Monday, December 22, 2014

Should we send PhD thesis for examination outside India

The Senate of IIT Kanpur does not require that a PhD thesis be sent to an examiner outside India, and Senate even allows PhD examiners to be from within IIT Kanpur (at least one has to be from outside Kanpur). But any PhD supervisor who has tried to give a list of examiners where there were no foreign ones, would be explicitly asked to give some foreign names. If any PhD supervisor gave a name from within IITK, those names will not be approved. It would seem that the country and the campus does not have enough talent to review PhD theses in any area.

The normal process at IIT Kanpur is that the supervisor gives five names from within India (but outside IITK), and five names from outside India. These two lists are ordered by Chairman, Senate, and DOAA office is supposed to contact two foreign examiners and one Indian examiner from those ordered lists. But what if many of the foreign examiners refuse to examine. Earlier, we used to ask the supervisor to give another list of foreign examiners. But now, we just switch to the Indian list, and ask for more examiners only if both the lists get exhausted. This has speeded up the process of getting thesis reviews, and more theses are going to Indian examiners than before.

The feeling in the faculty is that we should stay with foreign examiners as they do a better job of reviewing. I think there is no difference in professionalism in the two groups. Particularly, when we have no guidelines on who can be a thesis examiner. Is it alright for the thesis of one student to be sent to the previous student. Will s/he not be influenced by past relationship not just with the supervisor but also the student. In the absence of any such guideline, the talk of foreign examiners being more professional is plain nonsense. Many other IITs have guidelines to manage such conflicts of interest, which we do not. For example, many IITs restrict co-authors of supervisor or student from being on the list. Since the chances are that the supervisor would have had at least one co-authored paper with a previous student or his/her own supervisor, they can not examine PhD thesis of another student. Also, some IITs ensure that a person who has been sent one thesis will not be sent another thesis within a year. At IITK, we have seen examples of an external examiner getting 4-5 theses in a year.

It will be better if IIT Kanpur also adopts such guidelines and restrictions on PhD examiners but allow these examiners to be from within India and even within IITK. We are the only institution that requires two thesis reviews from outside the country, and I don't believe that that is the prime reason for our high quality PhD program.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

IITK gets 400th faculty member

The Dean of Faculty Affairs announced yesterday that IIT Kanpur has reached a faculty strength of 400 for the first time in its history. These included 375 regular faculty members, 14 emeritus (retired faculty members who have been re-employed), and 11 visiting faculty members (only those counted who are on campus for the entire semester).

This is truly remarkable growth in faculty in the last two years (since Prof. Manindra Agarwal became DOFA). If we look at IITK faculty strength before that, and let us consider only full time regular faculty members, we had gone from about 300 to about 350 over a period of 30-35 years. But wait a minute. Even this increase has not been because of the efforts of the institute or Deans or Heads. We were recruiting people at the rate of attrition all along. And this increase happened primarily because the retirement age went up from 60 to 62 and then to 65 years. Also, some increase happened in a few new disciplines that we started recruiting in, including, Bio-Sciences, Management, Economics, etc. So, if looked at the faculty strength in disciplines which existed 30 years ago, and only count faculty members up to the age of 60 years, there would be absolutely no increase at all in the faculty strength.

With that backdrop, a net increase of 25+ faculty members within a short span of 2 years is a fantastic achievement, and while departments have played an important role in this, but the role of Dean of Faculty Affairs has really been to push all the departments, provide early responses and follow up, organize selection committees at short notices, and all that.

In the past, the office of Dean of Faculty Affairs has been considered a place which only handles routine administrative tasks related to faculty, like approving leave. Faculty recruitment and retention was never on DOFA's agenda, except handling the process of organizing selection committees. This has changed now.

Having said that, I think the faculty recruitment is still not the top agenda in many departments. I keep hearing complaints about lack of responses. We are still not being aggressive enough. When faculty members go to foreign universities or go for attending conferences, not many make a presentation to senior PhD students, just to give an example. Faculty recruitment can not be an agenda of DOFA and a few Heads. It has to be everyone's agenda for IITK to march towards excellence.

The last two years have also seen restarting of the practice of re-employment of retired faculty, which has contributed to 14 faculty members in yesterday's announcement. There is an increase in visiting appointments also, but this component, while doing better than in the past, is far from what the potential is. I think we need to improve our offers for visiting. For regular faculty, we are amongst the highest paying institute in the country, and while most faculty members wouldn't join us for a small increase in the salary, but it does make a difference in cases where the prospective faculty has two offers, and is unable to make up his/her mind between the two. We need to come up with a similar attractive offers for visiting faculty.

I hope with the increased faculty strength, it would be possible to become more flexible with student intake on minor/major courses and open electives, and truly provide the flexibility to students in designing their own degree programs that the new Academic program has envisaged.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Direct PhD after BTech

A few months ago, we computed an interesting statistics. What is the median time taken to complete PhD by students of different academic backgrounds. We divided students into three buckets - those who had joined after BTech (that is, four years of college), those who had joined after MSc/MA/MCom, etc., (that is, five years of college), and those who had joined after MTech (that is, six years of college). The time taken was defined as the time from first registration to submission of thesis.

