Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Experiments in HigherEd

The Economist has an article entitled The Digital Degree on the disruptive potential of online education. In the middle of a lot of hype, one finds this interesting concept that combines the benefits of online education and traditional universities:

Anant Agarwal, who runs edX, proposes an alternative to the standard American four-year degree course. Students could spend an introductory year learning via a MOOC, followed by two years attending university and a final year starting part-time work while finishing their studies online. This sort of blended learning might prove more attractive than a four-year online degree. It could also draw in those who want to combine learning with work or child-rearing, freeing them from timetables assembled to suit academics. Niche subjects can benefit, too: a course on French existentialism could be accompanied by another university’s MOOC on the Portuguese variety.

BTW, I liked this summary of the benefits of attending a traditional university:

Traditional universities have a few trump cards. As well as teaching, examining and certification, college education creates social capital. Students learn how to debate, present themselves, make contacts and roll joints. [Bold emphasis added]


  1. Mary Beard in CHE: What's So Funny? A neat overview of the history of theories of laughter. I like this line: "Confronted with the product of centuries of analysis and investigation, one is [tempted] to suggest that it is not so much laughter that defines the human species, as Aristotle is supposed to have claimed, but rather the drive to debate and theorize laughter."

  2. Here's a big one fit for the Annals of Research Misconduct: SAGE is retracting 60 articles published in their Journal of Vibration and Control [Update: The scandal has now forced the resignation of Taiwan's Education Minister]. Reason? A peer review ring:

    While investigating the JVC papers submitted and reviewed by Peter Chen, it was discovered that the author had created various aliases on SAGE Track, providing different email addresses to set up more than one account. Consequently, SAGE scrutinised further the co-authors of and reviewers selected for Peter Chen’s papers, these names appeared to form part of a peer review ring. The investigation also revealed that on at least one occasion, the author Peter Chen reviewed his own paper under one of the aliases he had created.

  3. The Philosophers Mail: How we end up marrying the wrong people:

    ... Given that marrying the wrong person is about the single easiest and also costliest mistake any of us can make (and one which places an enormous burden on the state, employers and the next generation), it is extraordinary, and almost criminal, that the issue of marrying intelligently is not more systematically addressed at a national and personal level, as road safety or smoking are.

    It’s all the sadder because in truth, the reasons why people make the wrong choices are easy to lay out and unsurprising in their structure. [...]

  4. The Economist: The Digital Degree. "The staid higher-education business is about to experience a welcome earthquake."

Wednesday, July 09, 2014


  1. Heidi Ledford in Nature News: We dislike being alone with our thoughts. "Many people would rather endure physical pain than suffer their own wandering cogitations."

    Here's my cynical take: A fun study makes bold claims in psychology, and gets published in Science. How long will it survive before it gets retracted?

  2. Patricia Fara in Nature: Women in science: A temporary liberation:

    The First World War ushered women into laboratories and factories. In Britain, it may have won them the vote, argues Patricia Fara, but not the battle for equality.

  3. Casey Miller and Keivan Stassun in Nature: A Test that Fails.

    Universities in the United States rely too heavily on the graduate record examinations (GRE) — a standardized test introduced in 1949 that is an admissions requirement for most US graduate schools. This practice is poor at selecting the most capable students and severely restricts the flow of women and minorities into the sciences.

    We are not the only ones to reach this conclusion. [...]

Tuesday, July 08, 2014


  1. Retractions of the Year? The Rise and Fall of STAP (a Special Section in Nature website on the STAP fiasco, with all the relevant links. I presume (but haven't checked) that all the links there are open access).

    Two papers published in Nature in January 2014 promised to revolutionize the way stem cells are made by showing that simply putting differentiated cells under stress can 'reprogram' them and make them pluripotent — able to develop into any type of tissue in the body. But soon, errors were found in the papers, and attempts to replicate the experiments failed. Haruko Obokata, the lead author, was found guilty of misconduct, and the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology, where she worked, was threatened with dismantlement. Five months after publication, Nature published retractions of the papers, but the aftermath of the episode is likely to endure for much longer.

