Australian Universities – Some Observations and Lessons for India

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Note: These are some observations based on a visit to about half dozen universities in a few different cities. Some of them were the G-8 universities (top universities identified by the Australian Government), and rest just below them. The observations in this note are based on discussions largely in CS/IT schools and the broad numbers that were indicated mentioned these discussions – hence only broad statements are being made. This is not a detailed study of any university or the University system in Australia.

Size

Main Australian universities are quite large – most with more than 50,000 students and over 1,500 full time, regular faculty. They are generally organized as Faculties, and within them are Schools (which are like Departments in US or India), which may have disciplines within them. Universities also have focused research centers, which have funding of their own, but faculty mostly come from Schools. CS/IT is often a school of its own and generally one of the largest (and is heavily in demand). Most large universities are catering to it by expanding their offerings in it.

The overall administrative staff is appx of the same size as the size of faculty, though in each department the number is smaller than the faculty.

In CS/IT, in many of these large universities the faculty strength for regular, tenure-track/tenured faculty is about 30 to 40.

In size, main Australian universities are similar to the US public universities (there are only a couple of private universities in Australia – the rest are all public universities, supported by the Government.)

UG Education

Many have multiple programs at the UG level – in CS, IT, Sw Engg, etc.  A program may have an average intake of a few hundred students every year, and overall UG population can be a few thousands. Foreign students ratio may be about 10-20%.

Most UG degrees are 3 year programs. However, many of them add one year to give an honors degree. Those CS/IT degrees that are in engg, are normally of 4 years. Altogether, the school of CS/IT may have about 1000+ UG students.

UG students do mostly 4 courses (units) per semester. First year is usually a common set of courses. There is a strong focus on professional skills development in courses.

Masters Program

The Masters is commonly by course work only, and is normally of 2 years duration. The intake may be as large as 300 or 400 every year. Masters has a large number of overseas students – often more than half, sometimes even two-thirds. Most of the overseas students are from Asia – China and India being the largest. Smaller number is from Africa.

Masters is a completely a paid program. There is no scholarship/fellowship. And the fee is normally higher than the UG fee.

PhD Program

PhD program may be around 200 students in CS/IT – generally between 3 to 4 students per regular faculty. All PhD students are given scholarship/fellowship (tax free, of around $28K). PhD students may get paid a top-up from research grants (of about $10K). They are often paid extra for TA work or for being tutors. Tuition fee is waived for about 3.5 to 4 years, and the scholarship is also often limited to this duration.

Often for each PhD student, the university will give some budget (of about $5K), which can be used for laptop, conference travel (by the student or the adviser), etc.

Teaching/Instruction

A regular course may have 2 hours of lecture, and 2 hours of lab, and/or an hour of tutorial. The instructor gives the lectures, and also takes some sessions of tutorials (to get the pulse of the students). Tutors are generally not allowed to take lectures.

Courses for UGs and PGs are mostly separated – however, many times courses are dual numbered and the same lecture may be used for both the courses, with some special assignments or work for the PG students.

Course syllabus is often standardized, including the nature and number of assignments or labs or projects.

Lectures classes are often large – most with around 200 students. For first year courses, the size of a lecture may be around 500. For a large class, there may be two sections (say of 200 each, or 500 each for the 1st year course), and there may be two instructors for it – who will collaborate.

While the lectures sessions are large, there are tutorials and labs for courses. These are usually in small groups of around 30 each. Problem solving as well as lab help is provided in these sessions.

In a course there is often a feedback from students early on during the semester – to help the instructor make  any changes in how the course is being taught. There is a feedback at the end of the course. Moderation of grades is often done (i.e. some committee looks at grading patterns in the courses.)

There are facilities to tape the lectures, which are uploaded almost immediately after the class is over. Students can watch it later.  Most universities are exploring ways to leverage technology to reduce faculty requirement. E.g. in one students can enrol in web-delivery mode also (though very few students opt for it).

Student Faculty Ratio and Teaching-Research Balance

If entire UG students in the programs and the Masters students are taken, in most universities, in CS/IT the ratio may be of the order of 40:1. Some CS/IT schools have about 35:1, but some even have a ratio as large as 70:1. (Overall student to faculty ratio in a university also seems to be around 35:1.)

