Academic Autonomy

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It is widely accepted globally that autonomy of Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) is necessary for them to excel and achieve their mission. The European Commission has identified four dimensions of autonomy to better understand the level of autonomy. In the previous note, I focused on fundamental issue for autonomy in two dimensions – organizational and finance.

This post will discuss autonomy in the academic dimension. Here again we will focus only on independent HEIs governed by Act/Statutes, or which are deemed to be university and are governed by their byelaws. (Affiliated colleges, by definition, have very little academic autonomy.)

What does autonomy really mean in academics. Broadly, we can say that if an HEI feels that something needs to be done in academic sphere for the benefit of the students and academics in general, it should have the freedom to do so. For this, let us first understand what does an autonomous academic institution do in the sphere of academics. The main actions in academics of an HEI can be grouped in these:

  • Start a new academic program (at undergraduate, postgraduate, or certificate level)
  • Decide the structure of a program
  • Start new courses which may be part of programs, and contents of these courses
  • How to teach the courses, and how to assess performance in them

And along with these which are directly related to delivering of academics, HEIs also admit students into these programs. Admission to programs is a much debated issue as it affects a large number of students. For this note, we will consider admissions as a separate issue (there are some posts on  this issue in this blog – e.g. Widen the entrance criteria.)

Most Act/Statute created universities have complete freedom for the last two – they decide what to teach in a course, how to teach, and how to assess. Starting of new courses is also a freedom all these institutions have – any challenges in this are largely internal to the HEI.

The structure of the program is also largely in the control of HEIs – they can decide which courses are to be taught in a program, how many courses/credits a student must take to complete a program, which are essential courses and which are electives, what streams/groups are permitted, etc.

The only area where the HEI does not have complete freedom is the first one – starting of a new program. In this, there are restrictions from the regulators – UGC and AICTE (and others). One key restriction is the duration of the various programs – e.g. a BA/BSc must be 3 years, while a BTech/BE must be 4 years. Some such restrictions exist in many countries. However, the modern thought is to go towards credit based requirements and specify the credit ranges for various degrees. For example, in most western countries and Singapore, for a Bachelor degree in Engineering, while the program is designed to be completed in 4 years, instead of duration, credits needed for the program are specified. A student can finish them and earn his/her degree in less than 4 years (say 3.5, though it is quite uncommon) or more than 4 – in fact the average time for completion in US is closer to 5 years. Some Institutions in India have moved towards a credit-based system, but also stipulate the minimum duration due to prevailing rules. The issue of having a BA/BSc of 4 years remains a contentious point and where the freedom of HEIs is indeed curtailed.

The second area where freedom is limited is in which areas a degree program can be started. For example, a list of areas is stipulated by AICTE, and it is expected that a degree like BTech/BE can be only granted in these disciplines/areas. This indeed is strong curtailing of the autonomy of the HEIs, and is not desirable, since in the dynamic world of rapidly changing scenario and needs, degree programs are often needed in new and emerging areas, as are needed for interdisciplinary areas. And a HEI should have the freedom to start such programs. E.g. Data Science is a new field and many certificate programs have started – clearly a well thought out degree started in this area is to be applauded, even if this is not an approved name for a degree. Thankfully, this is also an area in which the regulation implementation is of “light touch” and institutions, particularly the ones that are empowered by an Act (e.g. IITs), are not constrained by this and feel free to start programs in areas that may not be listed / approved by the regulator.

Another area where HEIs are constrained is Distance Education. Degree programs through Distance Learning are tightly controlled. Given the rapid expansion of internet based delivery of education and courses, too much control in this is undesirable and it is best to allow reputed institutions to leverage these technologies to expand access. Thankfully, AICTE has now permitted use of some amount of online courses for the otherwise face-to-face program. And Act created institutions may be able to start them, particularly if their Act allows for Distance Education (e.g. as an IIT is planning to do).

Overall, one can say that the degree of academic autonomy is actually quite high, though they have to operate within some key constraints. Then why have we not seen new set of programs coming from HEIs, who continue along the well-trodden path and programs. One does not see responsiveness from the HEIs to the changing demands and needs. For this, one has to also look at the academic decision making within the HEI.