  2. R. Grant Steen in Publications (yes, there is a journal by that name ...): The Demographics of Deception: What Motivates Authors Who Engage in Misconduct? From the abstract:

    Journal IF was higher for papers retracted for misconduct (...). Roughly 57% of papers retracted for misconduct were written by a first author with other retracted papers; 21% of erroneous papers were written by authors with >1 retraction (...). Papers flawed by misconduct diffuse responsibility across more authors (...)) and are withdrawn more slowly (...) than papers retracted for other reasons.

  3. Joel Achenbach in WaPo: Science is open to error, misinterpretation and even fraud.

    Since science is a human enterprise, it is open to error, misinterpretation and, rarely but notoriously, fraud and fakery. Here’s a rundown of a few science mishaps, misapprehensions and debatable interpretations in recent years.

  4. Jalees Rehman in 3 Quarks Daily: The Road to Bad Science Is Paved with Obedience and Secrecy: "The recent events surrounding the research in one of the world's most famous stem cell research laboratories at Harvard shows us the disastrous effects of suppressing diverse and dissenting opinions."

  5. Dan Drezner in CHE: The Uses of Being Wrong: "Why is it so hard for scholars to admit when they are wrong?"

Experiments in Higher Ed: Fractal Courses at IIT-H

IIT-Hyderabad is experimenting with an undergraduate curriculum that contains many, many "single module" or "breadth" courses (typically, one lecture hour per week) in various disciplines at an introductory level, followed by a more traditional set of "depth" courses (which require two or more lecture hours per week) in the student's chosen discipline.

The idea, as I understand it, is to allow students to study a variety of subjects in engineering, sciences, liberal arts and creative arts and to get them to appreciate and integrate ideas from many different directions. This would not only give them a perspective and a context to place their own core field in, but also give them a leg up in interdisciplinary thinking.

Over at the IIT-H website, you can find a couple of presentations, both authored by the IIT-H Director, Prof. U.B. Desai, articulating the concept of fractal courses. They contain a model curriculum with a suggestive set of breadth and depth courses for students of electrical and chemical engineering.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

The Pinnacle of Human Communication


I needed this to figure it out: 9 Questions about 'Yo' You were Embarrassed to Ask.

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Hat tip to Joshua Gans whose post examines the informational content Yo.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

40th Birthday of Barcode Technology

From the Wired story 40 Years on, the Barcode Has Turned Everything Into Information by Marcus Wohlsen:

... [Putting] barcodes on chocolate bars and instant oatmeal did more than revolutionize the economy, or the size of grocery stores. Thanks to bar codes, stuff was no longer just stuff. After a thing gets a barcode, that thing is no longer just itself. That thing now comes wrapped in a layer of information hovering just beyond sight in the digital ether. The thing becomes itself plus its data points, not just a physical object unto itself but tagged as a node in a global network of things. Barcodes serve up the augmented reality of the everyday, where everything can be cross-referenced with everything else, and everything has a number.

Haberman himself knew barcodes meant more than just a better way to manage supermarket inventory. He saw linguistics. He saw metaphysics. He also understood that those deeper abstract meanings held the key to barcodes’ radical practicality. “Go back to Genesis and read about the Creation,” Haberman once told The Boston Globe. “God says, ‘I will call the night “night”; I will call the heavens “heaven.”‘ Naming was important. Then the Tower of Babel came along and messed everything up. In effect, the U.P.C. has put everything back into one language, a kind of Esperanto, that works for everyone.”

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Bias in Biology

Update: Vijaysree Venkatraman's Science Careers article does a good job of placing the PNAS study within the larger context of recent discussions about gender bias in STEM fields [Thanks to Madrasi for the comment-alert].

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Scott Jaschik in Inside Higher Ed: Are the Stars Sexist. The 'stars' in the title are the academic elite of the male kind in biology departments in US research institutions.

... Men are less likely than are women to hire female graduate students and postdocs. And of particular concern, men who have achieved elite status by virtue of awards they have won -- in other words, the men whose labs may be the best launching pads for careers -- are the least likely to hire women who are grad students and postdocs.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Niranjan Srinivas: What I learned from an undergraduate education in mathematics

One of the nice things I get out of this blogging gig is to get e-mails from some truly fabulous people either commenting on something they saw here, or sending me a link that might be of interest to us. Sometimes, I even get to meet them in person when they visit our Institute or, more generally, Bangalore. Recently, I had the privilege of meeting one such person: Niranjan Srinivas who graduated with an integrated M. Sc. in Mathematics & Scientific Computing from IIT Kanpur in May 2008, and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the Computation & Neural Systems program at Caltech.

