As the social media went abuzz with the news about Jio Institute being given “Institute of Eminence”, my thoughts immediately went to 2001-02, when Reliance had set up its first “Greenfield” University in Gandhinagar – Dhirubhai Ambani Institute of Information and Communication Technology (DA-IICT). I was a scientist working as Project Leader at Institute for Plasma Research, Gandhinagar on Nuclear Fusion. One day, on my office table, I saw a two page write-up about DA-IICT along with a Call for Faculty. Salary being offered at that time was nearly 2-3 times compared to what was being offered in Govt Systems. I looked at and ignored it since I was interested in carrying forward my work on Nuclear Fusion (I was probably the first person from India to have done PhD in Nuclear Fusion) and did not bother to respond to the call.
After some time I got a request from Dr Kudchadker (some time in June/July 2001) to meet him at temporary office of DA-IICT at Gandhinagar. As it was close to my house, I met him in the evening. He explained to me about what they were planning to do at the Institute and asked me to join it. I was bit surprised since I was not looking for a job. He explained that my name had come up as a computer expert and so he wanted me to join. I told him that I am devoted to Nuclear Fusion work and cannot shift. He then requested me to teach a course as visiting faculty to which I agreed. After 2-3 days, I went to see the campus and all I could see was lot of construction going on. I wondered how they can start teaching in such a situation with only couple of weeks remaining for classes to start. I was told that due to massive earthquake in Gujarat on Jan 26, 2001, the initiation of construction work got delayed. But they were trying very hard to meet the deadline by accelerating the speed of construction.
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Academics were paramount not cost
I could not manage to get the official permission for teaching as visiting faculty due to some reasons in the first semester. But I used to visit the campus many times for various functions. I came to know that the first batch classes started, as scheduled, on Aug 6, 2001. However electricity connection from the State Board was still pending so no electricity was available on the first day. However a massive generator set was brought by Reliance group from Jamnagar in the night and whole campus was made to run on generator set from 2nd day till the Semester break. Shift to state electricity board grid was done in the break to avoid disruption to academic process. This meant massive expense on the cost of diesel etc but made sure that campus started on time and there was no disturbance to students due to transition from one source of electricity to the other.
I got official permission to be a visiting faculty in the 2nd semester of operation of DA-IICT in Jan 2002. This was a period when academic programs were being formulated. There were only 5-6 faculty members and all of us used to share a common sitting area as rest of the infrastructure was still to be built. To avoid disturbance to the academic program, constructions were planned to be carried out only during vacations. It was bit chaotic hearing voice of each other in the common area but also allowed great interaction and bonding among all of us. I started to enjoy my interaction with students and decided to shift full time to DA-IICT as Professor towards end of June 2002.
ICT Discipline and Pedagogy
Reliance group was requested to start an IT Institute in Gandhinagar to promote Information Technology in the state along with Infocity plan of the State Govt. However based on technology trends, Reliance decided to offer a program in ICT (Information and Communication Technology). Idea for this came from the fact that technologies were converging. A device like mobile phone uses Electronics, Communication as well as Computer Science. Our academic system still worked in the divided disciplines. Our regulatory authorities were also reluctant to change.
When I joined IIT Kharagpur in 1976, students were taken after 11 years of school education and undergraduate engineering degree was for 5 years. In the first year of this program all students were taught same courses – typically Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics and few others. I had opted for Physics but courses were common with engineering students. Few years later, we changed over to taking students after 12 years of school education and UG degree program was reduced to 4 years. Most existing institutions continued to follow the first year as earlier with courses in Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics etc. This meant that effectively engineering part of the curriculum reduced to 3 years instead of 4 years.
Since DA-IICT was a “green-field” project, we took a fresh look at academic system in the country. We were creating a new discipline of ICT without any baggage. We discussed with International Advisory Group and had several round of discussions with other academic experts to plan out our academic program. We organized a 2 days workshop to discuss our UG program sometime in 2002. Prof Sanjay Dhande (then Director, IIT Kanpur) commented to me that he is afraid of us. I was bit surprised and asked him about it. He said that you have the freedom to adjust the curriculum dynamically, while we have 10 years cycle to do that !
