Friday, July 16, 2004

Curriculum Redesign, contd.

If you haven't read my previous post, do that first. I was speculating on the possibility of revamping the course structure of an Indian science / engineering university. It seems reasonable to measure the efficacy of a curriculum by how well it meets the goals of its designers. I believe that the goal of a university's undergraduate curriculum should be to ensure that its graduating students:
a) have a working knowledge of various fields of study, are able to meaningfully apply this knowledge, and can increase their knowledge without assistance should they choose to do so.
b) possess the confidence and ability to begin learning any subject they find interesting.
c) are sufficiently qualified to begin either their professional lives or more rigorous graduate study in their area of interest.

To be successful, any proposed curriculum would have to require a broad set of foundation courses to fulfil the first two requirements and permit sufficient specialisation to fulfil the third. Unfortunately, Indian universities seem to focus only on the last requirement. At the few colleges where a broad range of subjects are taught, students are often 'spoon-fed', leaving them unable to go further on their own and thus leaving the first requirement unfulfilled. Sadly, as I said earlier, any college that decides to focus on providing a strong general education is usually criticised for not teaching students enough about their own discipline.

BITS is a case in point. It attempts to teach a common core of subjects to all students during the first two years, but still fails to provide a good general education. Students acquire random bits of knowledge about several fields, but little or no epistemology. (A couple of Timothy Burke's Methods courses would do well here.) All the discipline-specific subjects are compressed into the third year, which is plainly insufficient to do justice to them all. Many students have criticised BITS for not spending enough time on these important courses, but increasing the number of discipline-specific courses (hereafter CDCs) seems to require a decrease in the common 'core' of the first two years. Given that the core already seems to do its job badly, decreasing the number of courses further is hardly likely to help. At first glance, then, there seems to be no solution to this problem.

Perhaps, though, we're approaching it in the wrong way. Why assume that this is a zero-sum game? Can we strengthen one aspect of the curriculum without weakening the others? Can we simultaneously satisfy all the requirements of an effective curriculum? One (naive) workaround is to substantially increase the total number of courses. Students are not machines, so that seems unlikely to work, though a slight increase might be acceptable.

I spent a large part of last semester wrestling with these problems and produced several curricula. Before I present the latest iteration, I'd like some comments. First, are my goals for a curriculum meaningful? Can you think of better ones? Even if they seem reasonable, are they practically achievable? Am I being too ambitious? Second, do you have any ideas for a science/engineering curriculum? While this is a hypothetical exercise, the faculty at BITS has expressed some interest, so I'd like to keep it practical. That means that we would preserve sections of the current BITS curriculum wherever possible. Don't let that chain you down, though. If you have some radically new ideas, go ahead and post them. Quoting Dr. L. K. Maheshwari on a possible curriculum change, "Sometimes you have to destroy a structure before you can begin rebuilding."

I'll post my ideas on Monday; I'm going to Chennai for the weekend. I'll look forward to reading all the suggestions when I get back.

One last note: I've been saying science/engineering throughout these posts for a reason. Any engineering college will have to offer science courses as prerequsites for several subjects, and as electives for interested students. It is technically possible to have science departments that don't offer degrees, but such departments are unlikely to attract good faculty. A 'service' model, where faculty are retained only to teach introductory courses will almost always be unsuccessful. An integrated science/engineering university (like BITS) seems like a far better idea than a 'pure engineering' college.


Anonymous said...

A good place to start (or end) would be the alumni who are in academic positions or those who pursued what they learnt in college.They usually have very strong views on what was good and what never worked out.BITS alumni are widespread,so one is sure to get a holistic picture.Good to know that your VISA interview went well.Never knew you blogged!


Ranjith said...

Hmm... I have a just one thing to say although it might not be directly relevant to curriculum redesign! After my experience in BITS I'm of that the fundamental probelm with the Indian science/engineering colelges is not the curriculum or quality of professors etc but the 'attitude' of the students! University is the place for a student to break away from the school system and learn to explore various subjects 'independantly'. The sad part is that students entering universities are either still stuck up with the school system and are totaly marks and grade centric or they think that the university is place to have fun - "well we weren't created to be studying fourteen to sixteen hours a day just to get into BITS or IIT!", they say(well i said it too :)). I'm not sure if you'd agree with me Nit, but if you pick up a random group of student's at BITS you'd find that a significant majority of them fall into either of the above mentioned categories. I don't know whether a curriculum reshuffle will directly affect the attitude of the 'junta' who flock to the AdCal n GenB classes to sit on floors n window sills to copy everything that a professor writes on the board!

