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Foreign teachers help Indian professors up their game

American professors train Indian engineering faculty in active teaching techniques.

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."