Indian Computer Science (CS) & Information Technology (IT) Academic Reform Activism Consolidated Blog Document

CS & IT Academia: Is Teaching Excellence Important?

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CS & IT Academia: Is Teaching Excellence Important?

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Last Updated On January 24th 2012

At the outset I would like to say that I am not against CS/IT research. Without CS/IT industry & academic research, wonderful inventions of computer Operating Systems, computer Languages, Databases, the great & revolutionary force of the Internet etc. would not have happened. What I am against is teaching excellence in CS/IT academia suffering due to an unbridled enthusiasm for research.

In my considered opinion, "Teaching Excellence" seems to be not so important in Indian CS & IT academia. What really matters is "Research Excellence". The pressure to publish research papers and bag research projects of sizeable monetary value may be resulting in many teachers having no option but to dilute teaching ideals - they are also human and have to accomplish so many things in limited time. Of course, students have to be taught reasonably so that they do well at the exams but going beyond that to achieve excellence in teaching may be very challenging due to research pressure. Career advancement wise, there is no significant reward or recognition for "Teaching Excellence". "Research Excellence" gains recognition, even fame at times, and career advancement.

Why is that the case? An academic CS/IT department should focus on teaching, isn't it? Well, one look at UGC norms ( (I presume AICTE norms will be similar) for appointment & promotion of academics, including CS/IT academics, gives the clear answer. "Teaching excellence" is not really a promotion criteria.

  • For appointment as Assistant Professor a NET/SLET/SET qualified Masters' degree holder with 55 % marks is acceptable. But a PhD degree holder who is not NET/SLET/SET qualified can also be appointed as Assistant Professor.

  • For promotion to Associate Professor, at least 3 publications for stage 4 Associate Professor, and 5 publications for stage 5 Associate Professor are needed (PhD is mandatory for direct appointment as Associate Professor).

  • For promotion to full Professor, the norms are PhD + post-doctoral research output of high standard, patents & IPR, additional research degrees like D.Sc., D.Litt. Number of years of teaching experience also matter in the promotion to Associate Professor & Professor but it really is just the number of years.

  • How well the person taught seems to be covered under Academic Performance Indicators - Category I: Teaching, Learning and Evaluation related activities, but they are based on the teacher's self-assessment! So, I guess, it will just be a formality with all teachers scoring well in it, irrespective of the reality :).

In other words, the unfortunate situation seems to be that, from UGC/AICTE norms point of view, Teaching Quality does not matter for career advancement, so long as students perform reasonably in paper based examinations. Very shockingly, for a practice oriented field like CS/IT, Teaching Quality for the practice oriented lab. courses also do not really matter and the unfortunate reality in most CS/IT departments in the country is that the lab. courses are notorious for being graded liberally so that almost everybody scores well!

Given the UGC norms for career advancement, most Indian CS/IT academics will focus on research instead of teaching. The CS/IT academic will, of course, try to do a decent job in teaching but it does not make sense for him to waste time trying to excel at teaching. He will get far better career rewards by being an excellent researcher who is a reasonable but not excellent teacher. Yes, of course, there will be CS/IT academics who excel at both teaching and research. The cream of the CS/IT academic field excel at both research and teaching. But I think, given the workload pressure, a significant number of CS/IT teachers would find it very difficult to excel both at teaching and research. You may also want to read another post of mine, "Is a PhD in CS/IT Necessarily a Good Teacher?".

Some conscientious academics may choose to excel at teaching giving them lesser time for research and thereby not do well as a researcher. Their career growth gets stifled though they get the emotional reward of a clean conscience and earn the love and respect of students for being a good teacher.

Those teachers who choose to focus only on teaching and stay away from research will almost inevitably get into trouble with academic administrators. One cannot blame the administrators as they are bound by UGC/AICTE norms which, I guess, expect them to "encourage" research :).  They also have to deal with the general expectation the leaders in government & industry have from academia to excel in research.

Such non-research oriented teachers may even be treated as liabilities even if they are excellent teachers as they, due to their disinterest in research, may not have a PhD. It may be as if the teacher is lowering the image of the department/college/university! Such persons tend to get fed up of Indian CS/IT academia and move into CS/IT software development industry (but not industry research) where their CS/IT knowledge/expertise is given a red carpet welcome. This is a sad state of affairs! In practice oriented streams like CS & IT such attitudes hurt rather than help. Who does it hurt? The poor students who lose the opportunity to gain from an excellent teacher who is disinterested in research.

Perhaps these UGC/AICTE norms work well for areas like Physics, Maths, Mechanical Engineering, Electrical Engineering etc. But for practice oriented CS/IT field I think they are very inappropriate. UGC/AICTE should treat CS/IT separately and come up with different norms where promotion is possible for excellent CS/IT teachers who are disinterested in research. Please note that UGC has separate norms for the practice oriented disciplines of Music & Dance, Drama and Visual (Fine) Arts. The CS/IT discipline has exploded into almost all facets of life all over the world in the past two or three decades with self-taught experts like Bill Gates (Microsoft), Steve Jobs (Apple) & Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) becoming world famous icons. These three icons are/were technologists and not researchers. The fact that such self-taught experts have risen to very high stature in CS/IT industry seems to me to be good enough reason for UGC/AICTE to treat CS/IT differently.

I need to clarify that I am not making these remarks for the benefit of myself. By God's Grace, I retired from commercial international software industry over a decade ago. God's will/destiny led me to offer free service, mainly as a "visiting faculty", to Indian CS academia for teaching lab courses and being a consultant for project work for 9 years now. Given the strong practical know-how I have from over 18 years in the international software industry and the fact that I am offering free service, I have a plethora of opportunities for service of which teaching in CS/IT academia is just one possibility.

I am making these remarks in the context of regular (paid) CS/IT academics for whom the academic job is a livelihood. Imagine a CS/IT non-PhD but, say M.C.A. (Master of Computer Applications), qualified teacher who is also NET/SLET/SET qualified and who excels as a teacher but is disinterested in research. He will be a great boon to students. But, over time, as he sees that promotions are not coming his way he will get dispirited and disinterested. Further, academia has a PhD club mentality and so he will be treated as a second-class citizen in academia. Either he will also see the "academic light" and start focusing on research relegating teaching excellence to the background OR he will quit academia.

Leaders from the Indian government and sometimes even from Indian industry talk about improving research in Indian universities. While that seems to be a very laudable goal, I think they should also talk about improving teaching standards in universities & colleges. In my opinion, a university/college is a portal first and foremost for teaching/learning (education) and then for research. But I am not really an "academic" and so maybe I am getting it wrong. I think I am an old school guy who feels that the FIRST and FOREMOST DUTY of a TEACHER is to TEACH and TEACH WELL.

Friday, September 30, 2011

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