Tackling Perplexities : Dean Academic Speaks

Tackling Perplexities : Dean Academic Speaks

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a massive disruption of education systems, causing an extensive impact on students as well as the professors. The last academic semester has unquestionably been packed with peaks and valleys due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, with the dawn of new academic session, taking into the picture the recent curriculum changes in the academics at National Institute of Technology, Rourkela, Team Monday Morning had a tete-a-tete with the Dean Academics (Ac), Prof. Saroj Kumar Patel to know about his views on the current issues prevailing in the institute and also his future plans brewing up for the upcoming sessions.

Here's an excerpt of the conversation of Monday Morning with Dean Academics:

Monday Morning (MM): This time, we saw vacancies in almost every department and a considerable amount of students being able to 'change their branch' as per their choice. Were there any amendments in the criteria set by the administration this time? Is the institute planning to expand it next year as well?

Dean Academics (Ac): In the copy of the latest summarized version of Academic Regulations as approved by 87th Senate which is also available at the institute website, it is clearly written that only some certain percentage of seats can be filled up with branch change. Depending upon the eligibility of students and that percentage, students are allowed to change their branches.

Earlier only the B.Tech students were allowed to change their branches but now it is open to all the UG students, including integrated M.Sc and Dual Degree students. That may be a reason for the significant number of students changing their branches this year.

Branch change is not limited to any fixed number; rather it is as per the vacancy and also as per the specific percentage of seats allowed in the department. In the regulation, it is written that 5% of the vacancy is to be calculated based on the existing strength. Change of branch is subjected to the condition that consequent vacancy created in the parent branch due to branch-change, should not be more than 5% of the actual existing strength. Compared to previous years, last year the total strength was also increased due to the EWS and Ladies quota, which might be another possible reason.

MM: What were the reasons for keeping a minimum CGPA requirement of 8 to be eligible for opting for a minor degree this time, unlike the criteria of 7.5 followed in previous years? 

Dean Ac: It was the decision taken in the Senate because it is observed that the students with less CGPA were not able to cope up with that extra load of the minor degree. Everyone has 24 hours only in a day. Only if a student is good at academics, he/she may be able to devote more time in academics, sacrificing his/her time for the extracurricular activities. Some students manage their timings depending on their interest or their choice. So, they devote some percentage of time to extracurricular activities and some percentage to academics. Some give the extracurricular activities more attention and less to the academics. 

If you are serious for the minor degree, you must be prepared to devote more time and also have an interest in academics. So, only the bright students or those who are doing good in academics would be capable of taking such extra load. Based on the number of students leaving the minor courses, it was decided that rather it should be open only to the students who are really interested in academics and thereby having higher CGPA. So, probably that might be the reason that the minimum CGPA has been raised to 8. We can also see that the students who have got more than 9 CGPA are also leaving the minor degree courses, even after completing two years of the course. This was the main reason why only meritorious students are allowed to apply for the course.

Moreover, there is also a conflict of the clauses. In one clause it is written that one student can take the extra load of one subject in every semester provided they have a minimum CGPA of 8, whereas, taking one extra subject for the minor degree, it was earlier 7.5. So, to make them uniform probably, 7.5 has been increased to 8 considering the minor degree as an extra course load.

MM: The Senate and ISDC Student Application this year has set a CGPA bar of 8.5 and has been restricted to only final years. For the last two years, all students were allowed to be part of the application irrespective of year and CGPA. Why was such a move taken to go back to the old practice of selecting final year students with 8.5+ CG? 

Dean Ac: Our aim is to select 2 students for the Senate and 3 students for ISDC. In the last few years, it was seen that a lot of applications were being received. Indeed, it took a lot of time to scrutinise and interview them in the process of selection. So, scrutiny criteria may be modified depending upon the number of applications being received.  Every year some sort of amendments do take place. Moreover, very often, the final year students used to be finally selected for the same. So, it wasn't good enough to bother the 2nd year and 3rd year students to apply and then reject and dissatisfy them. This may be the reason as to why it has been restricted to only final years with a CGPA of more than 8.5. It depends on the decision selection committee because ultimately, those members will be selecting the students.

MM: NIT Rourkela was one of the first NITs to begin an online semester in a full-fledged manner. Despite a lot of considerations, there are still challenges like the functioning of labs and other challenges of holding online classes. How has this plan panned out so far according to you?

Dean Ac: Everything is going on fine except a few problems. We have been able to continue the academic session as per scheduled keeping in view that our students’ graduations should not be delayed. COVID-19 pandemic is definitely a new type of challenge for all of us. However, we are trying our best to overcome it as far as possible. We cannot keep quiet and sit idle with a hope that someday the pandemic subsides and only after that we should continue our academic session. Hurdles and problems are part of our lives, but human beings are so intelligent and flexible that they can adjust themselves to any type of disruption in the environment. Since we have the online technology available with us, we should not be surrendering to the Coronavirus.