However, the faculty are well supported by Tutors and TAs, which are largely PhD students or casual faculty hired for this purpose. In some universities, senior UG students are also hired to help in TA work, particularly in labs (mostly honors students may be taken for this.) Part-time faculty from industry are also used for teaching. There may also be a small number of teaching-focused faculty to reduce the load of regular faculty.

There is a good balance between teaching and research. Many universities mentioned the 40-40-20 formula – a faculty member is expected to spend about 40% effort in teaching, about 40% in research, and 20% in service/administration.

Teaching load of a faculty varies from 2.5 to 4 courses per year. Adjustment based on research and administrative load is permitted and there are rules for this.

In teaching approach and student-faculty ratio, Australian universities differs from their US counterparts. The course load for students is a little lower, more support is provided through labs and tutorials, and the student-faculty ratio is considerably higher (in US many of the prominent state universities like UC system or GaTech have a student-faculty ratio of about 20:1.)

Research and Research Grants

Australian Research Council (ARC) is the main body. It usually gives larger grants. Many faculty may not get grants. Small grants may be provided by the University also.

Grants cover PostDocs, other research staff and top-up to students, and also travel and other such expenses. They don’t need to cover for PhD students.

There is a culture of postdoc developing and people with grants will have them. Generally, research is done by faculty, post docs, and PhD students.

There is an emphasis on applied research – sometimes coming from industry, and sometimes derived from some direct application.

Fees, and Economics

For domestic students, the UG fee is around $15K per year. The intake of students is not controlled, and a university is free to admit as many as it wants. However, the fee for domestic students is controlled – i.e. the Govt has fixed it.

Of the fee for domestic students, the student has to cover about one-fourth to half, for which he can take a loan, which is to be paid later as additional tax, but only after the student’s earning crosses some threshold. The rest of the fee is the subsidy by the Govt. The university gets the full fee from the Government directly, and the Government recovers the money from the student. (There is also some option to pre-pay the fee at some discount…)

MS fee is usually higher. Govt does not provide subsidy for this. (Not fully sure)

Overall, the university gets a funding from the Federal Govt based on the number of students, i.e. fees times the number of students in the university. Due to this, there is an intense competition to get good students and there is an inherent motivation to grow – that is why most Australian universities are large in student enrollments. Note that even state created universities will get this grant from the Federal Govt.

Government also gives some grant for research which is also based on a formula which takes as input the impact, the research funds raised by the university from corporations and other sources, etc.

Except ANU and one or two others, there is no other grant from the government for teaching. Government may also give some special grants for infrastructure or special purposes every now and then – for which universities have to make proposals.

For foreign students, the fee as well as the numbers a university can take, is not regulated. The Government provides no subsidy for foreign students. The fee for foreign students is about $30+ K per year. So, the fee from foreign students cover part of the cost of education for domestic students, and also supports research expenditure of the university (as research projects do not cover the full cost of research.) Due to this, there is a strong incentive to recruit foreign students.  Australia has actively promoted itself as an education destination – high quality education in English, with the possibility of migration as well. (After 2 years of study, an overseas student is eligible to work in Australia.) By some accounts, education is the second (or third) largest forex earner for Australia.

A university may have a budget of about $1Billion (AUD). Broadly, the main income sources for a university are:

  • Tuition fee from domestic students given by federal Govt – about 70%
  • Research grant from the Federal Government – about 5%
  • Tuition fee from overseas students – about 15% (higher in some)
  • Research grants – about 10% (higher in more research places, lower in others)

There may be special grants, which arise from time to time – for construction, for some initiative of the Govt, etc.

So, funding approach for Australian universities seems to be formula based, and seems different from their US counterparts.

Autonomy

Universities are fully autonomous and are governed very well with a strong administrative set up and often visionary leaders. The Government has minimal role in university administration. There are some reps in the Board, and there are reporting requirements by the Government (e.g. to make sure that finances are in good shape), but govt does not play a role in appointing anyone, including the President. It seems that any interference in selection of President/Chancellor may be taken in very bad light even by public.

And most funding is formula-based. This allows a university to plan its own growth and finances, and there is predictability of funding from the Government. In other words, relationships with the government do not play any role in funding levels.

