Online Education Is A Way Of Avoiding Physical Contact

In an exclusive interview, Subhasis Chaudhuri, Director, IIT Bombay discusses with BW Businessworld’s Prarthana Banerjee, how IIT B has created ‘super numeral receipts’ to promote gender equality in engineering education. From this year onwards, 20 per cent of undergraduate students at IITB will be women. He also underlines the importance of building one’s network and developing soft skills. Excerpts:

The institute’s strategic plan (2017-22) included improv­ing the number of women students. It is mid-2020 al­ready. How successful is IIT Bombay in doing the same?

IIT Bombay is an engineering school predominantly. In In­dia, especially in higher education, it’s almost 50:50, so that’s pretty good for the overall education scenario in India. But in the engineering sector, it is much lower, particularly in science and mathematics. But I would say that at the undergraduate level we have created something called super numeral receipts or women students and because of that from this year on­wards we will have almost 20 per cent of our undergraduate students to be women. We have close to 30 per cent of the postgraduate section would be women. For our workforce, I think we need to work a little harder. So right now it’s less than 10 per cent in IIT Bombay, but we are trying to see where more women can be brought in as faculty members and can assign them some administrative roles so that there will be more women. It’s not possible to do overnight, we are working towards it and hopefully, in another 5-10 years, we will have a healthier number, i.e. 30-35 per cent female students.

COVID-19 has forced universities across India, and the world indeed, to suspend physical classrooms and shift to online classes. Do you think that e-learning can someday replace traditional classrooms?

I put education in three different buckets. One is basic learn­ing, second is skill development, and the third, once you have enough learning experience, is incremental learning. In case of incremental learning, I think online education and others play a good role. So when your kids grow up during the edu­cation it mixes them with a lot of people. So you develop a lot of soft skills — you learn how to live life, how to appreciate somebody else, who is different from you, how to ask a ques­tion about gender, if you’re a boy, how you should deal with a girl, etc. Secondly, when you do learn and you go up the value chain, it is important to actually know networking. But at the same time if you look at the education, the way it is delivered in the current day, these platforms and others are absolutely flat, dull and boring. It’s a good service, a computational service but what about my body language? There are technology, which is currently available where you have some kind of augmented reality, virtual presence. I know the technology exists but right now it’s not the right point where it can be put into a system. Maybe in 15-20 years, when this kind of dimensional­ity gets embedded into your learning platform, actually the value of online education will go up drastically. Right now, this is purely a way of avoiding physical contact.

Campus experience plays a proactive role in the process of imparting education to students. How does IIT-B plan to replicate campus experience through the virtual mode?

In IIT, what we have is actually the campus and ambience that actually plays a big role in cre­ating an IITian. The students are dying to get the experience because you actually talk, discuss and dwell with your colleagues at a high level in terms of intellectual capabilities. Now what we are trying to do is that we are using the students that we have in different categories and get them involved in some kind of opportunities on on­line forums, so they can have discussions, they can have certain competitions. So some kind of relationship-building over the online platforms is there to keep them in touch with their friends. Some of our students who are not on-board, it will be difficult for them to make friends online, but for those who are continuing, which is 75 per cent of our students will be continuing, they already know their friends because they were in the campus. We are not sure what happens to the new group students who would be coming in be­cause they are all individuals and when they are put up in a single platform, they don’t know each other. We will try to think of some innovative way.

Talking of virtual teaching, we cannot ignore the fact that many students might not have access to the Internet. So are you planning to take care of the less privileged families?

India is a diverse nation. A group of people would be having trouble but at the same time you have to realise until we allow people to go slowly and keep moving up, they cannot take the rest of the people along with them to grow. So only when I grow I can help my friends, my other relatives, and people, create jobs and get these people together. For us, as 60 per­cent of our students come from various kinds of categories and many of them come from extremely poor backgrounds. So, we anticipated this kind of problem and started fund rais­ing, where we appeal people to come and help because these are the futures of tomorrow and they will come back. Thanks to our alumni, who are based in the US, they promised Rs 2.3 crore. The whole purpose is that we want to keep it in a reserve pool so that tomorrow if again something happens, some kind of pandemic, this money will be again used. We have to make a commitment to the students, who come from a poor background.

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online education Subhasis Chaudhuri director iit bombay

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