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Friday, September 22, 2023

Multi-disciplinary Education: Why is it important?

NEP 2020 talks about universities becoming multi-disciplinary and offering programs which have courses from multiple disciplines. What is multi-disciplinary education?

It is simple. When you study to get a degree in a particular discipline, you don't just study courses in that discipline, but from various other disciplines as well. For example, if you want to do a major in Computer Science, you will study a significant number of courses in Computer Science, but you will also do courses from Mathematics, Engineering, Humanities, and so on.

This all sounds familiar. The important question is: Aren't all university programs multi-disciplinary in nature already. Why is NEP or educationists in general even talking about it. If everyone has accepted it, what is the point of this blog.

Well, everyone hasn't accepted it, and a lot of universities are simply paying lip service to it. And it is a matter of degree. If there is a program in which you have to do 40 courses in 4 years, should you have 10 courses from outside the major discipline, or 20 or 25. So details are important.

Frankly, students have not accepted it, and many universities haven't understood the reason to do it and therefore implement it in ways that goes counter to the reason why it should be done.

For a long time, good universities had a broad based under-graduate education because the education was supposed to make you a good citizen who should be aware of a lot of different things. It was felt that under-graduate program is to improve the breadth and to enable a large number of different careers. If students can pick up very different careers, they ought to have been trained on several different things. But lately, even in the western world, college education is being seen more as improving employability and preparing for a narrower set of careers. People are talking about education being an investment and looking for a return on investment (RoI).

In this new world, students are demanding to know why every course is being taught and how it is going to be useful in one's career. And by "career", they often don't mean next 30-50 years, but the first job that they expect through campus placement. And a large number of courses that we teach (even within the major discipline) aren't meant to help find the first job.

The reality is that your first job is often based on knowledge and skills that you can pick up through a good school education and perhaps six to twelve months of additional training. So if you are only looking for the first job and only want to study which will quickly get you that first job, you don't need to join college at all. (Of course, there is a signaling value in joining a college.)

If I look at the journey of an engineering student, s/he would have started studying for JEE (or other exams) while in 11th class (if not in 9th class, and sometimes even earlier). They had a goal to get into IITs or some other good institution. When they finally take admission to some college, their earlier goal has become irrelevant (whether they succeeded in it or not). To maintain their sanity and motivation, they need to quickly decide on their next goal and works towards them. And often, the goal they choose is to get a job at the end of 4 years (as distinct from thinking about a long term career, or to have a goal of becoming a good engineer independent of what job they will get). And they start thinking of how they will find that job. They figure that they will need to learn a few things and get some soft skills which will be useful in the interview process. Note that they are only focusing on getting a job and not doing a job well. Very quickly they figure out that pretty much no software company asks them questions on chemistry or physics, or a lathe machine, or sociology and so on. And they start questioning why these subjects are being taught to them.

The faculty members are often able to say that courses like partial differential equation will help solve some problems in future (do software developer even code matrix manipulation? no, they just make function calls). But even faculty members are not able to explain why a CS student needs to study Chemistry.

The fact of the matter is that the broad based education has different goals than a very narrow goal that the students want to pursue. And instead of explaining them how a course will help in their narrow goals, we should be talking about why broader goals are important. And the broader goals are not only to become a good citizen aware of a lot of different things from various different perspectives, but also to prepare for future jobs which are yet unknown, and since we don't know what the future requirements are, it is good to have a broad based education since that would increase the chance of success in that unknown world.

If one wants to be highly successful in one's career, there are often two ways to get there. One, you be amongst the best in your chosen field (top 1-2%). This way, you would have respect, you will rise quickly, you will make an impact. Two, you be very good in more than one field (top 25% in say computer science and music). Since most people focus on one field, people who are very good in two or more fields are in big demand and they rise quickly. And most people find it easier to be very good in two things than excellent in one. You have chosen one major discipline based on your interest or guidance you received. Now, you should think of another discipline to be good at. If your curriculum at the university is multi-disciplinary, you would be exposed to many disciplines, learn them seriously and think about what did you enjoy doing the most. That could be your second discipline to get very good at.

The other reason to study multiple things is that most technical knowledge and skills would be obsolete within a few years. A student entering college today would almost certainly be working 50 years from now. How does one survive if most things that one learnt in the university are obsolete. Well, you need to keep learning always. And how do learn as adults. We learn by connecting any new information with the old information we already have. If you know a wide variety of things, there is a better chance that the new thing you need to learn has some connection with what you already know.

In fact, when you learn a seemingly unrelated topic, you still get ideas from that course which can be useful in your primary discipline. Many problems that you will solve in future will require an understanding of its domain.

