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.


  1. Since I am student, I do not understand the dynamics of the policy making at IITK. But I still feel I should articulate my opinion:-

    1. The time-span between reviewing academic program is 10 years. I feel that it is too much, even more so in these times. I can't find a motherboard for my decade old processor in market anymore. Changes are coming at phenomenal rates. Industry demands shifts with each passing year. So it is necessary for us to have a malleable academic infrastructure that can adapt to these changes if we wish to become the leader. Asking for annual review might be too much, but 10 years is way too much IMO.

    2. Many of the problems stated in this post stems from a single issue - shortage of faculty. The lack of brainpower causes unnecessary burden on the existing faculty, who have to take multiple courses instead of a single course in ideal case. Faculties have their own priorities and since, as you mentioned, being a devoted academician doesn't make their ends meet, so it is imperative that being a good researcher is more important to them.

    The institute must review into their existing policy of recruiting faculty, their salary and incentive structure in order to lure more people into academics. The teaching job is already stereotyped of a job with low returns. It is time we debunk the urban myth. If an established IIT as ours suffers from faculty count, what to say about our younger siblings?

    3. You mentioned that teaching large classes counts for nothing, first I wonder why? Regardless, one thing that can done is that to hire full-time academician to teach the large courses, preferably the first-year courses. Not only it will ease off the pressure of the faculty taking larger classes, 1st year students can benefit from full-time teacher to have a stronger foundation, just like in school. A full time teacher can interact with students that is not limited to class or a single office hour. Since the first year course do not dive in too deep into detail, the pre-requisite to teach it is also not a question.
    I don't know as to how practical this is (I do question myself) or how you can do it, but the thought is worth considering. There should be people waiting for a job like this, you never know. Maybe, just maybe you can pull students in job placements here, take advantage of the situation then.

  2. @Arpit, A 10-year review is a major review of everything. We do have more frequent reviews of individual programs and courses.

    While faculty to student ratio has deteriorated, it should not lead to current situation. We do have a large number of faculty members teaching less than 10 students in a semester. They could be asked to teach more popular courses. Also, if the incentives were more properly aligned and teaching was an institutional priority, I could imagine some faculty members coming forward to teach more and larger classes. The faculty-student ratio is not so bad that we can't have successful minor/double major and other such flexible programs.

  3. I am surprised to note the changes in the academic programmes at IITK are exactly along the lines of those implemented at IITR. I am rather peeved at the abolition of one MTE and also the mid-semester recess. Having just one MTE robs the students of another chance to make amends for a chance slip. So much for the continuous evaluation as you say. There was an attempt to push through the abolition of minimum CGPA requirement as a pre-requisite for the award of degree but it was resisted by the Senate and now we have an even harsher requirement of having a minimum CGPA at the end of each academic year! And the way you describe minor degree, double major, dual degree, etc. and the similar structure being put in place at IITR makes one wonder if these directives were handed down from the top! So much for the academic freedom and autonomy of the institutes.

  4. @Manish, Not a directive from top. We are all copying from IIT Bombay, but adding on our own idiosyncrasies.