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Sunday, August 26, 2012

Suicides at IITs

 Every year, 4-5 students are ending their lives in the IIT system. Given that the total student population in the IIT system is between 40-50 thousand, we are losing one bright young life for every 10,000 students every year. This is a serious cause for concern.

When any tragedy occurs, the first and foremost question that everyone has is: "Why did this happen." And when such tragedies happen as often as have happened in the IIT system, it is natural that people will want to know the reasons. Unfortunately, it is not easy to find the reasons. Each life is unique, and the reasons to end that life are also unique. In most cases, if not all, there are multiple reasons behind such a decision, though one of them may have acted as a trigger on that fateful day. But, if there are so many tragedies, then there must be something common between them. People want simple answers, which they can understand. And if the experts fail to give a simple answer, they will invent one. And hence the common perception that these deaths are caused by academic stress.

And this perception has ensured that the focus of the Institute authorities is on reducing academic stress, and less attention is paid to the "real" issues. When someone takes away his/her life, and a question is asked what have you done since the last such incident, you can not just say that we are trying to do things that will increase interaction amongst the students, even though that may be the most important thing to do. You have to tell how you have reduced academic stress since last such incident, because that is what most people understand as the reason.

IITs are a competitive place. The admission to IITs is the most competitive exam in the world, for which many students study for 3-4 years, and even drop one year after passing 12th class to prepare for IIT admission. The competition to perform better than average in such a group can be very intense, and someone who is used to be amongst the top few in his/her school for 12 years would feel stress on realizing that s/he is performing worse than average in this group.

If I look at the curriculum at IIT Kanpur (since I know more about it), we have less courses than whatever I know of curriculum at various NITs, we have less contact hours, we fail fewer students, we provide opportunities to recover from failure by offering summer courses, and so on. We have a lower graduating requirement (in terms of grades) than any NIT. (From 2011 onwards, one only has to pass all courses with a 'D' grade to get a degree.)

A large number of changes have happened in IIT Kanpur in the last 5 years in response to these questions about academic stress. We teach less - the working weeks have been reduced from 15 to 14 in a semester, and additional days have been given to spread the exams (to minimize the probability of two end-semester exams in a day), as well as ensuring that there is a gap of 2 days between the classes and final exam. We have reduced class timing from 55 minutes to 50 minutes, to further force a reduction in course content in every course, and enable a more leisurely movement from one class to the other, enabling the students to ask a few questions from the instructors at the end of the class without the stress of getting late for the next class. The number of fail grades is an all time low, around 2.5 percent of all grades in the Institute. I wonder if there is any university in India with a lower fail percentage. The graduation requirement has been reduced from a CPI of 5.0 to 4.0, basically allowing anyone passing all the courses to get a degree. Again, I wonder if there is any university in the world which gives degrees at "D" average, like we do. The students don't even have to bother about showing an "F" grade on their transcript. They are allowed to withdraw from a course just a week before the end-semester exam with no mention of such a withdrawal in the transcript. We have changed the rules for Academic Warning, Probation and Termination (for under-graduate students) so that only a fraction of students will get into these states. We have started giving additional chances to a student whose program has been terminated to explain his/her poor performance, and have re-admitted several such students.

Today, there is no doubt in my mind that the "real" issue causing stress to the students is competition and not the curriculum and academic rules. And hence the solution is to counsel the students to not get into a rat race. They need counseling that a five point someone can have a good life ahead. They need counseling that if they find it hard to cope up with all the courses in a semester, there is no harm in dropping one or even two courses. The stress from peer pressure in the hostels to complete the BTech degree in 4 years is intense. They need to be told that it is alright to be slow and steady and complete the program in extra time. But it is easier said than done. Remember, these are people who are intensely competitive. That is how they got through JEE. To now tell them to not worry about competition is certainly not very convincing to them.