People become more creative when they study multiple subjects. Some people may be born creative. But a lot of people who are creative have seen many different perspectives in life and are able to use all that knowledge in coming up with a solution.

I can go on and on, but the point is that learning topics from different disciplines have several advantages if you consider broader life and career goals as opposed to just succeed in a campus placement interview.

Now, where do Tier 2/3 universities go wrong in implementing multi-disciplinary curriculum. Note that all the advantages we talked about are accrued by studying a wide variety of subjects. It is not about any specific subjects. While there may be some topics from outside the major discipline which are very important for that discipline (like some Mathematics for Computer Science), and hence can be made compulsory, for the rest of the courses, any set of courses will do as long as there is sufficient breadth. For a computer science program, we may insist on some maths courses, some science courses, some humanities and social science courses, and so on, to require breadth, but there is no justification for making these non-major courses as compulsory. If you want the student to have breadth, let the student decide what will constitute that breadth. If these courses are being done to help in an uncertain future, often your guess regarding what might help a particular student 20 years from now is going to be as bad as the student's own guess.

But most Tier 2/3 universities do not understand the importance of multi-disciplinary curriculum. They are doing it because NEP2020 says so, and because the AICTE model curriculum suggests so. But they have this feeling that this is waste of time, and since these are not "useful" courses, there is no point in investing in them. So no choice to students. May be we can get temporary faculty (low-cost) to teach these courses.

Multi-disciplinary curriculum is so important that one ought to look at university programs from this perspective before confirming admission. And the way to find out whether the university is only paying lip service or is actually serious about multi-disciplinarity is the following:

  1. Check the fraction of credits from outside the major discipline. If the major discipline has more than 50 percent credits, it is not good.
  2. Does the university offer second major and minor programs (minor in other disciplines as opposed to specialization within the discipline).
  3. Does the university offer non-major courses as compulsory courses only or are these electives.

 Once you have determined whether a university is serious about multi-disciplinarity, give that a significant weight while comparing your higher education options.

Note: I had recently given a webinar on this topic with and the recording of that webinar is available here:

Saturday, September 9, 2023

IITians in ISRO and other national missions

Recently, ISRO made us all proud by landing near the south pole of the moon, an achievement that no other nation has been able to do. During the festivities that followed, one thing that came out in media repeatedly was that there were very few IITians involved in this project. Indeed, there are very few IITian employees in ISRO.

When this was repeated, there were two implications. One is, of course, that we have a strong talent pool beyond the so-called top institutions in the country. This is very positive for the nation. But, the second implication is a complaint that IITians do not participate in the nation building through government projects. If you go through the comments on the newspaper reports, there is also a sense that if we can get high quality scientists from Tier 2 institutions (at a much lower cost), should we be spending so much on IITs. Should we force IITians to spend a couple of years after their graduation to work in the government sector.

What do numbers say. Well, everyone quotes a news report from 2014 in which it was stated that 2 percent of ISRO employees were alums of IITs or NITs. This information was received through an RTI application, and hence is largely believed to be true. But is this a good statistics to look at. When we look at ISRO employees, they include helpers, peons, drivers and so on. There will be many technicians, admin staff, security and what not. Even in technical staff, I suspect that there will be many jobs where they would prefer scientists over engineers. I couldn't find any distribution of employees in ISRO, but my gut feeling is that the number of jobs in ISRO where IITians can be reasonably expected to participate may be anywhere from one tenth to one fifth of the total number of jobs. Even if we look at one fifth as the number, it means that 10 percent of engineering jobs are taken by graduates of IITs and NITs. And 10 percent is not bad at all, particularly considering that IITs and NITs have never produced more than 3-4 percent of engineers in India.

Do IITians avoid government jobs since one often hears of very high salaries (even more than a crore) from MNCs. Far from it. You look at IAS, IPS, IFS, Forest Service, Revenue Service, Customs, and so on, you will find a lot of IITians there. You will also find IITians in all kind of services in Indian Railways, Military Engineering Services, Department of Telecom, DST, Public Works Departments (both at state and central level). You would also find a large number of them in government institutions and universities. So it does not seem like IITians are running away from the government sector. In fact, their contribution to nation building is truly admirable.

Still, if it seems that given the high profile nature of ISRO, more IITians should have been interested in the organization, there is one issue. A typical IITian prefer an on-campus recruitment or taking an exam which opens up a large number of good options. So the exams that many of them would be interested in include: Civil Services, Indian Engineering Services and now lately, GATE (since many PSUs have started shortlisting candidates based on GATE score). An organization having its own recruitment process which is not centered around on-campus recruitment will not attract IITians (or students from those campuses where there is easy availability of jobs). And there is no need to be judgmental about it. There is nothing wrong for an organization to have its own centralized recruitment process and there is nothing wrong in a student not interested in a process which they perceive as inconvenient. After all ISRO is attracting fabulous talent through its process. So why worry about someone not applying.