In most HEIs the decision regarding programs and academics rests with either an Academic Senate or Council. This body deliberates and decides about new programs, changes to programs, courses, etc. And it is here the real impediment to launching of new programs lie. Many of these Senates / Councils are too large and whose members are often very senior people – precisely the ones who are likely to  be out of touch with the changing scenarios and who are more committed to their view points. These bodies are often not responsive to the needs of the country/economy and often look at issues through a very narrow academic prism, which attaches little value to things like preparing students for jobs and careers (in fact, some will argue that this is not the goal of education, which should be critical thinking and becoming a better citizen – as if these two were in conflict.)
While often there is complaint about the lack of autonomy for HEIs, which is true in some dimensions, a fair degree of academic autonomy exists. It is more the internal mechanism and their lack of initiative and responsiveness which come in the way. Unless the internal decision making structures are suitably changed, we are not likely to see much change in this area. For changing the internal decision making structures and making them more responsive, it may even require change of Act of some HEIs. E.g. for IITs, the Academic Senate structure is given in the Act, and it has all the Professors. This makes it a body of over 200 senior people – such a large body can never be conducive to taking responsive decisions. It is necessary that in all such Institutions, the Senate/Council should be specified in the Act along with a broad structure, but the details of the structure should be defined by each institution separately (e.g. as statutes) and should emerge. E.g for IITs, it is hugely desirable to have a Senate which has many more alumni in it, as well as a good representation from industry and junior faculty.

To summarize, while there are some key constraints on HEIs in the academic dimension, the level of autonomy available to HEIs is significant. It is their internal academic decision making structures that are responsible for what is happening or not happening in the academic sphere in the HEI. And unless the internal structures are made more representative and compact, we cannot expect HEIs to be responsive to the needs of the country, society, and industry.

(There is one more source of curtailing of academic autonomy which is coming due to the way accreditation is implemented – sometimes the committees tend to be more prescriptive rather than evaluating the systems for delivering the desired outcomes. This is a separate aspect which I did not discuss at all in this note – perhaps topic of a future post.)

Autonomy in our Autonomous Higher Education Institutions

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Autonomy of higher educational institutions/universities (HEIs) is now widely acknowledged as a necessity for excellence and improvement, particularly for those HEIs that engage in research as well as education.  In India we hear about the need for more autonomy in newspapers and debates. Most discussions and articles talk about autonomy as a broad concept and its desirability or how it can help improve the level of education and research.  What specifically needs to be done to improve autonomy is rarely discussed. This note discusses a few issues, which I believe are most important for autonomy of our HEIs, and without which  autonomy, and therefore aspiration for excellence, will not come about.

Recognizing the importance of autonomy in HEIs, the EU had started an autonomy scorecard for its member countries. The framework for autonomy had these four key dimensions:

  • Academic
  • Organizational
  • Financial
  • Staffing

Academic autonomy has been sometimes in the news, largely due to the requirements imposed by key regulators (UGC and AICTE) on the HEIs. While it is important, I believe, that many Act created HEIs (e.g. IITs, IIMs, IIITs, many Universities etc.) can exercise due control in this sphere. In any case, it is a topic for discussion on its own. (Perhaps a future note will discuss this.) in this note I will focus on two fundamental issues in Organizational and Financial dimensions.

First issue relates to the organizational dimension. Organizational autonomy starts with how autonomous are the HEIs in appointing their Chief Executive – i.e. the Director or the Vice Chancellor. This is the most important aspect of Organizational autonomy, as it impacts all other organizational issues. In most western countries, this selection is generally done by the bodies of the university – the Board, Senate, a Board of Trustees appointed search committee, etc. (though the selection may sometimes be subject to approval, which is usually a formality).

In our country, the Chief Executive is selected by the Government or the Ministry, though there is generally a selection committee to recommend a set of names from which the final choice is made. If the final decision of the Head of the Institution is left to the Government, the same person(s) will be doing the selection for all the HEIs of the state/center. Hence, it may be perceived by potential candidates that being in the “good books” of the person(s) is important. This creates distortions – from some good candidates not applying to some lobbying for posts. This has created a general perception that factors other than merit influence these decisions.