We were surprised by the results. All three categories of students had a median completion time of 5 years and six months (across all disciplines - students after 5 years of college are common in sciences, humanities, and management, and students after 4/6 years of college are common in engineering).

To put the result in perspective, we used to have a requirement of minimum 10 courses for BTech graduates, 6 course for MSc graduates and 4 courses for MTech graduates. Now, if we look at the BTech and MTech students, who both are mostly getting admitted in engineering departments, a BTech graduate is doing 3 semester course work and 4 years of research and writing thesis, while an MTech graduate is doing 1 semester course work and 5 years of research and writing thesis. So an MTech graduate is taking one extra year of research even though s/he already has experience of conducting research, has already written one thesis, and in many cases had a publication.

We don't fully understand the reasons behind this, though my own guess is that the duration is based on the expectation of students and faculty members. There is perhaps an expectation that PhD shall take 5-6 years irrespective of the academic background, and irrespective of the number of courses, etc. The hope is that it is something else. May be it is because BTech graduates are younger, and work longer hours. May be BTech graduates join at an age that they can complete their PhD, join a job and then worry about marriage and family, while MTech graduates are two years older on an average when they join the PhD program and are more likely to marry and have family during the PhD, which will provide some bit of distraction.

Whatever it may be, it is quite clear that it is in the interest of BTech students to go for PhD directly, as they save 2 years. The only issue in the past has been the long commitment of 5-6 years. It is difficult to make that commitment without understanding what you are getting into.

IIT Kanpur has made it easier for BTech students to make that commitment. It is possible to leave the PhD program in between with an MTech degree if you lose motivation or for whatever reason, you wish to leave the program in-between.

Another issue that we used to face earlier in our PhD recruitment was that many good students did not give GATE which was a requirement for getting financial assistantship. A few years ago, MHRD allowed that we could pay from government funds, a stipend to graduates of IITs even if they did not have a GATE score. Recently, the IIT Council has decided that IITs can pay stipend to graduates of ANY Centrally Funded Technical Institute, even if they do not have a GATE score. CFTIs include NITs, IIITs, and a few other institutes (and of course, include IITs).

The last problem with PhD recruitment was that students would get a job in December, while we will call them for interview in May, and by then they have already committed to join this job, the families are looking forward to a gift from the first salary, they have asked their friends to find an apartment in that city, and so on. After so much of mental commitment to join the job, it is extremely difficult for them to apply for PhD, then come for an interview, and if selected, give up that job.

We are solving this problem by seeking applications now, in October/November, and holding the interviews in December. We will make the offer within a few days of the interview for you to join in July, 2015. (In fact, if your exams get over early, feel free to join in May itself, why waste time, and why not start getting a stipend early.)

So here is the deal:

If you are from a CFTI, and a final year student with a CPI/CGPA of at least 7.5 (in case of BTech) and at least 7.0 (in case of Integrated MSc), and are going to graduate in summer 2015, please apply for PhD admission to IIT Kanpur now. Since this is the first time we are doing it, only a few departments are taking part in this round of admission. These are: Computer Science and Engineering, Material Science and Engineering, Biological Sciences and Bio-Engineering, and Chemistry. If you wish to apply to another department, send an email to them, may be they would have changed their mind too, or would change their mind by looking at your excellent application.

If you are not from a CFTI, and you already have a GATE score, feel free to apply now.
If you are not from a CFTI and are giving GATE in winter, apply to us as soon as the GATE result is out.

For more information on direct PhD after BTech for CFTI final year students, please visit this link.

For admission to Computer Science and Engineering Department, please visit this link.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Review of Academic Programs Review

As we all know, the Institute has had a tradition of reviewing all under-graduate programs and associated academic processes every 10 years. In 2008, the Institute set up an Academic Programs Review Committee, which was to review, for the first time, both UG and PG programs. The new programs for under-graduate students have been implemented from July, 2011. In this blog we look at the changes brought in and review them.

The review's biggest boast has been that it allows students unprecedented flexibility. We now have minor programs (3 regular courses typically), double major (about 10 courses), and dual-degree (the PG degree is not just in the same discipline as the UG degree but can be in any other discipline). We also have a new program called BTech in Engineering Science, which is available in two variants, both sort of inter-disciplinary programs. We have a large number of Open Electives which can be used to tailor one's degree based on one's interest and can also be used to take up courses that will lead up to minor, double major and dual-degree.

What is the reality. Unfortunately, the reality is rather grim.

