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Friday, December 7, 2018

Academic Advising

The college life is very different from school life. In schools, most of the decisions are taken for you by teachers and/or parents. In any case, there are few academic decisions to be taken. Except at the beginning of 11th class, most of the courses are fixed for you. And that makes transitioning to a college harder.

Academic advising involves a trained staff or a faculty member guiding the student on the choice of courses (in case of electives), what courses can be done in any given semester (given the issue of pre-requisites, and graduation requirements of the program), etc. This becomes even more important if the student has failed a few courses and may not be satisfying the pre-requisites of many advanced courses. Besides, universities sometimes offer choice of second major, minor, dual-degree and other flexibility in the programs. Students are not just confused about the rules around them, but also whether they are consistent with the educational goals of the student. There could also be issues regarding whether to take a break and do a semester long internship, and finally what should they be doing after graduation. Should they go for higher studies or a job or something else. Which place to study. What kind of job, and so on.

As should be clear from above, the academic advising becomes important when a student has options but if left alone may not exercise those options in the best self interest. For a long time, Indian institutions did not give many options to students. You got admitted to a specific program - so you don't need help in choosing your major. You had a fixed curriculum, with fixed courses to be done every semester. So no choice there. May be you had an elective where only 2-3 courses will be offered and one had to take one course. There was no flexibility of second major, minor, etc., so no decisions to be taken. In such a system, only those students needed advise who had failed some courses and needed to restructure their programs. Academic advising in India, therefore, has traditionally been limited to handling academically deficient students.

Over the last two decades, things have changed quite a bit. With UGC and AICTE prescribing choice based credit systems for all academic programs, students have many decisions to take every semester. But the systems for providing this help have not been developed. In good colleges (like IITs), not only there are a lot of electives and they can do courses in which ever order they want, but there are options like minor, second major, dual degrees, etc. But the students are left to seek advice from their seniors alone. They can advise based on their own experiences and hence cannot really help another student with all options.

The colleges have given up on this extremely important responsibility by stating that the students are adults and ought to know what is best for them. This is quite irresponsible since even adults do not always know what is best for them, and even worse, may not even have all the information to make an informed decision. This becomes even worse in India where the websites are often not updated, and getting the information itself can become a project.

Consider an example. A student had 14 courses to do to complete the graduation requirement. He has been a somewhat academically weak student and has never performed well even with 5 courses in a semester. He planned to do 6 courses in each of the two semesters and two summer courses and thus hoped to graduate in a year. Of course, if he fails even one course in this plan, he will have to stay back for a semester necessarily. If someone had advised him properly and told him that the chance of succeeding in this plan are very slim and hence he should plan for 3 semesters and a summer to complete these. In the alternate plan, he would have done only 4 courses in each of the three semesters ad two courses in summer.  With lower academic load, he was more likely to learn better, with hopefully better grades, and likely better future options. But he registered for 6 courses and failed. So the transcript has more failures. The pass courses have poor grades and his confidence is shattered and he will have to spend that extra semester any way.

So many final year students (even those who have no backlogs) regret their decisions of doing something or not doing something. They wish someone had told them about the options early on. But with advising being so closely linked to poor academic performance, they never did approach anyone for advice.

I recall that when I was Chairman of Senate UnderGraduate Committee (SUGC) at IIT Kanpur, I had organized an advising session for 2nd semester students where faculty members from different departments told them about the excitement and opportunities in their respective disciplines. At the end of the advising session, so many students chose to change their program and unlike the normal behavior where most students apply for change to "more popular" programs, that year a lot of them applied to change to "less popular" programs since they realized that this is more in line with their interest and popularity of a program does not really matter for their career.

