Foreign teachers help Indian professors up their game

Photo caption: Indian engineering students walk in the main campus at the Indian Institute of Technology in New Delhi. (Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images)

NEW DELHI, India — When Bhushan Trivedi heard about a week-long course in which American engineering professors were going to show their Indian counterparts how to teach more effectively, he was skeptical.

"I had attended several workshops of this kind in the past, and I had not learned anything new," said Trivedi, who has taught engineering for 20 years, currently at the GLS College of Computer Technology, in Gujarat, India.

Still, he decided to attend the workshop two years ago, and came away a believer.

"It was the best I ever attended," he said of the program, run by the Indo-U.S. Collaboration for
Engineering Education. "My life changed after that."

A brainchild of Krishna Vedula, an engineering professor at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, the collaboration was designed to offer practical training for engineering professors in India, who are often underprepared and overwhelmed by the demands of teaching.

"Indian faculty lack the ability to take theory and relate it to practice and application," said Vedula, who was born in India and educated in the United States. "And American faculty lays more emphasis on that."

The collaboration was set up with the help of Lowell, the American Society for Engineering Education and the Indian Society for Technical Education, among other entities. Dozens of academics and business people in both the United States and India helped fine-tune the curriculum.

The collaboration was set up in 2007 and the workshops began in earnest the following year. Since then nearly 1,200 Indian faculty members have been trained by at least 36 American professors. With their training, the Indian professors, in turn, have conducted more than 200 regional workshops, helping more than 6,000 faculty members who teach an estimated 100,000 students.

Because the core engineering curriculum is virtually the same worldwide, Vedula says, there is already a common base of understanding no matter the country. And the American professors aren't teaching engineering itself, but teaching their peers how to explain it to their students more effectively.

Raised in a system that emphasizes teaching through lectures and learning through rote memorization, many Indian faculty members lack the skills to engage students, Vedula said. "A lot of professors will give a monologue for an hour. That is the worst way of teaching. After 10 minutes, students lose attention."

During the workshops, American professors train their Indian counterparts in what is called "active learning." They introduce strategies for working with students on problems, class participation and group learning.

For Trivedi, the engineering professor, the workshop itself proved that those methods work. "After seven hours on the first day," he said, "I was as fresh as I was when the workshop started. I was so engrossed that I hadn't looked at my watch once."

The quality of teaching in India's 2,500 or so mostly private engineering colleges suffers, Vedula said, because many instructors do not have doctorates. So they lack not only teaching skills but also a deep knowledge of their material.

The American professors who signed up to teach the workshops say the experience has been rewarding.

Sidney Burrus, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Rice University, said the training program is far superior to similar ones he has come across. "Most programs talk about the topic and not how to teach," Burrus said. "I am not teaching electrical engineering. I am teaching how to teach."

For Trivedi, the experience has had a tangible impact on both him and his students. Before he went through the training program, he said he would feel bad when his students didn't perform well and didn't know how to help them.

Shortly afterward, though, he started employing the workshop's techniques. He asked students for "minute papers," in which they spent one minute after each class specifying which concept they understood best and which was the muddiest.

"In the Indian education system," Trivedi said, "there is no mechanism to get student feedback."

Using active-learning techniques "improved my teaching," he said, adding that the students' attention span increased. On the final exam, 14 out of 19 students received grades of A.

"Five of these students met me later and said they had been planning to leave engineering because they felt they were incapable of studying it," said Trivedi. "But after going through my course, they said they will continue to do engineering."

Vishal Koshti is one of Trivedi's students. "I am 25 years old, and I have never encountered this kind of teaching," he said. "He made it very interesting."

The collaboration has received most of its financial support from Narayan Murthy, a founder of Infosys Technologies Ltd., a software-services company, and Desh Deshpande, founder of Sycamore Networks Inc.

Each of them gave $330,000 in 2008 and again in 2009. Until this year the American professors were paid $10,000 for each workshop they ran. (The fee was dropped to $5,000 this year.)

This year Murthy and Deshpande asked that participants pay for half of the cost of the program, in order to keep the project sustainable. This month a new series of workshops, 37 in all, will begin in 24 locations throughout India. Each will have a class of 30 Indian faculty members, whose colleges have paid $7,500 each for them to participate.

Vedula says colleges are willing to pay the money because they've seen the results.

Richard Felder, of North Carolina State, has said that the workshops in which he participated in India "have had a more visible and dramatic impact than anything else I have done in my career. An unbelievably high percentage of the nearly 200 engineering professors we addressed have reported changing their teaching practices following the workshop, with strongly positive learning outcomes."

The collaboration, he said, "has the clear potential to nucleate an engineering education revolution in India similar to the technology revolution of the 1990s, and also to establish a model for engineering-education reform that can be emulated in developing countries."