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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Teaching 500+ Students - Part 4 (Extreme performances)

This is in continuation with my experience of teaching the first year programming course to 500+ students. We had the mid-semester exam on 14th September, and the copies were returned on 21st. We did the computation of total marks of all students in lab assignments, quizzes, and mid-semester exam, and put them on the moodle on 21st. I then asked those students who were figuring in the lowest 10 percentile to meet me individually. Out of 50 students, only about 25 came to see me. And I asked each one of them what problem were they facing, and what could our team of instructor, tutors and TAs do to help them.

The most common issue, as expected, was that of language. While they were getting adjusted to learning in English, their skills at understanding spoken English was still below par. So they really were dependent on the slides of the lectures, and hardly understood anything I did on the black-board. Some people who claim that now they are used to lectures and can understand fully, but still said that they have missed so much of the background in the first 2 months that it is difficult to understand lectures now without knowing the material covered earlier. (I am asking these students to go though the material in the forthcoming mid-semester break, when some members of our team would be available for some help.)

But hardly anyone talked about home sickness, medical problems, poor time management, too many extra-curricular activities. The second biggest issue was that the second year students were forcing them to participate in various student functions. For every activity in the hostel, the first year students are the bonded labour. During "Takneek" (an internal technical competition), the first year students would be told to report at midnight. If they felt tired and slept in their rooms, someone will bang the door soon after midnight, force you to open, use the standard hostel language (read abuses), and ask them to come along. And they need to work for hours. If they didn't sleep in the night, they had to miss the morning classes. Most students still manage to keep afloat, but I was talking to those who were anyway having some problems with academics. For them, missing classes was a disaster they could not recover from.

Strangely though, most faculty members and students I talked to, refuse to call it "ragging." Ragging is only when something bad happens in the first couple of weeks of the semester. This is common across all hostels in all colleges and universities. (Sure, people said the same thing about beginning-of-semester ragging, before Supreme Court intervened.) This way, they get exposure to variety in life. See, most people manage and don't complain.

The hold of the second year students is absolute. Within the first few weeks, they have brainwashed the first year students that the only group that will help them with all sort of information during the placement season, a few monsoons from now, will be those who are 1-year senior to them. So they must listen to them. And, of course, they should never approach any faculty member for advice. They will always give you advice to earn less, it seems. They will brainwash you about doing MTech and PhD. They will brainwash you as to why you shouldn't prepare for CAT and should always go for "core" jobs and not "finance" jobs. So, if they want to be happy in life (read, make more money), they should avoid talking to faculty.

I advised a couple of students whose performance is really poor, to drop the course, and not have an undesirable grade on their transcript. They admit that the chances of their passing are remote, but, Sir, the second yearites in the hostel have advised us that dropping a course is a sign of cowardice. We can't live in the hostel with the stigma of having dropped a course. We would rather have an "F" grade on our transcript. (One of those students is in such a bad state in several courses that getting an "F" grade in this course could mean that he might be asked to leave IITK. While, if he drops this course, he is almost guaranteed to stay on. But he won't drop the course.)

Very interesting hostel dynamics, which I never realized before. There are advantages of teaching a large first year class. You get to understand your students far better.

We also wanted to do something for students at the other end, that is, those whose performance is in the top 10 percentile. We are organizing lectures on "python" over Saturdays, and there will also be labs, and these students will get support from tutors and TAs, if they decide to take up a project. While we were not in a position to provide extra lectures and labs to a very large number of students, there was tremendous pressure from a lot of students to allow them to learn "python." As of now, we have told them that we will try our best to organize lectures on python in January. Let us hope we are able to do this.

Friday, September 23, 2011

JK Center for Technician Training

On Monday this week, I was invited to the inauguration of a center for technician training in Kanpur. Though I have heard a great deal about the importance of skills training, vocational education, and other such keywords in various conferences, I must confess that I know very little about that category of education. My knowledge about ITIs for example, is limited to discussion on IITians for ITIs in various Pan-IIT events. So I was naturally curious and decided to go and check it out.

