Education on Crossroads

TCS, Infosys and Wipro are all promoting education. Their philanthropic efforts focus on education because they recognize its value. Their empires grew because of the knowledge of the people who worked there. While these organisations focus on elementary education or functional literacy for the long term interests of the society, strength and growth of these and other organisations is going to be from the engineering colleges. Our high tech companies are too large now to be able to rely exclusively on premium institutions. Hence, our colleges have an opportunity to strengthen and extend the growth of our IT industry, which has been an outstanding success and a source of inspiration for many.

When I joined the industry, knowledge of Cobol was enough. A person who knew C was a master. A few years ago, we decided that it was now essential for us ensure that the candidates we select should have a sound understanding of object oriented programming and client server computing. Today, companies want to make sure that the candidates understand how to build applications for a networked society.

I have deliberately not used popular terms like VB, C++, Oracle, Java, etc. The reason is that the changes we are mentioning are not cosmetic. They are not like fads or fashion, which change by the day. These are ideas which are reshaping the way we program or, more importantly, how we manage information to tackle our problems. How is our education system going to adopt itself to meet these challenges? We need to look at the rut we are in – and a substantial part of it is because we want to “help” the students!

We will confine ourselves to Goa University. It is the one which belongs to us. Its future affects us all. We will not try to compare ourselves with the neighbouring options. We need to compare with our real competition, which is global. Let us start with our predicament last year. We had 18 weeks of classes. This was followed by 2 weeks of study period for students, followed by 2 weeks of written exams for 'back' papers, followed by 2 weeks of written exams for current semester, followed by 2 weeks of practicals and orals. We also had to find time for project exams while the orals and practicals were going on. Anyway, 26 weeks were over and the next semester began.

Guess what vacation did the students get! They indulged in 'mass bunking'. Classes for 18 weeks and exams for 8 weeks was clearly not a sustainable option. There was a change. We shifted to 6 working days and 16 weeks of instructions. The study period was reduced to one week. The 'back' and new papers were held simultaneously in a period of 3 weeks. The new course structure has fewer practical and oral exams; hence, it is hoped to complete them in about a week. Vacation now becomes possible.

As expected, students were unhappy. The compromise was that the study period was increased last semester. This semester the protests seem to have been louder and in the interest of the students, the exam pattern is back to the original, that is 8 weeks, though we hope to somehow finish it in 7 so that the orals and practicals do not spill over to the break between Christmas and New Year. Students will get a vacation of 2 to 3 weeks thanks to the reduction in teaching period from 18 weeks to 16.

A few teachers did mention that completing the portion in 2 less weeks is harder for them but I am sure that they will accustom themselves to it. Surprisingly, not a single student mentioned that 18 weeks of classes were too long and that is why they are satisfied with 16 weeks of classes.

I personally am not unhappy about the reduction in the teaching weeks. A web survey showed that while IIT, Mumbai has 18 weeks of study, US universities using the semester system complete the semester in 15/16 weeks and the exams are also over in 17/18 weeks! The students then have a break of a month and come back refreshed for another semester of hard work. The break between the years is about twelve weeks. This clearly illustrates why the Western students seem to have so much time on their hands to work on Open Source software and the phenomenal progress it has made in the last decade. The three month break is also the time to travel, explore and learn.

If there is one university, Goa University should emulate, it should be a public university like the University of California, Berkeley. Their classes end on 6th December. The exams start on 10th December and are over on 18th December. This includes exams for arts, science, engineering, i.e. for all their undergraduate programs. We should also remember that a student from Computer Sciences may be taking a course in Philosophy as well.

I then compared with my old undergraduate university, San Francisco State University, This university has its classes end and the exams start on next working day for 6 whole days. An unlucky student may have to appear in 3 exams on the same day. (The exam timetable is known in advance so the student can select his courses for the semester so that he does not face that predicament.)

When do they hold the 'back' exams? What's a 'back' exam? The concept is foreign. If a person fails, he repeats the class, not the year. In this context, IIT is closer to our needs. IIT Mumbai's classes ended on 20th November and exam started from 22nd November till 3rd December. They have re-exams before the middle of January. Good God! This would need the results to be declared within a month of the exams. Goa University cannot possibly do it without changing the process of examination.

Goa University's curriculum of the Computer Engineering and Information Technology courses is excellent. The faculty has ensured that the curriculum is based on the finest text books available. What, then, prevents the courses from being changed more often? Exams. Actually, 'back' exams to be precise. The course may be long forgotten but the exams for these courses need to be conducted for the sake of a few students. If we can't find a better solution, I would rather we give them a degree with a caution – 'Hire at your own risk' and get them out of our system. It is ludicrous to have good students suffer because of a few non-serious or incompetent people. Does not make any sense to me and certainly does not seem 'just' to me.

In a talk to the faculty, Dr. Phatak from IIT, Mumbai, highlighted that his attitude towards studies changed once he was exposed to the IIT system. It was no longer possible to break the system, study 60% of the material for 80% marks. In a recent article, Mr. Azim Premji emphasises the need for better education and building students who are capable of independent thinking. Reproducing the text book and independent thinking do not gel well. No matter which direction we search, it keeps coming back to the same core. If we need to improve our education system, we need to scrap the current exam system.

How do we sell a new system to the students first? How do we change it so that the process does not seem unfair even in the transition period? How do we overcome the fear of the unknown? The key to all these is to have as few rules as is possible. If we have to have re-exams or 'backs', let us not bother about how many 'backs' or how many attempts for each 'back'. We need only one number. A student must complete his degree in, say, 7 years. Nothing more needs to be specified. If we want we can make it 20 years but let us not add any clauses, sub-clauses and conditions.

Another rule can be that each year the syllabus may change. Each course may be replaced by an equivalent or, even a substantially different one. The student with a 'back' must clear the current version of the paper. No such thing as separate exams for old, revised, new, newly revised, ancient revised, etc. courses. The information can be given up front when a student joins . We may even take his acceptance on a judicial or non-judicial stamp paper whichever reduces the likelihood of litigation!

The need for the study period comes because of the excessive impact of the final. We need to reduce its importance. We can start by giving equal importance for internal and external marks, but with transparency. The internal and external 'marks' should be shown separately on the mark sheet. The name of the internal institution should also be prominently mentioned on the mark sheets. The distribution of internal and external marks should be available on the web site of Goa University for all to see.

It is only a small logical step to move from giving marks on the mark sheet to giving grades. Then, at least we do not have to worry about some of the issues against internal marks. After a BE, grades/marks are only an entry barrier. No organisation recruits based on marks only. No higher education admission is given only on the basis of marks. Why give them more importance than they deserve. The university should not waste its efforts in trying to bring about uniformity in the grades of different colleges. Let the market decide.

University should focus on auditing and ensuring that the processes are properly followed and constantly improved with the objective of improving the learning process. The suggestions above may very well be full of loopholes in dealing with all the constraints which exist within the system. They may even be too naive to be implementable in India outside of IIT's. However, I hope that no one thinks that the current system is more than adequate to meet the future needs of our society.