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.

Effective Study Habits

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Most students want to do well in their studies – they want to learn, get good grades/marks, and do well in opportunities that good education can provide. In College life, besides studies, self growth is also an important goal for students. Therefore they need to effectively balance the two goals, which often conflict. In this pursuit, effective study habits can be very useful. They can help to learn effectively and efficiently, thus leaving sufficient time for other activities in life without compromising your academics. However, we have realized that many students are not clear on how to study effectively.

There is literature on this subject available – indeed there is a full book on it (multiple copies of which are in IIIT-D library). However, students often think these are too idealized or impractical, or that they do not apply to their environment or situation.

To better understand what works well in an environment like that of IIIT-Delhi, one of our graduating students (Digvijay Singh) interacted with a set of students from his batch who were known to have good understanding of various subjects, who we will refer to as effective students (this set of students we determined not by grades but by their performance in interviews and exams conducted by best companies that visited us and general input from faculty and students about their understanding, knowledge, skills.) We further validated the outcome of this study by interacting with a set of students of the current batch who have been doing well. It should be noted that not all of them are in the high CGPA category – many of them are below 8.0. It should be pointed out that this is not a statistically and scientifically rigorous study. Also, the habits mentioned here are the common ones, which most effective students we talked to followed. It does not mean that these are the only methods. However, I believe if these practices are sound and if students follow these, they can expect to be effective in their learning.

The three main effective study practices that emerged are:

  • Lectures. Attending lectures regularly and taking notes in them, even if the lectures are not very exciting/engaging, is a practice most effective students followed. This makes sense –students who do not follow this in the hope that they will “make up” for the lectures they miss, generally do not end up “making up”, and soon find themselves lost with too much to catch up. And missing lectures can easily become a habit, which is clearly to be avoided. The two aspect of this practice are (i) attend the lectures, (ii) make notes in the lectures – not copy what the faculty is writing, but making notes in your own language. The second point is important – copying from the board/slide is a passive act which does not help in learning, but making notes in your own words is an active learning task, which engages the student and helps in learning. Paying attention in lectures actually helps save time – a student is likely to take much more time to understand and learn the topic by him/herself, if he/she does not attend the lecture, or is inattentive.
  • Assignments. Do the assignments yourself – most effective students did most of the assignments themselves, even if it took them more time or even if they were not able to complete in time. While lectures introduce the topics and concepts, the real learning and skill building of a student happens during assignments – this is where the students practices and tries to apply the concept/method. So, without doing assignments yourself, there can be really no learning. It should be noticed that taking help (not copying) from friends in assignments is fine, particularly when one is stuck. Indeed taking and giving help in form of discussions, explanations, guiding is a good way of learning.
  •  Weekly revision/sync-up. All effective students have some method of ensuring that they have revised the material covered in the previous week or so, and that they prepared for the next week’s lectures and work. This practice I am calling weekly sync-up (even though students might be practicing this over somewhat longer periods.) Some revise regularly, some do revision with the assignment, some during the weekends, etc., but one common theme is that they sync-up regularly and ensure that they are not behind or lost, as they realize that if they continue while being lost, they will not recover. (One student said that if he could not follow two lectures well, it was a big warning sign and he would put extra work to catch up.) This practice ensures that even if they missed a lecture/assignment, they make up for it and do not fall behind. Without this practice, there is a real risk that a student can fall behind so much that it will be very hard to catch up,…. In a semester of 4 months with a student doing 5 courses, one simply can’t really afford to fall behind too much!

This can be viewed as the LAW for effective studying. Follow the LAW, with suitable enhancements/ modifications to suit your style, and the chances are that you will become an effective learner, and derive the benefits that come from that.

There are some other practices which some effective students also used:

