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.