Saturday, 5 March 2016

Perhaps a more balanced view (Institutes of Science and Technology / Universities)

We have IITs (which can often be perceived as essentially being institutes of technology which also have science departments) and IISERs (which are out and out science institutes with no technology component). What we need instead in my opinion is "IISTs" (Indian Institutes of Science and Technology) [or better still: universities; more on that later in the post*] which emphasize science and technology equally. One way to do this would be to rename all our IITs, IISERs and NISER as IISTs (Indian Institutes of Science and Technology) and have them offer academic programs accordingly.

[Alongside, an option of "converting to an IIST through detailed evaluation by a team of experts" can be made available to all government institutes (state as well as central) in the country including, but not limited to, NITs, IIITs, etc.]

Another approach, which would be better in my opinion, is instead of having "chains of institutes" with the same overall brand name (IITs, IISERs, NITs, etc. or IISTs as I have suggested above), we have individual brand names. [Note that this can be done without foregoing the safeguards built into the Institutes of Technology Act. By no stretch of imagination am I suggesting a migration to the UGC paradigm.]

For example, say one of the IITs was renamed to "CV Raman Institute of Science and Technology". Then that would be a brand name in itself and it would be the responsibility of the institute to keep its brand name strong. It would not have the luxury to think of itself as good just because it is called an IIT. Plus consider this: Aren't all institutes in India Indian?

Such an approach would (a) bring respect and acknowledgment to people who have done well in science and technology from within the country, (b) serve as an inspiration to budding scientists and engineers in our country and (c) break the tendency of any particular set of institutes being considered better than others just because they are named in a certain way.

To understand point (c) better, think about new IITs that are opening up. Automatically, without even having put in the effort to build themselves up to a certain standard, they will have a brand strength stronger than some of the NITs which have been around for a while but are "defined" to be "second tier". This is hardly fair and has a sense of casteism about it: higher or lower by birth / family. I think we need to question this. Maybe its better to create a level playing field and let institutes earn their respectability based on the quality of knowledge generation and transmission.

*To take my emphasis on the desirability of increased generality one step further: Instead of having institutes focused on science and technology (with a presence of Humanities and Social Sciences departments), it is perhaps better to move to the idea of Universities. That will allow for a far more flexible paradigm within which places of learning can evolve in potentially more diverse ways. An immediate benefit of this would be students having opportunities to explore a more diverse range of subjects, interact with a wider spectrum of academics and grow in directions in which their interests consolidate.

[Again, note that this can be done without foregoing the safeguards built into the Institutes of Technology Act. By no stretch of imagination am I suggesting a migration to the UGC paradigm.]

So to revisit Paragraphs 3 and 4 above: Maybe IITs, NITs, IISERs, NISER and IIITs need to move towards having individual brand names such as C. V. Raman University, Aryabhatta University, etc. and move forward in a more academically comprehensive and rich manner.

In addition I think it's about time to challenge the "government universities are necessarily better than private universities" mindset. To drive home my point I simply point out that Cornell University as well as Stanford University are private universities. We need to see a similar emergence of high quality private universities that are committed to academic excellence from India.

I think what I'm proposing here achieves many objectives.

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Making modern knowledge accessible to non english speaking populations

There are two routes to connecting those who haven't been through (or are not presently in) an english medium school to modern knowledge in different subjects:
1. Teach them english first and then they have access to it.
2. Translate books in different languages so that they can be accessed directly in languages people are already comfortable with.
I suppose both routes can be followed depending on which way the interest lies at different times and places. However I would emphasize the second route more because of the following consideration:
There is a very very large percentage of our population that doesn't know english (which may not be a bad thing :)smile emoticonbecause for them english continues to be a "foreign language" and (hopefully) for several of these people their sense of self worth doesn't depend on knowing english). So it would just be more efficient. I suppose if we take up the task of translating books in different subjects seriously and find translators (in say the 15 languages listed on our currency notes to start with) we can make modern knowledge available to a whole lot of people within say about a year. Contrast this with the time that would be required to teach the english language first to maybe millions of people.
I've been told China has done this.
Note that basic english can still be taught so that people can communicate easier when they travel, etc. But to require that the knowledge of any one language be essential to be "educated" is a big stretch in my opinion.
PS: An example to perhaps drive home the point: When I was doing my PhD I needed to refer to a thesis from France. Guess was in French. Neither are the French apologetic about doing their science (and I suppose all other subjects) in French nor are the Americans disdainful of them because they choose to continue treating their own language as their primary language in their own country (which is perhaps how it ought to be :)smile emoticon ). Perhaps there is a cue for us somewhere here.
And no :) smile emoticon, a knowledge of english is by no means an indicator of being "more intelligent" or "more educated" (certainly not "more civilized" as even a cursory knowledge of history will quite likely assure you). In fact I believe that many, if not all, of our Indic languages are more refined and expressive than english. It's just a pity that we are not paying enough attention to them.

[PS: And as an analogy, perhaps we ought to stop considering chocolates as our "national sweet", or for that matter "patloons and shirts" as our "national costume". I leave further extrapolations to you...]

Questioning "fixed durations" for different levels of education

One mindset that we need to question in my opinion is different levels of education being associated with a fixed number of years. For example, it is generally expected that everyone take 12 years for high school education. Why should that be so? If someone can move faster, why not? On the other hand if someone needs more time, what's the problem? The point is to learn and understand different subjects properly. Whether one does it in 8 years or 12 years or 15 is hardly relevant in my opinion. Secondly, I think we need to think about bringing in a system which allows different subjects to be covered at different speeds. For example Maths may come easy to someone while Chemistry may take a bit of time. Why not allow such a student to move from year to year faster in Maths and slower in Chemistry?
Likewise for undergraduate education. We have fixed notions: 3 years for B.A. / B.Sc / B.Com, 4 years for B.E. / B.Tech., etc. Again, why should we think of these programs in terms of any fixed duration of time? Instead, wouldn't it be better to focus on what needs to be learned and absorbed properly and be flexible about the time it may take someone to do so? If someone finishes their B.Tech. in 3 years: Cool. If someone takes 7: That's cool too. (Within reasonable limits of course: we don't want people becoming lazy in the name of learning slowly)
A couple of Institutes that I know of in India that have tried to bring in this flexibility at the undergraduate level through the idea of focusing on the "number of credits to be accumulated" instead of "number of years required" are IIT Kanpur and IIT Bombay. I think its a cool initiative. Maybe such an approach needs to be contemplated upon by more schools, colleges, different boards and regulatory bodies.