Do we not need to urgently make the base broader and interdisciplinary? – A Concept Note for starting 4 year BS (Interdisciplinary Informatics) in India

Posted on July 15, 2010

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Author:  Sanjay Goel, http://in.linkedin.com/in/sgoel

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About this Concept Note: This is the initial draft and will evolve through a consultative process. Off course currently, there are many holes in the concept note.  We hope to fill them up through consultations and feedback. Experts from academia as well as from industry are being approached to give their critique and feedback on this proposal.

1. Motivation:

Newman’s classical lecture series on “The Idea of a University” has had much influence on the character and aim of higher education. He argued against professional, scientific, and useful knowledge as sufficient end of university education. He viewed liberal education as the process of “enlargement of mind” that allows one to see connections and interdependence of all thing. The classical form of liberal education is founded on the belief that college education’s main goal is to cultivate mental faculties, tastes, good habits, and ethical conviction of students so that they can provide leadership in the future. In this form of education, the subjects of study are considered more as instruments of developing mental faculties rather than developing proficiency in applying specific knowledge and skills. Vocational and professional education focussed on the later. However, a very large numbers of new kind of careers, jobs and positions emerged in the last 10-15 years were beyond the imagination of most professions’ educators. This trend is likely to get further strengthened in the coming years. It is becoming increasingly difficult for education system to identify the specific information and technical skills required in the fast changing job market.

Knowledge is increasing exponentially and disciplinary boundaries are becoming more and more porous. Hence, development of intellectual abilities, learnability, and transferable skills has become more important educational goals even for professional education. Increasing complexity of problems makes holistic thinking, multiple frames of references, and inter-disciplinary approach highly valued traits for future graduates. These traits can be well developed through diversifying the course distribution of all undergraduate programs and also by launching new kind of interdisciplinary educational programs.

In USA, there are several hundred interdisciplinary educational programs at undergraduate, master’s, as well as doctoral level. Every year several lakh students graduate in interdisciplinary programs. However, In India, there is an acute shortage of interdisciplinary educational programs.  Hence, there is a need of starting undergraduate educational programs at undergraduate as well as postgraduate levels.  However, this proposal is focussed on undergraduate level inter-disciplinary educational programs, with specific reference to Informatics.

Computing as a basic tool, just like mathematics and language, is becoming one of the most fertile and open disciplines which intersects almost all other disciplines. Many specialised subfields have emerged at the edges of informatics and other disciplines.  Some of these are – management information systems, engineering informatics (e.g., mechatronics, construction informatics),  bio-informatics, computational finance, computational linguistics, computational psychology,  health-informatics/medical informatics, geo-informatics, chem-informatics, museum-informatics, digital archives and library, computational archaeology, digital media, computer games, cognitive sciences, computational physics, computational maths, computational sociology, social informatics, computational economics, learning technology/education technology, etc.

Creating meaningful dialogue between the IT experts and the experts of the other concerned discipline is the most challenging task in the development of these subfields as well as path breaking IT applications in these areas. Hence, it becomes even more important for Information Technology Institutes to create newer opportunities for interdisciplinary studies along with the study of Informatics.

2. Current Indian Situation wrt to undergraduate interdisciplinary studies:

In India, the undergraduate education programs do not offer sufficient openness and flexibility. Students have to choose their ‘major’ immediately after their school and most make their choices because of reasons other than intrinsic interest in the discipline. Hence, we end up with a very large number of otherwise brilliant but uninterested students. This results in mutual frustration between students as well as the teachers and derails all efforts for bringing excellence in the education.

Further, Indian curriculum in most undergraduate programs is not sufficiently broad based and interdisciplinary. Even in the so called flexible BA, BSc, BCom (General or Pass courses), students of humanities or commerce do not study science and science students do not study much of  humanities.

Delhi University offers the students of BA program an option to do 25% coursework (3 out of 12 courses) in computer science. Another 25% courses can be in any one of the many disciplines, e.g., some Indian or foreign language, maths, philosophy, psychology, history, geography, economics, commerce, music, statistics, etc. Similarly, Delhi University’s BSc. (Physical Science) program also gives the option to do 25% coursework in computer science. However, these programs fail to make a deliberate and focussed attempt to integrating the perspectives, approaches and theories of CS with any other disciplines. The courses of disciplines are also rigidly fixed. Further in the BA program that still follows year system, the students study only 12 subjects through their entire program.  Such a highly limited number of courses does not provide sufficient richness of the courses to stimulate interdisciplinary thinking.

Though in engineering curriculum, some elements of breadth are given, but mostly it’s increasingly being limited to science, maths, and management only. There is very little or no exposure to humanities and arts. As per Biglan’s classification of disciplines, Indian engineering students usually do not get exposed to Pure-Soft disciplines. Hence, Indian curriculum generally fails to sufficiently nurture students’ ability to engage in interdisciplinary activities.

There are few more examples of Indian programs with an orientation towards inter-disciplinarity. For many years, BITS, Pilani has been offering four year integrated program M.Sc. (Tech.) (General Studies) in some unfocussed manner.  They have also been offering five year Dual degree programs to allow the students earn a B.E. or B.Pharm. along with MSc. (Phy/Chem/Bio/Maths/Economics).