It was envisaged by the authors of the report that the courses constituting minor program would be open to a large number of students (at least 165+ students will be allowed in each such course). Even if someone did not want to complete a minor, these courses would have enough capacity that students would be able to take these courses for their open electives. Unfortunately, the committee did not look at the earlier variants of minor, and why they failed. In an institute where teaching a larger class counts for nothing, why would anyone want to teach a larger class (except when it is forced like the core courses). Teaching larger class gives less time to faculty for research (the only metric for all promotions, awards, chairs, and lately even administrative positions). Teaching large classes invariably leads to poorer teaching evaluations. (If we look at the statistics of student reaction survey, the average of larger classes is less than the average of smaller classes.) From the department perspective, a larger class means many more TAs and tutors, who could have been deployed for core department courses. So a large class of outside the department students impacts its own core classes. And then saying that every minor course should allow 165 students made no sense, since it meant that EE department who would have about 150 of their own students only had to allow 15 non-EE students, while the Physics would have to allow 135 of other students, besides just 30 of their own students.

So the departments protested, and made sure that only a small number of students are able to take a minor program in their discipline. Ideally, there should have been some kind of incentive mechanism to the department to teach as many non-department students as possible. Since the numbers are very small, it was no longer possible to just let the students take minor courses and apply for the minor at the time of graduation. We now expect the departments to have a system of "admission" to the minor program. The OARS will mention who are enrolled in minor so that the students can be allowed to register for the minor courses. This has made administration of minor a difficult affair. Also, minors are only within a department. Earlier, it was envisaged that there will be minors consisting of courses from more than 1 department, but that has not happened. Also, 3 courses for a minor is just too few to really appreciate that discipline, and has ensured that we don't have multi-disciplinary minors. But given that we all want to minimize our teaching load, almost all minors are of 3 courses only.

The double major is even worse. In the first two batches, the students started doing double major only in the 6th semester, which is very late. Unless the student had enrolled in a minor and has done some basic courses of the second major, it is almost impossible to complete all those 10 courses within two extra semesters, even after using the open elective slots for some of them. And mind you, we are only talking about a secondary major and not a second degree. I think if we plan things well, it should be possible to do two under-graduate degrees in 5 years. But what could have been the most popular level of flexibility, is not even on offer. The rules of double major are so complex that anyone who reads them will never even apply. And the CPI limit of 8.0 for entry into double major makes no sense. We allow students with as low as 6.0 CPI (in special cases) to go for dual-degree. So what are we saying. That someone with a CPI of 6.0 or 6.5 is quite capable of doing PG level courses of the other department. However, such a student is not capable of doing even the basic UG level courses of the other department. No wonder we have only 14 students out of about 820 in the 2012 batch taking this option. (9 of them for Computer Science.)

The case of Engineering Science is really pathetic. In the first three years (2011, 2012 and 2013 batches) in which it has been offered, only ONE student has moved to BTech in Engineering Science, that too in 2011 batch. None in 2012 or 2013. There is no champion for this program. A whole lot of faculty members had suggested that an inter-disciplinary program at the under-graduate level would be a big hit with the students. But none of them are really keen on motivating students to do this program. There is no commitment to offer courses, to help in placement, and other such things. The sad situation of this program has ended one of an interesting experiment in admission process. Had this program been a success, it would have been possible to start several more programs where the admission is after one year through a branch change process. For example, the proposed under-graduate program of the Earth Science department could have admitted students after 1st year, and this would have been a great step forward in terms of deciding the programs for the students after one year. But alas, the program has died even before it was young. We should ensure that this program is not on the rule book at all.

An alternative Engineering Science program could have been an exit option for academically weak students who could have been given this degree after completing a bunch of engineering and science courses instead of terminating their programs, something similar to the UG Diploma of IIT Delhi.

The dual degree programs where the PG degree is in a different discipline than the UG degree are in a mess. (The others too have problems, but at least the problems there is that the committee has not tried to solve any of the dual-degree problems. They have not created many more problems.) What is the graduation requirement for these programs, there is no philosophy for deciding the graduation requirements of such programs. In case of PG degree being in sciences or economics, we do not even know what degree will be given. Will it be "Master of Science." If yes, is the requirement of 2 year MSc anywhere close to requirement of this Master of Science degree. If it is a different degree as many faculty members have claimed and the graduation requirements are significantly less, then is it really comparable to a master's degree. Will students be able to join PhD program in any place outside IIT Kanpur.

An obvious way to specify the graduation requirements would have been to say that a dual-degree would be given if the student completes the graduation requirements for both the degrees and certain credits (like open electives) could be counted towards both the degrees. Or some specified credits could be waived for dual-degree programs. But we don't do obvious things. We have this fascination with templates. Every program has a template and every template has to be such that a dual degree can be completed in 5 years, at least theoretically. If this is becoming difficult, let us reduce the courses even further. Five years is sacrosanct, not credits. But we will claim to be running a credit based system.

If one asks anyone related to administration of existing dual-degree programs, one complaint that you would hear from everyone is that having two roll numbers was an absolute brain dead idea, which is single most pain point for everyone involved - students, DUGC/SUGC, DOAA office, OARS, and so on. And guess what do we have for the new dual-degree programs - yes, you guessed it right, we will continue to have two roll numbers. Not only that, the implementation committee has mandated that the PG roll number should encode the department and the program. Talk about progress. And of course, the PG roll number can be allocated only after 7 semesters are over and they have passed most of the UG credits. But they are supposed to do PG credits even earlier when they did not have PG roll number. And during the pre-registration of 8th semester, they can't have PG roll number, but they have to register for PG credits. The APRC has made sure that as a Dean of Academic Affairs, I am always busy in solving non-issues.

