by October 1, 2007 0 comments



Literacy rate is a critical yardstick to determine the economic growth
potential of a country. From a paltry 18.33% during independence to around 65%
now, India has surely come a long way. But there’s still a lot of ground to be
covered to reach the magical 100% figure or even the minimum acceptable of 75%.
There are many reasons for this. The most obvious one is the lack of
infrastructure, which is more pronounced in rural areas, and is there in urban
areas as well, but at a lesser extent. Shortage of teaching staff and a lack of
the right teaching tools are some other issues. This is where the use of ICT can
do wonders. Some of the well known higher education institues like IITs and IIMs
as well as private educational institutes have already started embracing it and
reaping its benefits to some extent. But there’s much more that remains to be
done. So far, the
journey of IT adoption in educational institutes hasn’t been like a Twenty20
match (with all the slam-bang action) but more like a Test match (a slow and
moderate start spiralling into a massive score). It all started with computers
being reduced in form; from mainframes to the more compact PCs. Remember those
days when x86 machines started entering tiny computer labs in schools in the
80s! Those were the days when students started learning how to use a computer
through simple exercises. Little did someone imagine that the same machines now
loaded with more powerful processors and when connected through a backbone of
high speed networks would truly revolutionize the way we seek education, ie
education at the place of your choice, your time and your duration; fully
customized with the resources you want. A lot has happened in ICT for this
otherwise neglected sector, and a lot more can happen. In this story, we’ll look
at both.

The case for IT in Education
The first thing that comes to mind when you hear the words ‘IT in
education,’ is e-learning solutions. However, ICT has much more to offer than
that. In fact, there are solutions for all types of educational institutes,
right from a small time primary school down the street, to a high-tech B-school
or T-School that charges exhorbitant fees. One just needs to know how to break
down the functions and processes that are used in institutes. These remain the
same across all educational institutes.

For instance, every year an institute needs to advertise the commencement of
its courses. It then needs to manage admissions by conducting entrance exams,
evaluate candidate applications, enrollment, hand out course material, books,
uniforms, etc.

Further, it needs to manage the timetables for each student efficiently,
allocate the right faculty for the right course, design courseware, conduct
routine tests and examinations, evaluate answers, procure equipment like
furniture for classrooms, sports and labs equipment, etc. It also needs to
manage the bus fleet, their timings, etc.

The moment you do this break-up of processes, a whole range of opportunities
emerge where IT can prove its worth. There can be generic solutions as well as
those meant specifically for educational institutes. For instance, software for
classroom timetable management and courseware management are meant specifically
for educational institutes. There’s a huge variety of them available, right from
simple ones that run on a single PC to complex ones that would run on a network.
An accounting package on the other hand, is a generic software that can be used
by any
organization, including educational institutes. Again, there are lots of
accounting packages available as well, both simple and complex. Portals and
technologies for building them are also universal. They can be customized to the
requirements of any organization, so why not for educational institutes?

The pain points
As you could well imagine by now, there’s tremendous opportunity in the
education sector for IT. Everything from a school management information system
to a classroom automation solution is available for institutes. Moreover, these
are available in both the Open Source and commercial worlds. However, the
challenges lie elsewhere.

One is a lack of basic infrastructure itself, especially in rural areas.
Second is a dearth of qualified teaching staff, which exists in both rural and
urban areas. There are initiatives to train teachers and make them more
effective (see box: training the trainers).

Third is a gap in the levels of education. On one side, we have brilliant
young minds doing wonders for the country, and on the other we have people who
don’t even know how to write their names properly. Both have different sets of
requirements from education. The problems don’t end there. There is considerable
disparity between rural and urban literacy percentages. As compared to 80%
educated population in major cities, only about 56% of the rural population can
barely read or write their names. India also has the dubious distinction of 192
million illiterate women, almost one-third of the global total. Bringing such a
massive chunk of illiterate populace in the education fold takes some doing.
Compound that with an average teacher:student ratio of 1:58 in rural regions. We
have miles to go before we narrow this gap. This certainly looks impossible
without IT.

Training the trainers

Kendriya Vidyalaya Sangathan (KVS) has forged
a partnership with Microsoft to train 80,000 teachers and principals across
India in computer skills under ‘Project Shiksha’. The project aims to also
train around 35 lakh students in not just education curriculum but also in
software tools and applications. The vision behind this initiative is that
IT in education is a powerful force that can change lives, values, induce
prosperity and foster national progress. The empowerment of teachers with
requisite skills would in turn hone the IT skills of students and enable
them to become next generation cutting edge professionals, enabling India
retain its edge in IT. The curriculum designed by Microsoft includes
examples on how technology tools can be implemented in the classroom; hands
on implementations to reinforce each concept; and exploring the Web to get
more information on the topic. The course also looks at needling requisite
computer skills such as visual presentations and Web creation tools, digital
encyclopaedia and projects, spreadsheets, etc. The teachers are trained at
their respective KVs after school hours for 10 days by working 3-4 hours
extra per day. However, for cases where there is no proper computer lab in a
KV, they are being trained at the nearest KV where such facilities are
available.