Some Lessons for Indian Research Universities

There are clearly some lessons for institutions like IITs, some IIITs, etc., which have a strong focus on research and have a vibrant undergraduate program, as well as for other research-led higher education institutions which give strong emphasis to research and education both.

  • Explore ways to enhance student faculty ratio – there is clear scope to do this so the benefit of the high quality faculty in these institutions can be made available to larger number of students. This will require, improving the PhD program, enhancing TA training programs, leveraging technology, use more internet delivered courses, have a program like Teaching Fellow, in which the teaching fellow is recruited and trained to handle tutorials and labs, and in the process get trained to become instructors in colleges. Extra revenue obtained by increasing the students at UG level, can be used to fund the PhD students.
  • Improve TA training and work culture – this is essential as the a higher number of students per faculty can only be supported if the TA help improves so TAs can handle most of the labs, tutorials, grading, etc. Besides training, this will need good guidelines for TAs for grading, handling students, etc, improved feedback and assessment of TA work, establishing awards and recognition for TA work, etc
  • Use senior UG students as TAs – they have been found to be very good TAs for undergraduate courses – this is partly due to the fact that the senior UG student has done the course in the same university, thereby has a better understanding of the course approach and teaching style etc. This may require giving them training, more respect and honor, stipend..
  • Expand the PhD program –  have about 3 to 4 PhD students per faculty. Make the PhD program more attractive – develop schemes for top-up (e.g. from projects for RAs, and extra support for TAs after they have done the mandatory 2 semesters of TA work), provide more facilities, support for conference travel,…
  • For expanding the PhD program, ACITE can consider stopping scholarships for MTech – these provide little value and world over scholarships for Masters are getting eliminated – and use the funds to instead provide PhD scholarships.
  • Enhance supervised labs in core courses so students can build strong practical skills – this is important for building professional skills. Must provide more support in the lab so students can be guided.
  • Enhance tutorials for developing problem solving skills – will require good training for tutors so they don’t make it a lecture, but applying concepts from lectures to problem solving.
  • Expanding the MTech program overseas – there is good possibility here and being a 2 year program where mature students come, least risky. If the courses are mostly exclusively graduate, then it is relatively easier to do this. The fee can be kept a little lower than fee levels in places like Australia, as it still be very cost effective due to lower cost of living. Initial focus can be on Asia and Africa.
  • Improve the use of technology – in infrastructure as well as in education (e.g. taping of lectures and putting them online asap, use of technology for tutorials, etc.)

Interdisciplinary Programs with Computer Science/IT

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Computer Science/IT is a young discipline. However, with easy and cheap availability computing power, its use has become ubiquitous – there is hardly any discipline or any sphere of life which is not directly affected by IT. That is why computing (I will use computing, IT, and CS interchangeably in this note) is sometimes considered as the “new physics” – it is useful in all disciplines and its basic knowledge is essential. Today, in every discipline, knowledge of computing is an asset, and there is a demand for professionals in various disciplines who also have decent knowledge of computing.

CS is in some ways a simpler discipline. It is fundamentally about software and systems (many of which are themselves software). Hence, education programs in CS focus on these. For software, there are courses like programming, data structures, algorithms, theory behind these, software engineering, etc. And for systems, there are courses like architecture, operating systems, compilers, networks, etc. Generally a subset of these topics form the core (or compulsory) part of a BTech program. In the rest of the program, a student often does advances in these areas, as well as developments special systems like databases, run time systems, etc, or application areas like computer vision, gaming, image processing, etc. This allows for a relatively small CS core in an education program.

Contrast this with an older discipline like Electrical Engineering. Even covering the foundations will require multiple courses in basic sub-areas like circuits, signal processing, communications, controls, power system, etc. And to become an engineer who can apply concepts of these, one will have to do many more advanced courses, and labs and projects.

This ability to have a small core to teach decent amount of computing to a student which he/she can apply, renders CS easily for interdisciplinary programs which combine CS basics with knowledge of other disciplines. And given the need for the knowledge of computing in many disciplines, having an interdisciplinary program with computing makes a lot of sense, particularly since further progress in many disciplines is highly dependent on good application of computing. A good example is biology – earlier it was considered an experimental discipline. But now, without the use of computing, many aspects can simply not be done (e.g. anything to do with genomics requires huge amounts of computing.)