The last component of "designing your own degree" was a large number of electives. In particular, Open Electives, which you were supposed to take from across all the departments depending upon your interest. But as we discussed above, most faculty members are not keen on teaching larger classes than absolutely necessary. So most will reject non-department students on flimsy grounds. Or better still, won't even offer a course which does not have multiple department courses as pre-requisites. So most students end up doing more department courses under the OE slots - no broadening of horizons envisaged by APRC. The department which allows a large number of non-department students in its courses as Open Elective is IME. A large number of students do MBA courses. And we all keep wondering why students are not interested in engineering. If we don't even offer interesting engineering electives and they only find interesting electives from MBA, what are they going to do in future.

The new curriculum has 5 HSS courses as opposed to 4 earlier. However, the HSS faculty continues to be overloaded with teaching duties. Number of students taught per faculty is the highest for HSS department, and as a result the flexibility of getting HSS courses of one's choice has further reduced.

Having all admissions to 4-year program is a good idea as it does not force students to decide about the post-graduate degree right in the 12th class when they have no idea of even under-graduate program. However, it would have been better if this was accompanied by departments trying to attract students to the dual-degree programs. To the best of my knowledge, there have been no attempts made by various departments to talk to the students and convince them to do the second degree. Now that the placements are quite good for the dual-degree students, I am sure we will continue to see interest in such programs, but one poor placement year, and you would lose all students from the program. And these dual-degree students could have been an excellent resource for TAs and Tutors in various core courses, further improving our teaching.

The other problem with 4-year programs is that we have made no attempt to sensitize others in the country about our BS programs in sciences and economics. This would seriously create problems for the graduates of these programs if they do not migrate to dual-degree or double major.

Another kind of flexibility was introduced through modular courses, courses that would last only half the semester. However, there are hardly any courses in this category. Modular courses would have been great for a faculty member to voluntarily teach a new topic to a few students, may be just 2 hours a week for 7 weeks, but given that teaching is no longer given the same credit during the promotion, awards, etc., this has not happened. We could have brought in visiting faculty, who would find it easier to come in for 2 months rather than 4 months, and offer modular courses, but that has not happened. One reason is that even 2 months is too long for some of the visitors, and of course, we have not really looked at visiting faculty option seriously. The modular courses fit into summer term so perfectly, but there is always a confusion about who is eligible to do what in the summer.

One shortcoming of the modular courses has been that it requires you to teach over 2 months. I could get a course approved for 1 hour a week for 7 weeks as a modular course, that is, the smallest modular course could be just 7 lecture hours. Now, why can't we have a visitor for a week, and deliver 7 lecture hours during the week. It would be so much more interesting. We could permit some such credits on pass/fail mode so that the visitor is not burdened with the issue of grading, etc. Also, we need to make sure that such courses can be floated with short notice and that such courses can be added to the registration of the student even in the middle of the semester. But nothing of this sort is allowed.

As a result of all this, there is very little flexibility that a student can exercise and enjoy during his/her program. The concept of "designing your own degree" has remained on paper.

There are several other issues too with the new program.

If we look at the examinations, we have moved from two mid-semester exams to a single mid-semester exam. This has destroyed whatever little of the continuous evaluation we were left with. The number of courses which have quizzes in the first half and the second half of the semester is minuscule. The number of courses which have the end-sem weight of 50 percent or even higher has increased tremendously, and with that the stress levels of the students have gone up too. The number of requests for not having two exams on the same day or one exam in the afternoon and the next exam in the morning of the following day has increased tremendously. There was really no reason to migrate from 2 exams to 1 exam during the semester.

The APEC rules (for warning, probation and termination) made absolutely no sense, and have already been changed multiple times, and now we have different rules for different batches. Hopefully, the latest rules will provide stability.

The students getting above 8.5 CPI will be awarded distinction. Is it really needed. Don't the companies and all other stake holders already know that 8.5 is higher than 8.0. I am sure everyone looking at our transcripts know this much of mathematics to compare two numbers, and no purpose is served by saying that a student will be awarded "Distinction" beyond a certain CPI. It would have been so much better to offer such a distinction (or rather an honors degree) on completion of additional credits at a good academic standing, something what many other IITs do.

One of the most serious problem in the new program structure is that the graduation requirements do not mention a minimum CPI. The Committee was able to convince Senate that this is what a credit system is - you pass certain credits and you get a degree. The fact of the matter is that no good institute (except now, IIT Bombay) will give a degree on passing all courses. Most universities would want you to not just pass courses but also maintain a C average (6.0). In our case, the minimum of 5.0 had worked very well in the last 50 years, and there was really no need to change. This clause alone has caused serious degradation of academic standards as now many students are ok with getting D grades in the courses. When students are happy with a lower grade, in a relative grading system, every one can get the same grade with lower effort, and that is not good for the system. If we design a system which allows students to get away with doing very little, we should not be surprised that students do get away with very little. Instead of criticizing the students for gaming the system, we should look inwards and see if we deliberately designed the system to encourage gaming.