I remember when I was the Department Under-graduate Convener several years ago, I would call each student on Academic Probation, ask them to register for courses which they have already failed once, and they think they failed narrowly (in which they have a easier chance to pass), but they will all want to do CS courses because they could do other courses in summer and still have a chance to graduate in 4 years. I would tell them that they should first focus on getting a few 'C' grades or better on their respective transcripts and get out of this cycle of Warning and Probation, and only later worry about how much time their degree will take. I will then monitor their performance in these courses, and if one is performing very poorly in some course, ask him/her to drop that course, since the termination rules at that time were based on the performance in courses that one did that semester. Again, there would be huge resistance. "I will work hard and make up and pass the course," was a common refrain. I couldn't force them, but if I was spending hours with each one of them, they reluctantly would agree to my advice. I was happy when at the end of the semester, there was not a single CSE BTech student in the termination list, but I became famous as someone whose sole aim in life was to delay everyone's graduation. Most of these students (who were on Academic Probation) felt that they could have passed more courses, that they could have passed advanced department courses, and that my advice held them back I doubt if anyone felt that because of my advice they were still students of IIT Kanpur.

So in my opinion, the real challenge is to convince someone to go slow, and ignore the competition. I recall we used to have a compulsory slow-paced program in the first year based on a diagnostic test. In this program, the student would do a particular course in a slow pace, learning the same material in two semesters, instead of one. One could do slow-paced learning in multiple courses also. The idea was that once the basics have been learnt well, it will be possible to learn other courses easily. But then there was an opinion that a forceful slow-paced program was causing stress. So we made it optional. The number of students choosing this program reduced substantially immediately, and the number of students in Warning and Probation increased, but because the slow-paced program was identified by outsiders as one of stress inducing issue, we could never make it compulsory again, and the numbers kept reducing, and finally we don't have any such program now.

The difference between stress due to competition and stress due to curriculum/academics-in-general is to be understood, and handled properly. If we do not understand this difference and keep reducing academics, we are only going to reduce the quality of education in our top institutions, without improving the experience of our students, and without making any dent towards solving the problem of excessive stress.

There are other more important reasons why we should not report every such death as linked to academic stress. First, it is simply not true. Suicide is a very complex issue, and one does not take away one's life because of one reason. Even to the extent that one reason is a trigger, academics related reasons are for very few students.

And secondly, if we simplify the reason for suicide, we are encouraging other suicides. The phenomenon is known as "Copycat Suicide." Read more about it at this Wikipedia page. In short, when someone says that a student committed suicide because he had a low CPI of 5.0, it makes the other with CPI of 4.9 think of the same step. But if it is pointed out that suicide has complex reasons, including psychiatric and medical reasons, then the student with a lower CPI does not relate that suicide to his own situation.

And this brings to the most important issue - reporting of suicides. I was browsing the net for information on how to deal with suicides, and came across this site on how to report suicides. It tells us that there has been a lot of research on effect of reporting of suicides on the next suicide, and it is agreed today that it makes a significant difference. I hope our media is aware of it, though the signs are quite to the contrary. If you look at the recent reporting of two suicides this week, the media talked about a possible problem with some relationship as the cause (which itself was not proper, if you agree with the reporting norms suggested by the site mentioned above). But soon after the second suicide, the media was talking about academic stress causing a series of suicides in IITs, completely forgetting that just the previous day, the same newspapers had mentioned a different possible reason for a suicide.

There is no doubt that a lot of people, whether in media, our alumni and other stake holders, are genuinely concerned about 4-5 suicides a year in the IIT system. I only wish that they will report, discuss, debate and talk about the issue sensitively to make a positive impact on the situation, and not a negative one. The current reporting is putting pressure on the institutes to focus on academics, while the need is to look at it from a wider perspective.


Tuesday, August 21, 2012

72 hours without a cell phone

Three days ago, on 17th evening, I lost my cell phone. A less than a year old, Samsung Galaxy S-2, the only expensive cell phone that I ever bought. And this happened when I was out of town, to Surat and Ahmedabad, which was far better than losing it in a new city without many friends and acquaintances. What I found amazing was the response of the service providers to this tragedy.

In the pre-mobile days, there were two disasters that could hit a traveler. You could lose a passport, or you could lose your credit cards. I have had the experience of getting an emergency passport in Indian Embassy at Washington in two hours flat, and Citibank sending me a new credit card within  24 hours. But today, losing a cell phone is a much bigger calamity than either of the two, since it affects you even at home, and of course, could be very serious while away. But can you recover from the loss in 2 hours or even 24 hours. Sorry, you will be in for a bigger shock than the original shock of losing your phone. Customer service is not exactly a strong point of cellular companies in India.

