It’s a mixed bag

Kannan Soundararajan  

As the class sizes grow bigger and the option of online education moots teacher-student interactivity like never before, higher education seems to be in a period of flux. Essentially, it is caught between rising studying costs, fewer teachers and fewer jobs, and falling opportunity costs and easier access to information.

Even as effects of the economic recession subside, scientific development continues to resist a downturn because of the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of advanced research. Aiding this is the phenomenon of online education, which has made access to virtually any subject undeniable for those with an Internet connection at home.

Online is the future

As Kannan Soundararajan, who teaches at Stanford University, says, “Online education is changing things for the future. There are various models that qualify successful classroom-teaching, and one of them is one-to-one interactions with small class sizes. Online classrooms have emulated this well.”

Soundararajan won the Infosys Prize in the mathematical sciences category in 2011. The award was conferred on him on account of his groundbreaking work in number theory, an area of pure-mathematics research.

The changing nature of what a classroom signifies today is unlikely to halt in the next few years; Soundararajan believes the day is about a decade away. At Stanford University, the number of mathematics majors has increased by a surprising factor of nine in a little over eight years.

This is also a signal that while university fees continue to be on the uphill-march, students are still finding it feasible to sustain their interests and pursue them at great costs. Another consequence of the economic downturn is that investment in research and development by governments has fallen, leaving the commercial sector not as able to absorb graduates as it was earlier.

A huge field

At the same time, the interdisciplinary nature of subjects has ensured that investment in one area of research ends up being shared by members from a set of other fields. Advanced pure mathematics, at the crest of which resides the work of Soundararajan, is one such subject. While it relied on problems in physics until the 1980s, the technological revolution that resulted in the ubiquity of the personal computer saw a host of problems being exported to mathematicians. “Now, advanced mathematics has grown to become a huge field, influencing many aspects of life. The give and take between different fields also continues to happen: as one grows, the other does, too.”

Most recently, biology has entered this interdisciplinary mix, drawing the attention of mathematicians and physicists, like G. Baskaran, alike. Baskaran, a distinguished Research Chair at the Perimeter Institute in Canada, said, “There is a growing interest in a field being called quantum biology, which seeks to explain biological mechanisms barely understood in classical terms with lessons from quantum mechanics.”