Overall, the new program launched in 2011 has caused more problems than it has solved, so much so, that the right thing to do will be to roll back and then think of a fresh set of small incremental changes rather than the wholesale changes that have been introduced without a real understanding of what will work and what will not.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Dropping Courses Late in the Semester

 In 2007, I took a proposal to Senate of IIT Kanpur. This was to allow students (only UG students at that time, PG happened a year later) to drop a course for any reason whatsoever till the middle of the semester. (Up to two weeks after the first mid-sem. We had two mid-semester exams in those days.) The idea was that students could not judge how much load a course would be in the first week of the semester, and hence need time to take a decision on drop. Also, situations change. Someone might have some medical issues. Someone might get too involved in extra-curricular activities. Someone might have a stress due to a relationship issue or a family issue. We must support students through all this, and the least we could do was to allow a course drop to the student. It was clear in the proposal that the instructors would have very limited right to say no to the drop, and they could refuse only if dropping the course would cause a problem in the conduct of the course. A specific example was given: If there are group projects in the course, and one member of one group wants to drop out, it could affect grading of that group and it may not be possible to reorganize groups and projects. The DUGC role in all this was to counsel the student, for example, if the course is pre-requisite to future courses, this could be pointed to by the DUGC Convener. So the word used in the proposal and in the Senate minutes was "endorsement" and not "permission." Instructor and DUGC Convener were only to "endorse" the application.

Students were obviously happy. Any flexibility is good from their perspective. And the Academic Program Review Committee proposed to keep this flexibility even after the two mid-sems were merged into one mid-semester exam. And since the exam papers were now 2-hours instead of 1-hour and hence grading would take more time, the deadline for drop was extended from 2-weeks after 1st mid-sem to 3-weeks after the only mid-sem exam.

The number of students who have been seeking to drop courses has been on the rise throughout these 7 years. And this increase has got the faculty worried. We hear all sorts of horror stories - courses which have lost 50 percent of their students, DUGC Conveners who have signed several hundred approvals for dropping of courses, all students in certain departments dropping courses and completing their degrees late, and so on. Whenever any such claim is made, I try to check the data in DOAA office, and of course, what I see is not the same as what was claimed.

After all, the total number of drops after the first week of the semester is roughly 4 percent of total registration. Out of which a substantial contribution is of those who have decided to leave the Institute or take a semester drop. I am sure faculty has no objection to such drops. Then there are students who are weak and want to reduce their load from the normal load. This too should be ok. The problematic case is when student took overload initially and then later drops the course. This is being seen as gaming the system. I am told that faculty members feel demoralized when someone of this type drops the course, since they take it as a reflection of their teaching abilities. Some faculty members also see this as an additional teaching burden, which has gone waste.

Really??? Such drops form between 1 and 2 percent of total course registration. Surely, in some courses this number could be 5 to 10 percent. (Of course, in some courses with just one student, it will be 100 percent, if that student decides to drop. But let us talk about courses with at least 20-30 students.) Should a faculty member feel demoralized because 1-2 percent students have decided to drop the course. Should we really think of this additional 1-2 percent extra workload (in which we only graded one exam, the end-sem is not done yet) as such a serious overhead that we need to penalize the students.

We are hearing of all sorts of penalties. There may be a drop fee. The drop may be mentioned on the students' transcripts. And so on.

Why do faculty members think like this. In my opinion, it is because the credit based system is still not part of our DNA. We would like to control and dictate what students should do each semester. (The Senate/SUGC have created templates of all programs and combinations of programs - and some faculty members would want them to be mandatory for the students to follow.) When we talk about flexibility, it is only that a faculty member as an academic administrator should be able to accept/reject applications of students on a case-to-case basis. But students should be able to take their own decisions - this is too much flexibility.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Only two in top 100

So one more year of disappointment. Out of top 100 JEE rankers, only two have joined IIT Kanpur. For someone belonging to the era where more than 50 joined IIT Kanpur, this is shocking, but it has been this way for a few years. And last year it was actually zero out of 100.

Every year, after the JEE statistics are known, we have a discussion on the faculty mailing list. Some people will express shock while a majority would consider this insignificant.

Some would say that it is more important to attract good PG students than to attract good UG students. Alright, but are we attracting good PG students compared to those IITs who are attracting higher JEE rankers. I think there is a correlation between the two, since attracting students is a function of our perception in the marketplace. If students perceive us as good they will come, otherwise not. And hence it is necessary to worry why this negative perception about IITK. Also, do we have to attract either good PG students or good UG students. Can't we attract both. Shouldn't we attract both.

Then some fatalists would say that we can't compete with metro IITs. Students today are looking for something that only metro cities can provide. What is it that these students are looking for. It seems that when students graduate from here, most of them are pretty happy with their stay here and seem to genuinely believe that they got everything that their friends in metro IITs got and then some more. Can we not leverage this good feelings to attract top rankers in both JEE and GATE.