  • Prioritising work. When there are many tasks from multiple courses, as well as from other activities, there will clashing deadlines. Prioritising will clearly be important in such a situation to achieve the most in the limited time. As one student said: “In such a scenario, life becomes a lot easier when you manually set down targets to be achieved by what deadline (which maybe before/ same day as your submission deadlines). Use sticky notes as gentle reminders to yourself so you can use your time wisely when brunt of work is more.”
  • Group study (though many prefer individual study)
  • Group and individual projects. As said by one student: “While it is good to do projects in team to learn teamwork and leadership qualities, I used to push myself and sometimes go forth with individual projects. Undoubtedly, it takes more effort and time, but it boosted my confidence in my own abilities to handle projects single-handedly and made me more self-reliant and self-sufficient.”
  • Help other students – explain to them as explaining helps them understand better (my note: by discussing/clarifying you are helping your friend, but by providing your assignment to your friends for copying you are actually hurting them as you are discouraging them to learn, besides taking them the slippery slope of using unfair means.)
  • Take help from friends for understanding – most students indicated that face-to-face discussion with friends was the first and most common approach they used for clarifying doubts/material. If this did not work then they will go to discussion forums, instructor,…
  • Academics gets the first priority – this is more a value statement but was commonly echoed by most of the students. While they all engaged in other activities (most of them are quite active in clubs, events, etc., they are clear that academics get the highest priority

Besides these practices, there is one attitude/trait I would like to highlight, which I have seen in many students who have done well in whatever they do after college education – and that is curiosity and initiative to go beyond the courses. Many effective students engage in some technical activities that they do which are not needed for their courses – i.e. they take the initiative to go beyond the courses. Examples of these initiatives can be: participating in competitive programming, participating in technical clubs, learning on your own about topics that interest you, listening to some technical lectures on YouTube/Coursera/EdX, trying out some concepts, learning some programming language on your own, teaching students who are facing challenges in their courses (teaching, it is well known and established, is the most effective way to learn – teaching to someone else truly clarifies the topic in one’s own mind) etc. I believe that those students who are ambitious and want to reach higher in life, developing this trait/style is absolutely essential.

I hope the students will devise their own methods for being effective students using the LAW, and going beyond. I hope this little study will be helpful to them in devising their own strategies.

Report on PhD Production in Computer Science highlights the Opportunity for PhDs

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On behalf of ACM India, I conducted the first survey on PhD production in Computer Science in India. The report has been published and can be found, along with the background, here.

As the report clearly shows, while the number is not as low as one thought, it is still about 125. And if you consider PhDs from only the top 20 institutions in the country, the number is in two digits. And the projections are that this number will only double in about 5 years.

This study actually highlights the tremendous opportunity for those who are doing PhD in CS in India. Academics is growing rapidly with so many new IITs, IIITs, and other Institutes coming up. Even if you consider each such Institute will need about 5 faculty members each year, 50 upcoming Institutes can easily consume 250 PhDs. Then there are at least 20 research labs in many software companies, including the large software companies which seem keen to expand their R&D capabilities rapidly, and various other companies that can consume PhDs. Overall, the private sector can also consume about 250 PhDs per year. There are other opportunities in Govt sector also. In a nutshell, the supply is significantly lesser than the demand. And this gap is likely to increase as demand is set to increase.

Due to this mismatch in demand and supply, and the growth of academics, the compensation for fresh PhDs is now very good. Companies will often pay a package starting from Rs 15 Lac to Rs 25 Lac or more for a fresh PhD. Academic packages are also quite good after the sixth pay commission – an Asst Prof can have a yearly compensation of Rs 8 to Rs 12 Lac. Compare this with the starting package for software jobs – except for a few multinationals, the starting package tends to be around Rs 3.5 Lac for the large and medium sized software houses (which is where 90% of the software jobs are), and Rs 4 to 6 for the niche players. Even if one counts for the 4 to 5 years that one has to spend in getting a PhD, compensation wise, a student who does a PhD will clearly come out ahead.

And then there are the really strong benefits of doing a PhD – the main reasons why people preferred this route even when the compensation was not good. And that is, the freedom to explore and chose your own work agenda, the non-repetitive and challenging nature of work, the culture of R&D, lack of hierarchy, being a member of the global community of researchers, etc.

Overall, while the PhD production report does not have too much good news for those who want to recruit PhDs, it is good news for those who are considering doing PhD.

Impact of Grading Schemes on Students’ Grades

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In this post, rather than a personal view or opinion, I am sharing the findings of a small study we did on impact of grading schemes. Grading schemes in universities vary with many systems in existence. To study the impact of grading schemes on student’s performance in terms of SGPA/CGPA, we have performed a small study to study two common grading schemes. Scheme 1 which uses letter grades A, B, C, D, and F with corresponding points as 10, 8, 6, 4, and 2. And scheme 2 which uses grades A, A-, B, B-, C, C-, D, and F, with corresponding points as 10, 9,…, 4, 2. 