During our short meeting, Niranjan happened to mention an article he wrote sometime ago; when I asked him for permission to post it here, he readily agreed.

Thanks, Niranjan!

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What I learned from an undergraduate education in mathematics

Niranjan Srinivas

Typically, one’s undergraduate years involve several different kinds of learning: academic growth in the chosen field of study, social development arising from meeting and interacting with a fairly diverse set of people, and personal and emotional growth from teenage adolescence into full-fledged adulthood. In this article, my focus is on academic growth. Specifically, I shall try to articulate what I learned from my undergraduate education in mathematics, with its own particular virtues and weaknesses, and why I think such an education is valuable in the “real world”. I use “mathematics” in a broad sense (which includes theoretical computer science and statistics.)

Although the philosophy of mathematics and its relationship to science and logic is the subject of active debate, much mathematics may be viewed as an exercise in “pure reasoning”. An education in mathematics hence provides training in precise and careful logical reasoning. This logical thought process is a fundamental tool for solving complex problems, whether they arise in mathematics, scientific research, or industry, and is therefore a valuable skill to acquire.

Mathematics is as much a language as it is a field of enquiry. Indeed, it is a powerful language for expressing and investigating complex quantitative relationships between objects of interest. Therefore, it is the language of choice for the physical sciences and engineering. Facility with this language, which is essential to formulate and solve quantitative problems, is another advantage of studying mathematics.

Abstraction is an essential feature of mathematics, as it deals with the properties of and relationships between abstract entities. Although the entities are often inspired by the “real” world, mathematics is concerned with the abstract entities rather than the real world “instances” of those abstract entities. Even the number two is an abstract entity; one may find two birds or two stones or two mountains in the real world, but never just “two”. The ability to reason about abstract entities and formulate general questions is another skill one develops while learning mathematics. This skill is important because generalizing from the specific to the abstract and articulating a precise question that captures the heart of a complex problem is often a formidable challenge in itself.

In my personal experience, my training in mathematics has proven very valuable even though I have been working in very different fields. After I graduated, I spent one year working in the financial industry in a quantitative role. After that, I returned to academia to pursue my Ph. D. My current research interests lie in the intersection of computer science, bioengineering and nanotechnology; my work involves engineering smart molecular systems using synthetic nucleic acids. My colleagues include biochemists, physicists, mathematicians, and theoretical computer scientists, among others. Being trained in mathematics is very useful as it is often a common language between scientists from different backgrounds.

Apart from these specific skills and ways of thinking, an education in mathematics, which is one of the oldest intellectual endeavors, provides a historical perspective on scientific thought. A typical first course in calculus would consist almost entirely of mathematics that would be considered “well-developed” by the nineteenth century. Contrast that with a first course in molecular biology, which would consist almost entirely of ideas developed in the last fifty years. For an academic, this historical perspective is important because it provides context for his or her work. For the non-academic, the perspective provides one possible framework for thinking about modern issues and challenges.

However, majoring in mathematics as an undergraduate is not without its challenges. Although the mathematical education helps one acquire several important skills useful in the “real world”, one could conceivably graduate without any domain-specific knowledge about anything else. Leveraging the skills one acquires to actually solve problems outside mathematics would therefore entail acquiring knowledge about the particular field or problem of interest. However, this is usually not difficult if one has an open mind and is actually motivated to learn about the concerned subject. In my personal experience, acquiring new knowledge about a particular subject is significantly easier and faster than learning to think carefully and precisely in a mathematical way.

Related to this is what I like to think of as the “purist” trap. I think it is frightfully easy, at least if one is interested in “pure” mathematics as an undergraduate, to care only about mathematics for its own sake and not be interested in any “applications”. This is a perfectly admirable attitude after one has learnt a lot of both “pure” and “applied” mathematics, but is probably not the most helpful attitude for an undergraduate since it might bias the student against a lot of beautiful mathematics due to an arbitrary distinction between “pure” and “applied” mathematics. Indeed, historically much “pure” mathematics owes its development to particularly important and interesting real world problems. Personally, I fell into this trap as an undergraduate and it took me about three years of study to realize that a lot of mathematics I had labeled “uninteresting” due to my pre-conceived notions was actually quite fascinating.