Suppose each HEI was to select its own Chief Executive through a documented and transparent process that involves the stakeholders from the HEI, as is done in many countries. With selections/appointments distributed, there is no single authority that needs to be convinced, thereby giving candidates multiple opportunities of assessment by committees of different HEIS. Furthermore, in selection by a single authority, the selected person is more indebted to that authority rather than the HEI for selection. If the HEI was to select the Chief Executive using its stakeholders, then the answerability of the Chief Executive is naturally to the HEI and its stakeholders.

This single change of having each HEI select its own Head through an approved and open process can bring about a great deal of autonomy in our HEIs. Thankfully, the authorities seem to appreciate this and there are signs that this is beginning to happen – one hears that in the IIM Bill, this autonomy has been granted. Hopefully, as a next step, this change will be made for institutions like IITs, and reputed Central Universities.

The second main area in need for autonomy is financial. As long as there is financial dependence of HEIs on the government, autonomy will always be compromised. Yet, public HEIs need support from the government, to provide affordable education to citizens. So, how can one achieve autonomy while still seeking public funds. A simple method, which now many countries use, is to have the funding be based on some parameters by applying some formula. E.g. funding may depend on the total number of students, faculty, R&D projects, consultancy, etc, and the support level is decided through a defined formula. Given that different HEIs have evolved in different manner and may have different needs, the formula need not be same for all types of HEIs. For example, a business school may be given little or no support for education, while an Engineering Institution may be provided limited support per student for education, and a humanities oriented institution may be provided a higher level of support per student.

A formula based funding makes the HEI “independent” of its equations with the Government of the day. The formula provides predictability of funding, and the HEI can count on it and focus its energies on its academics and more efficient use of this public funding. This enhances the autonomy of HEI autonomous, while still retaining the public character.

While these can improve the autonomy of HEIs substantially, there is a need to also ensure that HEIs, particularly those who are taking public funds, are discharging their responsibilities to the society properly.

How does one ensure accountability? This is important as without this, autonomy can lead to inward looking HEIs which are not responsive to societal needs. The responsibility of an HEI is mostly around expanding its educational opportunities, and to align its research towards national goals or needs. (Responsibility in terms of access is already built-in through reservation laws.) Both of these can be easily achieved through financial models. E.g. if funding is tied to the number of students studying (as is the case in Australia), then there is an incentive for the HEI to increase its student strength. Similarly, research direction is often influenced by providing research projects and grants in specific areas/types of work – an approach taken by most countries, including India.

With organizational autonomy, there is also a need for internal systems of the HEI to have proper checks and balances. For this, it is imperative that the system being followed is where the approving authority is different than the recommending authority. This is most important in faculty appointments –  if these appointments are not done properly and with rigorous processes, it can lead to substandard faculty, which takes an HEI down a path from which it takes decades to recover, as faculty stay in the system for even three decades. For this, the system followed in institutions like IITs is very sound – the recommendation for faculty selection is made by a selection committee which is chaired by the Director. But the recommendations are accepted by the Chairman of the Board on behalf of the Board of Governors. However, an alternate method, which is seriously flawed, is also followed in many universities in India, in which the Vice Chancellor chairs the selection committee, as well as the Board of the University, thereby making the recommending and approving authority as the same. This must be corrected to ensure that the autonomy does not get misused.

There are many factors that impact autonomy, many of them not covered in this note. This note focused on two most important issues for autonomy: (1) the selection of the Chief Executive should be done by the HEI itself through transparent and well defined process that takes inputs from the stakeholders of HEI, and  (ii) funding of each HEI should be formula-based dependent on some important parameters like R&D output, number of students, etc. so the HEI is clear about what level of support to expect. If these two can be done, we can possibly see an unleashing of trapped energy in some of the HEIs which can take them to path of excellence and global ranking/standing.

 

Widen the Entrance Criteria in Higher Education Institutions

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It is well established that good quality higher education is the best way to open doors to a variety of opportunities – that is why world over students vie to get into the best universities and colleges. Due to this, while school education is meant to lay the foundation for a broad development of the individual, the single most important goal of school education becomes getting admission in a high quality higher education institutions (HEI).

Admission to our HEIs is based almost exclusively on performance in exams – class XII or entrance test. Most engineering institutes admit students through entrance test, though now class XII marks are also given weight, and most universities like Delhi University give admission based on class XII marks (though have some seats for sports etc). So, regardless of what educationists may like to see, students, parents, and teachers all eventually align to a single goal as outcome of school education – doing well in class XII exams and competitive entrance tests. As nothing else matters for achieving the important goal of getting into a high quality HEI, other aspects of development that the school education is supposed to provide, are mostly ignored.

