Mysore: James Kurose, a computer science professor from the University of Massachusetts, is all ears as he engages students and tries to figure out their queries. They come thick and fast in a rich mix of Indian regional accents.
It all resembles a typical classroom, except that the students here are teachers from engineering colleges, with at least 10 years of experience, training under a novel and ambitious programme of the Indo US Collaboration on Engineering Education, or IUCEE.
Rich mix: James Kurose, a computer science professor from the University of Massachusetts, with teachers at the Infosys campus, Mysore.
Summer Leadership Institute (SLI), as the teaching programme is called, is a unique effort to make engineering education and research global — both in curriculum and participation, which in its first year started on 26 May. The initiative will host 23 workshops conducted by professors from the US to train 600 teachers from smaller engineering colleges across India. The programme, which will end in early July, is put together by IUCEE and the American Society of Engineering Education, or ASEE. Given the high energy levels that participants display at the Global Education Centre located at the 380-acre campus of software services firm Infosys Technologies Ltd here, the SLI could mark the beginning of a new chapter in technical education. All the workshops are broadcast live through Edusat, a education satellite of the Indian Space Research Organisation, to more than 50 colleges in the country.
“I’ve always felt that we’ve not focused on the quality of higher education in India,” says N.R. Narayana Murthy, chief mentor and chairman of the board, Infosys Technologies, who’s contributed one-third of the $1 million (Rs4.3 crore) cost of SLI. The aim of this programme, he adds, is to bring the best in class engineering teaching methodology as well as professors to India. “We wanted to take a focused area; and help our teachers understand how to teach with a problem-solving approach,” says Murthy.
As inspired and charged as the professors from the US look, they are surprised to find that, much like the US, India too does not focus at all on the art of teaching. “In the US, people get into teaching after completing their PhD and are assumed to have the skill of teaching, which is not correct,” says Kurose. In India things are worse; barely 20% of teachers here, with the exception of the best engineering schools, even have PhDs.
Apart from dealing with core engineering subjects, the programme dwells upon soft skills—effective teaching, faculty development, strategies for effective course design and delivery. There’s also a course on preparing India for the Washington Accord membership, an international agreement among bodies that accredit engineering degree programmes.
“Teachers have to learn to match their teaching with the learning skills of students,” says Joseph Tront from Virginia Technological University, which leads most other colleges in the US in terms of its use of technology in teaching. So, it wasn’t surprising when his students come out mesmerized by the scope of a tablet PC and electronic ink, which Tront amply demonstrates.
“I know it’s expensive by Indian standards, but I’d still convince my university to make it available for a few courses; it transforms students’ participation in class,” says B. Abirami, a teacher from Sastra University in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu.
Initially, it’ll be largely one-way interaction, but IUCEE and ASEE aim to expand the network to involve researchers from the US as well, says Krishna Vedula, a professor from the University of Massachusetts, who is coordinating the summer programme.
India has scale and very low affordability; and now it also has new-found confidence which rests on “demonstrated success, knowledge of sophisticated technology and management skills”; all this in combination can lead India to come up with solutions, says Gururaj ‘Desh’ Deshpande, technology entrepreneur and founder of Sycamore Networks Inc. “This innovation going on in India, is more evident to scholars outside of India than those inside. As a result there is lot of interest on the part of faculty and students to spend time in India,” says Deshpande, who has also funded one-third of the cost of programme. “...global leaders and educators will have to be connected with India.” But such connectivity costs money.
That’s why Vedula is lobbying the Planning Commission and the ministry of human resource and development to garner some government support for this programme, which took off courtesy Murthy’s and Deshpande’s personal contribution and Infosys’s infrastructure support.
“We are aiming for a Rs50 crore grant for a five-year period so that we can concentrate more on the curriculum and outreach, rather than on fund-raising,” says Vedula, who’s also contemplating a revenue model within the programme to make it self-sustainable. Though Murthy says that such a programme should never be for-profit, both he and Deshpande believe that once the institutions and industry realize the value of the teaching programme, they’ll come forward to make it self-sustainable.