Experimental Setup

To analyze the impact of the two grading schemes, we have used the data of students’ marks from three core courses: Computer organization, Data structures, and algorithms and Probability and Statistics, each with enrolment in of about 140. The data of the students from these three courses was first divided into two groups of equal sizes Group 1 with even numbered students and Group 2 contained odd numbered – i.e. both groups had about 70 students in each class with similar performance.

First, Group 1 was given to the six professors from three institutions, and they were requested to grade the students using the Grading scheme 1. They were given the entire spreadsheet of performance over the semester, but without the student names. After 2 weeks, Group 2 was given to the same professors for grading using scheme 2. The purpose of the two week gap is to make two grading exercises independent of each other.  At the end of this experiment, we had the grades provided by six professors using the two different grading schemes for sets of students whose performance was effectively similar. And we had this data for three different courses.

Analysis and Key Observations

  • Average grade point of students (after taking the average grade point of six professors) is approximately the same at around 6.5 (average of scheme 2 was higher by about 0.1, but given the small sample size it was not taken as statistically significant.) This is an useful  insight – it shows that professors do not simply take students falling in A category in Scheme 1 and divide them into A and A- (and similarly for B and C), as that would have resulted in significant reduction in average grade in Scheme 2. But, as is intended, by having finer grades in scheme 2, Professors put some A students (of Scheme 1) in A-, but also put some B students (of scheme 1) in A-. (It is worth pointing that some professors consistently gave higher average grade in one scheme, while others gave higher grade in the other scheme.)
  • Average grade point (after taking the average grade point of six professors) of top students is higher with grading scheme 1 across courses. This is to be expected as in Scheme 2, some students from A grade in Scheme 1 will get moved to A-. However, one Professor gave more As with grading scheme 2 in one course. (To study this, we determined the average grade of top K students, varying K from 1 to 15, i.e. up to about top 20% students.)
  • Average grade point (after taking the average grade point of six professors) of bottom students is higher with grading scheme 2 across courses.  In other words, bottom students would prefer grading scheme 2. This is also as expected – with finer grades; fewer students should end up in D and F.  Here also,  two Professors gave a larger no of Fs with grading scheme 2 for one course each, (For this also, we studied the grade of bottom K students, varying K from 1 to 15).
  • The average number of Fs reduces with grading scheme 2 to about half of those in Scheme 1. Even at individual professor level, number of Fs reduce –  4 out of 6 professors have given more or equal Fs with grading scheme 1 than grading scheme 2 across all the courses; in some courses, the same professor has substantially lower threshold for given F in Scheme 2 than in F.  One can argue that as there is no D- grade, there should be no impact on number of Fs. But data seems to suggest that overall, having a finer grades seems to reduce the need for failing students.
  • The data provided us an opportunity to analyze the consistence in the grading behaviour of professors. For this purpose, we postulated five consistency hypotheses:
    • H1: Equal or more As in grading scheme 1 than in grading scheme 2
    • H2: Equal or higher cut-off for grade B in grading scheme 1 than in grading scheme 2
    • H3: Equal or higher cut-off for grade C in grading scheme 1 than in grading scheme 2
    • H4: Equal or higher cut-off for grade D in grading scheme 1 than in grading scheme 2
    • H5: Equal cut-off for grade F in grading scheme 1 and in grading scheme 2

We then determined how many of these hypotheses were satisfied by different professors.  We found that 5 out of 6 Professors  satisfied 4 or 5 of these (four did not satisfy  H5, as mentioned above). However, one Professor satisfied only 2 of these.  In other words, most Professors are quite consistent in their grading behavior across schemes (except for F grade.)

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Mayank Pundir for his help in analyzing the data and in writing the report, and Vidushi Chaudhary for her help in performing the experiment and initial analysis. I would also like to thank the professors who participated in the study and graded the students using the two grading schemes (not mentioning their names for confidentiality).  Details of the analysis are also available with the author.

Desired Skills/Capabilities in Graduating CSE Students for a High-End Engineering Career

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At IIIT-Delhi, objectives of BTech program are to develop graduates for careers in high-end engineering professions and research. (We want to emphasize on “high-end engineering careers” as the vast majority of software careers in India need moderate expertise in computer sciences – as demonstrated by the fact that many large software companies take engineers from any discipline and make them suitable for their work after a couple of month’s training. As at IIIT-Delhi we have a rigorous program in CSE, we believe that it should be to prepare the students for more cutting-edge work in technology and product companies, research, and innovation and entrepreneurship.)