As a result of  this exclusive focus on exams, a student who does innovative projects in schools demonstrating innate talent and interest for engineering is precisely the one who may not make it to the best engineering institutions as he/she “wasted” time doing these projects – time which could have been more optimally used in coaching classes. Similarly, a student who does internship in some company and writes a report on the economics of a sector – perhaps the ideal candidate for an economics program – may not be able to get into a good economics program as others who spent all the time preparing for exams get higher marks. Similarly, students who engage in school debates, participate in social work, sports, or other activities that can broaden their development and horizons, are often at a disadvantage for getting admitted to HEIs as compared to those who spend their time preparing for tests. This uni-focus on attaining high test scores also inevitably leads to shallow learning styles which maximize performance in tests but prevent deep understanding of subjects.

This focus on exams cannot be changed just by exhortation or changing the pattern of the exam or bemoaning the state of affairs. We have to squarely accept the fact that the most important goal for a student is indeed getting admission into best colleges, and if we want students to have wider development in schools, we have to widen the criteria for admission to include achievements and efforts outside tests.

One direct approach can be to assign some marks (say 20 out of 100) for achievement in other spheres while the remaining 80 can remain based on results of class XII and entrance test. With this, the problem reduces to developing sound procedures for assigning marks out of 20 for achievement in other spheres. This will be a challenge but not one that is unsurmountable – PG/MBA programs or public service exams routinely do this, by having an interview and assigning some weight to it.

IIIT-Delhi has been following another approach for the last few years for this. In IIIT-Delhi, for admission in BTech program, up to 10 bonus marks (on a base of 100) are given for achievements in various spheres, through a published criteria. For example, bonus marks are given to students who reach final stages of various Olympiads, participate in national school games, have Chess FIDE rating, get an award in the INSPIRE or IGNITE program, win prize in programming contests, have ministry of culture’s scholarship for talent, etc. The program was slow to start, but in the previous two batches, over 10% of the students admitted are ones who have received bonus marks.

We have also done some analysis of how these students perform in our Institute. As we had anticipated, the first year performance in the Institute of the students who had received bonus marks was significantly better than the performance of students without bonus marks (the average CGPA was higher by more than 1.) This clearly demonstrated that students with broader base are likely to be better prepared for higher education.

Most US universities, while giving a considerable weight to SAT scores and performance in high school, consider a host of other factors and achievements for admission. In fact, in top universities it is now known that just good grades and SAT scores are not sufficient, and students must show other achievements. This hugely motivates families to develop other aspects of a students’ personality – sports, culture, social work, volunteering, etc. If we start incorporating achievements and contributions in other spheres in admission to most of our top HEIs, we may also see an increase in motivation and drive to undertake such activities in school – this can only be good for our students and their development.

First Year of College may be Critical for Success

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Many faculty have observed that often performance of students in later years of a 4-year program is similar to the performance achieved in the first year. At IIIT-Delhi we did some analysis of student performance in the Institute in various years and relationship between them. IIIT-Delhi has a rigorous and demanding education program, as good as the best in the country, and taught by faculty with qualifications similar to those of faculty in established IITs. Its program, though somewhat different and more innovative than in older institutions, is similar to the programs in IITs and top universities across the world – it has a common first year program, core courses for the discipline done in a few semesters after the first year, and mostly electives in final few semesters. Therefore, I suspect the trends in our analysis may hold for other similar autonomous institutions which have high quality education.  Some interesting findings are:

  • Correlation between performance in first semester and second semester is over 0.8. In other words, for most students, performance in second semester is similar to the performance in the first semester.
  • The performance in an academic year is very strongly correlated with performance in the previous academic year – again correlation of more than 0.8. In other words, performance in 2nd year has a strong correlation with performance in 1st ,  3rd year performance is highly correlated with 2nd, and 4th year performance is highly correlated with the 3rd.

Before discussing what these correlations may mean, it should be emphasised that these are statistics – they apply in a general sense and not to an individual. An individual student’s record may not follow the above pattern at all – someone may have had a bad 1st semester/year (due to illness, lack of seriousness,…) who can do much better later. And someone who takes first year seriously and then slacks off, will find performance falling.

