Tuesday, July 29, 2014

New Generation Technological Education at the IITs: Optimal Track, Rather Than Fast-Track?

The Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), India’s central government owned premier institutions of national importance for technological education have been the Indian icons of globally competitive technical education. The initiatives they take, and the reforms they usher in, have a ripple effect in the entire field of technical education in India. IITs’ latest proposal for fast track engineering (B Tech) degree based on accelerated credits (in three and half years instead of four years) has the potential to churn the technical education scenario in India if it is not appreciated and improved in a holistic perspective. This proposal has to be viewed in the perspective that not several years ago, engineering degree in India required five years of full time study. If this proposal of three and half years becomes real, India would probably the first major country, after the USA, to provide a bachelor’s degree in engineering in such a compressed time frame.   

IITs are known to be cradles of high pressure, high performance education. The entry into IITs is itself a resultant of highly competitive Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) system, for which school boys start preparing years ahead through high intensity coaching. Given this context, an emphasis on credits for a compressed time frame could be seen to be adding to the high pressure robotized study system in the IITs, making students vulnerable to the dangers of intense competitiveness. If other competitive institutions like National Institutes of Technology (NITs) and other key universities follow suit, it could be a larger phenomenon of ‘race to degree’. Another worry would be that other regional universities and colleges may try to follow suit, and given the reduced level of study and examination solidity in such universities and colleges there could be a dilution of study standards in such institutions. At the same time, there also seem to be certain higher order goals in the proposed change which are yet to catch the attention. This blog post discusses the latest proposal from the IITs in the totality, and options.
The IITs proposal, announced by Partha Pratim Chakrabarti, the Director of IIT Kharagpur at the 60th convocation of the Institute on July 26, 2014, has an important concept of flexibility. The fast-track option is essentially for those students who can accrue the requisite credits. The proposal also allows a more languid pace, extending up to 8 years for the ‘slow learners’. The fast track option envisages that the ‘saved’ six months can be utilized for job or entrepreneurship. It also allows inter-IIT portability of credits to utilize the centers of excellence that exist in various IITs. With these features in tow, the fast track proposal would appear more holistic. This, does not, however take the focus away from the weighty nature of a true technological curriculum and whether adequate justice is being done to it under even a four year program. The pitfall in any credit based system is the equation of credit to learning and subjects to knowledge, all of which require certain minimum periods of time for attention, absorption and assimilation.
The undergraduate level engineering programs are both foundational and specialist in nature. Despite the proliferation of various engineering streams, each engineer irrespective of the specialization must be well versed in certain core engineering studies. These relate to mathematics, sciences, humanities, design and drawing principles, and a foundation of each of the core or basic engineering specializations like civil, mechanical, electrical, electronics and computers. And, each of these has to have a corresponding laboratory practice, which should expose the students to a wide range of machining, forming, casting, welding and bonding practices related to various kinds of materials. Given the heavy knowledge and practice load on one hand, and the extremes of extracurricular pulls and social media distractions on the other hand, the case seems to be more for extension, rather than compression, of degree granting period.
Flights away
One question to ask is to whose benefit the acceleration would be if the fast-track graduate were to choose a job or another degree instead of the well intended entrepreneurship. As we are aware, many of the IIT graduates end up taking up management diplomas in the equally reputed Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) or go abroad for higher education or research. In the IIT Kharagpur convocation, Bharat Ratna Professor C N R Rao exhorted the IITians to stay in the country and contribute to India’s scientific and technological capital, citing his own example of success. If the fast-track graduates see the credit based graduation as an opportunity to explore other options elsewhere, the basis of advancing gets called into question. A total credit score of 182 in 7 semesters, covering theory, laboratory, workshop and fieldwork seems to be an intensely packed study and learning schedule (a typical course take 190 credits over 10 semesters).  A dual degree program is also offered under this route, though details are not yet available.   
By the same token, allowing a highly relaxed period of 8 years for course completion may also be misplaced. Given that all entrants to the IITs are competent and competitive, allowing that level of extended flexibility would be a loss in the formation of intellectual capital in India. Considering that certain students do find the pressure a trifle too much, flexibility for completing the course up to 6 years could be more in order.  Also, extending inter-IIT portability to cover at least one year of residence could expose the students to not only other centers of excellence but even to other residential cultures as well. Given that the new program will be rolled out from the academic year 2016-17, and in a phased manner, there is an opportunity to reinforce the good points of the fast-track program (in fact, it should be called optimal track program!), overcome the weaknesses and develop a techno-entrepreneurial ecosystem that maximizes the benefits of the proposal. 