Some will argue that we can't compete with metro IITs in placement and that is all that students look for at admission time. Unfortunately, these faculty members do not even know our own strengths, and are giving up too soon. Our placements are actually comparable to other IITs, and in certain perspectives, even better.

Some would argue that there isn't much difference between top 100 and the next 100. Lets accept that, but then are we attracting the next 100. Are they coming to IITK because they found something great about IITK. Or did they come to IITK because they couldn't get into other IITs. Shouldn't IITK be bothered if in each of its program/discipline, students prefer 2 or 3 other IITs before IITK.

Some would argue that we should just do our job well, and not worry about perceptions. Good argument that. It is, of course, yet another debate on whether we are doing our job well. Whether the flexibility that our UG programs has on paper is for real. What percentage of our students are able to complete even minors, not to talk about second major, just to give one example. How many faculty members agree to let students from all departments to register in their courses. The add/drop period is on right now, and the number of queries I get from students asking me how to get any course in the Open Elective slot is not a small number. Of course, these are problems across the IIT system, and not specific to IIT Kanpur, as I found out recently in my meeting with Deans of other IITs.

And hence we have an opportunity. If we can somehow create a culture where most faculty members permit students from outside the department to register for their courses, resulting in more number of minors, a greater number of graduates with wider horizons, a more positive student experience overall, I am sure we won't have to do much more. So, yes, just doing our job well will attract more students.

Of course, this will not be the end of the argument. Since as soon as you talk about doing more as a teacher, a new debate on teaching versus research will get started. It will be forgotten that I am really not talking about a higher teaching load, but just a more diversified load. So, the issue is really not of teaching versus research, but just a better student experience. I am sure an improved experience will make all these students to attract next year's students and so on.

We could also take up the task of communicating our huge strengths to our potential students and their parents.Our internal stake holders too need to be aware of those communications.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Convocation: Is there a need for a new format?

We had our convocation on 18th June, 2014. This time we tried a new format. For the last few years, we had one main function where there will be speeches, a few awards, in some years, PhD degrees were awarded, and then we had two more ceremonies later, one for just giving away PG degrees and the other for just giving away UG degrees. These degree giving ceremonies neither looked like a formal occasion nor a celebratory one. They did not have academic procession, or any invocation, no speeches, or even the National anthem. It was just a photo opportunity for the students and nothing else. In fact, the students were keen to slip out of the auditorium just after they received their degrees and they had to be stopped by closing the doors or having security volunteers at those doors.

This time we changed to two full-fledged convocations, a morning one and an evening one. Both had a procession, both had their respective Chief guests, all the speeches, invocation, national anthem, etc. In one function, all the PG degrees and awards were given, and in the other all UG degrees and awards.

It was extremely well received, but for one problem. The previous format discouraged students and parents, while the new format was attractive to them. Also, the number of graduates was higher this time compared to previous years. Both these things combined, the number of students who came to receive their degrees in person increased substantially, and we could not accommodate some of the parents in the auditorium, leading to some heartburn.

What is the way forward. In the informal discussions with graduating batch, two points come out very clearly. One, they would like the convocation to be held as soon as possible after their completing the requirements. Two, their parents and possibly other family members be able to watch them receive degrees. Also, students did not like being given degrees without any ceremony. One also has to note that the number of graduates will increase further next year.
The options are as follows (at least those I could think of, I am sure there can be more):
1. Keep two ceremonies on the same day, like this year, and inform students in advance that parents will not be allowed, or at most one parent will be allowed.
2. Keep two ceremonies on the same day, but shift the convocation to a later date, say in October, which would be inconvenient for many graduates, attendance will reduce, and we will manage to permit both parents of all graduates.
3. Have three functions serially on the same day. Of course, we can not have three full-fledged convocations on the same day. So it will have to be the earlier model of one main function and then just the degree distribution functions for providing photo opportunity. But it is not clear if this will really allow both parents of all students to be present in the degree distribution ceremonies. It will be touch and go and may cause heartburns if more students attend.
4. Have three (or more) functions on the same day, but allow parallelism. More on this later in the blog.
5. Have three (or more) functions on different days. Again, more on this below.
It is obvious that with the increasing numbers, we will have to have three (or more) functions to accommodate all graduating students and their parents in the convocation. The issue is whether everyone gets degrees on the same day, or is it ok to give degrees on different days. So, options 4 and 5 are really what we need to focus on.

Option 4 can be implemented by having one function in the morning, and having two (or more) functions in the afternoon. For example, we could have PhD and Master's degrees granted in the morning session, and in the afternoon, have one session for engineering departments, and another for non-engineering departments. This model is extensible to even larger numbers, since we could introduce more and more parallel sessions as the number of graduates increase. Thankfully, we will soon have another lecture hall with a capacity of 600 which could be used for this purpose. The hall will be available in time for the 2015 convocation.

Option 5 can be implemented by either having the multiple sessions on two consecutive days, or having one or two sessions in summer and having another one or two sessions in the winter. For example, we could continue with the two functions in summer as we did this year, and have one function in winter where all those who graduate in July and December can be given their degrees.