What do these mean for students in a general sense.   The data seems to suggest that the first semester and year can often be the most defining year of a students’ college education, and the performance in first year often reflects the level at which the student is likely to perform academically in the rest of his/her program. First year of the program is when the students are settling in their new life at a university/college with the freedom and responsibility that comes with it – a life very different from that in school which is far more structured and defined by the teachers, school discipline, uniform, parental oversight, etc. It seems that the students define their approach to college life and academics in the first year and often develop habits, discipline, and balance (or lack of it) which is likely to stay with them for the rest of the program.

As mentioned, while the data suggests this for most student, it need not apply to all students. If a student misses building the discipline and balance in the first year, but realises the folly of his/her ways later (say after a semester or a year), this data should be treated as a statistic that can be overcome – by putting the due effort for making up for the lack of effort in the first sem/year, or by repeating the first year, if the university allows. (In IIIT-Delhi students who do not pass some number of courses in the first year have to repeat the first year. In the past we have seen that there are some cases of students who have changed their behavior after repeating the year and have successfully completed the program with good CGPA.)

What does the data mean for academic institutions and administrators? One clear insight is that first semester (and the first year) can be extremely critical to a student’s success in the program. Therefore, to help students succeed in the program, it is important to provide good support to them in their first semester (year) – not just for academics but also for developing good habits and discipline. This implies that the systems we have for later year students, may not be well suited for students in their first year, who require closer monitoring and more support and counselling.

To conclude, data suggests that incoming students should be extra cautious and alert when starting their higher education program – while a student must explore new ideas, build new bonds, try new activities, pursue non-academic interests, engage in deep discussions in the canteen, etc, he/she must not lose sight of academics, as that is the primary purpose of entering a university. Students must develop sound habits and a good discipline and balance in their first year – the habits and discipline developed in first year is likely to persist through the rest of their program; laxity in the first year may make it harder to make up in later years.

And for Institutions the data clearly suggests that special measures must be taken to handle students in their first year – they are just transitioning from school to college and support must be provided so they can develop a proper balance and discipline to handle college life. (At IIIT-Delhi, a few years ago we started a one-week induction program for the new students where issues like this are discussed with them by counselors, senior students, and other professionals. And we have started a program of monitoring first year students more carefully in the key courses and provide extra support where needed.)

Summer Camp for School Children at IIIT-Delhi

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In summer 2016, IIIT-Delhi organised a 5 week summer camp for school students. I attended the valedictory session, and asked the students “what have you learned in this summer camp that you will take back to your lives after the summer camp”.  Here are some replies (almost verbatim):

  • We used to be afraid of going on stage, but now we are confident to go on stage and perform
  • We learned the right ways to work in groups –  we should first listen and understand everyone’s approach , know the thoughts of fellow group members and then we should think how to work with them, we should not impose our thought on them right away
  • Discipline and punctuality: we should always respect time and be disciplined
  • A student should not hurry in learning something, we should be focused towards getting something but should not be in hurry to get that
  • We should have patience and work hard towards our goals – sometimes we make mistakes only because we are in hurry
  • We should not be afraid to participate in competitions
  • We should not be afraid to make mistakes, we should learn from our mistakes
  • We shouldn’t hesitate in asking questions in the class room
  • We should be focused towards our goals; people will try to distract us, but we should remain selfish towards our goal.
  • We should not be disheartened by our failures or mistake, we should take pride in that and get motivated by them
  • We should not demotivate others.

You may be forgiven to think that the participants of the summer camp are very senior students or scholars and were taught by erudite faculty – these are indeed words of wisdom that are expected from people with experience. But these are statements from 12-14 years old students of class 8-9 from a few of the neighboring government schools! And the summer camp was taught by IIIT-Delhi’s student volunteers – most of them in first year of their BTech program.

When I asked the question, I thought it was a hard question for kids of this age. And I asked them to think for a few minutes before answering – half expecting that they will answer by mentioning some knowledge or skill they had acquired in the summer camp. But I was completely floored, and touched, by what these students, mostly from disadvantaged families, had to say – these are lessons that we, in privileged institutions, can learn from these students.