We decided to let students learn basics of Computer Science, Communication and Electronics in the first two years as core course. From 5th semester onwards electives were offered and from 6th to 8th semester almost all the courses were electives. We reduced the Mathematics and Physics course to one each in the first year and removed chemistry altogether. Any further requirements along these were to be offered later on as electives to students. In each batch, we had an intake of 240 students. Students did not have to decide any specializations at the time of admission. Most of the engineering institutes require you to decide on specialization right at the admission time. Students need to make this decision even when they have no idea about the disciplines. On the other hand in DA-IICT system, students got very well exposed to fundamentals of different disciplines and based on their interest, they could pick and choose large percentage of courses as electives. One more important aspect of academic offering was humanities and social sciences. Unlike many other places, these course were offered by faculty who were renowned in their own right. A large number of alumni mentioned that they enjoyed these courses most.
It was felt that division of Institute into various departments created barrier for interdisciplinary work. So we opted for no departments and decided instead to have research groups, which were to be dynamic in nature and a faculty could choose to be part of many research groups based on their interests. To promote project or problem based learning, we introduced a course on Design thinking in the 2nd semester. This was followed by a one year “Design Project” to be carried out by students mostly focused on societal issues. It was decided that students would not be put under any pressure of getting good grades etc in this so that they could do it without any stress. We made it “Pass/Not pass” with only One Credit Point allowing students to focus on problems rather than grades. Having one year long course meant that the students could work at convenience during the vacations or after exams etc. My own foray into developing technology to help persons with severe disability started from one such project and it became important part of my life and continues to be till today. Projects were important part of many courses and not just as a final year project.
One more thing we focused on was Internship. We decided to use each of the summer for a specific type of Internship. At the end of First year, it was to be a rural internship, after 2nd year an Industrial Internship and after 3rd year a research Internship. This was to allow them to be exposed to different types of environment and decide their career path judiciously. In the rural internship, students needed to spend 6-8 weeks in rural areas and try to understand their life as well as problems. We faced lot of opposition from parents regarding rural internship specially from well to do parents, who felt that their children would not be able to tolerate the harsh rural life. However when students used to return back to campus after few years of graduating, many of them told us that Rural internship was the most important part of learning of their life and it changed their whole thought process.
One very crucial part of teaching/learning system was to not divide students in smaller class room size of 60 each or so and have same lecture being repeated multiple times either by the same teacher or different teacher. Rather we opted for the US system of having a main instructor along with teaching assistants(TA). Master and PhD students were given TAship to support them financially as well as let them help in Tutorials, Labs and other academic tasks. This groomed them as teachers and reduced the burden on the main instructor. Students got the opportunity to take the course with the best instructor.
When I went to USA to do PhD in 1981 at University of California, Berkeley, I was made Teaching Assistant for a course called “Physics without Maths”. This was meant for non science/ non engineering students. Course intake was of 1000 students and main instructor was a Nobel Prize winner. All 1000 students were taught by the main instructor in one big auditorium along with large number of CCTVs at one time. He was supported by 20-30 Teaching Assistants. In India, our regulatory authorities would be very unhappy with such teaching/learning system. But look at the advantage of the system – every student gets to learn from the best faculty(in this particular case from a Nobel Prize winner!). TAs get groomed in teaching system, they get financial support and main instructor saves time to spend on research and other academic activities. Many good institutes in India also follow similar practice. We also found it useful to use final year UG students as TA for certain courses.
Today’s world is changing very fast and education has to keep up with this. The source of knowledge are many. Thus the most important learning is to learn “how to learn”. We normally focused on Open Source Technologies as much as possible rather than the proprietary technology. This allowed students to experiment and explore and they quickly started to excel in international competitions. It also prepared them better for future, where they could adapt to new situations faster.
Experience of Graduating Students
Of course, as they say “the proof of the pudding is in the eating”. Our first batch of UG students graduated in 2005. Some of them went abroad to do higher studies. 3-4 students went to University of Florida, Gainsville. Florida Professors came across B.Tech. (ICT) degree for the first time and they were bit worried about ICT degree. They wanted to go into more details of the curriculum to make sure if the students needed to take any additional supplementary courses. After going through the details, they said “your course is better than ours and you do not need to take any additional courses”! In fact after this our students were preferred by the University of Florida and at any time, we would have 30-40 of our alumni on that campus.
