Stay Rigid, Stay Foolish: Lessons From A Young Institute

In the midst of continued virulence of Covid-19, the freshman year kicks off virtually across premier Indian engineering institutes this week. Symbolic of the unprecedented times we are in, the International Institute of Information Technology Hyderabad has taken some extraordinary measures – from seamlessly conducting the admissions process to tweaking the curriculum and assessment schemes in response to student feedback. Here’s a closer look at how the institute is riding the wave.  

It is well past the scheduled hour (7.30 pm) on a Wednesday and there’s a clamour among excited IIITH freshmen for an extension of the guest lecture – a talk by a renowned expert on neuroscience speaking of the plasticity of the brain. While it may sound like all in a day’s work of virtual classes at a technical institute, two things make it unique. One, these students belong to an early incoming batch of first year undergraduates (UG1) that kickstarted classes back in September 2020. This means that while their coursework is well under way, another set of their peers is going to begin classes only from this week. Second, is the course itself – a uniquely designed one from scratch with half the number of credits and hours required to complete it, thus earning it the moniker of a ‘half course’. These are just part of a slew of measures undertaken by the institute to face the pandemic-induced challenges of academic education.

One Batch; Two Sections

Explaining how two asynchronous batches of UG1 students came about, Prof. Jayanthi Sivaswamy, Dean, Academics, first draws attention to the different modes of admission at IIITH. Apart from the JEE (Mains) mode of selection, the institute conducts its own entrance exam for applicants to the Dual Degree program. In addition to this, it also conducts a computer-based exam for exceptionally bright students who are eligible under CBSE’s UDAAN scheme. Then there’s the Olympiad mode – where students who have been selected to represent India at various International Olympiads are automatically shortlisted. Similarly those with KVPY (Kishore Viagyanik Protsahan Yojana) scholarship rank of 5000 or more are eligible for interview. Finally there is the Direct Admissions to Students Abroad (DASA) mode which is based on SAT and SAT subject scores of students who have completed 11th and 12th grades outside of India. Thanks to the uncertainty around the initial lockdown, the institute’s entrance exams which were due to be held in April were eventually conducted in June. Interviews which typically follow the exams for shortlisted candidates seamlessly assumed the online avatar. “We spent a lot of effort in making sure that the admissions process was not interrupted because of the pandemic. Due to this, while the academic year for existing students began on 10th August, all new PG students came only a week late, on 17th August. It was because we could act and take decisions quickly, and swing into action. There was no undue delay,” says Prof. Sivaswamy. While all the other modes of admission were completed by August, for the JEE mode which is beyond the control of the institute, admissions were wrapped up as recently as last week. And rather than have the first set of UG students bide their time and live with uncertainty, the institute took a bold decision of splitting the incoming batch into two and began virtual classes for the first set (known as Section A) of admitted students just a month later than usual, on 14th September.

The Twain Shall Meet

The second set of students which officially begins classes from November 23rd is referred to as Section B. When the initial decision was taken to split the batch, there was uncertainty about when the second batch would begin. “We didn’t know when JEE would be conducted, when the results would come out and so on. Everything was so fluid and we even announced that Section A would interact with their other batchmates only in the next academic year. But once we got to know we could start Section B in November, we did a rethink and announced a revised term, called the ‘hybrid term’ where the two sections overlap for a period of two weeks,” says Prof. Sivaswamy. With a relatively light load of a single course between December and February for Section A, it is in Term 2 (February through May) that both the sections will be completely synchronised. The intricate planning behind this seemingly seamless transition has required a considerable amount of jugglery by the Academic Affairs office.

Warm Welcome and Low Load

The first week of kicking off the academic year(s) sees newbies welcomed to the institute and campus via an immersive induction program where they are introduced to the plethora of activities available to indulge in. This year was no different, except that the induction was entirely digital. To give the students a virtual feel of the campus, an interactive map was published too. However during one of the weekly informal interactions, the faculty sensed a burning curiosity from them to experience the campus first-hand. The faculty indulged them by video-recording a walking tour of the entire campus with the help of an eye-tracker, complete with a running commentary.

As far as academics is concerned, recognising the challenges faced by freshmen in transitioning to a new scholastic milieu coupled with constraints of the virtual medium, the institute has tweaked the syllabus for them. “Most of them are very young 17-18 year-olds who have studied only 3 subjects – Physics, Math and Chemistry- for the last two years. Hence we thought a regular semester is not an acceptable plan and designed a term for them with only 3 subjects,” says Prof. Sivaswamy.