In particular, the lesson on discipline and punctuality, which they not only articulated but also followed in their behaviour – most students would come to the class before time – a fact our volunteers pointed out in amazement and surprise. This is clearly something students of priveleaged institutions (mostly from well off families) can learn – while these students came eager to learn as they had got access to something nice, in colleges and universities, even in the top institutions, we face the problem of students not attending or coming late in class, and not following the basic discpline of putting effort for their learning. I guess many of the college going students, as they perhapes got most things in life easily – provided by their families, feel that even knowledge and skills will come easily without discipline and effort. Alas, knowledge and skills (and things like health) are capabilities which even the richest person in the world can get only by his/her own effort – resources/money can at best smoothen or facilitate the process.

Now some background. This summer camp was the outcome of a program that we had launched in IIIT-Delhi for helping students in government schools in our neighborhood using student volunteers from our Institute. The program itself was inspired by the efforts of the Delhi Government for improving education in government schools – many academicians and thinkers believe that for improving education and student development in the country, improving the quality of education in government schools is essential. And we felt that an Institute like IIIT-Delhi can try to contribute in small ways to this.

In the program, teams of students visited a few schools on Saturdays for a few hours during which they engaged with students of different ages. The interaction was around problem solving, general knowledge, maths, communication, fun activities, etc. – by design it was not regular subject teaching.

Based on experience of our student volunteers, and their enthusiasm, we decided to organize this summer camp. Students from about 10 schools were invited for this 5 week program (about 4 hours every day). A set of student volunteers from IIIT-Delhi was identified to work with the students. It was agreed that the summer school should be fun and around building their confidence and some skills. We finally decided that the summer school will discuss concepts from maths and science, personality development and communication skills, computer skills, and general knowledge in the program, besides playing games. A training program was organized for the student volunteers of the program. It is completely to the credit of our student volunteers and the student leaders of the program that they ensured that the programs are interactive and fun.

Many of our student volunteers (appx 20 from first year) also used it to complete their Community Work (CW) requirement of graduation. CW requires each student to spend about 75 hours doing community work – it is a requirement for graduation. Mostly students work with various NGOs during summer for CW – many of them teach in some programs run by various organizations. This summer, our summer camp became another option for CW – and many students took it with gusto, led by some senior students who were driven by pure passion.

Seeing what I saw – a set of happy and excited kids who are not afraid to stand up and talk or give a small speech in the lecture hall of IIIT-Delhi – I am convinced that this is a remarkable program we have initiated. While it started as a program for “giving back” to society, it is clear that our students and us also gained a lot from this – I personally feel very satisfied with this contribution of our Institute and its students. And if some of these students, using the confidence they have gained and aspirations that got kindled, finally end up in institutes like IITs or IIIT-Delhi – it will be the clinching proof of how students of Institution like ours can contribute, without compromising their own goals while also deriving a deep sense of satisfaction in seeing what their efforts can do.

Let me end by acknowledging with respect the dedication of the students from IIIT-Delhi  who coordinated and ran this program with commitment, and ownership.  I am sure that with this success, and happiness that accrues, we will have no difficulty in getting support from our students for continuing this program in coming years. I also hope that this program becomes a model which students in other Institutions/Colleges across the country can use to organize summer camp in many more institutions and colleges of higher education across the state/country.

Some photos from the summer camp can be found in this post. An article on this in the newspaper Hindustan can be found here. A story on this is on our site.

Current Approaches to Teaching Cannot Deliver High Quality Education

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Let me start this note with a simple assertion: education is about learning by students, where learning includes not only knowledge and understanding of a variety of concepts and phenomenon, but also development of higher order skills and capabilities for applying knowledge for problem solving. (For those who want to go deeper, learning can be classified using Bloom’s taxonomy, revised version of which has these levels: Remember, Understand, Apply, Analyze, Evaluate, Create; In my statement, I have combined the lower two levels in “knowledge and understanding” and higher order four levels – apply, analyze, evaluate, and create into “skills and capabilities”).

Let me also upfront state my opinion, which I am sure will not go down well with many: our approach to education, even in many of the top places, is mostly geared towards developing knowledge and understanding with little emphasis on developing skills and capabilities. Hence the title of this article.

