Thursday, May 26, 2011

Rajeev Motwani Building

IIT Kanpur announces the construction of Rajeev Motwani Building, which will house Computer Science and Engineering Department. The foundation laying ceremony will take place on May 28th at 8:00 AM in the presence of members of Rajeev Motwani family. You can read more about Rajeev Motwani Building on the project webpage.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Prof. Balaram to be Chief Guest at the Convocation

IIT Kanpur will be holding its next convocation on Saturday, 28th May, 2011. Prof. Balaram, Director of Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, will be the Chief Guest. He is our own alumnus, and is a Distinguished Alumnus Awardee of IIT Kanpur. This is the second time an IIT Kanpur alumnus will be the Chief Guest at its convocation. Jeet Bindra, another IIT Kanpur Distinguished Alumnus Awardee, was the Chief Guest at 2009 convocation.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

New Chaired Professors at IITK

Here is an email from Dean, Faculty Affairs:


The Institute is very happy to announce the following Chair Professor Appointments. These appointments are effective for a period of three years with effect from May 10, 2011.

  1. Prof. D. Kunzru: Chevron Corporation Chair
  2. Prof. S. Verma: Sri Deva Raj Chair
  3. Prof. R. K. Thareja: Gireesh Jankinath Chair
  4. Prof. K. Deb: Dr. Gurmukh D Mehta and Veena M Mehta Chair
  5. Prof. S. Ganesh: Joy Gill Chair
  6. Prof. S. P. Mehrotra: Umang Gupta Chair
  7. Prof. T. K. Sengupta: Pandit Ramchandra Dwivedi Chair
  8. Prof. D. Chowdhury: Dr. Jagmohan Chair
  9. Prof. M. Katiyar: SBI Chair
  10. Prof. O. Dikshit: Prof. B. B. Lal Chair
  11. Prof. G. Deo: Indian Oil Corporation Chair
  12. Prof. J. N. Moorthy: Lalit M Kapoor Chair
  13. Prof. A. Joshi: Pradip Sindhu Chair
  14. Prof. A. K. Sinha: Prof. S. Sampath Chair
  15. Prof. R. N. Mukherjee: Poonam and Prabhu Goel Chair


Finally, more than a year after the nominations were sought, the decision has been taken. Congratulations to all those who have been selected.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Summer courses at IITK

Come summer, and we are confused. Every year, we will argue whether summer courses offered at IIT Kanpur are same as the courses offered during the regular semester, with the same amount of rigor. Or are they "easy" courses designed to help the backloggers with an easy grade. And, of course, nobody will directly agree that the courses are easier. But, if they are same, then why can't someone who has not failed in that course, register for that course.

Some people will offer a weak defense. Only those people who have gone through a course once can go through a compressed version of the course. Instead of 3 lectures a week in the regular semester, we have 5 lectures a week in summer. So the pace is higher. Give me a break. Do you really believe that someone who never attended a class in the regular semester (that is the only way to fail in IITK) can adjust with the pace of the summer course, while someone who has routinely been getting B and C grades cannot. And if the pace of the course is really the critical issue, why does the Institute allow someone who failed in psychology course to register for a sociology course. But someone who passed the psychology course, is not allowed to register for the sociology course.

The other issue with the summer courses is that they are supposed to be optional for both students and faculty. But ask any backlogger. They are desperate to do something in summer. They are not very excited about spending an extra semester at IIT Kanpur. So, it may be optional for them, but they want to do them. Since it is optional for faculty, the course offering in summer is very limited. Only a few faculty members want to help out the backloggers, by staying put for the whole summer, and teach a lecture every day in such hot weather. Therefore, the weaker students do not often get the courses that they need to clear their backlogs.

In fact, the two issues are linked. Since very few faculty members teach in summer, the Institute wants to make sure that only the weak students with backlogs should register for those courses. Allowing good students in even some courses would mean that they may demand to be allowed in all courses. Hence all good students have to be barred from all summer courses. And a course with only weak students will invariably have lower standards, since the grading is still relative.

If we encourage faculty members to teach courses in the summer, either by having a good honorarium associated with such courses, or by encouraging departments to have policies whereby the summer courses by faculty is counted towards their teaching load for the academic year, and once we have many courses being offered, we could open them up for good students as well.

This will allow good students to do courses which they are unable to do in regular semesters due to scheduling conflicts. They can also then take it easy in the regular semester, if they are involved in some projects, or some major extra-curricular activities like organizing a student festival. And this will also ensure that faculty members don't have to give dishonest answers to questions about summer term.

So we should allow all students to stay back in the summer and register for summer courses. And if that results in early graduation for some good students, all power to them.


Thursday, May 5, 2011

Large classes or Small ones

There is a debate going on in IIT campus about the teaching model that IITK should follow. The debate has been ignited by the need of building additional lecture halls to handle the large batches that we have been admitting after the OBC reservation and the consequent 54 percent increase in the number of seats. Should we build a large lecture hall of 1000 capacity, or assume that the batch will be divided into two, and hence largest lecture halls should be about 500 capacity, or should we go for even smaller classes.

IIT Kanpur from early days has been following a model of "large" classes in conjunction with tutorials. A tutorial was a place where a group of 25-30 students would meet a tutor and discuss problems, which could not be clarified in the large class. The class size typically was between 200 and 250, till the mid 90s, when the government forced us to double the intake to over 500.

