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Lab Manuals—Where We Are and How We Got Here

Long queues outside Higginbothams for the purchase of lab manuals was a sight that the students of MIT were accustomed to seeing at the beginning of each semester. The moderately sized shop was the only place where lab manuals could be bought and owing to the massive populace of MIT, stocks were usually limited, especially for the first and second semester manuals. This semester, however, MIT decided to simplify matters and made the shift from printed manuals to soft copies. This move enabled the students to save some money and to gain easy access to their manuals on their devices.

During the previous semesters, many students faced problems regarding the availability and pricing of the lab manuals. The need for cost regulation and better distribution of the manuals were the key concerns raised by students, which were thoroughly discussed during multiple Student Council meetings. Although this issue was addressed early in the previous even semester, it could not be implemented at that point of time since the manuals had already been printed.

The initial outcome of a structured meeting (a monthly meeting of the Student Council with the administration) that took place on January 8th, 2018 was the decision to pre-determine a standardised cost for the manuals before the semester began so that the sales could start as soon as possible. Earlier, Higginbothams used to sell their old stocks of manuals at the beginning of each semester before the revised versions arrived. Since the revised versions contained important changes that were missing in the older copies, students were forced to buy the new version as well. It was decided to rectify this issue by explicitly instructing Higginbothams to print only the revised copies and give the students a receipt of their purchases. An alternative option that the Council came up with was having the manual sent to students who would then print out copies themselves.

Looking to take decisive action at the start of a new semester, the Council on August 23rd, 2018 aimed at arriving upon a concrete decision regarding the lab manuals. It was eventually decided that Higginbothams would discontinue the sale of the manuals, with the college printing them insteadthe cost of which would be included in the fees. The administration and the council decided that it would be more convenient to find a vendor for the printing process and students would be fined if they were to lose their manuals. This decision was ratified in October.

However, the members of the council soon realised that although this decision was a good solution to the problem, the distribution process would still make it quite inefficient. A considerable amount of paper and resources would go to waste as well since, on the completion of the end-semester lab exam, the manuals would be submitted to the college for evaluation and students will not be using them later on. Towards the end of the odd semester of 2018, it was finally decided that the college would make soft copies of the manual available to all the students instead. The PDFs could be shared on the class groups and made easily accessible to all. Students would not have to purchase the manuals or wait for a month for the lab manuals to arrive.

Finally, soft copies replaced printed manuals in the even semester of 2019, but the implementation of this decision is still some way from being perfect. A few departments like Chemical and Biotechnology had to print out the manuals since a hard copy of the detailed procedure to be followed was required for the students to carry out the experiments. These prints were provided free of cost to the students. Students from the Mechanical Department faced issues as they had nothing to refer to while performing experiments if they had any doubts regarding the specific settings of the instruments being used.  Unlike in the computer labs, there is no easy access to the soft copies of the manuals in the mechanical workshops.

Copies of the manuals printed out by some departments

For many departments, the lab manuals also contain observation tables and formulae for the calculations of the results and since the students did not have the printed copies, they were expected to copy the same from the PDF into a lab record book. The ICE department tried to abide by this decision and asked the students to write down calculations and draw graphs in their records but it did not work out well, and students were eventually asked to print out the manuals for one of the sixth-semester labs on their own.

In the previous semesters, when the hard copies of the manuals were provided, the students from Civil and Mechanical departments had to take down the observations and perform the required calculations in their manual itself, but now they have to put in extra time and effort to copy down the tables and formulae in a separate record book. Writing records did help the students to get familiar with the experiment and prepare for it in advance, but it significantly increased the amount of redundant work they had to put in for the lab.

For branches like CSE or IT, on the other hand, where the labs involve working on computers, shifting to digital versions of the manuals was a natural and logical move.  The few hundred rupees that would have gone towards purchasing the books are now saved with largely no sacrifice as far as convenience or effort goes.  It is, moreover, not an entirely surprising policy for a college looking to go green.

There is a marked loss of uniformity across all the departments, and the workload on the students has increased in some cases. A few branches have benefited from this decision in terms of the money saved and the ease in distribution, whereas there has not been much difference to others. While it is a logical decision in the right direction, the implementation across departments is something that is yet to be ironed out. With this being the first semester that the policy has come into play, however, some issues were bound to arise. One can hope that the grievances reach the right ears and are addressed in the coming semesters.

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