Although a bit too late, I've realised that I really din't understand the spirit behind a university education when I entered it. I know that this statement just might be a bit too presumptuous but I think that this is the case with most students who enter enter any kind of university in India! Even more tragic is the fact that the environment at the university really didn't help in bringing about a change either(i'm speaking for myself!). It wasn't until I went to CMI during my third year summer break that I asked myself the question, "Where exactly did I go wrong? Was it BITS or was it just me?" I agree I wansn't too competent when I entered BITS, but somehow after a month and a half at CMI I felt that had I gone to CMI instead of BITS, atleast academically I surely would have been way more competent than I was after three years at BITS! But then BITS and CMI cannot be compared and I'm surely happy that I went to BITS and not CMI ;) -- Yes, we need to be thinking bout updating the curriculum for sure, but then its not curriculum 'alone' that determines how productive a university education will be!

... Well that was a long comment... didn't realize I got carried away :)

Nitish said...

You're right, Ranji. A university education should be a time for you to explore new fields and independently study subjects you find appealing. The curriculum redesign is meant to help with that. It's not just a question of replacing one set of prescribed courses with another. The idea is to offer students a lot more flexibility and allow them the freedon to follow their interests. The methods and debate courses that Timothy Burke has imagined were created for precisely that purpose.

I agree that a new curriculum alone will probably be insufficient to change people's mindsets, which is why Tim Burke has gone much further. That idea probably wouldn't sell in India (for that matter, it may not sell in the US!), but perhaps a partial change will have some effect. In the long term, if it gains acceptance, the entire system could be overhauled.

Dileepan said...

I will have to agree with Ranjith when he says that people in BITS are too marks-oriented. And contrarily, one sees very few students who get involved with their assignments with a certain amount of keenness and zest to learning.

The more I thought about it at BITS, the more ridiculous it appeared to me to sit down for an hour with reams of answer booklet and try to reel away some 5 points for an answer or not failing to substitute g= 32 ft/sec2 with g=9.8 m/s2. The very thought disenchanted me from my acads, to be truthful; and I thought most about this during my CDCs! It appeared to me then that the A7 CDCs, with the assignments and lab sessions, were a little better structured; people who were genuinely interested and wished to make a good research career would have benefitted (I hope). Incidentally, it strikes me that the US universities, where apparently one finds a better quality of education, have more assignments and case-studies than tests; I wonder whether one should take note of the parallel.

And thinking practically (or at least trying to!), adding a number of assignments in order to improve the curriculum will not serve its purpose to a good degree until some emphasis is taken off the tests (that, dealing with students' effort and pressures, may be a zero-sum case); even the IITians, whom BITSians love to compare themselves with, write only two test series before the finals. Moreover, in my opinion, a test should have at least one case-study (in subjects where it is possible).

Also, I think, a pertinent attempt-at-a-solution would be to change the marking systems that the Professors follow in BITS; I remember attending IIT tuitions where one would be given marks if one wrote down the correct equation or approached a sum correctly, regardless of whether he substituted the correct values and ciphered or multiplied correctly. I have seen many instances of many people (including myself) losing the entire marks for a question simply because they missed a decimal point while calculating!

Essentially, what I am trying to say is, before fiddling too much with the courses in the curriculum, it will be more prudent to attempt a change in the course-handling methodologies and the emphasis; the course structure as such ( the Honours degree etc.) seems to be pretty okay. And the faculty might have to work harder than the students to ensure that the purpose of these changes is served! Sorry if I've rambled on but this is something I thought I will allow my ignorance to say.

Anonymous said...

To come at this from a slightly different direction than you, I studied under the Visweswaraiah Technological University, which domintates the scen in Karnataka.

It's a really stupid university. They just revised the curriculum so that all labs now consist exclusively of a set of programs that can be mugged up a day before the exam. There used to be quite a few projects, that might have been the only redeeming factor. The course material was updated, but this was the stupidest thing they've ever done.

Exam papers are centrally corrected. This is done on a "let's see who can correct 40 papers in an hour!" manner. Our lecturer, in class, admitted, with pride, to assigning 3 marks (out of 5) for every question if he's in a bad mood, and 4 if he's in a good mood.

At the end of it, we come out as a set of non-engineers. This isn't even halfway complete - it's very sad.