While it will be possible to have two parallel functions in the afternoon, there will be issues. First, one function will be larger (in auditorium with 1200 capacity) and the other will be smaller (in L-20, with 600 capacity). So their relative importance would not be equal in everyone's mind. Further, we have a very strong notion of batch in the student body. To split the graduating batch into two may not be appreciated by students, since they also want to receive their degrees and specially awards in fron of all their batchmates. Also, in our system, Chairman, Senate gives all the degrees, and he cannot be present in two places at the same time. Also, in our system, DOAA office manages the convocation, and managing two convocations in parallel would be a challenge for the staff. But, these are minor issues. (For example, the functions in the afternoon can be split based on year of joining.)
The other possibility of having convocations in winter and summer does not have above-mentioned issues, and it really helps those who are graduating in July and December. They don't have to wait for the next summer to receive their degrees. So it is a very attractive option, but it comes with a cost. The convocation organization requires a lot of preparation and substantial funds. Doing it twice in a year would increase the costs both in terms of human resources as well as monetary costs.
Sooner or later, Senate will have to take a call on this. But as of now, there is no consensus, and unless a quick decision is taken between option 4 and option 5, a lack of decision will eventually result in choosing option 1 by default, and a lot more heartburn amongst our graduating students and their parents.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Branch Change: Finally we are back to being very liberal

 Recently, the Senate approved the branch changes for the 2013 batch students. In a batch of 820, the number of students who have received a branch change after the first year is 54 this year, a significantly higher number compared to recent years since we liberalized our branch change rules last year. Given that we also allow more branch changes after the 3rd and 4th semester, one would estimate that after those two semesters, about 8 percent of the batch would have got a branch change. I believe that this would be amongst the highest percent of branch changes in the IIT system (perhaps with the exception of IIT Gandhinagar), a sign of a very liberal system.

Of course, getting into Computer Science and Engineering continued to be extremely difficult. Students needed a CPI of 10.0, and 10 students with that CPI could move to CSE. Getting into Electrical Engineering required a minimum CPI of 9.4, and I am surprised that only 10 students moved into EE. Getting into Mathematics and Scientific Computing as well as Mechanical Engineering was equally difficult, and both could accommodate students with a CPI of 8.7 or higher. Interesting to see Mathematics becoming so popular compared to many of the Engineering programs. And finally, Chemical Engineering was up for grabs at a CPI of 8.0. Branch changes to all other 7 programs was available at any CPI. This is really strange. Just a year ago, all these students would have been complaining about their rank and how they could only get Material Science and not Aerospace or any other such combination, but now when the change was available to anyone on demand, they did not apply. May be they did not expect that rules have become so liberal, or they have realized that there are exciting things happening in all branches.

It does not mean that everything is alright with the branch change process. A restriction on granting branch change only once means that if someone could get his/her 2nd choice as a branch change now, would not be able to apply for his/her 1st choice next semester or change his/her mind altogether. Prior to this restriction, there usually were either 0 such cases or 1 such case in a given batch. So what is being achieved by placing this restriction is not quite clear. But for that odd student, this is a terrible restriction.

The second problem is the minimum student strength. Departments which do nothing to attract students should not be supported artificially by placing a minimum student strength below which a branch change will not be allowed, or that limit should be low enough that every student with a decent CPI should be able to leave the department if s/he so desires.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Nine New Associate Deans

IIT Kanpur has decided to create new administrative roles (in some cases, it is just renaming of roles), and nine faculty members have been appointed as Associate Deans. They are:

  1. Dr. Suchitra Mathur (HSS): AD for Under-Graduate Studies
  2. Dr. Pankaj Jain (PHY): AD for Post-Graduate Studies
  3. Dr. Jiten Bera (CHM): AD for Faculty Affairs
  4. Dr. B V Phani (IME): AD for Innovation and Incubation
  5. Dr. Siddhartha Panda (CHE) AD for Industrial Collaboration
  6. Dr. Vimal Kumar (HSS): AD for Student Activities
  7. Dr. Shalabh (MTH): AD for Hall Affairs
  8. Dr. Anupam Saxena (ME): AD for International Relations
  9. Dr. Ashish Dutta (ME): AD for Digital Infrastructure

The appointments are with effect from 1st April, 2014 and are for a period of two years.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Should we terminate the programs of academically deficient students

Every semester, we go through a very painful exercise, spending more than one thousand person hours of faculty time. We look at the performance of the students in that semester, decide whose performance is below par, and then decide to issue them a warning, place them in academic probation, and in a small number of very weak students, terminate their academic programs, and ask them to leave the Institute.

After the programs are terminated, the students send an appeal, giving reasons for their poor performance, and try to convince us through a variety of arguments that in future, they will do much better. We believe those stories from a majority of such students and re-admit them to the Institute, but some are not taken back.

