Innovation in academics: Dr. UB Desai, Founding Director, IIT Hyderabad

At the Dataquest T-Schools Higher Education Conference and Awards 2021 event, Dr. UB Desai, Founding Director, IIT Hyderabad, presented the opening keynote on innovation in academics. 

Do not confine your children to your own learning, for they are born in another time! That’s the perspective we need to keep in mind. Richard Fineman said: teach your students to doubt, to think, to communicate, to question, to make mistakes, to learn from their mistakes, and most importantly, have fun in their learning. We need to think differently!

The perceived role of higher education is to convey knowledge. You can create and develop ideas, create knowledge, inject new thoughts into society, develop future citizens, create a better society, learning to learn, innovations with new technologies, publish world-class papers, and prototype products.

New requirements for education is a combination of technological know-how, problem solving, critical thinking, soft skills, perseverance, collaboration, and empathy. One can also have lifelong learning. We can learn the importance of unstructured education. The future may be hybrid because of the pandemic.

Breadth with depth

Academics today should capture T-education — breadth with depth, critical thinking and problem solving, flexibility, foster multi-disciplinary education, have wider choice of electives, very early exposure to new science and technology development, etc. We should foster research at undergraduate level. We should also do learning by doing (Breaker Lab). We need to encourage creativity, design, critical thinking, empathy, perseverance, and collaboration.

Exploit ICT and collaborative classrooms! We need to implement collaborative classrooms for all courses and make lectures interactive. All classrooms should be smart, with digital media, tablets, etc. With smart classrooms collaborate across institutes in hybrid learning. We can make live things interactive, and use AR/VR.

We need to emphasize unstructured learning. Most formal education is highly unstructured. We can learn a lot from unstructured learning. The challenge is to incorporate that in the academic program. We need to evaluate and give credit to unstructured learning.

Experiential learning
The future needs experiential learning. Teaching and learning will involve lot more project work, chosen by students. Classes will involve group discussions, problem posing and solving, posing challenges and tackling, etc. We need to create an environment where students can challenge teachers.

We also need to build dynamism and modularity. For dynamism, make the education system agile so that it quickly responds to changes in science, technology, and aspirations of the youth. NEP 2000 talks about modularity. Future education will have to be modular in nature. The length, breadth, and depth of the module can be variable, depending on the subject.

NEP 2020 also talks about mobility, non-linearity, and design thinking. Modularity and flexibility can enable mobility and credit transfer. On achieving a certain number of specified credits, one can get a degree. A student can design their pace of study, and choose and change their path to education and specialization. Finally, creative design is becoming as important as engineering. Divide between engineering design and creative design is being bridged.

There is too much obsession in India with learning. We don’t have any better model for large scale. We need to have continuous or soft evaluation. We can give lot more weightage on projects, and on doing things. We need to give creative projects so that reports cannot be bought in the market. A bell-shaped curve exists for everything, irrespective of the evaluation system. We also need to pump in less information for students. We have 125-135 credits at IIT Hyderabad. Quality is very important.

We have fractal academics at IIT Hyderabad. There are courses of mainly 1-2 credits. Many high-tech courses are in the first year. We generate excitement in students in the very first year. We can facilitate interdisciplinary learning. There are large basket of non-technical courses, such as LA or liberal arts, and CA — creative arts and design. An example of the first semester at IIT Hyderabad was given. Students love this, and there can be problem of number management.

Fractal academics has been a success. Learning by breaking and making should happen. The objective is to get excitement early in the academic program. We need to bring fun back into education. We also need to have creative arts and design courses.

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