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.

1 comment:

  1. One "advantage" (for students) of large lecture halls is that dozing-off poses no risk of getting caught. Though I'm sure this doesn't figure in your debates :-D