Most good universities (and even no so good ones) abroad invest a lot in academic advising. Happier graduates who attain their goals are more likely to be good brand ambassadors and good donors later in life. Early detection of possible academic problems can result in interventions before the problem becomes too serious and the student's program is terminated. I hope we too can invest some more resources into this extremely important service in our universities.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

JEE Mains 2019

JEE Mains for the next academic year admissions have many new things. First of all, it will be conducted by National Testing Agency (NTA) and not CBSE. NTA is a new organization created by Government of India exclusively to conduct large public tests. This, by itself, shouldn't matter to applicants. But NTA is bringing in a few crucial changes.

There are two important changes. One, you can give JEE mains twice in a year (January, and April) and as per NTA website, it will be treated as single attempt. JEE Mains can continue to be attempted for three consecutive years - the year of giving 12th class exam and the next two years. The difference is that in each year, you can attempt it twice and the better of the two scores will be counted. The second change is that the exam is online. No option for a paper version.

In each month (January and April), the exam will be conducted on three weekends. On each weekend, it will be held in four sessions. Of course, students in each session will get a different question paper. So the most important issue here is that of normalization. What if some paper is easy and some other paper is tougher. This is an important issue since CBSE did not do normalization across multiple papers and people were left with the feeling of unfairness. But NTA has announced a process of normalization.

They will look at your score relative to score of other students in your session alone and assign you a percentile score. This is the score that would determine your rank. If you give JEE both in January and April, the higher of the two percentile scores will be counted as your performance.

Let us examine if percentile is a good way to normalize. The basic assumption here is that if the distribution of academic preparedness among students is same in two exams, then the relative rank of an individual student is likely to be similar. So even though marks obtained by students could be different and would depend on whether the questions were easier or tougher, but the ranks won't be very different.

This assumption is a reasonable one when it comes to considering different sessions within the same month. It is so because NTA would randomly divide the applicants into all sessions. Random allocation of sessions to large number of applicants is the best way to ensure that academic preparedness is similarly distributed in all sessions. However, can we assume that academic preparedness in January will be same as academic preparedness in April. I don't know, but it seems unlikely. And that is a question mark on the normalization scheme.

The other question mark is that while it distributes students randomly, an individual student can still get a vastly different rank depending on which session the student has been assigned to. For example, if I am extremely good at Mathematics and relatively poor in Chemistry then I will have a very different rank in a test with tough Mathematics and easy Chemistry versus a test with easy Mathematics and tough Chemistry. So, one will still have to make sure that different question papers are not vastly different in their difficulty levels. The normalization procedure they have chosen will be good for taking care of some variations in the questions but not a drastically different type of paper. And, whether one can normalize across two months is very questionable.

I hope they could have allowed students to choose the weekend at least, if not the specific session. If they had too many applicants for some weekend, they could have stopped taking applications for that weekend, and if there were too few applications for a particular weekend, they could have reduced the number of sessions in that weekend from 4 to 3 or even 2. This would have been a huge relief to students. I am sure that those taking 12th class board exams would prefer earlier dates so that they have more time to concentrate on their board exams.

The next question that I am getting asked often is should one take JEE Mains twice.

Well, the only negative I can think of in taking JEE twice is that if you were to perform poorly in January, you may be so disappointed that you spoil your board exams. If you are confident that you will not be deterred by one poor performance, go ahead and take it twice. If you are not adequately prepared for JEE Mains in January, 2019, treat this as a practice test in real testing environment. (You can't get more real than this!) On the other hand, if you are reasonably well prepared, my prediction is that it will be easier to get a high percentile score in January than in April because a large number of students will be taking the January test as a practice test. The repeaters must take JEE Mains in January, since they must already be well prepared and they can take advantage of many students taking it as a practice test.

Should you take the April test even if you get a good score in January. Well, if you get a 99 percentile kind of score, which will mean that you would be in about top 10,000 ranks, may be you can avoid April test. (I am assuming that about 10 lakh students will take the exam either in Jan or in April or both. Hence 99 percentile would be around 10,000. But exact numbers may vary.) But unless you have a very high score (which guarantees eligibility for JEE Advanced, and which guarantees admission to one of the top non-IIT choices if you don't perform well in JEE Advanced), there is no harm in trying for an improvement.