In fact many senior computing academics have argued that while computing as a discipline must evolve, computing must get more tightly integrated with some disciplines to have more impact of computing for society and other sciences. This is another reason for having interdisciplinary programs with CS/IT.

At IIIT-Delhi, we are taking this thinking as a key approach for growth. While we will continue focusing on Computer Science and Engineering (CSE) as a discipline, and also Electronics and Communications Engineering (ECE), instead of adding more regular programs in traditional disciplines, we will add interdisciplinary programs with CS/IT in carefully selected areas which have a natural affinity to CS/IT and where combining them together brings advantages.

Last year IIIT-Delhi launched a program in CS and Applied maths. The basic motivation behind this program was that for solving problems for complex systems as well as for big data, both mathematics and computing tools and techniques need to be applied. Hence, an engineer with training in both will be better prepared to handle such problems. In addition, at research and foundational level also there are many connections between CS and Maths (in fact, many computer scientists consider themselves as mathematicians also), making mathematics a natural discipline for an interdisciplinary program with CS.

This year we are adding two new interdisciplinary programs. First is the BTech in Computer Science and Design program, which aims to develop graduates that are not only well versed with computing approaches, tools, and technologies, but are also experienced with Design approaches and new Media technologies and uses. The program will prepare students to work in the IT industry as well as digital media industry like gaming, animation, virtual/augmented reality, etc. The program will also allow students, who want to pursue higher studies, to take up higher studies in CS/IT or in Design. The program aims to develop capabilities in CS as well as Design and Digital Media. Along with this, we are also starting a center for Design and New Media, which will conduct research in these areas.

The second program is in BTech in IT and Social Sciences. Going forward we are likely to see more convergence of IT with social systems (e.g. social media) and the role social sciences will play in technology solutions and the role IT will play in addressing society’s and people’s problems, will increase. This will lead to an increase in demand for IT engineers who are also well versed with social sciences. This unique program aims to develop IT engineers with strong understanding of relevant social science disciplines as well as their methodologies. It may be an ideal program for those students who are not sure if they want to pursue engineering careers and would like to explore the possibility of going for social sciences later, but want to be ready to take an IT career if desired. Along with the program we are also establishing a research Center on IT and Society, which will research the interplay between IT and society and impact one has on the other – an area which is highly under researched in India.

Typically, in any such interdisciplinary program, a student will do a few foundation courses in first semester. Then in the next few semesters, he/she will do about 6 to 8 core (compulsory) courses in each of the two disciplines, which will provide him/her grounding in the two disciplines. In the last two years, the student will chose 4 to 6 electives from each of the disciplines, as well as do other courses that can help his/her career.  (There are usually some other requirements, like HSS, and possibilities like Open Electives in the last years.) Broadly, such an interdisciplinary program satisfies requirements of a BTech in CS/IT, as well as requirements of a BA/BSc program in the second discipline. This is feasible to achieve in a 4 year program, particularly since BA/BSc are 3 year programs, and if disciplines are chosen strategically, there can be many courses which are common and hence can be counted for both disciplines. Such programs allow a student to pursue an exciting career in the intersection of the two disciplines, but also prepares the student to pursue high studies and career in one of the two disciplines, as decent knowledge of both disciplines is provided in these programs. As it is a 4 year program, it also allows students to pursue higher study programs that require 4 year college education.

Many thinkers believe that interdisciplinary approaches for problem solving is where the future lies, as silo approaches of individual disciplines are limiting and often unable to take a broader view of the problem and its context. Such interdisciplinary programs should help develop manpower which has the capabilities of at least two disciplines for problem solving.

Selecting a College for Admission

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This is admission time again for higher education, and most students have multiple choices of higher educational institutions (HEIs – colleges, universities, institutes)  for admission. Finally, of course, the student has to get admitted in one HEI and study there. For most students and their parents, this is a hard choice – which HEI to chose from the colleges, universities, institutions where the student can get admitted. This note points out some parameters that can be used for assessing an HEI (or a department).

First, let us understand that there are two main end goals of college education. (i) Education: gaining knowledge and skills for productive careers,  and (ii) Self growth: developing interests, friendships, associations, hobbies, etc which help in leading a happier and richer life. A high quality HEI should provide good support for both.