The center was being inaugurated by Mr. Yadupati Singhania (Chancellor of Sir Padampat Singhania University, Udaipur), whose vision it is to provide low-cost, high-quality technical training to a large number of youths across the country, without provisioning a large amount of subsidy every year.

The center has been operational for about 6 months in temporary space, and has now become fully functional in its own swanky building. It provides training similar to ITIs in three disciplines - electrician, mechanical fitter, and modern carpentry. But there is a difference. The training period is only 3 months, as opposed to 2-year period of an ITI course, and that is where the low cost kicks in. Just imagine the cost of lost wages for 2 years, while doing the training from an ITI.

The team has studied ITI program in great detail, and have also visited technical training centers in different parts of the world. They realized that there are too many holidays in an ITI, and in fact, one hardly attends the course on 180 days a year. Even on those 180 days, the incidents of something going wrong are also high - sometimes faculty is on leave, sometimes the machine is not working, sometimes there is no electricity. On top of all this, there is a lot of repetition, a lot of old technology being taught, and so on. And they realized that it would be possible to provide a similar skillset to a young, motivated person in about 3 months only. He has to come to the center every day, six days a week. No time to waste - you are either in a lecture, or you are in the workshop. No canteen breaks.

Batch size is kept small, a maximum of 30 students in each trade, so that the trainers can give personal attention to everyone. The workshop was amazing. Can you imagine a CNC Lathe machine in a center to train technicians. I was proudly shown all the latest equipment that the industry works with and is available for training there. The lecture room had a projector and a screen, along with Internet connection so that guest lectures are possible through skype. And the quality. There were many industry leaders from local industry there, who vouched for the quality. The first two batches have graduated, and the placement has been good.

Of course, it would be difficult to sustain this with a single batch, and as I said, they have no intentions of this being a charitable activity of JK group. The idea is to soon expand into multiple batches. When one batch is having lectures, the other will be in workshop, and vice versa. Also, the center will eventually operate 14-16 hours a day so that there can be morning batches and evening batches - make as much use of the wonderful infrastructure that they have, and reduce costs as well.

The students who were graduating on Monday had confidence written all over them. They could even speak a few sentences of English. They have been exposed to a bit of computers - can check their emails, for example. They were smartly dressed - ready for the real world. Each one was given a bag which had a tool box in it - their most prized possession.

The comparison with the ITI could not be more stark. The center is situated in one corner of the ITI campus, using only 5% as much space as the ITI, and will be producing many times more technicians than the ITI, and the chances are that they will be equally well trained, if not better, than ITIs, at zero cost to the promoters (as opposed to huge budgetary support that ITIs get).

I was told that the goal is to replicate this model through the franchisee route all over the country. They themselves are setting up a second center, this too in Kanpur city, which shows their confidence in their own model for technical training.

What I found very interesting is that the team behind this dream has a significant IIT Kanpur presence. The three member Project Management Council - Mr. Yadupati Singhania, Mr. Manoj Pant, and my batchmate, Dr. Rajnish Karki, all are IITK alumni. There were at least 20 industry leaders at the function who were IITK alumni, some of them have recruited the graduates, many had offered advice and other forms of support.

I am confident that with IITians getting into the area of skills development, India will be able to exploit the demographic window of opportunity that it has over the next couple of decades. The era of private sector ITIs has arrived.

Here is the link to JK Center for Technician Training.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

GATE Eligibility - No to 3rd Year Students in 2012

I first read about change in GATE eligibility in Prof. Giridhar Madras's blog. I talked to a few colleagues at IITK also, and like the comments in that blog, here too I heard that the major reason for not allowing 3rd year students to give GATE was that they can't handle so many students.

This is yet another manifestation of the arrogance of IITs. If you can't conduct this exam, then give it up. It is not your exam. It is MHRD's exam. This is not just for admission to IITs and IISc. This is for admission to ALL MTech programs in the country, where the stipend is charged to MHRD. CBSE has had no problem in conducting an exam for 12 lakh candidates, and should be happy to conduct yet another exam. CBSE has done a far superior job of conducting AIEEE than IITs have done for JEE (at least the way exam is conducted - I don't want to digress by discussing the paper content). And I am sure CBSE can do a far better job of conducting GATE than IITs can. If CBSE refuses to conduct, then we can consider outsourcing it to BITS Pilani, Merit-trac, Prometric, and any number of other players. All of them have huge experience of conducting large public exams.

