In April 2022, Amrut and Amrit were commissioned by Prof. Mahesh Panchagnula - the Dean of Alumni & Corporate Relations at IIT Madras to find out if JEE aspirants were making informed choices - and to address the issue (if any). On this project, we had two stellar advisors - marketing guru Ambi Parameswaran and CAMS founder Shankar V.
Defining the problem
As with every CoreVoice project, we started with understanding the problem first. Amrut and Amrit were alumni of IIT Madras - having written JEE and chosen IIT Madras in 2003 - 19 years earlier. With this experience as the base, we asked hundreds of alumni and students various questions and calibrated our opinions. Armed with quantitative and qualitative data, we aligned internal teams at IIT Madras about the various factors that go into making a choice of department / IIT - and how important they were. We created crisp problem statements that could be ... solved.
Without going into the details, we can share that one of the biggest issues we identified is that aspirants don't understand the elective system, and therefore do not understand that they have a lot of choice in shaping their learning path at IIT Madras. For example, the idea that a Chemical engineer can learn AI/ML and a Computer Science engineer can learn Robotics is alien to aspirants.
Issues that can't be solved
Back in 2003, after Amrut and Amrit got their JEE rank ("AIR"), they could go to the IIT nearest to them and speak to a professor on an assigned day at a particular time. In addition, they could meet other aspirants, walk around the campus, etc - this little luxury provided students enabled them to make better choices.
But this "counselling" process was done away in 2009. It was replaced with an e-counselling process, which is now replaced by the JaSAA admission process. JoSAA is an elaborate form filling exercise. It is very fair, but also very impersonal. With e-counselling, students do not get to visit an IIT, or talk to a professor, or meet fellow aspirants (outside their own personal circles).
Could we recommend bring back physical counselling? No.
The Computer Science / IT problem
Physical counselling as a solution was not the only thing that was out-of-bounds for us. Our research showed that parents and students had an extremely biased view of opportunities in computer science vs the opportunities in other courses - measured by opening pay. To put it crudely, the general public feels that CS students earn 5-10 times more than others.
At IITs, this is simply untrue. At IIT Madras, in 2021, the highest pay offer was grabbed by a Mechanical Engineering student. Any longitudinal study of outcomes 10/20/30 years after graduating will show that the best find a way to earn more, and be happier in their lives - for all courses.
Because of this mindset, students end up choosing CS courses in any college (IIT/NIT/others) over a non-CS course in a top IIT - even though statistically this is a poor choice.
The solution space
We hired Divya and Deepak "Chuck" from Rough Paper to double the creative bench strength. With Ambi, Deepak, Divya, Amrit and Amrut on the task - we had to come up with a graceful solution. Not only must we solve for the problem, we also had to be cognisant that IIT Madras is one of many IITs - whatever solution we came up with had to be scalable across IITs - without any bias.
We decided to create a new brand property called "Ask IIT Madras." This property would have an e-helpdesk, an Instagram channel and physical events. Via AskIITM, we intended to do something fairly simple - bring back the spirit of physical counselling, without the costs.
For the AskIITM helpdesk, we recruited students and alumni to answer questions on courses, placement, campus life, and more. For the AskIITM Instagram channel, we showcased real people - both alumni and students. And for the events, we invited aspirants to speak to the director and deans at IIT Madras and ask them questions.
Within a month of launch, we were recording 1000 questions/month on the helpdesk (for context: IIT Madras had 800 seats for BTech new joinees in 2022). On our Instagram channel, we saw more than a million impressions with over 30K engagements. More than that, we had students writing in to thank us for the prompt support they got from the AskIITM team.
“I am very happy that I was allotted Elec at IIT Madras. I am proud and excited, and can't wait to throw water balloons at the monkeys. Thanks to the AskIITM team to address my queries and responding.”
A last word
We've imagined the "Ask-university" concept as a scalable concept that can work across universities. And are keen to see if other IITs, IIMs, IIITs, NITs, and other colleges enable their own Ask site. Nothing would give us more joy than this since we would have solved a large problem, with a real solution.