. I hope other universities will follow IIM Indore and make their undergraduate programs more broad based.

There is a strong need in the country to have a higher education system which is outside the excessive control of regulators. In India, regulators don't regulate, they control. Today, we have PG Diploma programs, which despite AICTE's repeated attempts, have remained somewhat independent, and of course, we have a shining example of ISB, which offers excellent education at PG level without any approval of AICTE. We have nothing similar at the UG level. After this program, though most students will complete IPGP in 5 years, we will have some people getting out early
with just a diploma. And hopefully with the quality of education they would have received, they would find some decent jobs. This should encourage people to offer programs which sell not because they have a stamp of AICTE, but because industry and society at large values it for its quality.

Another reason for liking this program is the tuition they are charging. I have often argued that India has extremely poor quality education since institutions are not allowed to charge what it takes to offer high quality. In an earlier article on this blog, Pricing Engineering Education, I had argued that NIT quality education costs Rs. 2.5 lakhs per year. But since costs of IITs and NITs are hidden from parents, people don't believe those numbers. With IIM Indore charging Rs. 3 lakhs per year, I hope it will make fee regulators think and at least allow the best colleges to charge a more realistic tuition.

IIM Indore will be dependent on visiting faculty for teaching many of the under-graduate courses. I am sure they will only like to invite the very best faculty members for teaching these courses, and would be willing to give a decent payment for the same. Most NITs have a serious shortage of faculty, particularly in IT and other "popular" disciplines. But they bring in visiting faculty by paying Rs. 1000 per hour, peanuts really, and while a few serious people may still come in to help, a lot of visiting faculty is very poor quality. (Compare this with LNMIIT Jaipur, where we used to pay up to Rs. 5000 per hour.) I think a government institute paying a decent remuneration to visiting faculty will encourage NITs and other government institutes to treat their own visiting faculty better, and hopefully that will improve the quality of education in all such places.

In short, this is a wonderful experiment, and each aspect of the experiment will encourage other players in higher education to do things in better ways.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Will JEE fill up more seats this year

Last month, I had written about a judgement of Andhra Pradesh High Court which directed JEE to do something to fill up more seats this year. The blog article is here. Last year, 443 seats remained vacant because there were not sufficient number of qualified candidates available to fill them up (1 OBC, 7 SC, 232 ST, and 203 PD - Physically challenged). There were an additional 781 seats that went vacant because selected students did not join (501 General, 109 OBC, 100 SC, 44 ST, and 27 PD). So the total number of vacant seats were 1224. The court was not perturbed by 443 seats. It did not want IITs to lower their standard (and in any case, most of these would result in the corresponding seat in the preparatory course). But the court was seriously perturbed by the 781 seats which went vacant due to students not joining after paying the initial fee.

In the beginning of June 2011, there was a meeting of Directors of all IITs to discuss the court order. They decided to have a 3rd round of seat allocation. Last year, there were only two rounds of seat allocation.

I have a problem with this. If you read the court order, it mildly suggests that perhaps another round of seat allocation will help. In that sense, the Directors have followed the court order and the matter is over. But the court order says much more than obliquely suggesting the third round. Read this:

"It baffles me to note that academicians and administrators of the premier institutions like IITs cannot find a much better process of admission than stopping with the second round of counseling, come what may be the vacancy position in the institutions. It is time that the scholarly inputs are borrowed and implemented at the earliest so that a national waste will not get repeated. I hope and trust that the remedial measures are put in place before the next academic year’s counseling is undertaken."

It is clear that the court is concerned about the vacant seats and wants JEE to do whatever is feasible to reduce the number of vacancies, and some oblique references to 3rd round were just a suggestion, and not the order of the court.

It is clear to me and must have been clear to Directors (and Chairpersons of JEE at different IITs) that a third round of seat allocation will not result in any significant drop in the number of vacant seats. (If you read my previous article on this, I had said even before the meeting of the Directors that the third round will not be effective unless it is conducted after the beginning of the semester. So it is not something that I am saying now with better information on this year's process.)

My contention is that by doing the 3rd round of seat allocation, and taking no other step for reducing the vacancies, JEE is not following the spirit of the court order, as the 3rd round could not possibly solve the problem which the court has ordered it to solve. If there was too little time to come up with the solution for this year, JEE should have gone back to the court and requested for time till next year. Or it should have challenged the court decision. By doing neither, it has accepted the court decision, but still not implemented it in spirit.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Summer Camp at IIT Gandhinagar

I had promised to do this 20 days ago, but didn't find time to do so. But before I describe this incredible initiative at IIT-GN, the standard disclosure: I am a guest professor at IIT Gandhinagar.

What do engineering students do in the summer. Internships, of course. But normally speaking most students are able to get an exciting internship in the summer after 3rd year. The number is much smaller after 2nd year, and most 1st year students waste their summers. IIT Gandhinagar debated if somehow life can be made exciting for students who either do not have a very exciting summer internship opportunity, or for whatever reason don't want a typical technical work that internship involves. And they came up with this idea of holding a summer camp on their campus. I will highlight a few points here. You could read all about it at the summer camp website.

The camp is of one month duration from 15th June to 15th July. It has a mix of activities. Being a technology institute, no activity can be complete without learning of some technology. So they have workshops on Autodesk and Lab-view. To encourage students to work on relevant problems and sensitize them to the problems in the society, there is a design challenge in the camp. This year, the students will spend time with blind people, and come up with better guidance system for them. Students will be able to learn a sport of their choice (as long as their choice is one of football, volleyball, basketball and table tennis). If they do really well, they can get into the IIT-GN team for the Inter-IIT Sports Meet in December 2011. There will be literary component too. They will be reading and discussing in detail the book, "Makers of Modern India" by the famous historian, Ramachandra Guha. And no camp can be an attractive option to the young generation, if it does not have a component of performing arts, particularly dance. So they learn the basics of theater and media editing, and get to learn Salsa dance as well.

It is really a very innovative program by IIT Gandhinagar to engage their students in the summer to make them complete human beings.

A suggestion from my side, since I know some of them will read this. Open this up for non-IIT students, primarily to diversify the experience of your students. Bring in some students from other disciplines, a few from law, a few from humanities, and may be a few from abroad who may want to experience India through such a program. You can charge these outside students some minimal amount to take care of your additional incremental costs.

And I hope other institutes start something like this. I receive more than 1000 emails every year asking for summer internship. If such summer programs become popular, this number may become more manageable and I am may actually start responding to such emails again.