The key to success of a flexible credit based system is the availability of a number of specializations and micro-specializations on one hand and well coordinated academic planning. Providing total flexibility to the student in course choice could lead to diffused learning while too much control could lead to the defeat of the system itself. It is important that the academic deans of the IITs develop a course planner which explains why a cluster of related specializations would make a holistic sense compared to a random choice of courses. The course credits must be hierarchically defined based on complexity and relational synergy of the courses. It may be a good idea for the IITs to develop an App exclusively for course and credit planning under the fast-track system. The App must also link specializations offered by the various IITs to define a total universe of specializations. There could be certain thorny issues related to different IITs providing differential values to similar specializations based on the excellence they think they possess in the domain. This will be one challenge of flexibility.
The other challenge will be providing the specializations themselves. For a mechanical engineering stream, the range of main and specialization courses can range from thermodynamics to robotics. Whether a robotics specialization could be common for  mechanical and electronics mainstreams, or whether it would need to be customized to each mainstream would be one call. Given the fast paced developments, what would be the life of a course (say, 3 or 5 years) would be another call. Whether courses that belong to a graduate level (for example, prosthetics) would be a good fit for an undergraduate level mechanical engineering course could be another call. Whether specializations should be only subject matter or whether even laboratory or workshop practice could qualify as specializations is another call. Ideally, specializations should have a range that plays on one’s aptitude for further academic specialization or industrial practice. The challenges are likely to be more in domains where product life cycles are getting shorter. One way would be to link up academic expertise, research directions, consulting practice and industrial inputs in development of state-of-the-art specializations.
Entrepreneurship in IITs   
Given that an important aspect of the fast-track proposal is to release one semester for entrepreneurial activity, availability of an entrepreneurial ecosystem within the IIT system, or otherwise, would be a prerequisite.  A few IITs, notably IIT Madras, IIT Bombay, IIT Kharagpur, and IIT (BHU) Varnasi have experimented with creating entrepreneurial ecosystems as adjuncts to their educational systems. IIT Madras has set up IIT Madras Incubation Cell. IIT Bombay has set up Society for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. IIT (BHU) has established Malaviya Centre for Innovation, Incubation and Entrepreneurship. Each of them has incorporated specific initiatives funded by the IITs, Central Ministries or IIT alumni themselves. Even a newer IIT like IIT Hyderabad has set up E-Cell for entrepreneurs. Although some of these have been in operation since 1999, there is no evidence of any major entrepreneurial startups that emerged from these incubation initiatives. Even though IITM has provided physical infrastructure through IIT Madras Research Park adjacent to IITM campus, startups have been few to leverage the facilities.     
Undoubtedly, the strong technological foundations at IITs, and the personality strengths of the IITians make them look at entrepreneurship as a career option more confidently, the only inhibiting factor being the hugely attractive job opportunities they automatically command. That said, convergence of futuristic research with foundational technology, and combination of financial support with commercial insights would be necessary to create an ecosystem that would make entrepreneurship widespread across IITs. Special emphasis should be laid on socially relevant low cost, high technology products. Entrepreneurship, however, requires more than a feasible product idea. A recent research suggests that an entrepreneur with a product idea needs a core organization of likeminded passionate friends to make a success of entrepreneurship. Even some of the biggest globalized startups of today such as Apple, Amazon, eBay, Facebook, Salesforce.com as well as regional startups like Project A Ventures, Eyeota, Flipkart, RedBus validate this thesis.
Indigenous ecosystem
The other aspect is that successful entrepreneurship needs certain other skills in addition to wholly technical skills. This has prompted the Hyderabad based management school, the Indian School of Business (ISB) to launch, as a two-year programme at ISB, Technology Entreprenurship Programme to equip select engineering students with skills to become entrepreneurs. It is stated that Microsoft Ventures and Google are supporting the programme. The larger question still would be whether even a broader educational curriculum for entrepreneurship or cross-collaboration between IITs (and/or NITs) and IIMs (and/or ISB) would be completely sufficient. The philosophical question is also whether entrepreneurship can only from arise from premier institutes, or could emerge as a broader national phenomenon. Prima facie, creative technological ideas ought to emerge from any institute which has higher technological and research competencies. Idea incubation (example, IIT Madras Incubation Cell) and licensing of patentable ideas (yet to happen in a big way) from institutes of higher technology is one facet of creation of a broader national entrepreneurship ecosystem.
The real answer could lie in restoring and rejuvenating the traditional economic employment system of India which was rooted in skill and craft based self-employment system but has faced dilution due to the attraction of readymade and assured career options that could arise from formal educational qualifications. It is, therefore, gratifying that some of the IIT entrepreneurship schools are focusing on socially relevant product or service ideas (example, Center for Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation at IIT Madras). Real developments that can be commercialized would need to focus on market applications rather than technology roots. For example, could a variable speed micro-motor be developed that could make a potter’s work more productive, more consistent and of higher quality? Can a portable ultrasound linked with tablet computer be designed to take ultrasound diagnostics into the rural areas? Can there be a sanitizing solution for dry leaf plates (used extensively in certain southern states) to obviate the need for paper plates? Can solar panels, inverters and electricity power be integrated to reduce generated power consumptions? Can there be water purifying technology which does not waste any water? The optimal track for IITs could be in not fast-tracking credits per se, but in integrating latent market needs with creative technologies.
Posted by Dr CB Rao on July 29, 2014