Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Board exams and JEE

The IIT directors have proposed this radical idea based on using board marks for shortlisting to admission to IITs.

Entrance exams were made necessary because of several reasons, (a) corruption in the board (or university) exams (b) lack of any need to real talent to secure above 90% in board (or university) exams in some states and (c) wide variation between the marks of the state (or university) board.

Thus, JEE (and later GATE) was introduced. The first reason can possibly not be serious because these candidates will hopefully be weeded out of the system during the course work in IIT. However, this is not the solution to arrive at a corruption free board exam. The second reason is more serious because the student only mugs up the material and does not really understand anything. This is true in many universities offering B.E/B.Tech and if one solves the last 10-20 years question papers, that is sufficient to get a good score. Thus, entrance exams were supposed to test the ability of the candidate. Unfortunately, due to the predominance of coaching institutes, it is no longer possible. The last reason i.e., of the wide variation in the marks of the boards is possibly more difficult to solve. Students from different state boards perform in a very diverse way in these exams and the statistics show the performance of the students from different state boards are vastly different. Hence a proper normalization will be a tough task. A simple percentile representation from different state boards might look democratic but will not be accurate.

I do agree with some importance given to board exams (maybe as a filter) and then having only one exam for all institutes in India.  Board exams should be used only as a filter and the marks should not be counted for admission for the reasons outlined above. However, due to the reasons outlined above, I am not sure whether any radical changes to overcome the "coaching classes" syndrome is a good idea because coaching will now adapt itself to "tuition classes" for board exams.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Journal prices and libraries

In the article titled, P.T. Barnum's list, the author says,
I am sure that  telemarketers and tv evangelists are willing to pay big  money for  lists  of  gullible people.  I am going to give you a similar  list  for  free, a list of libraries that apparently are either almost entirely  inattentive to cost or  have so much money that they don't know what to do with it. 
In India, most of the big scientific libraries in India form the list. In the article titled,Libraries, Journals and Publishers, Prof. Balaram discusses in detail the problems plaguing our libraries.

In the USA and other developed countries, the increasing subscription rates resulted in many libraries conducting usage studies and eliminating journals that may not have been eliminated in the past. However, the libraries in India have rarely conducted such studies and by embracing the big deal, the Indian libraries have got into a mess that is difficult to get out, especially when the librarians of the most influential libraries are unwilling (and uninterested) to do so. To illustrate this issue, look at the article published in nature.

To understand the academic publishing market, it is useful to examine the competitive characteristics of the two markets in which publishers compete: for readers and for authors. Within the class of Reader Pays publishing, journals fall into roughly two institutional types: those owned and controlled by 'non-profit' professional societies, including some university presses, and those owned and controlled by profit-motivated commercial publishers. As the table indicates, libraries typically must pay 4 to 6 times as much per page for journals owned by commercial publishers as for journals owned by non-profit societies. These differences in price do not reflect differences in the quality of the journals. In fact the commercial journals are on average less cited than the non-profits and the average cost per citation of commercial journals ranges from 5 to 15 times as high as that of their non-profit counterparts. How can such dramatic differences persist? If one automobile manufacturer charged 6 times as much as its competitors for a car of lower quality, almost nobody would buy its product. Those who want only one car would buy the better, cheaper car. Those who want two cars would buy two of the cheaper ones rather than one cheap one and one expensive, inferior one. Journal articles differ in that they are not substitutes for each other in the same way as cars are. Rather, they are complements. Scientists are not satisfied with seeing only the top articles in their field. They want access to articles of the second and third rank as well. Thus for a library, a second copy of a top academic journal is not a good substitute for a journal of the second rank. Because of this lack of substitutability, commercial publishers of established second-rank journals have substantial monopoly power and are able to sell their product at prices that are much higher than their average costs and several times higher than the price of higher quality, non-profit journals.

How does one overcome the problem? If you are a scientist, try reading through the links provided in this website and understand the risks of supporting an inflated library budget. Currently, the library budgets of India to commercial publishers runs into nearly 30 million dollars. To put this in further perspective, the journal budget of IISc in 2009 was 11.5 crores, of which 10 crores was paid to commercial publishers. However, of the 1400 papers published by faculty of IISc and 30,000 references cited by the authors of these papers, only 39% of these were to journals published by commercial publishers.

PS: Thanks to Madhan muthu, the librarian at NIT Rourkela and one of the few people who understands the issues, for the links.

Fundamental flaws with Indian education

Raju Narisetti, managing editor, The Washington Post, began his professional career by selling cheese and butter for a dairy cooperative but soon realised that his calling lay elsewhere: in journalism. He says

The focus on year-end exams, the static nature of testing based on rarely updated textbooks, the unwillingness to formally recognise and reward intra-year two-way conversation in a course between students and teachers, the fixed set of subject pairs you can take rather than being able to build your coursework, teachers who aren't measured by their ability to attract students to willingly attend classes, teacher education that is ancient in its focus on curriculum development and teaching methods -- the list is endless and yet something that can be fixed because it isn't rocket science.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Outsourced grading

Papers are uploaded to Bangalore for grading...
One way to improve the writing skills of undergraduates is to make them write more. But as each student in her course in business law and ethics at the University of Houston began to crank out—often awkwardly—nearly 5,000 words a semester, it became clear to her that what would really help them was consistent, detailed feedback.

Monday, April 5, 2010


At the presentation after the IPL match of Delhi versus Rajasthan, Gambhir had said, “I think Rajasthan was never a threat. Except for Yusuf Pathan, the other guys were pretty ordinary. We thought Yusuf was the only danger-man and didn’t bother too much about anyone else.”

This was reported to the IPL commissioner, Lalit Modi, who promptly reprimanded him. Gambhir's response is classic,

I’m going to say a few things here that might not make people happy, but I think they need to be said. First, I can’t live my life by what people in general think of me, or what I say.I don’t believe in saying things I don’t mean. If you’re looking for platitudes or banal gestures, I don’t think you’ll get that from me. I don’t mean to sound arrogant, I’m not, but I also can’t be a hypocrite.

Confucius said “Straightforwardness, without the rules of propriety, becomes rudeness” In India, any straightforward comment is taken as rude and, if it comes from an young person, is taken to be arrogant. BCCI (and more so, IPL) is like the playground bully. Recently, it stopped four Indians in participating in county cricket.

The most perverse case is that of Laxman. He hasn't been part of India's limited-overs plans for years, and it's doubtful whether he will get an IPL contract next season. To deny him a stint with Lancashire is nothing short of restraint of trade. In a recent interview, Dravid spoke of how difficult it had been to mentally adjust to not playing all the time after he was jettisoned from the one-day squad. For Laxman, who has played only Tests for years, any match practice is valuable. With (yet another) series in Sri Lanka scheduled for July-August, denying him a few hits in the early part of summer makes no sort of sense at all.

Indian science is not very different.