At the end, please note that I am writing this based on what I have read on NTA website. You should visit their site often, just in case there are changes in the rules and processes, or just in case, I have misread or misunderstood them.

Best wishes to all potential students of IIT Kanpur.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Remembering my teachers

Today is Teachers' Day, a day we celebrate in memory of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, our second President, and a teacher himself, who was born on this day, 130 years ago. I thought I will recall my education and some of my teachers on this day. I have been incredibly fortunate to have been educated and influenced by a large number of great teachers. I would guess that this is a statement that anyone who has seen any success in life would make.

The first teacher to remember is my own dad. He was a school teacher, officially designated as a teacher of political science, but every principal asked him to teach Mathematics. Our house was full of books on Political Science and Mathematics (and very few on history, the other Master's degree he had) and I would read a lot of them, and asking him questions about topics which I would perhaps study in school a few years later (and in case of political science, never). I had read many SC decisions at an age when my classmates perhaps did not even know what is Supreme Court. And I had won pretty much any award in mathematics in school. He was a great teacher not just because he could teach the two subjects so extremely well, but because of all the life lessons he would impart to me and my siblings.

The next teacher to whom I owe a lot was the principal of a small private school, Childrens' Home School (which no longer exists) near our home. She was truly generous, and allowed me to study without having to pay any tuition. School teachers did not earn much in those days and there was no way my father could afford to send us to a private school. (Teachers' salaries have become high only after 6th pay commission.) The primary school system in the government sector was run by Municipality while the secondary and senior secondary schools were run by Delhi government. The municipal schools were terrible. (I studied in one for a year, and if I had to study there for 5 years, I don't know if my education would have been as good.) So an offer to study for free in a private school was really something that I can never forget and has been a reason why I have been contribution a part of my salary for education ever since I started earning.

In my secondary school, Ramjas School, a school run by Ramjas Foundation and supported by Delhi government (and hence no fees), there were lots of good teachers. It was considered one of the best schools of that era. But strangely, the two teachers I remember the most are the sports teacher and the one who taught me gardening (we had a subject named, Socially Useful Productive Work, SUPW). The first one, Mr. Mallik, was managing the Bharat Scouts and Guides program at the school, and this school had the largest number of presidential scouts every year. If 8 scouts were chosen to represent Delhi, 6 or more would be from this school. He also managed the hockey team of which I was a member. He would make us work really hard, often 2-3 hours after the school times in harsh weather. Mr. Gupta, the gardening teacher, was not just teaching gardening but love for nature. He would also often discuss current events. He was a hockey fan, and would often discuss the decline of Indian hockey after the world cup win in 1975. So he wasn't bothered about the syllabus, and we loved him like anything. He was also a teacher whom we trusted blindly. If anyone did something silly, one could lie to all other teachers and principal, but if he asked you, it would be impossible to lie.

For my senior secondary (11th and 12th), I went to SBM school. We had shifted home and hence I had to switch schools. The teachers were completely focused on 12th class results. But when I met the teachers individually and explained to them that I wanted to prepare for JEE as well and therefore, I wouldn't be able to spend several hours a day answering 100s of questions every day, they not only agreed to give me less number of homework problems every day, but also ensured that the school bought a few books that would be useful for JEE preparation, since I may not have been able to afford them otherwise. I fondly remember Mr. Gupta, our Maths teacher, who was truly concerned about our future all the time, and was willing to spend any amount of time after the school hours, if we still had questions unanswered in the class. The vice principal was a terrible person though. (So even a community as great as that of teachers have a few black sheeps.) I remember we were playing the Hockey final at the intra-district level, and I worked hard to score an equalizer almost in the last minute. This guy was very unhappy that 11th and 12th class students are participating in all sports and extra-curricular activities. He went to the match referee and told him that the school concedes defeat and also when the district team is selected to participate at the state level, he should not choose anyone from our school. Our sports teacher was none other than Mr. Mallik Jr., son of our sports teacher in my previous school. He was like his father, always taking our side. He protested strongly, but Vice Principal had his way. After this incident, the VP was always mad at me. On more occasions than one, he would ask me to come to him, and then he will tell everyone that I am a proof that Goddess Saraswati and Goddess Laxmi can't live together. (That I had intelligence but no money.) He would make fun of my cotton clothes, or an inexpensive school bag or something else.

