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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.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

IIT Gandhinagar Decennial

The second generation IITs have completed 10 years (except two of them, which started a year later). Recently, IIT Gandhinagar organized a function to mark the occasion. They invited me to be present and publicly thanked me for whatever little I may have done in the last decade. This was a good time to recall many great initiatives that have been taken up by IITGN.

When Prof. Sudhir Jain became Director, IIT Gandhinagar in 2009, he asked me to be one of the many friends that IIT Gandhinagar would come to have, and spend just one day a month at that IIT. Given the logistics, costs, and overhead of travel, I promised to visit alternate months and spend on an average 2 days in each visit. And sure enough, this was my 59th visit to Ahmedabad in just a little over 9 years.

When I look at IIT Gandhinagar, it is obvious what a great leadership can do to an institution. And a great leader is not just one who can keep coming up with great ideas, but has an eye for leaders around him/her who will come up with equally great ideas themselves. Poor leaders, on the other hand, can only promote mediocrity or worse.

Though a lot of innovative thinking has gone into the policies and processes at IIT Gandhinagar, some of them have simply followed common sense. Indeed, the best example of the difference is that they treat an 18-year old as an 18-year old. It is common sense, and yet most institutions would think of under-graduate students (even 21-year olds) as juveniles. The Institute respects its students as adults, trusts them to do the right things always, and students don't let the Institute down. Treating them as adults mean not involving parents, unless the situation is serious. Adulthood means that they have a greater say in running their own affairs (hostels, festivals, discipline, mess) and have a significant say in running of the Institute. In return, the students ensure there are no headaches for the Director from their side There is huge affection for the Institute, and that shows up in statistics like the fraction of alumni giving a gift to the Institute in a year - perhaps the highest of all Indian institutions.

Another simple idea is to have liberal rules. When I was a student at IITK, we were really free birds. The rules did not matter as anything we wanted to do, we could request and it would be considered on merit and not in light of the rules. And if this request was for something worthwhile, it would be approved. But things did not stay the same 3 decades later. With student-faculty ratio declining sharply, it wasn't possible to consider each request on its merit. A lot of times, we started hearing, "rules are meant to be followed" and we found out that rules did not allow many things we took for granted as students. IIT Gandhinagar had always said that they wanted to learn from errors older IITs had made. And they decided that right from the very beginning, the flexibility will be inbuilt into the rules, and not depend on someone taking a positive decision on your application on a case-to-case basis. And the flexibility shows in branch change rules, having flexibility in curriculum like minors, honours, double majors, and many many more situations.

My favorite visits to IIT Gandhinagar have been to attend their annual Academic Advisory Council meetings and their annual Leadership Conclaves. The two are held on consecutive days. For AAC, they invite academicians who have lots of ideas and are from any part of the globe. In LC meetings, they invite people from industry, government, alumni, and academia. Typically, they will discuss academic issues in institution building in AAC and administrative/governance issues in institution building in LC. New institutes have to be open to external viewpoints since they may not have sufficient internal capacity. But even with this caveat, IIT Gandhinagar has been exceptionally outward looking. One of the advice that I heard during these meetings was that while any educational institute will take a long time to be truly world class, one need not wait to start thinking and functioning like one. So when you have to create a policy for anything, think about how a world class university would do this. This way of thinking and doing things has ensured that IIT Gandhinagar's march towards excellence has been faster than what it would have been otherwise.

Even though a new institute struggles with several problems - faculty recruitment, building of infrastructure, and so on, IIT Gandhinagar has always proclaimed that as a public funded institute, it must be open to not just its students and faculty but many more people. So they allow students of other colleges to spend a semester doing courses at IIT Gandhinagar. They have a large program of summer interns on their campus. They even have special programs for foreign students in winter. They run several training programs for teachers of other colleges. They allow non-students to set up companies in their incubation center (and now building a technology park). And all this seems to help them a lot. They attract more applications for Masters and PhD programs in a single department than the MTech/PhD applications in IIT Kanpur in all departments put together.

IIT Gandhinagar has several agreements with foreign universities and companies for summer internships, semester exchanges, research collaborations, etc. They want their graduates to have a global exposure. A very large fraction of their students would have spent some time abroad during their program. However, not all agreements are fully funded. This means that under normal circumstances, some of those programs are not accessible to students coming from financially challenged backgrounds. But not at IIT Gandhinagar. They have programs that will provide support to such students so that they too have equal access to any and all programs that IIT Gandhinagar is involved in. Much of this support comes from gifts from friends. They raise more philanthropic funds in a year than some of the old IITs.

One of the most innovative programs that they have is their Foundation Program. Every under-graduate student admitted to IIT Gandhinagar goes through a 5-week program in which their are large number of talks, workshops, discussion sessions, projects and outdoor activities. Students develop a broad set of life skills including creativity (music, drama, painting, art), sports, leadership, empathy, societal concerns, and inculcate values and ethics. This is their most famous export, and now many IITs and even other institutes have started doing similar programs.

Another interesting program is Explorer Fellowship in which a student is given a small budget to travel across India for 6 weeks. The budget of less than Rs. 1000 per day is to be used for travel (only non-AC travel allowed), stay, food, and any other personal expense. They must visit a state in South, North and North-East of India. The students not only understand the diversity of the country, but also understand the circumstances under which our people live. Another summer fellowship scheme is "Gram Fellowship" in which the student is expected to live in a rural setting.

No wonder that they care so much for everyone working for them. The facilities they have asked the contractors to create for construction workers, for example, are absolutely amazing. Each outsourced employee gets some benefits which are unheard of at other places. For example, they have created a Children's Education Fund through which some educational expenses of children of contract employees are taken care of.

There are far too many innovative ideas that IIT Gandhinagar has implemented than what I can list here. But suffice to say that my association with them for the last 9+ years have been extremely fulfilling. There are lots of faculty members with whom I have interacted with and all of them have given me new ideas and perspectives.