Srinivasan Ramani on Indian Engineers, MOOCs and Intergalactic Travel
Interviewed by the Internet Hall of Fame editorial staff
Srinivasan Ramani, who was inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame in 2014, played a key role in India’s Education and Research Network (ERNET) and led the effort to set up ERNET’s international gateway, starting with a link to Amsterdam in 1987. Although he retired in 2011 from teaching at the International Institute of Information Technology in Bangalore, Dr. Ramani remains a teacher at heart and has a broad perspective on education, which he was gracious enough to share with us in a recent conversation.
Q. What has changed in engineering education in India since you were a student?
A. Believe it or not, when I first began my studies in engineering in 1958, there were just about 3,500 engineering admissions per year in all of India. According to the latest figures now, there are well over a million admissions each year to four-year courses leading to university degrees in engineering, in over 3,000 colleges nationwide. That is, there are nearly 300 times more students starting their engineering education every year, compared to the time I started college. It is amazing.
Q. What changed to make that happen?
A. The attitudes and aptitudes of students have not changed over the years, but opportunities have. Students have always gone to college to gain financial security; it’s just that today there are many, many employment opportunities in Information and Communications technology (ICT), and that fact has sparked a keen interest in the study of computers and software. The Internet opened a whole new world for engineering students.
Q. With all your experience, are there any new developments in engineering education that have surprised you?
A. The MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses) are making education more democratic. They’re inexpensive and very convenient. I’ve completed three of them myself recently and I’m taking a couple more right now, just to keep in touch with the latest developments.
Q. So, you’re a big fan of online learning?
A. Up to a point. I find that most MOOCs have one big drawback: They assume that you are highly motivated and do not try to get you excited about what you are learning. A good teacher in a real classroom sparks the flames of curiosity and passion for learning about the subject he or she is teaching. A typical MOOC works great for those who have the fire already, but it does not work to start the fire; it only provides the fuel to keep it burning.
Q. What is it about Indian culture that produces so many technology students?
A. We have a history and culture that promotes respect for knowledge and education. That value is probably the main reason. Our first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru said, “Factories are the temples of modern India.” He was right. He did a lot for the development of students in my generation. We were 11 years into independence when I went to college; several Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) had been created while he was prime minister. Professors had come from all over the world to teach here. It was an exciting time to go into engineering. The professors of computer science who had come from the US to teach at an IIT are fondly remembered to this day.
Q. In India there are 22 official languages and several hundred dialects. Isn’t that holding back the country’s IT development?
A. Not really. One of the great strengths of our country is that millions speak English. India has been an English-speaking country for a long time now. English is very popular as a second language and it is taught in most schools – certainly in urban areas. Again, I’ll use the example of Nehru: His father had hired an Irishman to tutor his son. Even when he was 6 or 7, Nehru had no trouble learning in English.
Q. Many Indian engineering students come to the U.S. to complete their educations. Why is that?
A. The English language plays a major role in this, too. My own daughter is a good example. She had never been out of the country earlier, but at 17 she went off to college at Mount Holyoke, in Massachusetts. That she could so smoothly switch to education in the U. S. shows that the city schools here do a very good job of educating students both in English and in other academic subjects.
Q. What can India teach the rest of the world?
A. It’s crucial to have very good schools. Schools should be inspiring, and give the children hope and direction; India has benefited a lot from the U.S., too.
Q. In what way?
A. Lots of Indian students have benefited from scholarships from U.S colleges. U.S. universities have been generous in hiring Indian post-docs; U. S. firms have hired Indian engineers and have given them valuable experience. In the world of ICT, the workplace is a great teacher. Your nation’s open-door policy has led to tens of thousands of Indians eventually setting up here in India branches of big companies they had worked for in the U.S. A number of them have also set up Indian companies that do mutually beneficial business with US companies. The entrepreneurial spirit and focus on innovation in the U.S. have always inspired our engineers.
Q. What do you do for fun these days?
A. I’m a geek, I should say! Even my hobbies have to do with science or engineering. Remember the MOOC courses I mentioned I had taken? Two of those courses were in the field of neuroscience, taken merely because I enjoyed learning the subject. And I do love to read, but mostly science fiction and non-fiction. My wife and I go to the movies once in a while, too.
Q. What movies have you seen lately?
A. We saw “Interstellar.”
Q. How did you like it?
A. I liked it, but intergalactic travel just isn’t a big possibility! I agree that climate change is a serious problem, but the solution doesn’t lie in going away to some other galaxy. We need to solve the problem here on earth!