Home » Engineering Education » Teaching in IITs need a make-over; Part V: Professors should be engrossing storytellers

Teaching in IITs need a make-over; Part V: Professors should be engrossing storytellers

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The Times of India, Blogs |October 20, 2015,| Rajiv Shekhar in Elephants can dance | TOI |

When my son told me of his reason to switch from Electrical engineering to Economics, I was rudely awakened. In his Signal Processing course, the professor started off by stating “assume a signal is represented by a mathematical function f(x). Then the signal disappeared and thereafter the professor only talked about f(x).” Take a course on partial differential equation (PDE) offered by the mathematics department. As a tutor, I discovered the beauty of maths where a dry subject such as a PDE suddenly acquired a life of its own and promoted abstract thinking. But the language used by mathematicians was daunting and the lack of applications disappointing. If you ask an economist about the meaning of marginal cost, chances are that she will relate it to the first derivative of the cost curve. A student would rightfully ask “but, how does the math relate to the earth-bound transmission of Pluto’s photographs by New Horizon, the shape of a TGV engine, or the current price of arhar dal?”

Mathematics is omnipresent in IITs, for quantification of real-life phenomena is the essence of science and engineering. Unfortunately, students, more often than not, spend more time in understanding the intricacies in deriving the final equation, rather than appreciating its use in solving real-life engineering applications. Or, for that matter, equations in homework problems are solved mechanically without understanding the practical significance of the numbers. A student wouldn’t flinch even if, by some calculation error, the diameter of a sewer pipe comes out be 100 m. Can’t blame the students though, as relating maths to real-life has to do more with the learning environment. Equations actually tell a story, dying to be told! What we need is a breed of engrossing storytellers who understand both math and engineering in equal measure. A contradiction in itself, for most professors in IITs have grown up on a diet of journal papers, largely unconnected with the real world. This scenario is unlikely to change in the near future. Indian industry, living on imported technology with one-minded focus on profits, does not have the patience to nurture R&D. Even their own! IIT faculty live in a world where professional rewards are based on the number of publications, impact factors, and citation indices, largely unmindful of reality.

How do we relate math to engineering? IITs have to move from an individual to a collaborative teaching model. Professors who teach the same course normally do not share their teaching resources. The wisdom of experience and exuberance of youth remain unconnected. One way out is that for each course, the designated group of professors, in consultation with industry and R&D institutions create a database of real-life engineering examples associated with fundamental concepts. Of course, individual professors, as before, can garnish the course with their personal touch. But the key is sharing! Storytelling, I mean teaching, is a dynamic process. Teaching methodologies must adapt to the present-day students immersed in a connected, digital world. We faculty are unwilling to change, the major concession to modernity being the frequent use of PowerPoint (PPT) presentations in lectures, which ironically, may devitalize teaching. How do we overhaul the nuts and bolts of teaching? First, the course content should be reduced. If you think CBSE alone is guilty of burdening children with a mind-numbing syllabus, think again. IITs are equally culpable. When IITs switched to the four year UG program in 1980, the five year content was still retained, resulting in a significant increase in the overall academic load. Although the course load has gradually reduced over the years, individual courses are still heavily loaded. The emphasis on covering the course content results in a frenetic pace of instruction. Consequently, lectures are primarily monologues and a comprehensive understanding of the subject becomes a casualty.

How do we make the lectures interesting and devoid of unnecessary details? One way is the flipped classroom approach (FCA), fine-tuned by IIMs, where students watch videos and read course materials in advance. Lectures are then devoted to understanding the finer points through two-way interactions and problem solving. Implementation of FCA means changing students’ mindset towards learning, as they tend to study before quizzes and exams. Strictness, role playing games, apt quizzes and grading strategy should change students’ outlook towards FCA. Using FCA in large classes would indeed be daunting and calls for more innovative interventions. Careful construct of quizzes and examinations is important too, primarily because the importance students attach to grades. A professor may elegantly bring real-life engineering to the classroom. But, if exams consist of numerical problems that can be solved mechanically, you can be sure “Love’s labour will be lost,” for students know how to work the system for good grades. Another important aspect of exams is often overlooked by professors. Students are asked to solve problems where all necessary data are provided. Engineering is about guesstimating missing data to solve problems. What about modern tools such as PowerPoint Presentations (PPTs), video lectures and MOOCS? By themselves they may not add significantly to the learning process. In fact, PPTs act as double-edged swords. It is a great tool for illustrating concepts through pictures and animations. However, using PPTs indiscriminately as the predominant content delivery tool is fraught with danger. Lectures can metamorphose into research seminars, with the inevitable increase in the speed of instruction. An extremely painful learning experience for students!

Video lectures for most students would be the modern avatar of text books, to be “mugged” before exams. It is difficult to visualize present-day students viewing hours of video lectures when more engaging non-academic alternatives are present in the net. Video lectures will be a helpful learning tool only if it is integrated with the FCA. Since mobiles are the lifeline of GenY, the mobile platform is the best bet for effective content delivery. Hour long video lectures are passé. They should be replaced by a series of short videos explaining concepts and the attendant applications, with the help of attractive animations. We can then pray hard and hope that instead of habitually surfing the net during their spare time, students will get hooked to these short videos. I eagerly look forward to using WhatsApp to conduct the “Fastest Fingers First” quiz in my forthcoming course.  DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.Courtesy   /      Elephants can dance  :  This blog explores strategies that would catapult IITs among the pantheon of the elite global universities and bridge the considerable technology gap between India and the West…Read More at TOI Blog      /       Dr. Rajiv Shekhar – IIT Kanpur


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