Director of IIT Gandhinagar, where I was visiting, assigned the task of helping me out to one of his staffers, Santosh, a young and dynamic person with amazing patience and full of ideas. The first task was to get the number blocked. The first few calls to 111 met with a standard response, file a police report, bring a copy of the report to one of the Vodafone stores or ministores, and they will block it. But that will take time (since police wanted me to show a proof of purchase and tell them the IMEI number of the phone, which will take some time to recover, sitting 1000 KM away from home). Finally, he called 9839098390, the UP(East) circle's customer service number, and they were more helpful. After several questions regarding my identity, they agreed to stop the service. I wish they had asked some question which Santosh did not know. I would have felt more secure. This way of blocking service could be used as a denial of service attack. But anyway I was thankful that the service to my phone had been blocked.

I was stupid enough not to have registered for Samsung's FindmyMobile Service, which is free. But I had enabled the 2-factor authentication for google services, and hence I could login to google to revoke access from my mobile to all google services. I was also carrying my Galaxy Tab (with an Airtel connection) and a laptop (with a Tata Photon connection). So I did not need an SMS to my phone to log in to google. (And, I was ready with one time codes from google, in case I had to login to google account from untrusted devices, which later on, I had to.) So, now I was sure that while the person finding the phone could look at my stored emails, my contacts, my calendar entries, but he would not be able to change any of them. And I had not stored any password on my mobile. There was hardly any data on the phone. And I had regularly backed up my mobile phone using Samsung Kies. So I wasn't going to lose anything important. (Though I haven't figured out yet how to restore that on a new device.)

Having taken care of the blocking of phone, I was quite at peace. I could use the SIM card of the tab in a temporary phone. The tab had all the numbers, and I was sure I could borrow a phone for a couple of days, before I bought a new one. So I thought of sending SMS to a few people telling them of my temporary number. But my tab kept telling me that SMS could not be sent. I thought it was some configuration issue, and searched google for similar problems. Couldn't find anything useful, but the SIM in the tab was on pre-paid, and all the searching, and emails, and stuff made sure that I ran out of charge on the tab. So one more device down. I switched on the laptop and thought that I could add some charge to the tab account and make that functional again. But it was midnight by then, and it kept showing me airtel site being down, perhaps for maintenance. I was paranoid by now. What if my laptop also stops functioning. I would be totally disconnected from the world. So I added 1GB charge to the Tata Photon service, when I already had 200MB left in my account, and my normal usage on a day when I am out of town is about 20-30 MB.

When I woke up in the morning, I thought I will try recharging my Airtel account for the Tab once again, and guess what. at 3:00 AM, my laptop, which I had forgotten to shutdown before sleeping, had downloaded Microsoft Windows updates, Vaiao updates, Semantec updates, and everything else that it thought it needed to become up-to-date, and had exhausted the entire 1.2 GB. Since I mostly use WiFi for connecting laptop to the net, my setting for updates has been to let it download everything, but ask me before applying those updates. I hope that in future, on laptops, they will allow me to set different update policy for WiFi and a different policy for cellular network, something common on cell phone operating systems.

Now, just imagine, how would it be, if I were in a new town without many friends. But at IIT Gandhinagar, it only meant that I had to go to office, connect to WiFi, back on Internet, pay the amount to various service providers, and you will have Internet connectivity even without WiFi from these two devices. (Of course, I wouldn't be able to use netbanking for making the payments, since that required me to type in a code which my lost phone would receive. But thankfully I remembered my credit card's second factor code.)

But now, I needed a phone. Santosh decided to work on twin strategies. Try to get Vodafone to issue me a new SIM. On the other hand, ask Airtel why my tab wasn't able to send SMS and make phone calls, and get them to fix the problem.