IIIT Hyderabad has recently started offering dual degree option to BTech CSE students to simultaneously pursue MS (Research) in computational Natural Sciences, Computational Linguistics, and Exact Humanities. For many years,  they have been offering postgraduate  interdisciplinary programs by integrating IT with Life science/structure engg.

B.Des. in HCI-Interaction design – Useability Engineering  at IIT Guwahati  is another excellent example of interdisciplinary programs at UG level.

DA-IICT has been offering a BTech and MTech programs in ICT.  They also offer MS in “ICT in Agriculture and Rural Development.”  LNM-IIT has been offering BTech and MTech programs in Communication and Computer Engineering.  They have also launched a new interdisciplinary undergraduate program in “Maths & IT.”

In the last few years, Pandit Deen Dayal Upadhyaya University, Gandhi Nagar and FLAME, Pune have started four year undergraduate programs in liberal arts.

In 2010, Ambedkar University, Delhi (established in 2009) has started offering 3 year BA programs in humanities including flexibility of choosing/changing the major after 1st year and also pursue a dual major in any two disciplines of humanities i.e., Economics, History, and Psychology. They plan to add more disciplines in the future.

3. Possibility of BS (Interdisciplinary Informatics) at  Institutes of Information Technology

Information Technology Institutes can create a niche for itself by starting a new form of four year undergraduate program broadly modelled on the pattern of liberal arts education in USA. Since it may not be feasible (or acceptable) to run so many domain specific degrees, it is proposed as a single degree somewhat like dual major option in USA. One of these two major is ‘Informatics’ for all students. The choice of the second major is open depending upon a student’s evolving interests and university’s offering. The second major gives the domain specificity to the degree. The name of second major can also be considered for a mention on the degree certificate.

This degree can be given a title like BS (Interdisciplinary Informatics) or BS (Interdisciplinary Computational Studies).  It will surely require  significant  diversification of  faculty resource.  The students can be encouraged to take dual majors in various combinations, e.g, Informatics and Finance, Informatics and Business studies, Informatics and Healthcare, Informatics and Banking, Informatics and Maths, Informatics and Physics, Informatics and Life Sciences, Informatics and Psychology, Informatics and Cultural Studies, Informatics and Sociology, Informatics and Literature,  Informatics and Arts, Informatics and Media Studies, Informatics and Education, Informatics and Design, etc. To begin with some high priority areas like finance, banking, insurance, design, and healthcare could be considered more actively. These programs should establish linkages with some domain industry player/bodies and even concerned government agencies to understand their perspective and specific industry needs.

For completing the degree requirement, the course requirement will not be more than one third each in informatics and the chosen second major discipline (e.g., mentioned in above paragraph). The remaining one third will have to be a well diversified distribution of courses to provide general education. Some interdisciplinary courses integrating the perspectives, approaches, and content of informatics with other disciplines will also be developed.

A Liberal Arts College kind of freshmen seminar course focusing on critical thinking and composition may be the compulsory course for all students. Some more compulsory courses may be on Human learning and development, Problem solving and decision making, Computational Thinking, Research Methods, etc.  A further common base (with flexibility) for all students is –   general education foundation like liberal arts  with  flexibility of courses in various disciplines with defined distribution across diverse disciplines.  This  distribution for one third courses may necessarily include some courses in Maths, Language, Science, Humanities, Social Science, Arts, Engineering (other than CS), and perhaps  even Philosophy.   This kind of diversity will be a distinguishing aspect of this program as the regular BTech students in India often do not study many of these disciplines and hence do not have sufficient broad base.  Further, the content of these general education courses may be designed in such a manner that their relation with Informatics is brought out within each course.   The capstone project will necessarily have to be interdisciplinary.

The second common base (flexible) is one third course distribution reserved for the Informatics. The specific compulsory courses need further discussion and thinking.   Perhaps a small compulsory kernel (not more than 1/3 out of informatics quota)  may be picked up using  intersection of ACM-IEEE recommendations for CS, IS, and SE. Around  2/3 of Informatics courses may  have a flexibility of choice and also closer relationship with the second major.

While these students are expected to be excellent entry level manpower resources for various mainstream as well niche segments of Indian industry including the mainstream IT companies, the curriculum and academic system will be designed keeping the possibility of smooth upward mobility to reputed international master’s programs in interdisciplinary or in some cases even discipline specific programs.

Students to this program can be admitted based on different criteria other than AIEEE. Students with proven record of diversified interests and genuine interest in specific domains  should be attracted to this program to make it a success. Admission should not be restricted to science students only. However certain options for second major will only remain open to them.

Reference:

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2. Should IITs, NITs, IIITs, and some other reputed Indian Engineering institutes start USA like Liberal Arts education?

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4.  In terms of emerging trend of software development related activities, how do you place different activities of SDLC wrt Biglan’s classification of academic disciplines?

5.  Software Development Education: Breadth Courses for Developing Domain Competence and Systems Thinking

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Also check http://in.linkedin.com/in/sgoel

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