Where IT can help
There’s no single answer to combat so many problems. On one side, there’s a
major capital intensive drive required to improve the infrastructure. This needs
to come from both the govt and the private sector. It’s an old saying, ‘If a
society cannot help the vast majority of poor, the sustenance of those who are
rich is also threatened.’ India is still a predominantly agriculturist society
with an overwhelming 70 per cent of its population residing in rural areas. We
still have vast stretches of villages without adequate electricity, water
supply, sewage or drainage facilities or even suitable employment opportunities,
let alone exposure to technology.

There’s a strong case here to arm this underprivileged majority with
information and education, not through the traditional means of
student-teacher-school building mode but through e-Learning. We have a strong
belief that this can be churned into reality what with the Indian e-Learning
industry estimated to grow up to $182-billion by 2009. In the recent past, the
model government-private sector partnership has seen a plethora of e-learning
projects being launched for the benefit of rural populace. These projects range
from those that provide informal IT training to the rural illiterate masses to
community information services for people with minimal knowledge and access to
resources such as e-choupals and school based curriculum that impart education
to rural students. School based projects like SchoolNet India, Uttaranchal’s
Aarohi and Mapping the Neighbourhood provide the IT infrastructure required for
enhancing the quality of education in rural areas, building rural communities
and for local content development.

If we stop for sometime and contemplate the hectic pace at which information
is shared these days, and compare it to the scenario 10-20 years back, the
glaring difference crosses our mind like a flash of lightning. To match the
contemporary high rate of development and information exchange, you need
resources.

With the acceleration in education reform measures, opportunities in IT lie
in facilitating communication and collaboration amongst schools and the various
stakeholders; such as inviting parents to be actively involved in school
activities of their wards; continuing the professional development of school
principals and teachers; and the use of online learning platforms and evaluation
packages.

The spread of education through the World Wide Web helps in inculcating
global outlook amongst students and teachers alike, by connecting them with
education communities across the rest of the world; thereby enhancing exchange
and collaboration. It also helps in breaking the physical barriers of classroom
learning and increase in computer access for resource sharing amongst students
in virtual classrooms.


Prof Pradeep Pendse
Dean – IT/Business Design, Welingkar Institute of Management Development
and Research

IT@Welingkar Institute

Please tell us how you’re using IT
in your institute?

We have 25 Wi-Fi access points on campus to ensure
widespread network connectivity. All hostels are connected with broadband or
lease lines. We have also installed
SMS gateways and an intranet so that we can update
students on revised schedules of lectures for the next day. These are
particularly useful for part-time working
students. Welingkar has one institute each in Mumbai
and Bangalore. These are both connected via a 254 Kbps
ISDN link. Within each campus, we have a Gigabit Ethernet backbone, while at
the floor level we have 100 Mbps bandwidth.

With such a vast network, security threats are likely to creep in. What are
you doing to combat them,and what kind of control policies do you have in
place?

We’re using Symantec enterprise security. In fact, ours was the first
educational institution to install an enterprise security solution. Besides
that, we have what most mid-sized companies have for their security. We have
Citrix which lets you define what applications can be accessible from
outside. If a visitor or a student logs into the system from outside he only
gets a controlled access. Eg, a library catalog will be available to a
person outside, however, he will not be allowed to update that catalog. Such
policies are regularly implemented and monitored. The server we have,
provides us with elaborate logs to keep track on everyone. There are
violation thresholds which are defined and if someone crosses those, then it
automatically gets logged in the server.

What are the challenges you face while deploying any
e-learning solution?

We need to be consistent in following standards. The solution provider
installs a particular solution but does not necessarily have skills and
expertise to integrate it with other things we have. A small institute,
which can’t afford to have a large IT team runs into problems. So, we need a
provider who can look at a solution in entirety and
integrate his solution with our security features, servers and networks. We
do have a small team here, however, they have to put in a lot of efforts to
help vendors integrate their solutions. A lot of our clients for executive
programs demand advanced e-learning solutions such as video-
conferencing. Although, we already have video-
conferencing, the connection is only between Mumbai
and Bangalore. Connection with other customers depends on what products they
have and whether these are
compatible with our products.

A few solutions
Now that we’ve talked about the key challenges and where IT can help, let’s
look at a few specific solutions that are available for the education sector.