It appeared that Airtel problem was simpler. So he took the tab to an Airtel outlet. They checked the number in their computers, and pronounced the verdict. Since I had not used the connection for 60 days to make any phone calls or send an SMS, it had been deactivated. But why do they de-activate. How does it matter whether I have not made a call for 60 days or 600 days. Well, the all pervasive security reasons. If you have a pre-paid connection and you don't make a call/SMS for 60 days, it is assumed that you might have lost it, thrown it, or something, and it might fall into the hands of ISI, who will simply put some charge and use it for illegal communication.

But, wait a minute. You know that I have been using it daily. Every day, I have connected to the Internet using that SIM. So your assumption that I might have lost it is obviously wrong. But, Sir, this is what the computer is saying.

But, I just had a recharge 2 days ago towards phone/SMS, and I received an SMS from you that the validity of my connection has been extended to October 2014. Sir, the computer is not showing any recharge. In fact, if there is any recharge after the phone has been deactivated, that is not shown by the computer. (What he did not explicitly say, but meant was that I had lost that money, because I was stupid enough to recharge a dead phone.)

But, how come I continue to receive all commercial SMS messages if my SMS and Voice service has been blocked (and a point I did not want to argue - my number is on DND list). Sir, we reserve the right to send SMS messages in your benefit. Of course, and including the one which tells me that my service has been extended till October 2014. They will only do things for my benefit, and blocking my service was only to ensure my safety.

OK. So now, what do we do to unblock the SIM.The Airtel service agent was most polite. Sir, you only have to make an application, along with a proof of identity, a photograph, and an address proof, and it will be activated very soon. So Santosh went back with everything. No, Sir, you have to submit these things in any Airtel store in UP (East). But why can't you activate from here. Sir, each state is a different network. Of course, I know that. But it is the same company running the two networks. Sorry, Sir, we only take care of customers of Gujarat circle.

Do you think I can request someone in Kanpur to go to an Airtel store with all these documents, and they might agree to activate the SIM. No, Sir. They would like to see the SIM, to make sure that the SIM is indeed in your possession, and not with ISI, and you are not an ISI agent. Of course, national security is paramount. I felt secure for the first time since losing my phone the previous evening. I also felt that it was the right time to sell off the Bharti Airtel stock, which I have kept from their initial IPO.

So, the focus shifted to Vodafone to get a new SIM. All the Vodafone stores and mini stores that Santosh called told him that the new SIM can be issued only by a store in UP (East). Why is that. Is the SIM in Gujarat any different from a SIM in UP. Santosh being a very resourceful person, called up a senior executive in Vodafone, and explained to him the problem. Thankfully, the person agreed to help. He asked a Vodafone store to issue a SIM, and sent out a request to his counterpart in UP (East) to register that SIM. He told us that it will get activated between 4 and 24 hours.

When it did not get activated for 8 hours, Santosh called him again. He checked and told him that it has been activated and the phone should be working now. In the meanwhile in the expectation of getting a new SIM, I had bought a new phone. The phone was showing the signal strength was very good, which meant that the SIM had been installed correctly. But we did not want to disturb the executive in the night. So waited till morning. In the whole day, there were numerous calls to him and his office. And every time, we would be told to reboot the phone, do this setting or the other, check your roaming, and so on. The whole day was wasted like this.

On 3rd day morning, the SIM was still not getting registered on the network. But surprisingly, if someone were to call my number, they would get a ringing tone, and not the message that the number is blocked. When Santosh rang them up again, this time they could guess the problem. The UP East fellow who received the communication from Gujarat circle executive had activated the old SIM and not the new SIM. So the guy who has my phone could have made any number of phone calls if he wanted (though I checked on my call log on Vodafone site, there is no calls made from that phone since Friday evening). And once this problem was identified, they took only a few hours to fix it.

So I am back in action after 72 hours, only because Santosh knew a Vodafone executive, and relentlessly pursued him by making about FIFTY calls to him. Otherwise, Vodafone stores were no different in their response than the Airtel stores. Under normal circumstances, I would have had to wait till I returned to Kanpur, and made a personal trip to one of their stores, same thing that Airtel told me.

I have been a customer of Vodafone (and the earlier avatars of Hutch and Essar), right from July, 2000, when the call charges were very high and one paid for incoming calls as well, and have had earlier complaints about their service. The only reason to not change is that their competitors are no better.