For assessing  the capability of the HEIs, or one of its departments, to deliver high quality education, there are some well understood parameters. I am giving some of the key ones here. These are the parameters which I advise parents and students to look at for making a decision, and I myself used them when my daughters were seeking admission. Importance of most of these is self evident, and many of these are also given in the World Bank framework for World Class Universities.

  • Faculty Quality and Qualifications.  This is undoubtedly the single most important parameter that decides the  quality  of education in an HEI. World over, the best Universities indeed have the most qualified faculty. In India also, you will see the same pattern – places like IITs, IISc, some IIITs, some ISERs, etc, which are known to be the best places for education, have the most qualified faculty. By qualifications of faculty I mean  – highest degree obtained (PhD, Masters, or lesser), and from where the degree was earned. While higher qualifications are clearly desired in faculty, the second factor is also very important – an Engineering institute that has faculty with  PhDs from reputed universities of the world, or from places like IITs/IISc, clearly has superior faculty than a college that may have PhDs from other institutions. This can be checked easily – see where the faculty of established IITs have obtained their PhDs from – you will see that they are from  top Institutes in the country, or from good institutions overseas.
  • Faculty Student Ratio. This is clearly the next important parameter  – an HEI which has lower F/S ratio is likely to be better for learning and education, as it allows more faculty time per student and only with manageable ratio can faculty spend time with students for projects etc. In many US universities, about 20:1 is a standard ratio that they try to maintain – some lower ranked universities may have ratios as high as 35:1 or more, and some of the Ivy League and other top univs may have lower ratios. In older IITs, the ratio is about 15:1.
  • Infrastructure. The quality of infrastructure is another important parameter – clearly for education delivery, quality of classes, libraries, labs, etc. is important. But even other infrastructure – facilities for faculty, quality of student hostels and facilities, quality of sports and other facilities for extra curricular activities, etc. matter as they have indirect impact on education.
  • Quality of the academic program. All good HEIs spend a lot of time designing their programs. First important factor here is the structure and layout of the program – the courses the program and the nature and variety, and the degree of flexibility it provides to students to chose their courses. The second aspect is very important and can be assessed by the  number of electives a student can take in the program and the number of choices offered for electives. Weaker HEIs will have fewer electives, and fewer choices for them, as electives require a larger range of courses to be taught.
  • Delivery of academics. Getting a good program on paper is not too  hard – programs of the best of HEIs are available on the internet. It is, of course, the delivery of the program that matters the most. Quality of delivery is decided, first and foremost, by the quality of faculty. However, there are some other indicators – e.g. the level and nature of work a student has to do  in the courses. If the student has to spend minimal effort and that is mostly around taking tests/exams, you can be  sure that the delivery of  courses is weak. Good delivery of  courses requires students to put  in effort outside the  class in assignments, projects, labs, term papers, presentations, etc. Learning happens largely when students are asked to apply the concepts covered in lectures in the assignments/labs/projects… Learning without due effort is a myth – effort and practice is essential for learning and developing skills.
  • Administration, leadership, culture. Administration and leadership  impact the overall functioning hugely – good administration and leadership will ensure that the HEI continues to improve and keep addressing issues that may come up. Seriousness with which academics is taken, how students are supported, are students’ feedback on programs and courses taken, etc. are all important cultural aspects that have impact on the quality of education.

For assessing the quality of an HEI for supporting self development, one should look at the breadth and flexibility in the curriculum – does the curriculum include courses other than main subject courses, and does it provide flexibility and choice to take a variety of courses including those that may help more in self development. For example, one can look at if there are course on humanities, social sciences, music, art, etc, and if it is possible for students to do independent study, independent projects, etc to pursue their interests. For students who may be interested in research, one should look at if there are provisions for UG students to undertake research.

Other important factors that affect the self growth dimension are the level of extra curricular activities (which may get reflected in the variety of student clubs), infrastructure (the quality of infrastructure to support the extra curricular activities) and support (e.g. is there sufficient budget) for such activities.

While these are main factors that affect the quality of education,  another way to assess the quality of education and overall development of students is to examine what the graduates of the  HEI do after graduation, and how well the alumni of the HEI are doing. Opportunities after graduation include – placements after graduation (quality of placements, median offer, etc), higher education opportunities (how many students get these opportunities and where), and entrepreneurship.

