Monday, December 10, 2018

IITK Revival: Must start from Computer Science

A few decades ago, after the JEE results, I went to IIT Delhi for Counseling, I just put up one option, "IIT Kanpur Computer Science." The good professor on the stage warned me this may not be enough. The previous year's closing rank for IITK CS was 26. And I added my second choice, "IIT Delhi Mechanical." Thankfully, I got my first choice.The top 100 ranks, in those days, would go for IIT Kanpur and overall about 50 percent of top 100 students would be in Kanpur. This continued for many years, but started declining about 20 years ago, and for the last three years, we have had 0 students in top 100.

While there are many reasons for top JEE rankers to not choose IIT Kanpur and the situation is not likely to change overnight, we must do something to counter this perception that IIT Kanpur is in some sense worse that IITB, IITD, and now even IITM, and the rate at which the closing ranks of IITK and KGP are closing in, may be tomorrow's perception will be that we are the worst old IIT. It is nobody's argument that a 100 ranker is far better in academic preparation than a 200-rank student. After all JEE is a lottery among good students. So all the students you are getting are good. But the perception still makes a difference. Having a bunch of 1000 students most of whom preferred some other IIT and are sad (at least in the beginning days) that they are stuck in IITK is not the best environment to start converting these young adults to great engineers.

Based on current perceptions in the admission market, it would be difficult to convince students (and parents) to prefer Kanpur over Bombay/Delhi for the same discipline. But we must note that some students do prefer Kanpur CS over Electrical at other IITs, and most students will prefer Kanpur CS over the next popular program (Mechanical or Maths+Computing) at other IITs. So the preference of other IITs is not so much that students will take any discipline there over any discipline at Kanpur, though if the choice is between the same discipline, they will prefer other IITs. We should be able to make use of this dynamics.

Why do people prefer certain disciplines - not because of their interest, but because of their perception of job market. Even the choice of IIT is driven in part by perception of their placement. It is assumed that placement depends on discipline and IIT and hence you can go to a "lower" IIT if you are getting a "higher" discipline. (I really feel sad to use terms like lower/higher, since they are more based on ignorance and not on passion or an understanding of career issues.) What if we could tell people that if they were to join IITK, they would have wide variety of jobs available, not just in their core disciplines but also in CS related fields, and I am not talking of IT service industry but "higher" end jobs. Even in their own disciplines, they would have faster career progression since they will have skills that are in demand. Yes, that means, every student in IITK, irrespective of their discipline, will be able to do a course on Data Structures, a course on AI or Machine Learning, a course on Robotics or automation, and may be a couple of others, as electives.

We don't have to change our curriculum for this, since it is already very flexible, it already has a large number of elective slots, and the only thing that is needed is that such courses be offered in all semesters, may be multiple sections, and be available for enrollment for all students. While some of these courses could be offered by departments other than CSE, doing this will put a significant load on CSE department. And that is where the problem is. Why should CSE department take up extra teaching load?

It is clear that if we can allow all students to do certain set of courses (as electives) many of which will have to be offered by CSE department, we could improve the closing ranks of other departments. This won't help CSE department, but they would be helping the Institute if they can manage this. And from my discussion with KGP alumni and faculty, I see that they do have this kind of flexibility for their students and this is helping them.

I believe this is possible through a multi-pronged approach. We can make use of technology and offer some courses in flipped classroom mode. We can make use of guest faculty. We should be able to hire some more regular faculty. We can remove some electives with just 2-4 students and ask the faculty to teach courses with some minimum student strength. We can co-teach certain courses with faculty from other departments. There can be incentives to individual faculty members who are not too busy with research to take extra teaching load. There can be incentives for the department as a whole. I really believe that where there is a will, there is a way.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Remembering 1994 batch

Recently, DORA announced on facebook that 1994 batch will be coming to IITK later this month to celebrate their silver jubilee year of graduation. Then yesterday, the government announced that one of their batchmates, Prof. Krishnamurthy Subramanian is being appointed as the new Chief Economic Advisor. So I started thinking of my own interaction with this batch.

I had joined IIT Kanpur when they were in their 7th semester. In the 8th semester, I had offered a graduate course on networking, which only two UG students took, one each from CSE and EE departments. So, for all practical purposes, I didn't teach this batch. However, in the month of April, I felt that having overlapped with this batch for over 6 months, I should have some interaction with at least the CSE students before they leave.

I invited them one evening for some chatting and some tea/snacks. It was a very small group in those days unlike a graduating batch of 100 these days. About 15 students showed up. I started the discussion by asking how has their IIT experience been over the previous 4 years. This was a disastrous start, since student after student said that it was horrible, that they will never come back to IITK, and they would like to forget their experience. I was shocked. I have been a bachelor's student in the same department, and I had absolutely loved my 4 years here. What could have gone wrong.

I probed deeper. Did they enjoy festivals, student clubs, sports, hostel life in general, and they all seemed to have enjoyed that. So it was academics which was causing this negative feeling. So on a board I started listing all the compulsory courses and popular electives that many of them would have taken, about 40 of them. I started asking, "How was Math 101?" It was enjoyable. How was Phy 101. It was good. And we went on and on. At the end, out of 40 courses, they seemed to have liked about 35 courses, a couple of courses, they had some minor issues, and in another couple of courses, they had some major issues.

So it turned out that two faculty members either as instructors or as DUGC conveners (or some other positions) had taken a few decisions which the batch considered unfair and that was bothering them a lot.

It was an eye opener for me. I learnt that a few unfair decisions can cause so much hurt that one is willing to ignore all the good things that may have happened. I pointed out to them that they spent about half their waking hours on academics, and half on non-academics. Pretty much 100% of non-academic hours, they seem to have enjoyed, and 90% of academic hours too they seem to have enjoyed. Overall, 95% positive and 5% negative. That is not sufficient reason to hate IIT so much to say that they would never come back. Also in terms of faculty, each one of them would have interacted with 25-30 faculty members (instructor, tutor, warden, various committee members, etc.), and if they found two to be unfair, that does not represent the entire spectrum of their experience. They all agreed, and thanked me for this discussion. Some of them recalled this meeting when I met them a few years ago.

Later on, I made it a practice to invite the graduating batch every year for such a discussion with some food. The idea was to learn what negative experiences they may have had so that we can ensure the future batches will not face the same situation and also to put those negative experiences in perspective so that they don't go out with negative feelings towards their alma mater. Of course the practice lasted only about 10-12 years with 1 or 2 gaps in between.

I look forward to the Silver Jubilee Reunion and interacting with the batch again.