Our classroom is becoming more flexible, hybrid: Prof Bhaskar Ramamurthi, director, IIT Madras

By: |
September 13, 2021 4:00 AM

While it has bagged the top rank in ‘Overall’ category for the third consecutive year, in ‘Engineering’ IIT Madras has been at the top for six consecutive years.

Prof Bhaskar RamamurthiProf Bhaskar Ramamurthi, director, IIT Madras, shares how Covid-19 has changed the classroom

Indian Institute of Technology Madras (IIT Madras) has been ranked the best institute in India in both ‘Overall’ and ‘Engineering’ categories in the National Institute Ranking Framework (NIRF) 2021, released last week. While it has bagged the top rank in ‘Overall’ category for the third consecutive year, in ‘Engineering’ IIT Madras has been at the top for six consecutive years. Prof Bhaskar Ramamurthi, director, IIT Madras, shares with FE’s Vikram Chaudhary how Covid-19 has changed the classroom, the initiatives IIT Madras has been taking towards internationalisation, and why rankings are important but should not be the end-goal. Excerpts:

How easy or difficult is it for IITs to align with the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020?

We were able to anticipate and implement in advance many of the recommendations of the NEP. These include multidisciplinary education, multiple exit pathways, and so on. For example, at IIT Madras, a student can pivot from one branch to another, pursuing a double degree such as aerospace with data science; we have 10-12 such upgrade pathways and these are getting popular amongst students. Today, a student can decide which stream to master in even after three years of study.

Similarly, the NEP focuses on online education; through the National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning (NPTEL)—the world’s largest online repository of courses in basic sciences, engineering and select humanities and social sciences subjects—we have been experimenting with online education for about 10 years.

We also launched the online BSc in Programming and Data Science degree course last year.

Will you also host MOOCs to attract foreign students, like IIT Bombay has done with edX?

Our NPTEL courses are taken up by a lot of people from outside India, and the BSc online degree we are planning to offer abroad, but because of the pandemic we have gone a little slow. We conduct exams in person, because integrity is important, but due to the pandemic our ability to conduct exams in person is limited. We are working with partners in foreign countries. The aim is to ensure that our online degrees are in no way inferior to on-campus degrees.

How many PhD students do you currently host?

We have about 3,000 PhD students and about 1,000 MS (by Research) students, so 40% of our student population is into research.

Since inception, we have readied 5,600 PhD students and 4,000 MS (by Research) students—an average of 100 per year (from 1964-65 till 2014). Since 2014, IIT Madras and other IITs have been ramping up their PhD student intake, and we are graduating about 400 PhD students per year. This number (5,600 PhDs) will double in about 12 years. The need for PhD students is much higher right now; industry is doing much more R&D than it used to earlier.

Has Covid-19 changed the way IITs will teach students?

Before the pandemic some faculty members (especially younger ones) used to record lectures and upload on the cloud so that students could revisit these. Faculty like me were more chalk and talk. After the lockdown, all faculty members have gotten comfortable with online teaching. While we will go back to classroom teaching, we will have a much more flexible and hybrid approach.

How will it benefit students?

It will give them a lot more flexibility. Before the pandemic, an IIT Madras student had to be on campus physically; she could take a couple of days off, but classroom experience was a must. Going forward, students may be able to take a couple of weeks of a course online. Some things have changed forever.

Even our admission process for PhD students will change. Earlier, students were required on the campus for interviews, but now we realise it was self-limiting. We are doing online interviews, saving a lot of their and our time, and have been able to reach out to some bright students from the hinterland.

Have you already started changing the classroom at IIT Madras?

Yes, we have started upgrading our classroom. Everything being taught is also going onto the cloud. While face-to-face teaching remains important, it will turn from simply writing on the board and transmitting information to a much more interactive process.

Even with the faculty we have realised that productivity has gone up massively during the lockdown.

What are your views on global rankings? Seven IITs (including IIT Madras) continue to boycott the Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings…

Rankings, global or domestic, are important, but these shouldn’t be the end-goal. Taking the analogy of a classroom of 50 students, there will be toppers and those that don’t rank high. It doesn’t mean that the topper will do something unusual in life and that the 50th ranked student won’t.

As far as global rankings are concerned, these don’t really help an Indian student select an Indian college.

Does this imply that the NIRF is more important (for Indian institutes and students) than global rankings?

Among other things, the NIRF has put hitherto unknown colleges in the student’s consideration set. For example, a college from Trichy getting ranked high on the NIRF will get into the consideration set of a student from north India as well.

Have any job offers been cancelled for IIT Madras students due to the pandemic?

IIT students are perceived, and rightly so, as being the cream of the crop; I don’t think a lot of our students lost job offers specifically due to the pandemic. Last year, job offers of 28-odd students were taken back, and but we were able to place many of them by running a second round of placements; this year, 14-15 students had the job offers taken away, but I am sure they’ll get placed.

Why even the best of Indian institutes are not able to attract as many global students as colleges in, let’s say, UK or Australia do?

We must understand that when students go to those countries for higher studies, they also want to work there. Unless India becomes an employment destination for foreigners in a big way, I don’t think we will get as many foreign students.

Tell me why Indian students go to Australia to study? One reason is that most cannot get into a similarly good university in India (due to the competition). Another reason is they know they can work in Australia for some time (at high wages). The reason for going there to study is also employment.

But doesn’t studying in a multicultural and multinational campus give them an edge? Certain foreign universities boldly declare that an advantage they have is global outlook…

It definitely does. But also understand that some universities in the US, Australia, England and other countries have students from multiple nationalities because their survival depends on such students. They will collapse if they don’t get foreign students, and that’s why they play up such advantages (diversity on the campus). At the same time, a lot of these countries also depend on high-quality immigration. As long as Indian companies will continue hiring majorly Indians for various reasons (including the fact that there are so many qualified Indians looking for a job), I don’t think we can expect a similar kind of rush to Indian universities.

How feasible is imparting engineering education in vernacular languages, both from a classroom point of view (availability of good teachers) and from a working life point of view (the knowledge of English may give Indians an advantage)?

I don’t buy the second argument. Most MNCs have bigger centres in China than anywhere else in the world, and the Chinese don’t speak English, nor do Germans or Koreans or Japanese.

We are the only major country that has been teaching higher education in a foreign language.

From a student’s point of view, if you go to the hinterland, a lot of students have done their schooling in a local language, and many of them are from a relatively deprived background. Now if they have to deal with language once they enter an engineering college, it can get tough for them.

The time has come for us to remove the language barrier for students. You can learn English on the fly during and after your engineering as well.

But what about finding good vernacular teachers in engineering?

Today, if you ask me to teach engineering in Tamil, I will likely mix Tamil and English to teach. Remember, students are not learning literature here, they are learning engineering, and that dissemination of knowledge should be in the tone they understand.

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