This note focuses only on assessing the quality of an HEI. Choosing a program to study is a different issue – it depends on the students aptitude and capability. In an earlier note, I had discussed this issue. Of course the complication comes when the two factors – choosing the HEI and the program of study – are combined. The most common question is “I am getting X in A but am getting Y in B – which option should I choose”.  In general, if one is sure that one wants to study X and is fairly sure that  he/she has the aptitude for it also, then I would say that find the best HEI you can get X in, and go study X in that HEI. The problem gets more complex when the student does not know what he/she is interested in or has aptitude for – I have discussed this briefly in my earlier note, though have no good advise to offer.

Finally, I would end by saying that choosing the  HEI for your college education is a serious decision,  and a lot of people try to  influence it – mostly to try to convince others about their own view/decision. I have had students write later “I was misguided and I took admission in A as many of my friends were taking…. but I find no academic atmosphere here …. can you please consider me for admission now….”. You don’t want to  be in this situation. So, I suggest that you take inputs from all – your parents, friends, teachers, experts – but be aware of the biases that are often there in such suggestions, and make up your own decision by doing your analysis of the information/data available.

For information on IIIT-Delhi:  On BTech programs visit the BTech programs page; for information on faculty, visit the faculty page; for information on research, visit the research page; for information about student life, visit this page – more information on student clubs is available here.

Other notes you may want to look at on this: Article comparing various institutes, and blog of Prof. Dheeraj Sanghi.

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.

High Cost of Quality Education and Who Pays for It

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As we all know, fees in IITs has been increased to Rs 2 Lac/year, though the committee had recommended a fee of Rs 3 Lac/year. Even at Rs 3 Lac, the fee would have covered perhaps about half of the actual cost per student of running an IIT.

High quality higher education is actually expensive. Let us understand why it is so. In most  areas that change rapidly, like engineering and sciences, high quality education is only possible in institutes that have a strong focus on research. The reason is simple – without engagement in research, the faculty is likely to get outdated, leading to  its education becoming outdated. This correlation can be empirically observed as well – across the world the best places for technical education are also the Institutions that are ranked the highest in research.

With new pay scales of 7th pay commission, the direct overall cost per faculty will average more than Rs 20 Lac per year in Institutes like IITs.  As in such research focused institutions the student-to-faculty ratio may be about 10:1 or lesser for BTech students (the overall ratio will be much higher as such institutes have a high number of PG students who pay minimal fee).  This means, just to cover the cost of faculty, the fee will need to be about Rs 2 Lac per year per student. And in a research focused institution, as it has to invest in labs, library, travel support, PG programs, etc. the cost of faculty is around 1/3rd of the total expenditure. This means that the overall cost of education per BTech student is about Rs 6 Lac per year.

(It should be noted that in many private colleges which only focus on teaching, the costs are significantly lower. Their average cost per faculty is less than half of an IIT, the BTech student-faculty ratio is twice or more, and as they do not invest in research their faculty costs are two-thirds or more of the expenses. These translate to the cost per student of Rs 75K per year.)

The burning question of current times is who pays for this high cost of high quality higher education. A few decades ago, globally it was accepted that higher education is public good – i.e. it is in the interest of the society/nation to have people go for higher education and that the society will benefit from more people with higher education. With this understanding that higher education is public good, world over, including India, higher education was highly subsidized by the Government.

Today the scenario is different. Higher education is increasingly being seen as private good, i.e. the individuals who get higher education are the largest beneficiaries of it. This empirically also holds – people with higher education generally earn more, and people who get high quality education from top institutions often earn substantially more. If higher education is private good, then it  follows that the individual should pay its cost, at least most of it. Due to this, government subsidy for higher education has been reducing in many developed countries like US (where most state universities have seen a steady decline in government support), UK (where fee were raised substantially, despite hue and cry, a few years ago), Australia, etc.

This argument that quality higher education is a private good and hence should be paid for by the beneficiary is slowly coming to India also. But in India, as higher education is the ticket to individual upward mobility, it is imperative  that this opportunity is not denied to those who cannot afford to pay the cost. Therefore, there is a need for models for financing so as to ensure that access to higher education is available to all, yet the individuals who benefit the most pay for it, when possible. 

