Making Spring 2021 a better online semester

In the wake of the feedback we have seen regarding various issues with the online conduction of Autumn 2020 semester, we contacted some faculty members whose taught courses the students claimed to have enjoyed, managed with relative ease and gained good training out of them. We then interviewed those who responded and then articulated their views and suggestions only. The sole purpose of this article is to bring out some ideas and initiate chains of discussion for much better conduction of Spring 2020, from the efforts and initiatives of both instructors as well as students; while not criticizing any particular practice. We don’t exclusively promote any of the suggestions in this article and believe there is always room for continuous feedback and improvement.

We interviewed the following instructors for the article-

  • Prof. Jeevanjyoti Chakraborty, Assistant Professor in Mechanical Engineering Department, taught Mechanics of Solids(ME31013)(jointly) and Applied Elasticity(ME40605/ME60401)
  • Prof. Siddharth Sen, Professor in Electrical Engineering Department, taught Instrumentation Devices(IE31001)
  • Prof. Mira Mitra, Associate Professor in Aerospace Engineering Department, taught Aerospace Structural Analysis(AE31009)

The online conduction of the courses entailed many closed doors but also many open doors at the same time. To adapt with this, the naive and conventional pedagogy, mode of teaching or conducting a course itself was not always optimal. Instead, we were forced to experiment with newer ways. Even since a few years before the pandemic, many institutes across the globe including some IITs have been discussing the relevance and outcomes of the ‘Flipped Classroom Pedagogy’. Some instructors followed this in their courses up to different extents. In this practice, the time assignment of class hours and self-study hours is flipped. The lecturing of the content is done through pre-recorded lectures while the class hours are kept for discussion and problem-solving. The first and foremost advantage of this practice would go to those students who have limited internet data and poor speed since while attending live lectures frequent buffering can occur or students might want to view the lecture in a downgraded quality to save data(flexibility available on YouTube). Also for further reference, a student won’t have to download the lecture separately. Secondly, not only the instructor can attain enough time to train students over problem-solving, but also students can come up with deeper doubts and related topics for discussion after going through the pre-recorded lectures. These classroom sessions can be limited to 30–40 mins instead of 1hr so that it is manageable to all. To manage the problem-solving sessions, the ‘Breakout Rooms’ feature of MS Teams could be used with the help of TAs.

Some instructors preferred to lecture in classrooms at Nalanda because controlling the attention of students is enriched through body movements and flow of writing on the blackboard. In a 1hr of slideshow presentation where students can only hear the teacher becomes unbearable to students many times. Helpfully many instructors wrote the content on their tab, phone or a paper in sync with the lecture.

Students came up with their grievances to their friends and numerous social media forums where they can share their story anonymously. In the pandemic, students were exposed to financial, health and other family problems at a higher probability. Summing up all the courses, many students had to handle a very dense evaluation plan that degraded their mental health severely. To survive through it, they studied just enough to score decently and were more prone to malpractices reportedly. After all this, the students assessed themselves to have learned very minimally and didn’t manage to self-learn other stuff that they usually do. We discussed this issue openly with the instructors and one of them said- “Before professors, we are humans and as humans, we should be a little bit kind” and later on- “As a student, if I had to give 3–4 tests in a week, even I would have cried.” According to the same instructor, when the tests and assignments are kept at such a high frequency, then most of the questions are going to be naively ‘plug in the formula and get the answer’ types. The students when not well prepared for the test(due to such frequency), the questions being naive and someone or the other is going to know the right formula, they are most probably going to cheat. Such an evaluation plan then stands irrelevant even if attended fairly by the students because it is not going to do justice to the course. Instead what should be done is keeping not more than 4 tests in the semester where the questions test the understanding and creativity of the students. That way, not only is it going to be much more manageable but due to time limitation students would less probably prefer networking over solving it themselves. And if any particular course demands regular assessment to keep track of the students, only the best 50–60% of the tests should be considered for evaluation so that there is room for improvement.

Although different courses have different metrics of evaluation and thus demand different evaluation plans, speaking about application-centric courses, the instructors strongly suggested a term project carrying 20–30% of weightage and taking away a lot of load from class tests, if only suitable for the course.

Regarding the labs, the instructors acknowledged that any sort of simulator can’t even closely mimic the training one gains from a physical lab, but they had no choice. Possibly in the later semesters, the students can be called for demonstrations or hands-on just for completion and not for evaluation.

In addition to all of these, there is something that is possibly creating the largest void. In these lines, Prof. Jeevanjyoti Chakraborty beautifully points out-

In the online semester, the students are losing out on the true IIT experience which is not just attending lectures, learning and having a degree. I truly believe that a lot of the legacy that we are so proud of the IIT brand is based on the very strong foundations that students develop from interactions with batchmates and seniors. And this experience has to be somehow brought up in the online semester as well. Discussion about plans with batchmates and seniors should be maintained even more strongly in these times. Otherwise, it might entail a huge and permanent loss in life as an IITian. As a solution, there can be separate forums dedicated to a serious and professional discussion among batchmates about career, plans and opportunities in industry and research etc. and possibly some seniors can also be invited.

We also asked them for suggestions on how we as students should handle the online semester by maximizing learning and keeping our mental health. In discussion with Prof. Chakraborty, a possibility was drawn that students lack some proper structure to their life. In a normal semester, the regular activities like travelling back and forth to Nalanda, department or labs, participating in extracurriculars, dining in the hall, limited study or work hours etc. brought a structure to life. Students should therefore bring some routine and some activity in their day. Also, very importantly they should take care of their eyes.

Prof. Siddharth Sen also pointed out that it is not necessary to do all the problems correctly in all the tests and assignments. Students should enjoy the course and learn at their own pace rather than sabotaging everything to perform pitch-perfect. Goofing up one test won’t affect the chances of getting placed in Day-1 neither should one have such an agenda. In the long term, success gained will majorly depend on one’s merit.

Out of many differences that exist between a professor and an undergrad, perception towards different issues and activities is one of them. According to Prof. Mira Mitra, this is the root cause of many of the problems students face. But the greater problem is that there is a huge communication gap between the undergrads and professors as she observes. Consequently, students seldom attempt to openly and respectfully discuss their problems with their teachers. Acknowledging this she suggests that students should converse their problems with their teachers, understanding that they are always there for the students.

We hope that course instructors, TAs and students think upon the suggestions and observations made in the article and reconstruct their plan if necessary. We acknowledge that nobody was fully prepared for this, so some shortcomings were natural to occur. But with this huge volume of sensitive feedback and a large national or global community to discuss and innovate, we hope that Spring 2021 will surely be much better than Autumn 2020.