Published: 15th September 2022
Blackboard to E-boards: How are Core Engineering streams sustaining education in hybrid mode?
We dig into how the four core Engineering streams are dealing with the challenge of hybrid learning along with a shift to specialised streams
While the COVID-19 pandemic might be almost over, its consequences are not. As the world tries to adapt to the needs of this post-COVID world, the field of education has also seen multiple transformations. We have had classrooms in our homes and teachers on our screens. The push for hybrid learning can also be observed in the way the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) issued a circular to all Higher Education Institutions last month, urging them to adopt hybrid learning systems so that technical colleges are prepared to handle the trysts of online learning.
To this effect, the AICTE had initiated the process of transforming all Engineering institutions approved by it into centres of hybrid learning with the support of educational tech-solutions provider Tech Avant-Garde, in order to create a hybrid learning ecosystem that is "lockdown-proof".
Although this might sound like a dream to many, it doesn’t come without its challenges. This holds true especially for the educational institutions that teach core Engineering streams — Civil, Chemical, Mechanical and Electrical. While the field has also observed a shift from these core streams to other specialised streams, how are these institutions planning to handle the twin challenges of reduced demand for core subjects and the move to hybrid learning? Additionally, what are the challenges that they have faced so far with respect to this transformed mode of learning?
Challenges faced with hybrid learning
Most professors of institutes agreed that physical teaching is different from and can never be replaced with virtual teaching. They pointed out that, in some cases, institutes did not have the required infrastructure facilities and students did not have uninterrupted power supply and internet connection. Prof Sriram Venkatesh, who is the Head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Osmania University, said that around 10 to 15 per cent of subjects are difficult to teach in the hybrid mode. “Sometimes, we need to draw on an LED screen but we are not that well-versed with drawing on this screen compared to a blackboard,” he said.
Additionally, professors also mentioned that there is a loss of communication and learning material that comes with online learning. “Students tend to miss some important topics as they might be indulged in other activities while listening to classes,” said Prof Rani, who teaches Mechanical Engineering at Jawaharlal Nehru Technological University Hyderabad (JNTUH). She said that her course mainly involved derivations, figures and mathematical technologies, all of which were difficult to teach initially. “I had to use a digital pad to do derivations and I had to coordinate it with my right hand and what I had to teach,” she added.
However, some said that they faced no difficulty shifting to the hybrid mode. “We enjoyed the experience as it gives us more time to conduct discussions and students tend to be more active online,” said Prof G Mallesham from the Department of Electrical Engineering at Osmania University.
New methods/innovations introduced that worked with hybrid learning
Despite the challenges faced during hybrid learning, professors are hopeful to introduce new methods of teaching to keep up the demand for core Engineering streams. Some institutions ensured remote access to equipment even during the COVID-19 pandemic. Prof Venkatesh said that they are wanting to follow the model that already exists in some institutes, like the Birla Institute of Technology and Science (BITS) Pilani. “Each and every machine in the lab has sensors and they are integrated with the computer system. They are network-enabled too,” he said.
The machines are operated through a software that requires students to log in during allotted slots. “Students will be able to access these machines from anywhere in the world if they have access to the internet,” he added. They will be able to see the movement of the machines remotely, including the steering gear mechanism, brakes and linears, gear system, disc brakes and so on, and take the recordings, accordingly.
Other institutes adopted techniques that became a convention during the pandemic. JNTUH used e-content and video recordings of online classes to sustain education during the pandemic. “While only theory classes were completely conducted online initially, later on, blended mode was adopted wherein the labs were kept open for 10 hours and students were divided into multiple batches and were asked to perform practical work at length,” said Prof Rani. Additionally, students were also instructed to visit industries working in the field of Mechanical Engineering and get hands-on experience for a length of four to six weeks (which has been extended since pre-pandemic) to compensate for the loss of learning, she said.
In National Institute of Technology (NIT) Warangal, alternatives like virtual labs and video recordings of lab processes were introduced, said Prof CSRK Prasad from the Department of Civil Engineering at the institute. In the context of both Civil and Chemical Engineering, he said, “The experiment would be conducted by the manpower in the lab and a video would be recorded of the same. A voiceover is then added and shared with the students,” he added.