Ranjith said...

As nitish had said earlier it would be useful if ppl leaving comments left their contact details too!! Ok I had something to say bout this comment this person from Visweswaraiah Technological University had to say bout the sad situation...

The situation he had pointed out is something this is prevalent at all levels or education in India. Right from primary school to the University this system of unfair marking has proved to be a big problem! Well, everybody understand that. So whats the solution? Do we really have a good alternative except marks/grades to evaluate students? Yes, when u want to compare a group of 10 students maybe extra-curricular activites, independent research efforts and every other special skill a person has can come into play. But when you have to evaluate a crowd of two lakh students across an entire state -- do we have a system better than marks or grades?! I've been pondering over this for quite sometime now and I haven't been able to come up with an answer.

The point I was trying to make is that in my opinion its inevitable that a persons marks or grades will play an important role atlest in the early stages of one's career. So it's important that we as students learn to appreciate and respect its value. How many times have we written stories of our daily activities in a history exam just because we know that the teacher never bothers to read it!? How many times have we submitted reports that have absolutely no valuable content in them confident that nobody would ever read that report(Oh!... a guilty conscience...) ;)? This person from VTU would argue that if the teachers were strict and the curriculm better the students wouldn't behave in this manner. A Catch-22 situation I must say :)

-- But even in education as with most things in life you'd only get as much as u bargained for! We've heard of so many cases where students complain against not being marked fairly. Why, recently I even came across an article on Rediff which talked about a student who had his papers re-evaluated on intervention by the President of India and was awarded more marks! But how many times have we heard of students who have complained to the authorities for being over-marked ?! Yes, the system needs an overhaul. But the students as much as the teachers and the administrators are also a part of that system and until ~we~ as students learn to appreciate and respect the system no amount of reform can bring about a change! I'm suddenly reminded of a very popular tamil proverb which literally translates to "You can never wipe out theft until the thieves themselves decide to give it up!" -- Ok, that was a sad translation... but whatever... i'm sure all of u reading this (if there are any at all!) got the idea... Yes, we all live a hypocricy and we're happy to be non-engineers rather than non-graduates!!

Anonymous said...

Hmm... quite a discussion here I must say... and I guess it's not too late to enter!

First of all, any comments made in this post about the attitude of students come with a certain amount of guilt attached... being in with the crowd, I shared the attitude, copied assignments once in a while, faced a compre saying "I don't give a damn"... the list goes on... ha ha, in fact if you throw me in a college again, I'm sure I'll revert to my old ways!! So, I won't get to attitude problems of that kind...

Anyways... yup, I agree... there is a problem with the attitude students have... with BITS being a case in point, I think a person can get more out of the system, as it exists, that we actually do. 2 years of basic courses, I don't think there is anything wrong with that... those 15 odd courses that everyone does are pretty OK... (except MT-2 which I personally have major problems with)... and one is free to pursue any interests that might arise out of those 15 courses... Ranjith I think said that a college is about pursuing your interests "independantly"... exactly... it's not about spoon feeding... you're given a set of electives, you choose... it's as simple as that... think about it, everyone does OOP but who takes up a humanities elective. It's not like the system doesn't allow it, or makes it difficult for you, it favours both equally... and you do what you want to do... most people choose to follow the crowd...

In fact, as I write this, in this scenario, I think there is a problem other than the attitude... there are other kinds of people... there's one chap who thinks he should be getting more of CDC knowledge, who doesn't give a damn about GenB... from his point of view he thinks his discipline knowledge is getting affected by all those things he doesn't need... and while he would love to get to know how the whole world works, he doesn't want his core compromised... he thinks he doesn't need those 15 courses... 10 of the ones that would benefit him should do... and then maybe he can add to them with a couple of general electives... if he didn't have to use up his electives to gain core knowledge which he thinks his 6-7 CDCs didn't give him enough off, maybe he could have taken up Quantum Physics because he enjoyed it... or take up Principle of Economics... he doesn't have time for it in his 4 years...

You know what... I think this guy has a point...

Speaking from a personal point of view, I was lucky... as a dualite who didn't really care about one of his degrees, I had more time than the others... I could go on and take a SOP in poetry or learn about how stock exchanges work or take up fundamentals of finance... I had time... but for a 4 year course, actually 3 and a half, people would give their discipline their first priority... and have to compromise on stuff they would otherwise have done... after all, not everyone wants to load up 9 courses...

- Rahul Misra