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Foreign teachers help Indian professors up their game

American professors train Indian engineering faculty in active teaching techniques.

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

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.