The last question is whether it means that we are over-spending on IITs (and by extension on other top institutions). If a smaller college with limited resources can produce such great scientists then why fund IITs and IISERs to such a large extent. I disagree. While you will find that the best graduates of Tier 2 institutions are equal to the best graduates of top institutions, the average graduate of a top institution is often better prepared academically than an average student of a Tier 2 institution. (Otherwise, the private sector wouldn't differentiate between the two.) The fraction of graduates of IITs and IISERs who are well trained is higher than the fraction of graduates of a Tier 2 institution who are well trained. And hence instead of thinking of IITs as wasteful, we should think of investing much more resources in Tier 2 institutions so that a much greater number of their graduates are in top league.

In summary, let us enjoy our moment of glory and success, let us feel good about there being talent in every nook and corner and not try to put down the top institutions. Everyone is contributing to the nation building.

Monday, September 4, 2023

Suicides in Kota: Students Need Career Counseling

Yet another young life lost. The average is more than one per month. Why is it happening.

The simple logic is that there are too few seats in our IITs (for engineering), or too few seats in good (read, government) medical colleges. The quality of education in the next level institutions is much worse. Parents have high aspirations. They push their wards to go to a far off place without the family support. They realize that the competition is extremely tough for those few seats. The students are afraid that they aren't going to come up to the expectations of their near and dear ones. Under that stress, sometimes an unfortunate extreme step is taken.

How do we handle this. Of course, we must provide counseling to these students (I really think all schools should provide counselors in 11th and 12th class at least). But what else.

In the discussion, it is assumed that the stress is the result of too few seats in IITs and the next level institutions being much worse. While the statement is true, I disagree that this is the reason for the stress. I have myself talked to several coaching guys a few years ago when my son was in 11th class. A lot of students coming to coaching have no hopes of cracking IIT. And the coaching institutions tell them that it is important to do well in JEE Mains since that is a ticket to admissions in next level of institutions, including NITs. And stress happens when they realize that they aren't likely to be in the top 50,000 ranks, thereby even the next level institutions that they were targeting weren't quite within the reach.

Now, you may argue whether the stress is for being within the top 10,000 or within the top 50,000, it is all the same and the solution will be the same. I think the two situations are very different and therefore the solutions are very different.

My basic premise is that the quality of education that a top 10,000 person gets is much better than the quality of education that a 20,000 rank student gets. But the gap between the institution that a 20,000 rank student studies in and a 1,00,000 rank student studies in isn't very high.

If the assumption is that suicides happen because the gap between IITs and the next level is too high, then the solutions proposed would be a major restructuring of the education system. Let us expand IIT education. Let us put in a lot more money in NITs. Let us allow more autonomy to top private institutions and allow them to charge more fees. It could even be to hide the difference between IITs and the next level. Let us not talk about the placements, for example.

But if we were to believe that the suicides happen when the student feels that they can't even get 1 lakh rank in JEE Mains, then the solution is just career counseling which is doable now and we don't need a major restructuring of the education system. I mean, telling the students about other options that they will have if they were to get 1L rank or worse, which will be only marginally worse than what they could have been admitted at 40-50 thousand rank. This requires changing perceptions while the earlier assumption required changing reality.

There are so many institutions which provide a good quality education but aren't well known and one is unlikely to believe in their quality just because one person says so. The right thing to do, in my opinion, is that the student after the JEE Mains result is out, should seek information from various sources about the possible colleges to get admission at that level of performance. Go through their websites, get whatever information they think is important, and select 10 colleges. Take the risk and include 2 such colleges about which you are unsure but someone tells you that they are good but unknown. And now visit all these 10 colleges even if they are in 5 different cities. Remember the cost of coaching in Kota would be much more than this visit of 10 campuses and this is the most important decision of your career.

So, basically, what I am suggesting is that if there is career counseling available to students in coaching (and indeed, in all schools across the country) whereby the student is told of several options at various ranks, told that the gap between the well-known colleges and the next level ones isn't too much, encouraged to do research on colleges and shortlist, and visit to finalize the college, I think we can reduce the stress. We don't have to wait for the country to restructure entire education to save lives.

At least in Engineering and Computer Science, they can be told of online resources that they can use to get quality education even if they get admitted to lesser known colleges. They can be told of programs such as BSc of IIT Madras which they can do along with their other degrees. Overall, a student with 1-2 lakh JEE Mains rank has many good options in life and career counseling will make a difference to his/her stress levels..