I was invited by University of Minnesota, Minneapolis in summer of 2008 and I spent two weeks there. I came to know that they do not admit our students since they have a filtering mechanism and we are not in the “white list”. After I made presentation on my research work and curriculum, they said they would prefer to take our students. I came back and told my students. Next batch 4 students were offered admission in Graduate Programs!
We also found out that when students joined industry, they were not offered as high a salary as one of the IIT students but within 2-3 years our students performed much better and moved ahead of peers. Some industries reserved our students for R&D jobs rather than routine jobs. Mindtree was one such company. On average our students started more start up companies and went into social sectors as well.
About six months back, I had a pleasant surprise. Couple of my students who worked with me on various projects and also stayed on as research engineer for an additional year after graduation, had joined Univ of Florida to do PhD. They continued to be in touch with me and recently we have been interacting to work on some joint projects . They informed me that when they went to USA and started to work in research labs, they felt as if “they had come to India from USA and not vice versa”. They told me that in my lab they were working on higher cutting edge technology than that in the US Univ!
Regulatory Authorities and Media
Well all of this was not without various problems from regulatory authorities, media etc. Some time in 2002, an AICTE team came to visit us to decide about giving “Deemed to be University(under de novo – yet to be established category)” status. Their immediate concern was that we are offering a degree in ICT, which is not in the list of approved disciplines. They said they would be alright if we changed it to IT degree instead. Our response was that this is a new curriculum that we have defined based on technology trends and to satisfy them we would not want to do “academic dishonesty”. We stuck to our stand and they went away unsatisfied. Later on a state bill was enacted to make the institute into a “State Private University”. But this was not the end of all such issues. Parents kept asking about AICTE approval and even media kept publishing stories about how student’s future is dark etc without AICTE approvals. Matter was brought to rest when supreme court came out with a judgement in 2006 to clear the role of AICTE and made distinction between “Technical Institutions” and University. Our first batch of students had problem in getting admission in IIM Ahmedabad even though they had scored among the highest (possibly 99 percentile). They had to go to court to get admission and at court’s direction, IIM had to revise its policy and started admitting next year.
As founding Vice Chancellor of a new Private University and having spent 5 years heading India’s Technology think tank(TIFAC, which also produced Technology Vision 2035 during my tenure), I keep wondering how regulatory authorities would come in the way of my trying to produce students who would be graduating in 2020s and would be future proof!
Concept of “Greenfield” University has been around in UGC in the form of Deemed to be University – De Novo Category. It is needed to break new grounds since existing institutions may not be able to shake off past. However such institutions can only be successful, if enough resources are available to attract good quality faculty, students and create other resources. One cannot simply do it with student fees. In fact fees in DA-IICT were deliberately kept low to make quality education affordable.
Any such effort would face uphill task of fighting with existing system and comparing them without having in depth knowledge would lead to false conclusions. My own research work in variety of areas was possible because of the possibility of interdisciplinary work that system offered.
While regulatory bodies do a good task of improving the minimum standards, they tend to pull down higher quality efforts and innovative approaches. With the fast changing technology scenario, we need to have much more flexible system, if we need to make mark in the global education system.
(Disclaimer – this article is based on author’s personal experience and some systems may have evolved and may not be identical today)
(*)Prof Prabhat Ranjan is currently Vice Chancellor of newly formed D Y Patil International University, Akurdi, Pune. For last 5 years, Prof. Ranjan was heading India’s Technology Think Tank, TIFAC(an autonomous body of DST, GoI). During his tenure TIFAC prepared “Technology Vision 2035” to guide country for next two decades. He was educated in Netarhat School(near Ranchi), IIT Kharagpur and Delhi University. He received his Ph.D. from University of California, Berkeley where he carried our research on “Nuclear Fusion” at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory during 1983-86.
Committed to serve India, He immediately returned to India and played major role in India’s Nuclear Fusion program at SINP, Kolkata and IPR, Gandhinagar. He was Project Leader of Fusion Reactor, ADITYA, from 1996-2002 as well as Control and Operation Group of SST-1 Tokamak.
Subsequently, as Professor at DA-IICT, Gandhinagar from 2002 to 2013, he applied Embedded Systems and Sensor Networks Technology to many areas, such as India’s Moon Mission, Wildlife Tracking, Agriculture etc. His work on Assistive Technology has helped to put smile on faces of many persons with severe disability. He has been honoured for his work by many awards and accolades.