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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Education Bubble in US - a response

A couple of days ago I had commented in this blog on Peter Thiel's article about education bubble in US. My friend Ajay Bharadwaj sends me link to a blog by Robin Cangie, where she argues that Peter Thiel is wrong, the situation is worse than a bubble.

Here are some of the points she makes:

    "Students pay top dollar, not for quality, but for a name brand education. Classes, even at elite universities, can top 500 students and are disproportionately taught by poorly paid adjuncts and graduate students, not professors. Cheating and grade inflation are rampant and quietly tolerated. All of this points to a spectacular betrayal of the educational principles that these institutions are supposed to uphold – namely, to educate."
Was she writing about US education, I wonder.

At IIT Kanpur, undergraduate students don't pay top dollars or rupees, but they come not for quality, but for name brand education. More than half the students have no interest in the specific program they are pursuing, and will not get into a career related to that program.

Classes at IIT Kanpur exceed 500. For decades, we have followed the model of a large lecture followed by smaller tutorials. But it was a success when the class size was 200-300. Faculty does not necessarily believe that the model is scalable to 500+ size classes, but quality of education is less important than the faculty workload, and splitting the class into two will require one additional faculty member. (This was the reason given for large classes in a recent meeting that I attended.) The tutorial section size has gone up from 30 to 40. The tutors are increasingly graduate students, and not faculty, as they used to be. But we do not have any formal mechanism for training these students on how to handle a group of 40 students. (By the way, I am fully in favor of using graduate students for tutorials and labs, but someone should be telling them what to do.)

Cheating is not rampant, but is quietly tolerated. In last few annual reports of the disciplinary committee, there is hardly any mention of cheating cases. And now, it has been decided that in most cheating cases, the matter can be resolved by the instructor hirself, and it may not even be reported to the disciplinary committee.

Grade inflation has been encouraged in the last few years. The failure percentage now is little over 2 percent - mostly those who did not give the end-semester exam, or were ill. And the graduation requirement has been reduced from a CPI of 5.0 (on a 10 point scale) to 4.0 (from 2011 batch onwards). If you can pass JEE, you deserve to get a degree from IIT Kanpur.

And yet, I have no doubts that IIT Kanpur continues to be one of the best technical education providers in the country. I shudder to think what will be happening in thousands of other colleges across the country.

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