Friday, May 29, 2015

Flexibility in curriculum or a cruel joke

 We at IIT Kanpur do an intensive review of our under-graduate programs every 10 years. We take two years to prepare a report, two years to discuss that report, and next 6 years to figure out how to implement that report, and then it is time for the next review. The last review happened between 2008 and 2011, and we decided to implement it from 2011 without any preparation or planning.

The biggest change that was envisaged in the new system was the huge flexibility it supposedly offered. The idea was that people can't always get to study the discipline they want to study, and they sometimes develop new interests, and such interests could be satisfied by having him/her study at least a few courses in those areas, if not a full fledged under-graduate degree.

Such a student could do a minor in another discipline (3-4 courses), or a secondary major (about 10 courses), or do a Master's degree in that discipline (a few UG courses and then all Master's level credits). Let us look how this has panned out, now that the first batch is about to graduate. (Actually less than half is graduating.)

Total number of students in 2011 admission batch are 807.

Number of students who have done a minor = 125.
Number of students doing a secondary major = 16.
Number of students who are doing a Master's degree in another discipline = 11.

Appears to be pretty successful. Almost 20% of the students are able to do something in another discipline, which is great. But looks can be deceptive. Let us look into what minor these students are doing.

 Out of 125 minors, 99 are in management. Surely, not everyone wants to study management. One would have guessed that some people would have wanted to study something else. Then, why management. It is because the minor is supposed to be done in your open elective slots. Open electives are courses that you can do from any department. But ask a student what happens when s/he approaches a faculty member of other department for a course. Other than Industrial and Management Engineering department, in which there are many faculty members who routinely teach classes of 100+ students, almost all faculty members shun the non-department students like plague. So students have no options but to do at least a few IME department courses in their open elective slots, and then some would say to themselves, why not do that extra course - it will allow me to have that line in the transcript that I did a minor in management. May be that will help somewhere.

One would have guessed that Computer Science would be the most popular minor. And believe me, it is. A huge number of students want it. How many have got it. Eleven. That is about 1 percent of the batch.

Students doing second major are again mostly in CSE and IME departments.
And students doing second degree in another discipline are mostly doing an MBA as the second degree.

Frankly, these numbers tell a pathetic story of under-graduate teaching at IIT Kanpur. We simply aren't able to cater to the aspirations of our students.

We should either find ways in which we can meet the aspirations of a larger number of students who believe that an institute of national importance like IIT Kanpur wouldn't be lying when it proudly talks about the flexibility in its curriculum. Or we should close down these programs. The administrative overhead of running these programs for a small number of students is simply not worth it. And if we close the programs, we would be more honest about our processes and curriculum.


  1. Dear Prof. Sanghi,
    Do you allow now CS folks into your class at IITK?
    Also why do most departments shun away non departmental students? Can the reason be that the bar for getting a major is too high and other departments do not want to have special preparatory classes for those students.
    At UPenn, if folks want to major in Computational Biology they have to take a few basic algorithms/probability/statistics/genetics classes. This bar is not high and a lot of undergrads major in this area. The requirements for just CS major are also similar (algorithms/complexity/introductory programming and structures/2 more classes).
    I think that IITK might have an artificially high requirement for a secondary major or minor, which would entail a lot of effort from the different departments. Maybe this is the reason why they discourage non departmental folks.
    Do you think that IITH fractal system coupled with independent projects/lab work is the solution to this conundrum?

  2. @Varun, I can not talk about individual departments in US, but what we have noticed is that about 4 courses constitute minor, 8 courses constitute major, and 12 courses constitute a degree. In our case, we have said minor would be 3-4 courses (and most minors are 3 courses), but major is a bit more, about 9-10 courses (since our degree requirement is 15+ courses in that discipline). I am not sure whether that 1-2 extra courses would be such a strong negative influence on students' decision. I do find that most students want to graduate in 4 years, unless they are getting an extra degree. A minor can be done within the specified credits (open electives can be used for minor courses), but a major will require some extra credits, and unless the student has planned the major right after the 1st year, and taken appropriate courses in the open elective slots, and done 1-2 courses in the summer, an extra semester becomes essential. And since most departments wouldn't allow non-department students till they have been "admitted" to the major, therefore such planning is fruitless.

  3. I don't think fractal system will solve the problem, since the problem is lack of planning by the Institute, lack of interest in teaching non-department students by the faculty, and extra credits required for major. None of these issues get resolved by fractal system.