Clearly subsidy is not the answer for providing access, as it subsidizes costs for all, even for those who can easily afford it, from public funds. Also, as gross enrollment ratio increases, and the demands on Government funds increase for other public goods and services, it will become increasingly harder for the Government to afford or justify subsidy of higher education.

One possibility is that student pays, but easy access to education loans is available. Education loans are already widely available in India, and some Governments like the Delhi Government, have made the access to these loans even easier by becoming the guarantor for such loans.

However, education loans are still expensive and not all students can afford it, particularly if the job prospects after education are not very bright, as is often the case. Recently, my colleague and friend M. Balakrishnan and I wrote an opinion piece in Indian Express on an alternative to education loans for paying for the high cost which is fairer in many ways. In the proposed scheme, a part of the fee for the student is deferred, and the student pays for it after he/she graduates, with the condition that the payment is limited to some percentage of his/her salary for a few years. This innovative scheme reduces the need for loan, and converts it to payment which is done after the student is in employment and the amount is dependent on the paying capacity of the student.

There is still need in the country for schemes to ensure that access is not denied, while not subsidizing education for all. Towards this, there is a strong argument to support income-linked fee-waivers, in which students whose families can afford, pay the full fee, while partial fee waivers are given to students whose families cannot afford the high cost. (In US this approach is often referred to as “need blind” admissions.)  Implementing such schemes is becoming far more feasible now with better reporting and tracking of incomes and linking of assets with Aadhaar, PAN, etc

IIIT-Delhi has been operating such a scheme for many years. While the fee has been kept close to actual cost as the Institute has to become self-sustaining on operational expenses. for ensuring access to its high quality education, IIIT-Delhi has income-linked partial-fee waiver scheme which provides for 100%, 50%, and 25% waiver for students from families with different levels of income. Recently, the Government of Delhi has agreed to cover this subsidy, allowing the Institute to widen this program and continue it. This innovative model, now backed with Government support, provides a good balance between charging the real cost of education and ensuring access to all.

I believe there is need to evolve more innovative methods to ensure access to all, while minimizing subsidy where not needed.

 

Using Online Courses for Credit in Degree Programs

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Over the last few years, well known experts from top universities across the world have been offering online courses through platforms like Coursera and EdX. These courses clearly offer high quality instruction at very little (or  zero) cost. However, their use in providing quality education, particularly to students enrolled in some degree program, has been minimal in India. In this note, I am sharing some experience at IIIT-Delhi in how we leverage these for improving our education. I understand that IIIT-Delhi may be one of the few (only?) institutions in the country using these rich resource.

Online Courses for Credit

It became apparent to us that despite limitations in education in various institutions, students simple do not go and “learn from the best” using the free course – only a few dedicated students use them (and these are probably the ones that dont need much help anyway). It is now clear to most educationists that while enrolled in a degree programs, students are not able to go and use these courses for the sake of better learning, as they study largely for getting credits to count towards graduation.

The Academic Senate of IIIT-Delhi decided that the Institute must leverage the top-class courses being offered by globally renowned professors through these recognized platforms for augmenting our elective offerings, thereby making a wider variety of choices available to students for their elective courses. To enable this, the Senate added a provision for students to earn up to 8 credits  (equal to about 2 full load course) through approved online courses.

Interestingly, even after enabling regulation for earning credits, we did not find too many student takers. We realized that students were not able to plan suitably to incorporate these online courses in their program.

We then decided to structure this better and integrate it in our academic planning. This we did by identifying online courses that are being taught during our semester (i.e. those which started and ended within our semester), and then “offer” them to students like other regular courses of the Institute. That is, the students can register for them as part of their regular registration for the semester. We took inputs from students on which online courses to offer.

This worked. In previous two semesters we have offered 3 online courses each, and this semester we are offering about 8 courses. Courses vary from technology oriented to music appreciation. The enrollment in each course varies from a few to about 40.

Administering Online Courses

Administering online courses also required some thought. First, for assigning credits to an online course, we looked at the total estimated effort in each approved course and then assigned credits based on our internal guideline of how much effort is expected for a course. E.g. most 8-10 weeks duration courses are given 2 credits, as the estimated effort of about 50-60 hours is commensurate for the 2 credits course at IIIT-Delhi. Courses where the total effort is lesser than required, additional work in the form of case study or project was given. (A full course in IIIT-Delhi is for 4 credits, with an expected work load of about 10 hrs/week.)