Our current approach to education in almost all institutions take a teaching oriented view – for a course the “syllabus” is defined as a list of topics to be covered, and during the semester, instructors give lectures to cover the topics, in which the instructor will explain the topic/concepts and may do some examples. Good institutions will ensure that the topics are covered, the not so good ones may not even ensure this. In the better Institutes, there may be labs and assignments, though often the final grades depend largely on exams. This teaching oriented approach to education can at most deliver mediocre education – high quality education is not possible. There are a few reasons why it is so.

First, when a list –of-topics is the course design, then entire thought processes is about “covering the material”, and in the class, at best, the instructor will explain the topic/concepts and may do some examples. It is now well established that students mind is not like a vessel in which information or concepts can be poured through lecturing – learning is a constructive activity and a student learns only by what a student herself does and thinks. In an education style where lecturing is the primary method of teaching, followed by some exams to test the understanding, the focus will mostly be on knowledge and understanding. This approach does not render itself to development of skills and capabilities, for which far more practice (assignments, labs, projects,…) by students under careful supervision and feedback is needed. As exams, by their very nature, can test mostly concepts and understanding (at worst they may just test for factual knowledge), this cycle of lecturing and exams can lead to learning at the lower levels of Bloom’s hierarchy, but does not help develop the higher levels skills and capabilities that are the hallmark of high quality education.

To move towards higher quality education which develops not only deep understanding of acquired knowledge but also development of skills/capabilities of applying the knowledge, it is necessary to move towards learner centric education, as is being done in most developed countries, and as is mandated by the Washington Accord.
The learner centric approach has three key aspects. First, for a course learning outcomes have to be defined, not in terms of list of topics, but in terms of knowledge and skills that the student should have at the completion of the course. Second, the course syllabus and design has to such that it can deliver the learning objective – the lectures on topics have to be supported by suitable exercises and projects with proper and critical feedback to allow practice which can help develop skills, as they cannot be developed in a lecture theatre. Finally, the grade given to a student must be based on an assessment of how well the student has fulfilled the learning outcomes. So, if a learning outcome says that at the end of the course the student will have “the ability to solve problems using x,y, z”, then this must be assessed directly.

Of course, designing the course in this manner in itself does not lead to better learning. This course design has to be delivered by competent faculty – a challenge for many universities and colleges who simply don’t have competent faculty. Those institutions who have good faculty, however, can transform their education from teaching oriented approach to learner centric approach, which can lead to huge improvement in quality of education. It may be added, that this type of approach is what accreditation looks for.

At IIIT-Delhi, we follow a learner centric approach – for each course there are “post conditions” which state what the students knows and can do at the end of the course. The course design includes the assignments/projects that are to be given to deliver the post conditions particularly about skill development, and in final grades, weight is assigned to performance in assignments and projects.

In the end, let me add that this “list of topics” approach has worked reasonably well in the past in some of the top institutions. This was so as these top institutes were very small with low student to faculty ratio and had a very good faculty – this allowed faculty to develop some skills and capabilities through personal mentoring and oversight. This approach cannot work now as the skills and capabilities needed are far more complex and often change, and the scale of education is significantly larger now. These require a systematic approach as the earlier mentorship based approach cannot scale up.

Advise to Incoming MTech Students

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This note is based on my experience and interaction with MTech students in the three institutes I have worked: IITK, IITD, and IIIT-Delhi.

In India now, the number of students appearing in GATE is over 10 Lac – not too far from the no of students who take JEE Mains. Based on my interaction with students, It is clear that most students are doing MTech primarily to strengthen their knowledge and skills, as the UG education did not provide these sufficiently. That is the main reason why they try to get into Institutions that have good faculty which can provide higher quality education, like the IITs, NITs, IIITs, etc.