To develop the skills needed for high-end engineering careers, we need to clearly understand them and then ensure that the BTech program is developing them. During a recent review of our curriculum, for the objective of developing high-end software engineers, we decided to take feedback from senior engineers of some technology companies on what skills they expect in graduating engineers. The companies included most of the top technology players like Google, Microsoft, Adobe, Yahoo, EMC, Siemens, Netapps, and smaller technology players like AirTight Networks. The questionnaire we sent asked what Technical skills they expected, and what Meta/Soft skills they expected in graduates of a CSE program. (It was satisfying to note that our curriculum focused on developing many of these skills. Still some ideas emerged from this exercise for which we have taken suitable actions.)

This note  gives a summary of the feedback obtained. It is worth pointing out, particularly to students, that the feedback almost entirely revolved around understanding and skills – grades and marks were not mentioned even once by anyone. It needs to be emphasized to students that short cuts to getting good marks are of no help in careers in these companies – almost all of these companies conduct multiple rounds of tests and interviews to assess the understanding and skills. I hope this feedback from the very places which often constitute dream jobs for students might strengthen the resolve of those students who want to work hard to learn and build their capabilities (the only way!) to continue on their path.

–In Meta/Soft skills, a few skills/capabilities that were highlighted most in various forms are:
  • Ability to quickly learn new concepts, languages, technologies, best practices. As one might expect, in today’s world, continuous up gradation is essential and it is to be expected that whatever one knows may become obsolete soon and so one must have ability to learn. In a high-end technology career (like most knowledge-based careers), ability and desire to learn is critical, along with desire and motivation to keep improving in whatever one is doing.
  • –Problem solving ability. This has many aspects and were variously expressed as: logical and critical thinking; ability to connect new challenges with old problems and past experience; ability to apply diverse/disparate concepts for solving a problem; ability to think at abstract level, and drill down to details; ability to leveraging existing tools and knowledge for problem solving; ability to formulate a problem, thinking of different ways to approach; ability to work with unknowns/ uncertainty ; ability to identify bottlenecks and articulate them well; ability to search for information to fill these unknowns, reduce uncertainty, remove bottlenecks
  • –Communication skills.  Explaining things to others in a clear and structured manner; ability to speak and write with clarity and succinctly.
  • –Team work. Ability to work in teams, which can need skills like taking leadership when needed, but following when required; skills to negotiate and resolve conflicts, work in time constraints and with responsibility, etc,

While the meta/soft skills may be general for any high-end engineering skills, the feedback for technical skills was far more focused for CSE (as the questionnaire was focused on computer science). The list of desired capabilities and skills here is longer and more detailed. Some of the key skills that were highlighted are:

  • –Solid Data Structures and Algorithms. Deep understanding of these subjects, how to combine them, how to find/design suitable ones for a problem, etc. This is not surprising as indeed these are the most foundational topics on which much of CS rests.
  • –Strong in OOPS.  OO Design and principles, subtle aspects of language, strong understanding of the language capability and limitations, its design and implementation,
  • –Good understanding of OS, DBMS, Networks. These subjects were highlighted whose understanding is extremely important on being a successful software engineer for high-end work.
  • –Ability to write well structured and efficient code.  This view was expressed in various ways.  E.g. ability to evaluate efficiency of the code at different levels – algo, DS, execution level (OS), hardware – to reduce memory as well as time; understanding of different layers of the system, and ability to evaluate/assess the program at these different layers
–Various other skills that were pointed out were: ability to leverage libraries from disparate sources and create abstractions on top; good debugging skills; familiarity with different programming paradigms – what they can do, how they are implemented, where they are useful…; understand different situations in which a system can work or fail or may be used; working knowledge of standard tools and IDEs; ability to read others’ code and analyze it, provide feedback on it, work with it / enhance it efficiently; experience of working on a real project (with real delivery and users/customers).

We found these inputs very useful in fine tuning our courses and the type of projects and assignments we give. I hope others find it useful as well. I sincerely hope that students will get the message loud and clear: build these types of skills and capabilities if you want to have a high-end (and well paying) engineering career – and leverage your Institution’s education program and courses effectively towards strengthening these.