IIT Kanpur was fantastic. I must have enjoyed more than 90% of my classes, and the rest weren't bad either. Those were the days when teaching and learning was considered as the primary reason for a college to exist. It is not that faculty didn't do research then, but clearly the focus was on students' learning. With every teacher being so great, it is difficult to name a few, but I will try. The one I loved the most was Prof. Gautam Barua (now at IIIT Guwahati). The CSE department was a small one and they took all decisions by involving students. I was the representative of my batch in the Department Under-graduate Committee (DUGC). Every semester the faculty would meet to decide the next semester's courses and I would suggest if Prof. Barua could teach a course to our batch. And he would gladly agree. He not only taught Operating System to us (which was his research area), but even Data Structures, which was typically taught by theory persons. He also taught for the first time a course called "Distributed Systems" which was a precursor to the course on Computer Networks. I remember getting so excited by the course on Distributed Systems that I would spend long hours in library (the only semester in which I went to library) and read article after article in the journal, "Computer Networks and ISDN System." I also did my BTech Project with him and thus more than 1/6th of the credits done in all 4 years are with him. I would later apply for graduate studies and explicitly state in my Statement of Purpose that I wanted to study networks, when everyone would tell me that Theory was the hot area and easier to get scholarship in. And I specifically wanted to go to University of Maryland since I had read so many papers of Prof. Satish Tripathi. Other Computer Science professors who have helped me become what I am included Prof. Rajeev Sangal (now at IIIT Hyderabad), and Prof. Somenath Biswas (now at IIT Goa).

Among the non-CSE faculty, Prof. R N Biswas was the most fun who taught us the common compulsory course on Digital electronics. Other great teachers included Lilavati Krishnan (Psychology), and Mohini Mullick (Philosophy). I was really excited about Maths, and have taken almost all electives in Maths. My transcript would show about the same number of Maths courses as Computer Science, perhaps more in Maths. Prof. S K Gupta, Prof. Borwankar, Prof. S P Mohanty, Prof. B L Bhatia, Prof. R S L Srivastava and many more. As I said earlier, with so many great teachers, it is difficult to list everyone, but IIT Kanpur was home to the best teaching at that time.

At University of Maryland, I was fortunate to have Prof. Ashok Agrawala as my PhD supervisor, and as a life coach. We have discussed almost anything and everything under the sun, and have received valuable advise way beyond my thesis topic. One of the things I remember was his insistence that I be able to communicate my PhD work to a layman. Only after I came up with how I would explain my work to someone who hadn't known anything about computers or networks, did he allow me to submit the thesis. And that has helped a lot. Prof. Satish Tripathi (now at SUNY, Buffalo) was around whenever I felt low. On two occasions when I almost quit my PhD, he would leave everything aside and spend a couple of hours to explain why I should not give up. I also took a course of Prof. Pankaj Jalote (later, a colleague at IIT Kanpur, now at IIIT Delhi) and even interacted with him on research issues (and have joint papers). Prof. Uday Shankar was my MS supervisor and really taught me how to write research papers. At UMCP, in those days, the systems research group had four Indian professors, but students from about 10-12 different countries were there. And these students taught me history and culture of their respective countries.

I end this by appealing to all my readers to consider making a small gift to your favorite education provider, not just on the occasion of Teachers' Day but periodically. Teachers do a great job, but often the students need additional support. I just did before writing this.