As the basic goal of MTech students is to strengthen their background, knowledge, and skills, so they can improve their career opportunities, it is absolutely essential they view their MTech program differently than they did their UG program – otherwise they risk ending up with the outcome of their UG program – getting a degree with little value. Towards this goal, here are some suggestions:

  • Choice of courses. Many students, when they come to Institutes like IITs/IIITs, where almost all courses are electives, often chose the “easy” courses, largely due to the desire to get better and easy grades. This is exactly the opposite of what they should do. Given the limitations of their UG degrees, in their MTech they should go after the courses that will teach them new subject/area, that will make them work hard to develop new skills, that will test them hard and push them. It is these courses where learning will happen. A course in which there is overlap from previous courses, may be easier, but is of little value to an MTech student in terms of strengthening knowledge or skills.
  • Develop problem solving capability. Most programs in engineering colleges teach concepts at a shallow level, as they often don’t have the faculty or capability to do the quality teaching needed to develop the critical skills for applying them for problems solving. Consequently, while students may have learnt (or, more likely, memorized) enough theory to do well in GATE and other exams, the translation skills of applying the knowledge for problem solving are generally highly inadequate. Therefore, to strengthen the problem solving skills, MTech students should do many exciting projects (as part of courses or otherwise), participate in programming contests / hackathons, academic/engineering clubs, engineering or research competitions/challenges, etc.
  • Strengthen the background. MTech programs are supposed to be composed of advanced courses. Even if there are one or two courses which Institutes may include to strengthen the background, courses in MTech will generally focus on special or advanced topics. However, the background of incoming MTech students is weak. Rather than ignoring the background weakness and just somehow continue with the advanced courses they do, it is better to take some actions to improve the background – more so since when it comes to placement, companies frequently ask about basic concepts and foundations. These two approaches can be used for strengthening the background: (i) every time some concept is covered in an advanced course that uses an earlier concept which you don’t understand, rather than ignoring it and somehow manage to proceed, make the extra effort t to go read up on the earlier concepts and understand it. This extra effort will be well worth it – since course load in MTech is lower than in UG, it can also be managed. (ii) MTech students are often TAs for UG courses. A common comment from students as well as faculty is that the MTech students are not prepared and do not have sufficient background to guide the UGs well. TA work is an excellent opportunity to “catch up” and strengthen some aspects of the background. For this, do the TA work with more diligence – attend the lectures and understand the material for the course you are TA for, do the assignments you need to grade yourself, explain the material to UGs to help them – the process of explaining will help you understand the concepts better…..
  • Develop Research Capability. The above will help build skills that often a good UG program will develop in good Institutions. Building research capability can provide MTech students an edge over UGs. Many top companies also look for research capabilities, besides the engineering capabilities. For developing the research capabilities, some approaches are: (i) Do the projects in advanced courses, which often require some researching, sincerely and seriously – read more papers and reports than needed, spend time and effort understanding them, write a good report following good scientific writing practices (there is a lot of help available on writing style, copyright, …), make a great presentation using sound principles of presentation,…. (ii) Do a strong thesis – again many students look for “easy credits” – how to do the thesis easily with minimal effort. Instead go after thesis and professors that will require you to work hard, will challenge you, will make you acutely aware of your lack of skills and knowledge, will require you to read a lot, apply a lot, engineer a lot,… Then write a good thesis – aim to publish it by writing good paper(s) from it. A strong thesis can not only improve the training and skills, it can provide expertise in some area, which is always valued. It can provide a good launching pad, provide self confidence, and a lot more. A strong thesis is the best thing an Mtech student can do in his/her program.
  • Hard work. Most student will admit that their UG program did not challenge them – small amount of effort, often around exams, sufficed. There is no short cut to learning and building skills – one must study deeply and hard to understand the concepts and must challenge the understanding by trying various problems and assignments, and one must do various projects to apply the knowledge to solve problems and build solutions. Both take time – learning deeply will require deep reading, discussing the subtleties, doing assignments, etc – all these take time. And applying the knowledge through projects, assignments, and the like takes even more time. My advice is: ensure that you are putting at least 10 hours per day for 6 days a week. Without this level of work none of the above is possible.

The five points above are about: Choice of Courses, problem solving capability, background strengthening, research capability, and ability to do hard work.

Though many incoming MTech students struggle in the start – a pattern I have seen in IITK, IITD, and IIIT-Delhi – most of them generally manage very well in the end as they are bright, ambitious, and put in a lot of effort to make the most of the MTech opportunity. Most end up significantly improving their placement opportunities due to their training in MTech. But a few, largely those who treat the MTech like they handled their BTech, end up with only limited value from the degree. I hope the advice given in this note will help all Mtech students to derive the benefit of the rigorous MTech programs that places like IITs/NITs/IIITs have.

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