Assessing the Value of High Quality Education

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How good is the education being provided by an academic Institution? While there can be sophesticated ways of assessing the quality (e.g. by having peope who understand education and its goals assess the quality by looking at the faculty, courses, method of teaching, etc.) often quality of the overall education is assessed by how well their graduates do in their careers. And an indicator of this is how good a start the graduates get, i.e. the placement record of Institute.

Most good institutions have good placement records. While good institutions have good placement/careers statistics, there has been a perpetual debate/doubt whether this outcome is due to the fact that these institutes, being higly selective, take in the brightest of the students (if you take the top 5% of the students, of course they will do well – the argument goes), or whether it is due to the value of education they provide.  All of us academics in top institutions believe that while high quality of intake has a role to play, the quality of education provided at these institutions is the key determining factor in the success of these students. Unfortunately, this point cannot be supported by data as it is not possible get the desired data (e.g. average students taken in the top institutions and provided good education and then seeing how they do.)

At IIIT Delhi, as an Institute which has now evolved into a sought-after, high quality institution, we have a limited data from the first batch to shed some light to this debate. In 2008 the Institute was started – I was appointed the Director (employee #001) in Aug, and we had to start the new session in Sept. As all the admissions were over, the “best” students were already gone – even if they were not, why will they join an Institute that just started and had no faculty or facilities. In any case, we did an entrance test with an eligibility criteria being 60% in class XII.  About 350 students applied, finally around 250 or so appeared, of which we selected 60 – and many of those who were offered did not accept it. Effectively, almost one in every three students who wanted was admitted.   (Now that we have established ourselves as a top Institution,  of those who apply – and only those above 80% in class XII can apply – about 6% are selected.)

So, clearly the first batch was hardly selective by Indian standards. More so, given the fact that admissions in almost all major Institutions were over when we started our process (our exam was held in Aug!).

After admisison, this batch was taught in their first by guest faculty in borrowed facilites, but using our program and curriculum. In second year, many of the courses were taught by our faculty. It is only by third year when almost all the Computing courses were being taught by our faculty. In other words, whatever is our quality of education now, the first batch did not get it fully.

Fast forward to 2012, when this batch graduated. The Institute had no track record and no placement history – making it extremely hard to convince companies to visit for campus placement, particularly since we wanted to focus on technology companies as we felt that our students were far too well trained for the “regular” software jobs (by this I mean the entry level jobs offered by the large software houses in the country and where perhaps 90% of the CS graduates in the country get their employment. These jobs, it is well know, have a starting package of about Rs 3 to 3.5 Lac). With effort, we were able to convince some of the companies to come.

Almost every company that visited, despite their initial doubts, recruited some students.  Here we are talking about tech companies that generally have a rigorous selection process – test, multiple rounds of intereviews, etc. Some companies were so happy by the quality of graduating students that they recruited far more than what their best case scenario was (as we were told.) One company, which came for recruiting for their research lab, then called in their other product divisions to recurit. Some highly selective companies which visit few campuses in the country told us that they felt that the graduates are as good as other places they visit.

The final outcome in numbers: The average salary offer is about Rs 7 Lac (twice that of a regular software job), with majority getting offers of more than Rs 6 Lac, and about 10%  getting offers of more than Rs 10 Lac.

Personally also I have interacted with many (and have taught them some courses) and I can see that the capability of these students, their confidence, and their aspirations are so much higher than the CS graduates we often see in IITs for MTech admission – which are arguably the best from the engineering colleges. In fact, when the batch was in final year, some of my colleagues would sometimes say that the quality of these students is comparable or better than the later batches.

I believe this unique data point, which even we cannot now replicate, provides a limited argument for the intrinsic value of education. For the first batch, which was not very selective in admission, purely by providing good quality education, we have changed lives of many of them. It can be easily argued that these students, if they had not joined IIITD, would have ended up in some engineering college (I have collected this data – most of the students would have otherwise joined a college in Delhi or NCR) from where they would have graduated and most likely landed the “regular software job”. Our education has transformed them and has changed their career trajectories substantially by giving most of them a good start for buidling strong and successful careers.

So, while high quality of students intake is desirable and all Institutes vie for the best students, it is the quality of education provided by Institutes that makes the graduates what they are capable of. Quality of education matters and matters hugely!

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