Lastly, I think the single most important thing I got out of my undergraduate education is learning how to learn. Nearly everything I did after I graduated required me to learn a variety of new skills, and very few things I learned during my undergraduate education were directly relevant to my work. Indeed, almost every opportunity in an individual’s career would likely be based on what he or she can learn, rather than what he or she already knows. Learning how to learn is more valuable than the actual subject or field of study one chooses to focus on, because it empowers the individual to learn other subjects at will.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Experiments in Higher Ed

As you all know by now, Delhi University has succumbed to the UGC diktat and agreed to bury FYUP, its "flagship" program [See the posts by Rahul Siddharthan, Dheeraj Sanghi and Saroj Giri, and the links within them].

For all its merits, and the support of our science academies, the FYUP at DU never managed to get the support of the people of Delhi.

It is possible that FYUP is not suitable for everyone, and it might have found broader support if it was offered as an option for those who were interested in staying in college for an extra year. In other words, FYUP as an incremental change (or, as an experiment) might have worked better than its introduction as the default option for everyone.

I was, and continue to be, unpersuaded by arguments that complained about the 'haste' with which the FYUP was implemented. Since I see the FYUP as an experiment -- and it will necessarily be a different experiment at each university -- I have always held the view that it is better to take the plunge and implement it. To the extent that an institution has the right processes in place to take care of problems and make mid-course corrections, hasty implementation becomes less of a concern.

This country has unleashed several large scale experiments in the last decade: I am referring here to the creation of IISERs, IITs, NITs, and Central Universities. These institutions are being built from scratch. Each is going about organizing its governance structures and developing its academic programs in its own unique way. In these cases too, critics focused on the lack of preparation and hasty implementation. But people -- and I mean here the broader public -- seem to be fine with the idea that the success of such experiments can be assessed only over a period of years (if not decades).

Since I approach FYUP as an experiment (and let's face it, it's a lot less radical than starting a new institution from scratch), I find it perplexing that the people of Delhi oppose it so vehemently.

So, what is the difference between these two kinds of experiments -- FYUP at DU and creating new institutions all across the country? What makes the public see the former as largely unacceptable and the latter as very desirable?

The Right Response To Ranking Exercises: We are X, And We Should Be The Best X We Can Be

Prof. Peter N. Stearns, the soon-to-be-ex Provost of George Mason University, has what I think is one of the best responses to the ranking exercises that seem to have a nasty effect on the sleep cycles of many university leaders. In his recent post entitled Mason Goals, this is what he has to say (and I hope he won't mind the extended excerpt), and with bold emphasis added by me:

T... [W]here should we be heading? I don’t mean the details of the new strategic plan, which is ambitious and fine, though my comments relate to the overall directions of the plan. I refer more to University identity.

And here we confront a puzzle: George Mason is really hard to categorize. When I first arrived I assumed my job was to help make the University even more recognized in the standard ways – move up in US News rankings, get mentioned more often as a research hub, become more selective, and so on. And we did do some of these things. But we also wanted to keep identities we already had, that were equally valuable: center of student diversity (US News shamefully ignores this in its main ratings); accessible to large numbers of first-generation students – and not just accessible – serving as a means for their academic success; eager to seize new opportunities and innovate where appropriate, without as much traditionalist resistance as is common in many other places.

We wanted, in other words, to be George Mason. I heard talk of earlier goals of becoming the “Harvard of the Potomac”, but this reference has faded partly because we simply lack the means, and partly because that’s not fully what we want to be anyway. Yet at the same time we’re not simply innovative and accessible. We really do want to move meaningful research forward. We really do want to combine opportunity with serious quality standards — otherwise we might have more degrees to brag about, but without the real service to students a good university must pledge. We want to be a distinctive mixture, and that’s what I hope we’ve been accomplishing and will accomplish in the future. We want to maintain an active, creative tension between serious conventional standards and the distinctive flavor we’ve developed as an up-and-comer.

Several years ago, pressed by a Board of Visitors interested in Mason aiming at “world class” standards, we hired a consultant who actually said it most clearly: strive to be the best George Mason we can be. Take pride in the difficulty people have in pinpointing us too easily. Take pride in the combinations. In the process we’ll find, as we already do with some of our international visitors, that other institutions will be seeking to adopt our formula.