The faculty has also been trained online to develop e-content and IT research and optimisation techniques. “Softwares that help with plotting and drawing graphs were also used and the faculty was trained for this,” said Prof Rani. While asserting the value of recorded classes, Prof Rani also mentioned that she took a keen interest in simulations and manufacturing systems theory and was able to listen to the recorded classes of other professors of the university who teach that particular subject.
Demand for core Engineering streams
While institutions deal with the challenge of hybrid learning, reports have also pointed out that the demand for core Engineering streams — Civil, Chemical, Mechanical and Electrical — have been witnessing a dip in the last few years. In fact, a report by The New Indian Express pointed out that at least 234 colleges have applied to Anna University seeking a nod to reduce the number of seats in Mechanical and Civil Engineering courses and 37 colleges have applied for complete closure of courses that have no takers. Professors attribute this reduced demand to the trend of placements wherein companies prefer students who have a degree in Computer Science Engineering.
“Additionally, there is a difference in the trend in central and state universities. All courses are in demand in central universities but students in state universities are leaning towards Computer Science, Information Technology (IT), Artificial Intelligence (AI), Data Science, etc,” said Prof Mallesham. This could be because of the recent IT boom and the emphasis on the service sector in the country, he said. “Indian students mainly go abroad after doing Software Engineering, as a result people are looking for students from these backgrounds. Additionally, Computer Science jobs depend on private companies but core Engineering jobs are mainly government-based, like BHEL, Bharat Electronics,” he added. However, vacancies in government jobs do not come about that easily and might open up only once someone retires, he said.
Prof Prasad, while agreeing to the fact that this phenomenon is dependent on the job market, says that students who pursue jobs in core Engineering streams do not earn respectable wages. “There is a Minimum Wage Act for skilled and unskilled labourers but what about engineers?” he asked. He compared the average minimum salary that is received by employees of these two streams. “While an average salary for a software engineer is Rs 20 lakh, the same for a core Engineering stream job is Rs 6 lakh. This is despite the fact that there is not much difference in the marks they have scored,” he added. As a result, many shift to Computer Science courses.
Some professors say that although there is demand for such courses, it may not be as big as it was several years back. “It is not a growing field like IT and Computer Programming. We are not building that many power plants and mainly large processed plants,” said a professor who teaches Chemical Engineering in a university in Hyderabad and who wishes to stay anonymous. The demand could make a comeback if there is a shift from fossil fuels to alternative renewable resources. “This will obviously be a slow process as even though people talk about it a lot, the capacity to implement it is not there,” the professor said.
Additionally, some professors also said that women are usually not considered “appropriate” for core Engineering streams jobs as they are mostly “physical”. “For example, in JNTUH, which is a 50-year-old college, there are only four women professors who teach core Engineering streams,” said Prof Rani. However, educational institutions are trying to maintain the demand for these streams by introducing integrated courses. “Core subjects will be integrated with Data Science, Machine Learning and AI so that a student will get both a major and a minor degree,” said Prof Venkatesh.
Others are educating students about the current scenario with regards to the streams and their job prospects. “We have observed a trend wherein students who initially pursued core Engineering streams who take up software jobs after graduating but then go back to core Engineering jobs,” said Prof Rani. She is also conducting periodic feedback sessions that include the alumni and the faculty who talk about their journey in the field.
“Conventional Engineering — core Engineering streams — will never be zero or nil. They can be combined with AI and other courses to keep up with the demand,” she added.
Would they still prefer hybrid learning?
While the difference between physical and virtual teaching/learning will always exist, professors seem to prefer hybrid mode as a better method of teaching. “This mode saves time and allows more prospects for discussion of subjects,” said Prof Mallesham.
They also believe that the gaps between the two modes will soon be removed once infrastructure facilities like uninterrupted internet and power supply are provided to institutions and students. In fact, the AICTE, in July, inaugurated a Hybrid Learning Workshop for the heads of 10,000 Engineering institutions in the country. The workshop, conducted by educational tech-solutions provider, Tech Avant-Garde (TAG), is part of AICTE's goal to convert all Engineering institutions approved by it into centres of hybrid learning.