With no scope for a physical induction and face-to-face interactions, the need to build a community to work together to overcome learning and teaching challenges was felt. Now, informal weekly or bi-weekly meetings with faculty and groups of 10-12 students are held. There is no fixed agenda and free flowing discussions or general chit-chat are encouraged. The idea is to make the newcomers feel connected to the institute. And with mandatory turning on of cameras, the idea of conversing with a live person is reinforced too. 18-year-old P who joined through the DASA mode credits the involvement of the Apex members too in making newbies feel comfortable. “It felt like we were discussing our problems with friends. They made us feel like one big family,” he says. He also mentions the crucial role played by professors and TAs in making sure everyone is on the same page and don’t face difficulties in completing assignments. “My respect for Suresh Purini sir especially has just grown over the course. He is always ready to clarify doubts no matter how silly they are. And he gave us a lot of extensions for labs as many of us are new to computer  programming,” says P. This academic year, IIITH introduced a new Diversity pool for admissions. Though the term implies more than gender alone, for starters the goal is to ensure a more equitable representation of women students. As a follow-up of this initiative, there have been special women-only interactions with female faculty members.

Dynamic Responses and Flexibility

When the lockdown was imposed early this year, like other educational institutes, IIITH too quickly transitioned to the online mode of instruction. With an informal mandate of showing compassion towards students with extraordinary learning circumstances, a revised assessment scheme was put in place along with an option to withdraw grades too.  Online attendance as well as participation was impressive and the institute went on to close its Spring semester on time. It even successfully conducted and live streamed its eConvocation on the originally planned date. The continuing pandemic meant that the new academic term had to be planned to be online. “We had to do a curriculum shift. We had to move out hardware courses and bring in courses that are scheduled for later forward to fill in those slots,” says Prof. Sivaswamy. When online classes resumed in the Monsoon semester, things were drastically different. “When online learning was first imposed, everyone responded enthusiastically because it was a novel experience. But with it being a sustained one, a plethora of problems came to the fore,” says Prof. Sivaswamy.

The institute discovered that while students were capable of dealing with a lot more academic pressure whilst on campus, they were unable to do the same in the home environment. Differing individual family situations, lack of private spaces to study in, non-uniform access to good internet connectivity, and most importantly the absence of peer to peer learning were some global issues plaguing students everywhere. But it wasn’t students alone who were grappling with the shift. Faculty had a tough time transitioning completely to the virtual mode of instruction too. For this, a month-long course on Online Pedagogy was conducted in Summer. It was so well received that the course was thrown open to all interested educators. It covered topics such as the creation of online content, selection of appropriate hardware tools required to create courses, methods of delivering engaging content and conducting fair evaluation.

Student Feedback

Even as individual faculty members were dealing with the online teaching challenge by replacing exams and invigilation with quizzes, assessments and slip tests to ensure attendance, the Student Parliament conducted a survey among students to gauge their experience of online academics in the Monsoon semester. While 66% of those surveyed reported an increase in time spent on academics, a whopping 82% said that stress due to academics had increased. They attributed the increased stress to a significant increase in online workload and consequent screen time. “Some quizzes require content and preparation that is equivalent to that of a Mid-Sem,” said a Dual Degree student. Another said,”And surprise quizzes in the middle of chores/ family time have been a problem (where recorded lectures were meant to be of help).” Most research students complained of having no time to devote to their honours research work, with all their waking hours spent on coursework. Overwhelmed by the extra responsibilities by virtue of being at home, there was a chorus of voices pleading for a well-deserved mid-semester academic break.

 

Institute Response

When these findings were presented at a faculty meeting, it made the policy-makers do a rethink. One of the first things they did was to prohibit a course overload. Along with reducing the duration of the semester, a reduction in the course syllabus too was announced. To further lighten the burden, the number of courses a student can register for in each term was restricted to 3. The grade P (for Pass) was reinstated based on popular demand. Students can opt for it in case their grades are below B with the exception of the F (for Fail). What first started as an option for research students with particular connectivity issues and difficult home environments to move to campus (provided families supported that move), has now been extended to undergraduates too if they have real difficulties in online learning. For faculty facing problems in instructing courses with equations and/or graphics, they were encouraged to procure graphics tablets. For those residing on campus, rooms equipped with such devices have been set up for them to use while instructing virtually. Responding to students’ pleas, a plan to conduct the second semester as two 11-week terms, with fewer courses per term was considered seriously. However, the students were worried about the consequent extension of the academic session to early June and unknowns associated with completing a course in a shorter time. Subsequently, a more structured online instruction with a mid-semester break of a week or so has been adopted for the upcoming Spring semester. “In terms of increased screen time though, we don’t have a solution because now we see it’s not just about online education. Recreational activities too for students are online, faculty meetings are online, and the working day has just expanded with no separation between personal and work life,” rues Prof. Sivaswamy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sarita Chebbi is a minimalist runner, practising yogi and baker of all things whole-wheat, and sugar-free. Currently re-learning her ABC’s…the one that goes: A for algorithm, B for Bayesian, C for convolutional (neural network)….

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