Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Directors Speak

The Diamond Jubilee convocation function had a very interesting panel discussions on 22nd August, 2011 morning at Netaji Auditorium. We had former IIT Kharagpur Directors Padmashree Prof. K. L. Chopra and Prof. Amitabha Ghosh; current Directors of IIT Bhubaneshwar, IIT Ropar, IIT Indore and Prof. P. Chakraborty from IIT Kanpur. Prof. M. S. Swaminathan of TIME magazine fame, member of Planning Commission and National Advisory Council also graced the panel. What followed is a feast of thoughts, an introspection on 60 years of IIT system and the way ahead. I could not locate any report on this and hence presenting here what I could take as running notes.

Prof. Chopra initiates the discussion by saying that we are supposed to be think-tanks. We may have been so for UG studies. But emphasis is too much on UG studies. Integrated M.Tech., PhD should be preferred. To shift from teaching based to learning based i.e. outcome based, learning how to learn. He emphasized on breaking barriers among Departments, reducing no. of credits to be cleared by students. He gave example of MIT where 130 credits are enough (compared to IIT's 175) and 30% of this is constituted by core subjects and students enjoy a lot of flexibility in selecting subjects. He expects new IITs to show new way and does not like the idea of being mentored by older IITs (as it hinders new thinking). He wishes to see DST change how it functions.

Prof. Amitabha Ghosh was the next speaker. He stressed on importance of planning and preparing the country to be at centre stage of 3rd industrial revolution. He talked about revamping curriculum at least in a few IITs and opening the door of IITs to world students (at least MTech and PhD) on its way to become world institutes.

Prof. M. K. Surappa, Director, IIT Ropar spoke next. He explained the challenges in setting up of  a new institute. He emphasized on quality focus. All IITs together have 6000 publications a year with citation index 5-6. MIT publishes 4000 a year but citation index is 20. He worried about languishing university system and if IITs can help them, NITs to get good students for research. He talked about creation of new knowledge that will be put in application over next 20 years; in areas like waste management, water, energy, healthcare etc.

Prof. M. Chakraborty, Director, IIT Bhubaneshwar talked about issues faced by a head of a new IIT. He mentioned how his IIT is unique in offering interdisciplinary exposure to students, to strike  balance between domain knowledge and broad area. Every final year project must have supervisors from two different departments.

Director, Indore explained the present infrastructure situation at his IIT and challenges faced. He told that it is easier for newer IITs to adopt a change. In his IIT, a student has to undergo six month's industry / shopfloor experience.

Prof. Partha Chakraborty of IIT Kanpur said that IIT education should make one socially aware, become a good citizen, contribute to nation building - becoming broad based. Research environment should be there in the country. Many smaller universities feed Stanford. This should hold for IITs too.

Prof. Swaminathan spoke last in the first round. He said that the 60 years of IIT was not only the time to celebrate but also to introspect where we had gone wrong. He talked about reducing food spoilage, environmental impact of new technology, helping nationwide poverty alleviation programs like MGNAREGA with technology. He said that it is better to look for individuals and build institutions around that individual.

Then it was a kind of open house.

Prof. Chopra observed how MIT focused on infrastructure in first 75 years, industry in second 75 years and planning (health, global) in third 75 years but there are no such things for IITs. More than the money, the power of mind holds key. How could C. V. Raman, S. N. Bose, Meghnad Saha perform with junk equipments!

Prof. Ghosh narrated one anecdote where a young faculty wanted to leave IIT for a foreign university not for money or comfort, but for poor quality of research students he was getting. He said that even a mediocre US university get bright students from India, China. He wondered how US universities would perform if foreign students are not there. Prof. Chopra observed that the IIT students go out for money as well as lack of inspiration from IIT teacher. Prof. Ghosh said that the prestige in our country increases i one goes outside the country or publishes work in foreign journals.

Prof. M. Chakraborty brought the topic of collaboration among faculty members. He said that the competitors can be collaborators and it is worthwhile to work in a group. There were a lot of questions from the audience. The discussion came to an abrupt end when the hard time cut-off was reached. But it was great experience to listen to these experienced people and get educated.


Prof. K. L. Chopra's interview as published in IIT Kharagpur's student mouth piece 'Scholars Avenue' (Link) leaves more food for thought. Excerpts from the interview as appeared in the link is pasted below.

There are presently 3,500 private technical colleges and 350 private universities to do the job of producing over 93% of the engineering graduates in India. It is wiser then to concentrate on quality rather than increase the number and intake of IITs which will not significantly change the overall percentage of graduating engineering manpower for the country. The magnified numbers today have become a burden on the existing IITs. Just imagine herding 4 students in one room in the hostel.

As for educating a class full of two hundred students, even Feynman, the great physicist, the great actor, declared his efforts at Caltech a failure. “It is the inspiration from the teacher that makes you a scientist or an engineer,” and this, KL Chopra says, cannot happen unless there is an eye-to-eye contact and direct interaction between the teacher and the student. The IITs were supposed to be the think-tanks of the country, but he believes the kind of reforms being incorporated is converting them to regular universities.

The vision of education in IITs was to create knowledge, which is more important than dissemination. Also, the focus needs to be on translational research,” says KL Chopra. It isn’t that people in the IIT system aren’t competent, but there is nobody accounting for the deliverance of knowledge in a country whose economy is heavily dependent on science and technology. He believes this is a form of intellectual corruption: a condition where no questions are asked. “Fortunately the government did not know what was going on with the IT industry and thus it flourished very well.”

We learned that India is a signatory to the Washington Accord, a document with benchmarks for education quality. The IITs come under its purview and will have to be judged sometime, an evaluation KL Chopra says they will not necessarily pass. While IITans have hitherto enjoyed global mobility, foreign organizations now realize that given the bulk of students, a spectrum is bound to exist. While he believes a transition to a system involving thorough evaluation is going to be difficult for students as well as teachers, that is what the world today demands. It is not what is taught that is important, but whether and what students have learned, and whether they have learned to learn.

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