Now coming to the problem of laptops, we have made arrangements so that if the students want to come back to the campus and take their laptops with them, they are allowed. He/she can give a call to the Chief Warden and he has been extending all sorts of cooperation to make the necessary arrangements. One can open his/her hostel room and take out his/her laptop and return on the same day. Usually, it is observed that whenever there is a vacation, or whenever students leave the hostel, they never forget to take their laptops with them. So, I don’t know why they left their laptops in the hostel this time. Yet, we agree that these problems might be there. However, we should not stop everything for the fellow feelings of those few students who forgot their laptops. No system can be 100% perfect. Even when the traditional classes were going on, all 100% of students were not attending the classes regularly. Even if all facilities are available to them, there will be some percentage of students who would not attend the classes.

Even without having a laptop, students should also be proactive to make their own alternate arrangements. We are also planning that, if required, we can appeal to the Senate to have a special summer program for such students, provided the pandemic subsides before summer.

MM: Is the institute taking any steps to facilitate the return of students for resuming academic activities like PG students being allowed to come to campus for carrying out their research work? 

Dean Ac: We have been trying to bring the PhD students back since May. The main concern is government restriction. Unless and otherwise, the central, as well as the local government, permits us to open, we cannot do so. So far, the government circular says that PhD and PG students may be permitted. We have sought permission from the Ministry of Education. We are still waiting for permission.  In the meanwhile, we are getting ourselves prepared. Last week there was a circular issued by the government that we can at least call the PhD and PG students, who are doing research work. In the first phase, we are trying to call the PhD students (only those who are willing to come) in a batch of 40. Now the rule says that those who are coming to Rourkela from other stations must be quarantined for 14 days. We enquired with the Chief Warden, and almost all the hostel rooms are locked now. So, we decided that in the hostels some of the rooms may have to be broken into and the belongings of the boarders would be taken out and kept in safe custody in common rooms, and one wing of the hostel will be marked as the quarantine centre, where the students will stay for 14 days.

As, in the government order, nowhere it is mentioned about the B.Tech students, they have not been included in this as of now. We are experimenting first with PhD students, and if we are successful, we will go for the B.Tech students as well as once the government gives a green signal.

MM: What will be the weightage of end semester examinations as no mid-semester examinations will be conducted this semester? 

Dean Ac: As the Senate has decided not to conduct the mid-semester exam, its 30 marks need to be compensated. For that, a committee has been formed to discuss and recommend a proposal regarding the same. In the Senate, we have debated a lot, but we could not reach a conclusion, and that is why this committee has been formed. 

The end-semester exam will be conducted in the conventional mode, i.e. 50 marks for 3 hours. However, the committee may suggest whether there will be any class tests for compensating mid-semester exams or whether 50 marks of end- semester could be extrapolated to 80 marks or 30 from TA and 70 from End Sem or any other combination. If TA is 30 marks, how many class tests would be there for the extra 10 marks,  or simply 20 TA marks would be extrapolated to 30 without any class tests.  Based on the recommendation of the committee, the final decision will be taken by the Senate.

The TA marks are entirely based on the teachers’ prerogative.  Some teachers let the students know about their TA mark and their distribution, while some don't. Students don’t know what final TA marks they are getting out of 20 unless the concerned teachers tell them. Hence, the TA mark calculation is not as transparent as mid-semester or end-semester marks are. However, it is mandatory for all teachers to announce at the beginning of the semester, the weights of different components of TA that they are going to adopt a marking pattern.

As the Senate’s decision has been circulated a few days ago, the committee has also been formed and would soon start working. They will put up their suggestions, and after the approval of the Senate, the final decision will be made. So, we need to wait until then.

There will be no mid-semester exam which was supposed to be held in September. The Senate did not permit the conduction of online exams, as some students, who may face network problems due to poor connectivity, would not get the chance to give the exam properly.

MM: In addition to 7-8 hours of classes, the students are loaded with class tests and assignments, up to 4-5 submissions daily. What is your opinion and message on the regulation of this process this semester? 

Dean Ac: There has been no additional teaching load this semester. The only problem is that the students are in front of the screens for hours. The same type and number of assignments and class tests were conducted in the previous semesters as well. We have never told the teachers to take extra tests. The faculties have the freedom to take as many tests and assignments as per their personal choice for the evaluation of TA marks. Academic Autonomy gives that much freedom to them. If the students are finding any difficulty in this regard, they can very well discuss with their respective teachers and can sort it out.