But I wonder, if Government of India can issue an emergency passport in two hours in a foreign country, based on limited identity information that I have, why can't a telephone company issue a new SIM (or activate an old one) in 24 hours within the same country, when all sorts of identity proofs have been provided.

In these 72 hours, I realized that while not having a phone is certainly an inconvenience in today's world, but the inconvenience gets exaggerated because others don't expect you to not have the phone. So the maximum trouble I had was in locating the driver at the station, since they have forgotten the art of putting up a placard. They will send you an SMS with their number, expect you to call them up and discuss the place where you will meet them. If you have to meet anyone, they no longer wait for you at the pre-decided location, but will sit in a Coffee shop and expect to be called when you reach there. And, of course, the 2-factor authentication has made the mobile phone indispensable.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

UGC Regulations on PhD and Autonomy of Universities

As I have said in my blog many times, our regulators feel comfortable in homogenizing everything. All boards must be similar. Common entrance test. State wide technical universities with 100s of affiliated institutions. No one is allowed to experiment. No one is allowed to be exceptional. Mediocrity rules.

Continuing with the process, UGC came up with UGC (Minimum Standards and Procedures for Awards of MPhil/PhD Degrees) Regulation, 2009. The goal is always noble, to set the minimum standards, and of course, anyone can try for excellence. These regulations are based on the assumptions that there can be no accreditation based system in the country, that UGC is incapable of monitoring quality and use its vast financial resource in a carrot/stick approach to encourage quality. The only way quality can be achieved is by specifying to the level of fine details on how universities should run their PhD programs.

UGC keeps coming up with its regulations. Typically, when we study the regulations, we find that many things are already being done. Amongst other things, there may be a good idea that we can adopt, and some things may not be useful in our context, which we ignore. UGC is obviously not very happy at the last part. How dare anyone has any autonomy in this country. So they have come up with an interesting idea to make us fall in line. Every university (including IITs) must issue a certificate to its PhD graduates that these regulations were followed by the university throughout the program of the student, right from admission to the graduation. If such a certificate is not issued, then the universities must not consider such PhDs as worthy of recruitment. So, now, we have the following options:

  1. Follow all regulations, and issue the certificate along with the PhD degree that we followed all regulations. This will certainly make UGC very happy.
  2. Don't follow all regulations, but issue the certificate anyway. (This will be the path taken by several universities, including some IITs. I am already aware of such certificates.) This will seemingly preserve the autonomy of the university, though by agreeing to do this, one has already surrendered one's autonomy.
  3. Don't follow all regulations, and don't issue the certificate. (Hopefully, many universities will ignore lack of this certificate, but certainly some PhD students will feel uncomfortable with this.)
Please note that the issue is not whether those regulations are reasonable as "best practices" or not. Even if they are reasonable, for a regulator to interfere so much in the running of a university, and try to micro-manage every university in the country, is totally undesirable and not a very healthy practice. Such regulations will only ensure that universities don't do any thinking on their own, and encourages a culture to do the minimum that a regulator will ask for.

Actually, as best practices, they are reasonable for a university to adopt. However, when you make them mandatory, with the requirement that a certificate of following these regulations be issued, then one has to start looking at them carefully, and there will be a few points where there may be some intended or unintended differences.

Since UGC assumes that most people on the face of this earth do an MPhil before PhD, which is not the case in engineering education, the regulations are written in a way that sometimes it makes no sense for us. For example, the way I read them, if we admit an MTech into a PhD program, we should either demand that the candidate gives GATE again (s/he already must have given GATE after BTech), or we have an IIT wide exam for PhD admission (and not a department level exam that we currently have). They require us to have a compulsory course on "research methodologies" even though most of our admissions are for those who already have some research exposure. There are several other such differences, which, I am sure, if UGC understood engineering education, particularly in IITs, they would not have written the way they have written, but now that they have written that way, it becomes difficult for us to either accept them or give a certificate that we follow them.

And such confusions have come about because the regulators want to make everything homogenous. Their pursuit of mediocrity does not make them happy in just issuing "best practices" documents but "regulations" which must be forced on everyone.