We had hoped that we wouldn't have to do this. The pressure had started building on us around 1992, and we kept resisting for 3-4 years, before we cave in, and as a result, we were totally unprepared for the hike, and we had to resort to things like 3 students to a room in the hostel, and even large classes, etc.

I believe that at that time, we had gone for a slower increase, and doubled over a longer period of time, we probably would have stayed with the maximum class size of no more than 300. There were enough opportunities to recruit faculty at that time. But because we had to increase in a hurry, and we had large lecture halls available, we just increased the class size to 500+, without much debate on whether the "large class, small tutorial" model was scalable to this size of class.

We did a few things like closed two exits of the largest lecture hall and put up more chairs to accommodate the larger class (and now we have only 4 exits for a lecture hall of 525 capacity - a serious fire hazard in my opinion). We increased the maximum size of tutorial sections from 30 to 35. We started using graduate students for tutorials (which was good, except that there is no training for these students, and even if they do a poor job, the departments are not concerned and their assistantship cannot be stopped).

When the batch-size went up from 500+ to 800+, again this happened in a hurry - in a short period of 3 years. But the difference this time was that we did not have a single classroom of 800+. Otherwise, we would have started teaching classes of 800+, and today, we would have been near unanimous in demanding just one more 800 size lecture hall.

We have done the next best (or worst) thing. We have divided the incoming batch into two - 500+ and 300+, with one set of students taught in the largest lecture hall, and the second set of students being taught in the next largest lecture hall. And now the question is whether we should build a new lecture hall of capacity 800+ (or 1000 to take into account any further increase in the next few years) so that the entire batch can attend the lecture together, or should we build another 500+ lecture hall so that we can have two equal divisions of the batch, rather than unequal division.

Unfortunately, the debate has focused primarily on availability of faculty and the technical feasibility of a student watching the instructor from the last row. There is hardly anyone talking about the quality of education. Most people who have taught a 500-size class (and I attended every lecture of one such class last semester) would admit that this is not the right model for quality education. Even in the Faculty Forum meeting, everyone who supported large classes supported it exclusively on the basis that there is a shortage of faculty. Not even one faculty member from science departments (who teach maximum number of core courses) said that we can have quality education with 800-900 students in the class. But anyone who talked about quality of education (like myself) was termed as "impractical idealist," and shut out from the debate. So the debate remains between a class size of 500 versus a class size of 1000. You can't suggest a class size of 250 or 300 in such an atmosphere.

Come to think of it. If there is a student sitting in the last row. She cannot see the black board directly. Cannot look at the instructor. Instructor cannot look at her. And she is basically looking at a screen near her seat, and she probably has a device which can let the instructor know that she has a question. What is the difference between that screen being in the lecture hall, versus that screen being in another lecture hall, or be the same as PC screen in her hostel room. If the instructor and the student cannot see each other, there is no eye contact, then they might as well be in different geographies. Beyond 500, the only logic for large audience is when there is a performance, and you soak in the experience of being there. Yes, there are some faculty members capable of giving that performance 3 times a week, week after week. But I am afraid there are not too many of them, and we can't plan our education model on the assumption that there will be enough of these types, and they will be the ones who will teach such courses semester after semester.

My own feeling (after attending the 500-size class for the whole semester and talking to a few instructors who have taught a 500-size class) is that even 500 is too much. We need to think of restoring the maximum class size to around 250.

So, we should go back to the drawing board, with the assumption that the batch size will be 1000, which will be divided into 4 parts for core courses. With these assumptions, we should plan the requirements of all lecture halls and tutorial rooms.

I don't blame those who are suggesting a class size of 500+ on the basis of faculty shortage. They have seen the faculty to student ratio deteriorate from 1:8 a couple of decades ago to 1:14 now, and do not have any hope of arresting this trend. The difference between them and me is that I think it is possible to not just arrest but reverse this trend, even in the environment of increasing faculty shortage in the country. I have seen in some other institutes how a few small changes and a bit of leadership has changed the faculty profile in a relatively short period of time.

I believe that we are currently not focused enough on faculty recruitment. We are not aggressive enough. In my 17 years at IITK, I have never had any Dean of Faculty Affairs come up with a document which says, why are we not attracting enough faculty, and what do we need to do to attract more and retain them. I am sure, if today we had 400 faculty members instead of 350, we would not be thinking of 500+ class sizes, and I also believe that going from 350 to 400 can be achieved in 1-2 years, if we focus on this.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

A PhD Student Dies While Giving the End-Semester Exam

Here is the official communique from Director's office:


Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur deeply regrets to inform that Mr. Varun Mishra, a student of Doctoral programme in the Department of Material Science & Engineering passed away at approximately 2:30 p.m. on May 2, 2011. Mr. Varun Mishra complained of severe chest pain while he was giving an examination in the Lecture Hall complex. He was immediately rushed to the Health Centre of IIT Kanpur. However, the doctors noticed that Mr. Varun Mishra, upon his arrival at Health Centre, had passed away.

The Institute has informed the local police authorities as well as the family members of the student. From the friends and teachers of Mr. Varun Mishra, it appears that Mr. Varun Mishra was suffering from High Blood Pressure and mild asthmatic condition. Mr. Varun Mishra completed his M. Tech in Material Science Programme of IIT Kanpur in the year 2008. After working for some time, he joined the Doctoral programme in Material Science & Engineering Department in December 2010.

Mr. Varun Mishra was a friendly person and a scholastic student. His family is from Deoria, Uttar Pradesh.