What is the academic rationale for terminating any student's program. I have tried to read various manuals, gone through the Senate records, and talked to many experienced professors. I am not sure if we all understand the rationale, since I hear different things from different people. But, if I can make a summary of the reason told most often, it is the following (taking the UG example, but the reason is same for other programs):

The Under-graduate program has a maximum limit of 6 years, that is, a student has to complete all graduation requirements within 6 years. If the student is unable to finish all requirements in 6 years, then s/he has to be sent out without a degree. If we can make a reasonable guesstimate long before 6 years are over that the student will not be able to complete the requirements in 6 years, then the student should be let go immediately, rather than allowed to invest more time in a futile exercise. So what we do is in the larger interest of the student.

Fair enough. But why 6 years. why not 8 years, or 10 years, or for that matter, 5 years. Is it just a random number. 6 years because we had to draw a line somewhere, and we just chose this line. For any particular number that we would have chosen, someone would have questioned why not 6 months more. But then, do we at least understand what are the various reasons to put any limit at all. If we at least understand those reasons, we can then argue that a limit is necessary. The reasons may even guide us to a limit within a narrow range. But frankly, I have never heard of any good reason from any IITK faculty member for placing a time limit on each program. And by now, I would have asked at least 50+ faculty members. (This is not to say that there are no good reasons. I have looked at reasons given by other universities. It is just that we as an institute are unaware of why we have placed 6 years as limit of UG programs, and similar limits of other programs.)

This lack of rationale for time limits has obvious side effects. If an under-graduate student completes 6 years and still has a few courses left, and then requests Senate for allowing him to spend another semester or two to complete all graduation requirements, how does Senate determine whether to give such an extension or not. Frankly, in the absence of rationale for the time limit, there can be absolutely no reason not to extend the stay of such a student. And this is exactly what we see every semester. A fairly large number of students apply for extension (mostly, PhD, but an odd under-graduate or Master's student too), and ALL of them are granted extension without any discussion in Senate. There is really no other way to deal with extension requests without articulating a rationale for the time limit.

So de facto there is no time limit for any program in the Institute. If there is no time limit, is it fair to ask a question whether a student will be able to complete the program in 6 years, right in the first year or second year. In my judgment, that question is unfair, and hence the termination of the program, the way it is being done today, is unfair to the students. And, if the termination is being done to help the student, well, s/he might as well want not to be helped. Why should we force that help on to the student.

This is not to say that there should never be any termination of program of any academically deficient student. But to do that, one needs a rationale for time limits, and that rationale be taken into consideration while deciding the extension of the program by Senate. This is unlikely to happen at IIT Kanpur.

One can, of course, ask alternate questions for termination. For example, is the student so weak that s/he is unlikely to complete the program even in unlimited number of years. If that is the case, we should ask the student to leave and try another academic program somewhere. Obviously, this will mean that termination of programs will become rarest of rare cases, particularly in UG programs.

There are other alternatives that can encourage self-selection. That is, the student will decide whether s/he wants to continue. We may limit the total amount of subsidy that each student will get, and after that subsidy has been provided, tuition which reflects the total cost of education will have to be paid. We may limit the number of years for which certain facilities will be provided, such as hostel. So the student will have to manage accommodation outside the campus. These ideas also have problems.

One, the academically deficient students from rich families will still manage to do the program, but academically deficient students from poorer backgrounds will not be able to. Does not seem terribly unfair to say that subsidy will be given only if you are not in the bottom 1-2 percent in the class. But still a question to be debated.

Two, and more importantly, how do we determine what is the right limit on resources for a student. We are back to the same problem that we wanted to avoid solving.

In summary, there is no short cut to rational decision making and articulating that rationale, particularly in today's era of openness and transparency, thanks to RTI. We have to either articulate a reason for time limits on our programs, or give an alternate reason for termination.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

IIT Kanpur alumnus honoured by American Physical Society

Here is an email from Prof. Manoj Harbola:

2014 APS Leo Szilard Lectureship Award Recipient

M.V. Ramana
Princeton University


"For outstanding contributions to promote global security issues,
through critical analyses of nuclear weapons and nuclear energy programs in India and associated risks in the subcontinent, and efforts to promote peace and nuclear security in South Asia through extensive engagements and writings."


M.V. Ramana received his undergraduate degree in physics from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur in 1988 and his Ph.D. in theoretical physics from Boston University in 1994. He has held research positions at the University of Toronto, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies in Environment and Development, Bangalore, and taught at Boston University, Princeton University, and Yale University. He is currently with the Nuclear Futures Laboratory and the Program on Science and Global Security at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University. His research interests span a broad range and include topics related to energy, environment, security, and science and technology policy. Currently, he has been involved in the ongoing debates surrounding the expansion of nuclear power in the context of nuclear disarmament and climate change. Ramana is the author of The Power of Promise: Examining Nuclear Energy in India (Penguin Books, 2012) and co-editor of Prisoners of the Nuclear Dream (Orient Longman, 2003). He is a member of the International Panel on Fissile Materials and the Science and Security Board ofthe Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. In 2003, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Selection Committee: Pushpalatha Bhat, Chair; J. Bernstein; G. West; L. Krauss