A course in the Institute must have an Instructor, who is responsible for finally submitting the grades for the enrolled students. And it is the Instructor’s responsibility to ensure that Institute guidelines are being followed. For this, we did the following:

  • An Instructor is assigned for all the online courses being offered in the semester. For each course, an account is opened in the Learning Management System (we use a locally developed LMS – Backpack), through which announcements are made, and required submissions are done.
  • For each online course a TA is also assigned, who is required to enrol in the online course and do the course – this ensures that TA knows what is happening in the course, and can advise the instructor, and collect suitable data from the online course from enrolled students.
  • The TA connects with the enrolled students once every 2 weeks for a course to review progress of students. Each enrolled student submits a form to show that the student is “attending” lectures and doing the assignments. The TAs meet the Instructor regularly to brief about the progress of the courses.
  • For courses that do not have sufficient work, additional work (in form of case-study, assignment, project,…) may be assigned by the Instructor to ensure that there is sufficient load and learning for the credits.

Grading

The Senate decided that in these courses, as a full fledged assessment is not feasible, the grade will be S/X (satisfactory or unsatisfactory). Even for this, it was agreed that the Institute must do due diligence to ensure that students are learning.

With S or X grades, the problem of grading got simplified somewhat. For giving an S, the following criteria is used. A student gets an S grade if he/she: (1) has listened to all of the lectures, (ii) has done all the assignments, (iii) has taken all the exams and done well, (iv) has done any extra assignment assigned, and (v) when possible, get a certificate of completion from the online course (this will be useful for the student otherwise also).

To implement the above policy, the following is being done:

  • Attendance: This is checked by looking at record of student having submitted the non-graded quizzes given at the end of the lectures, or the in-lecture quizzes (or the “tick” that appears if a student attends a lecture). As this data is not always available, the student is also required to submit a short summary of the title of the lectures in each week, and a small description of what was covered.
  • Assignments : The online platform provides record of submission of assignments – this can be used. Students show the record of this to the TA.
  • Exams : The records for these are available from the online course – students are required to submit these to the TA.
  • Extra assignment: Easy to check as this is internal and outside the platform. Report or software or other form of deliverable is used to check.
  • Certificate: If a certificate of completion is provided by the online course, then the student has to submit it to the TA.

Experience So Far

Of the approximately 75 students who have completed these courses (another 100 are currently enrolled) only 1 has got an X grade. That is, not only have the rest completed the course, but have completed it reasonably well as ensured by the process described above. This is quite remarkable when compared to the completion rates generally published for such courses (less than 15%); even for paid courses/certificates the completion rates are significantly lesser.

The student feedback in these courses is positive and a vast majority feel that the course was “very useful” (score of 4 out of 5), and most felt that the course gave them an experience similar to or better than a regular course.

Students are quite excited about the possibility of doing these courses for credits as part of their program as it allows them a whole range of courses that are otherwise not available to them. We are also seeing a growth of non-discipline courses, which students take as “open elective” credits.

Some Challenges

The main challenge currently is that as we are offering these courses as part of our offerings for a semester, the online courses must be contained within the semester. I.e. the start date and end date should be within (approximately – we can adjust a little) the semester’s start and end date. This limits the set of courses that can be offered. The model of allowing a cohort to start a course as and when desired, and end after the specified duration, and still have all the assignments and assessments available, can relieve this. Similarly, self-paced courses, provided they have all the assignments and tests, can also relieve this problem.

We have found that to check our criteria for grading, records provided by the online courses often fall short. The focus of the course providers seem to be on certification – and efforts are being made to make them reliable. However, for use within schemes like ours, more than certification, some other records to capture students’ progress can be very helpful. I think they can be very easily incorporated in the platforms.  In particular, good records of students’ attendance can help (e.g. whether the student fully saw the lecture, how much time the student spent on each lecture,…). Improved records for assignments and tests/exams will also help. Finally, suggestions for assignments or projects for further/higher/enhanced learning can also help Institutes like ours, and students who want to go beyond the minimum.

 

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