The "Price" for Getting into the Top 20

A sobering way of examining university ranking exercises is to put a price on the goal of getting into the Top-20 (or Top whatever) in a certain list. Here's an Inside Higher Ed news story about a recent paper that looked into the price for the University of Rochester, which is "ranked consistently in the mid-thirties" in the US News list, to break into the Top 20 (the paper itself is available at a price that I am not willing to pay ;-):

If it wanted to move into the top 20, Rochester would have to do a lot on several of the various factors U.S. News uses to rank colleges. To move up one spot because of faculty compensation, Rochester would have to increase the average faculty salary by about $10,000. To move up one spot on resources provided to students, it would have to spend $12,000 more per student. Those two things alone would cost $112 million a year.

To get into the top 20, Rochester would also have to increase its graduation rate by 2 percent, enroll more students who were in the top 10 percent of their high school graduating class, get more alumni to give, cut the acceptance rate and increase the SAT and ACT scores of incoming students. Some of those things, like offering aid money to highly qualified students, might further increase the expense.

But that’s not all, the paper argues. Rochester would still have to do well in the rankings magazine’s “beauty contest.”

Because 15 percent of the ranking is based on reputation among other administrators, even massive expenditures year after year and huge leaps in student quality and graduation would not be enough. The reputation score as judged by its peers would need to increase from 3.4 to 4.2 on a scale of 5, something that has only a .01 percent chance of happening, the paper said.

IIT-M Director Bhaskar Ramamurthi on Global University Rankings

It's good to see an institutional leader trying to drill some sense into policy-makers who ought to know better than to go blindly by global ranking exercises. Here's the concluding paragraph from Prof. Ramamurthi's op-ed in The Indian Express:

The contributions of the IITs are to be assessed along several dimensions. Some of these are relevant globally and are used by international ranking agencies, while other important ones are totally ignored. We should reflect on the relative weightage given to the dimensions assessed and not lose sight of those that are not. To the extent that the rankings tell us something about where we stand globally with respect to research, visibility, etc, they are relevant, and the IITs should strive to improve their position. Above all, we should not blindly adopt these rankings as an end in themselves, nor allow ourselves to be railroaded into pursuing select dimensions of performance while neglecting others, especially those that are critical to our national development goals.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

News Link

Today's Chennai edition of Deccan Chronicle features a short take on my science outreach work.

Pet-peeve: At least, the titles of the books could have been mentioned...instead of, say, my picture... Well, all of us are learning how to do this anyway...

Monday, June 23, 2014

FYUP Fracas at Delhi

The Four-Year Undergraduate Program (FYUP) introduced last year at the Delhi University has run into some serious trouble, triggered in part by NDA's thumping win in the recent Lok Sabha elections in Delhi, with the repeal of the program a key point in their agenda.

In the process of learning more about the issue, I found the following links useful.

  1. First Post has a summary of how DU finds itself in this mess.

  2. Business Insider - India also has a primer which goes into some of the specific issues flagged by teachers and students.

  3. A Telegraph story from two weeks ago seems to argue that DU's FYUP has some support among students who joined the program last year.

  4. The program also finds support among educationists, says this story in the Business Standard.

  5. The University Grants Commission has taken a tough stand, ordering DU to admit students this year only to the old three-year bachelor's program. And DU has responded by complying nominally to this order, but keeping the FYUP alive by giving the students an option to pursue an "honours" degree in their fourth year.

FYUP is what we have at IISc (and IIT-K as well, for its science degree programs). Prominent private universities such as the Shiv Nadar University appear to favor FYUP over its conventional three-year variant. So, I think FYUP, as an idea, is quite alive.

Overall, I have always been for the four-year degree program. On paper, DU's program has much to like: its curriculum features a a gen ed component (called "foundation" courses), encourages internships and undergraduate research, and offers exit options at the end of not just the third year with a bachelor's degree, but also at the end of the second year, with an associate degree.

Many of FYUP's troubles at DU appear to be due to the haste with which it was rammed through by Vice Chancellor Dinesh Singh and his crew.

We will have to wait and see how this turbulent phase plays itself out at DU.