Whatever tests the students are giving may not replace the end-semester or mid-semester exam as per whatever decision that has been taken till date. It is just for TA marks and depends on teachers how many tests they want to take. The institute follows the continuous evaluation, but there has been no order from the Dean to take any specified number of tests. I had only suggested a proposal (it was never an order) to conduct around 10 class tests as a backup arrangement so that in case if students do not return to campus before May, that evaluation could have been utilized to declare the results in compensation to mid-sem and end-sem exams and publish the result in time. If the teacher is following this, students can discuss and solve this out with their respective teachers. Still, the teacher has the flexibility to take any number of tests for TA evaluation.

MM: What is the call of administration over the attendance issue of students this semester? Is the administration planning to waive off the minimum attendance criteria this semester considering the problems faced by the students? 

Dean Ac: Students should not panic. Those who are genuinely facing problems, we will definitely consider their cases. In such a situation, if necessary, special additional leaves may be granted to the students considering students justify with sufficient proofs. Those who are not able to attend the classes, we have asked the faculties to upload the lectures either on Google Drive or YouTube etc and share the links so that the students can watch that according to their convenience.

MM: Ministry of Human Resources Development (now, Ministry of Education), India has currently around 150 virtual labs and over 1500 experiments at various stages of development and deployment which was started in 2012. Why is NIT Rourkela not a part of the Virtual Labs? Can't such a scheme be taken up now considering online conduction of labs? 

Dean Ac: The institute wanted the students to carry out the experiments with their ownself and thereby get real exposure. If the institute implements the virtual labs and conducts all the experiments online, then the degree may not be recognised, and later the students might get into trouble. This is the reason the senate may have felt that it's better to carry out the experiments physically instead of virtually to justify the quality of our degree. Senate has now decided that if the practice cannot be conducted online, that will be conducted after the students return to the campus.

With regard to Virtual Labs, if the students are interested, they can put forward their 'expression of interest'. The proposal would then be discussed in the Senate, and the final decision can be taken. 

MM: Mostly, the professors are seen to take classes either from their home or their own office. Why is Lecture Hall Complex-2 not full-fledged used for imparting lectures though it is well equipped with many advanced technologies? 

Dean Ac: The lecture hall complex-2 is fully functional with advanced technologies. We have given the freedom to our faculty members to take classes as per their preferential place. Most of the professors are using the facilities on their own by installing it on their laptops. They are even able to produce a better quality of video lectures. Further, there are no complaints received from the students' side. The faculties are preferring to deliver lectures in their own convenient set-up.

The professors who are teaching through slides can teach from anywhere as it makes no difference. However, for the professors habituated with chalk and board, lecture hall complex-2 will be much more convenient. Some teachers are even making their own set-up, recording the lectures and even students are appreciating the same and are satisfied. So, there is no point of compelling the professors to discontinue his/her method of teaching and take classes from lecture complex-2.

MM: Why was the mark change portal for the previous semester not opened till date? The institute didn’t even release any notification regarding it as well. What was the reason for the same?

Dean Ac: The reason is that the mark change justification is possible only if the students see their end semester or mid-semester paper physically and discuss with the teacher themselves. Earlier we thought that the situation would subside by June or July and everything would be normal. We thought after the students come back, we will be able to show them their answer sheets physically, and then the mark-change decision would be made. However, due to the COVID-19, we are not able to predict anything, and all our predictions and planning are failing. If the coronavirus continues for a long time, we may have to take a decision only if the students agree and are ready for the mark-change without seeing their answer sheets. The answer sheets are all confidential to the institute. Hence, it is not advisable for us to send the answer sheets in the form of a softcopy. Everything cannot be done online or through softcopies. However, if the situation demands, then we may have to take the risk. For doing so, we have to take approval from the competent authority.

MM: The Coursera University Program was a free initiative by Coursera for all Universities in lockdown. Coursera had set a deadline of September 30th globally. Since a lot of students are interested, can the institute take up a paid license for NIT, Rourkela to continue after October 1st so that students can get exposure to a wide variety of industry-oriented topics?

Dean Ac: Nobody has personally asked me for that; however, if the students propose, we can take the paid license provided, the students are ready to pay an extra sum along with the institute fees. We can even try to adjust that if students are not giving additional fees provided, some of the other expenses can be compromised this year.

MM: According to the Senate's recent decision, the six-month internship proposal is approved. Why has it not been implemented for B.Tech students even after the facility of SWAYAM is approved? Does it mean that B.Tech students can do a 6-months internship in any way?

Dean Ac: This has been implemented in a different form. They are having a fast-pace program for this. For M.Tech and Dual degree, they have only project work in the final year so they can easily do contrary to the B.Tech students. For B. Tech,  we will modify the course curriculum for the final semester in such a way that and they will be able to complete the equivalent of those courses in advance. 