Have IITs ever bothered to ask other universities when GATE should be conducted. Note that IITs have a small number of MTech seats. Others admit more MTech students than IITs do. But there is no mechanism for anyone to give any inputs. Most universities would want to start the admission process earlier than April, and therefore, would want GATE to be held earlier than February. But IITs won't listen. I know of some places who were seriously considering keeping some seats for "early admission" for those who would have given GATE in the 3rd year. But that won't be possible now.

GATE has also become a way to test your basic knowledge in your field of engineering. Many students would give GATE in the 6th semester, and if they get good score, highlight that in the CV for placement. The industry values such students, but this can't be done any more.

In fact, even at IITK, if someone sent us an email in March telling us that s/he has got a very good GATE score (better than our typical cutoff for calling for MTech admission), we will try our best to invite him/her for summer internship in the hope that next year s/he will join our graduate program. That would no longer be possible.

For many years, there is a talk about GATE becoming a multiple day, online exam. But trust IITs to not do that. Only a few disciplines will have an online exam even after trials for a couple of years. They are so afraid of technology.

All this because IITs and IISc can't find enough invigilators and they are too rigid to consider alternatives. They could have had, for example, more subjects in online format, and spread offline papers on to 3-4 sessions by having the exam on Saturdays as well, thereby reducing the need of faculty members going to various centers.

They have increased the cost of JEE application fee to Rs. 1800. They could have done a similar hike for GATE as well, and use that for solving problems (like going for online exams in more subjects, paying more for larger and better exam centers).

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Teaching 500+ Students - Part 3 (Excuses for Copying)

Continuing with my experience of teaching the first year programming course to 525 students, I am today writing just a short note. I wanted to share some of the excuses students have been giving me when we catch them using unfair means in labs and/or quizzes. And, believe me, I am not making them up.

  1. (This is about a quiz, where we had multiple versions of the paper, and this student had written the answers which were correct for a different version of the quiz paper.) His explanation was that he was writing random characters and random numbers. There is a small but finite probability that it will result in the answers that will exactly match the answers given by the neighboring student. I should offer him stronger evidence of copying than just that his answers don't make sense for his questions, but are answers for questions given to his neighbor.

  2. What I have done is not copying. This can be called cheating in an exam, but not copying. And you have always been saying that copying will result in an "F" grade. You have been silent about cheating. Since I have done cheating and not copying, I should be given a lighter punishment.

  3. My program has been written by a senior, who is not even doing this course. This is not copying, but just taking help from friends. If someone who is doing this course had written the code, that would be wrong.

  4. I did not copy from any classmate, but searched on google, found the code for the problem, and submitted it. What is wrong in that.

  5. I have only seen function definition, variable declaration, for loop, while loop, if conditions, and few other things that I did not understand. But, believe me, I did not copy 100%. (Yeah sure, there was indeed a one line difference between the two submissions.)

  6. Sir, moss (the software developed by Stanford University) is saying that 96% of the lines are same. It is obviously wrong. See, I changed all the variable names, and deleted all comments. So, there is hardly any line which is same. You are using a buggy software.

  7. We are so used to copying in other courses. Even previous instructors of this course ignored copying. It is difficult to remember to do things differently in just one course. (The implication being that I should change, not him/her. And remember, these are students who have just joined IIT less than 2 months ago.)

  8. And this is from a faculty member (thankfully, not from IITK). When everyone is making 1000s of crores, you are trying to teach honesty. You are spoiling their careers. They should become more practical and a better fit in today's society.

I don't want to give an impression that everyone is cheating. In fact, that is a small minority. But the excuses and arguments that they come up with are truly remarkable, and I just wanted to share some of the gems.