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The first online semester was a unique experience for all the students and the faculty in the institute. These were unprecedented times in our lives, and the concept of an online semester was new for everyone. It brought along with many challenges, stress, and problems. The most significant things that were impacted by this were our academics and our mental, physical health. In these times, there were a few success stories in our online semester, mainly about professors who had very little experience teaching online that were able to make their courses in these testing times, as student- friendly as possible. In this article, we reached out to individual professors, asking them how they had adjusted their teaching methods to the circumstances that prevailed by asking them a series of questions. We tried to get an insight into how they were able to adapt to the online semester.

Prof Shivaram Kalyanakrishnan, CSE, IIT Bombay

He took the course CS 747- Foundations of Intelligent and Learning Agents in Autumn 2020. The course was well-liked and well-received by his students.

1. What were the problems you faced in delivering the lectures and conducting the course as effectively as in the offline mode?

It was not just off-line versus on-line: the first main difference was pandemic versus no pandemic! We all went through an unprecedented crisis in our lives last semester; my foremost concern was students’ physical and mental health, not academics! As an instructor, I did not want to do anything that would add to students’ stress. This became the main guiding principle of the course, and resulted in many changes (only about 80% of the portion completed, more time for assignments, NO synchronous meetings, etc.).

Sitting in an institute of national importance, drawing an assured monthly salary from tax-payer money, I felt impelled to step up and help whoever I could in this time of need. I had never made video lectures before (they’re so much work!), but I invested time and effort into making them, and also put them up on the Internet. In fact, they even went out on TV (the Swayam Prabha team that facilitated the transmission also helped me improve recording quality). Students all over have been hit quite badly by the lockdown; I hope my lectures have helped (and will continue to) in whatever little way. For our own students, an additional new component of the course was continuous evaluation through weekly quizzes (again more work for me, but luckily I had an excellent set of TAs).

Believe it or not, I actually think last semester’s on-line offering of CS 747 was MORE effective than previous years’ off-line versions. The instructional material itself turned out to be higher-quality; the students had more time to digest it; they were constantly being evaluated: for all these reasons I believe they were able to learn more effectively than in previous years. Moreover, the on-line mode gave me the courage to open up the course to 3rd year UGs for the first time (earlier I was worried about the class size)–and this meant a class size of 220+. On-line does have its attractions–now how am I going to get back to off-line?!

2. Were there any problems due to the mindset of students in? How did you cater to that?

Absolutely no complaints about students’ mindset or whatever. Come on! Crowded households, selves and relatives falling sick, all-round anxiety about life and death, technical difficulties with staying connected, health issues triggered by prolonged screen time–that the students were even willing to study in the midst of all this is entirely to their credit. Their genuine willingness to learn and to keep pace with the course amidst all their pressures was what kept ME going.

3. Did you adopt any new teaching or evaluation methods for the conduction of course,  particularly, were there any changes in assessment methods in order to adapt to this mode of teaching, aiming at fair grading and curbing the possibilities of using unfair means in exams?

I’ve already mentioned a few earlier, but the biggest decision for me to make was with regard to conducting the end-semester exam. The institute had prescribed on-line proctoring, but my heart would not cooperate! Having to cram everything you’ve learned into a 3-hour slot, when you’re not sure if your network connection will go down, not sure if your screen recording program has crashed, … how much anxiety all this would cause! I was not willing to be party to this. Instead, I gave my class the exam (in fact published it on the Internet!) and told them they would have two weeks to finish up and submit–with only their honour preventing them from consulting their classmates. It was a gamble all right–the students could have all copied their way to AAs and made a laughing stock out of me. Well, I was willing to be made a laughing stock rather than pile on the pressure. I’m happy to note that my students, by-and-large, reciprocated my trust. I was particularly moved to see answer papers with many questions left unattempted.

I have been through an IIT education myself, and have seen close friends crumble under stress. What a shame. It is perhaps my personal experience in this regard that prompted me to steer clear of on-line proctoring and all that shebang. My hypothesis was that it’s a whole lot of needless stress. However, I’ve also heard from some sources that it wasn’t so bad after all, so maybe I was overreacting. If you are a student reading this and have a relevant experience or opinion to share, do write to me!

 

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