B.Tech students can even go for a student exchange program or can do an internship under a professor in our institute or can do an internship in the industry.

MM: Talking about the online course available on SWAYAM, express how it would be functional, and how can the students opt for the same? What will be the mechanism for the transfer of course credit owing to opting for SWAYAM?

Dean Ac: Every department will be displaying the SWAYAM courses which can be taken up by the students. After that, the opted courses will be accepted by the corresponding department and our institute. These opted courses will be in replacement with the courses which were to be done in the final semester. Not only that, other semester courses under the elective or non-core courses can also opt. However, core courses cannot be substituted through a SWAYAM course. Corresponding to it, now the institute has to change the curriculum that will compromise only non-core courses in the 8th semester.

The mechanism for the transfer of course credit will be declared by the equivalence committee. The members will look into the credits, duration of each course and whether the SWAYAM courses opted by the students is equivalent to the institute's courses and whether it will be acceptable or not. In SWAYAM, various categories of courses are available. So, HoDs of each department will be generating a list of courses which can be opted and will send it to the academic section, and it will finally be verified and displayed. Many departments have submitted, but still few of them are left. After the completion, it will be displayed through automation in NITRIS.

MM: The institute recently decided to pay Rs. 800 to all the UG and PG students for a stipend to meet the cost of the data pack recharge for attending online classes. What are the criteria set for those to whom this amount would be paid and how?

Dean Ac: I have just heard it, and the circular is not yet out. I cannot comment on this at the moment.

MM: To reactivate the license for MATLAB, an incorrect contact number of the Mathworks service engineer was being provided. However, further, no notification of sorting it up was sent to the students. How will the students manage in such situations, especially in the current scenario of online classes and practicals? 

Dean Ac: Regarding this issue, I am continually following up with the HoD of the Data Center. The students need not have to worry about it, as we are taking care of it. The head of the Data Center is looking into these matters. He is following up at regular intervals. We are aware of this problem, and also we are on the track of sorting it out. Hopefully, the problem will be solved soon. However, further detailed information can be obtained from the HoD of the Data Centre only.

MM: What is the set up of administration regarding the implementation of Direct PhD programs? 

Dean Ac: NIT Rourkela is in the process to start with the implementation of direct PhD programs with IIT Delhi. We have also received some requests from a few students regarding this. So, we are on the way. Hopefully, if we are successful with IIT Delhi, we can also try approaching the other IITs as well. I have to follow up again with IIT Delhi to get a clear picture of when it can be done. Presently, we are not getting any response from them; it may be due to the current scenario of COVID-19.

MM: We understand that the current plight of the MITACS internship was brought to your notice. What is being done about our Institute not being included in the list of eligible institutes while a lot of 3-tier colleges have made it there and what was the reason behind this exclusion?

Dean Ac: I have already written to the MITACS officials about the matter. They have straight forward replied that the association was only through the approval from the MHRD and it’s all a question of funding. The MHRD paid the entire expenses through Technical Education Quality Improvement Program-III (TEQIP-III). I also enquired with our TEQIP coordinator, and he informed me that TEQIP-III is almost closed and going to wind up after a few months. So this is the reason why we will not be able to send students this year onwards unless another such alternative or substitute like TEQIP-III comes up. I am still trying to figure out how other colleges are able to manage. It is a question of funding only.

MM: Since the JoSAA counselling is going to start soon, how has the administration planned to carry out the admission of students for the upcoming batch? How much different will be the academic calendar for them? 

Dean Ac: The process depends on when the government will be allowing the students to enter into the campus. There is nothing to worry about admission or counselling work, etc. Even though the students are not allowed physically to come here, the administration has already completed the admission of all M.Tech students along with the 2-year M.Sc students through online mode. Further, their classes have already started online. In short, the administration is well prepared for dealing in this scenario. There is absolutely nothing to worry about this.

No doubt, the academic calendar will be different for the upcoming batch as they would be starting late. In the Senate meeting, it will be decided how to bring them to the mainstream. It can be the case that the administration can plan to cancel the winter/summer vacation and make them stay back in the institute. In this pandemic situation, no one can get sure of what will work out. However, this issue will be discussed in the senate and decisions will be taken keeping in mind the future of the students.

MM: What would be your final message for the students?
Dean Ac:

None of the students needs to get panicked or feel worried. No doubt, the coronavirus has given a real challenge to all of us. However, we have to fight it out in our way so that our day-to-day activities and our responsibilities will not be affected. Let's all cooperate and march forward!

Team MM wishes the Dean Ac, Prof. S.K. Patel all the best for all his ventures for the upcoming year.

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