Virtual learning environment
Virtual learning environment (VLE) refers to a conglomeration of software
applications and tools for online management of courseware by teachers for their
students, no matter where the latter are accessing resources from. The teachers
not only administer the student’s progress online but also have access to their
desktop screens to keep track of their activities. Such environments act as a
very good medium for continuing education for professionals who want to
supplement knowledge during evening hours while working or taking care of
families during day. The complete package is rounded off with face-to-face
interactions over the weekend amongst teachers and students. A typical virtual
learning application is hosted on a central server and students access
courseware as Internet pages.

The standard components of a VLE comprise templates for content pages,
forums, chat, MCQs, instant messaging and e-mail. Some of the recently added
features include blogs, RSS feeds while administration services include access
control, modification of e-learning content, communication tools and remote
management of user groups. VLEs have brought a paradigm shift in the way
education is looked upon with the young generation enthused by the prospect of
learning in an ambience that is not restricted to a particular building,
location or time.

Sakshat-The one stop free portal
for education

Education serves as the pillar to develop and
enhance the human resource potential and in turn leads to a more
knowledgeable society. Broadband Internet is a powerful tool to spread
education deep into the massive rural belt that India has. To exploit this
vast potential and for providing anytime, anywhere access to educational
services, Min of HRD has launched the ‘Sakshat’ portal. It aims at providing
vocational skills to empower the youth through e-learning courses apart from
providing routine information such as board/university exam results,
addressing education and learning related needs of students, scholars,
teachers and in distance education. The portal has been conceptualized
keeping in mind the needs of all students, from KG to PhD. The National
Mission on Education would provide broadband access to each Indian with zero
charge for bandwidth for accessing this portal and its links. A key
challenge for developing this portal is the vast cultural disparity across
India, that varies sharply even from one district to other. The portal needs
to provide quality educational resources and teachers, round-the-clock to
learners irrespective of their social, economic and educational status.
Through this initiative, MHRD has synergized efforts amongst educational
organizations such as UGC, AICTE, IGNOU, NCERT, CBSE, IITs and IISc to
provide content for various stakeholders.





Building blocks of an Online Learning Management System
A robust online learning system is one that allows the different
stakeholders to customize, update and control information online as per their
roles and privileges. Let’s look at some of the tools that enable this:

Atutor-Web-based Learning Content Management System
An Open Source online course management system that comes handy for teachers, in
career development and academic research. Its easy to use interface is
specifically useful for visually-impaired and disabled learners. The system has
been translated into over fifteen languages and its popularity amongst
implementers has led to its modification for over forty additional language
modules. It complies completely with the accessibility specifications of W3C
WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) 1.0, which means it allows access to
all stakeholders at varying levels of user-privilege-this includes administrator
accounts. What’s more the system is XHTML compatible, so it can be displayed in
any compatible technology. Many third-party extensions have already been
developed for this system and are in use by various universities.

What educational institutes have
done…

Amity Group’s
unification of campuses
The Amity Group has campuses across Delhi, Jaipur, Lucknow, Noida,
Ghaziabad and Gurgaon. These combined together run courses for 45,000
students. Internet, application software and tutorial packages for students
of various streams are provided round the clock. Initially these campuses
had independent networks, but there was no uniform
IT policy and all campuses were dependant upon their Internet connections to
access the institute’s main Intranet and other facilities.

Network security challenges increased along
with the need to provide access to highly expensive database tutorials and
paid websites to students. Moreover, the institute wanted to develop a
portal for news, internal activities and to promote interaction with
management and faculty for academics & grievances. They created a hub and
spoke network model. All the academic and administration purpose servers
were placed at the Amity University Campus, Sector-125, Noida and all major
sites were connected with a 2 Mbps lease line or radio VPN tunnel. A
firewall having multiple ports was selected to prevent malware from
spreading across the network. This firewall is kept in high availability and
load balancing mode, with 10 Mbps Bandwidth and connected with two core
switches where server zone is defined.

To prevent a single point of failure,
additional firewall was placed in high availability and load balancing mode.
To provide Internet/intranet connectivity across all locations and local
server to
the remote user on the Internet, local IP is nated to the public IP. Such a
setup has allowed the Institute to provide priority based Internet bandwidth
to administrators and faculty, and blocking off
unwarranted traffic during peak hours.

Thiagarajar College
of Engg’s ERP solution
The college developed TCENet, an in-house ERP solution to manage
day-to-day activities. The system uses Open Source software, mainly Python
along with Cheetah and Mod-python. It has 24 modules that cover all college
processes. Student admission is done online with the profile and user ID of
each student being created at the time of admission. TCENet supports single
sign-on and central authentication. It has course-wise details of students
with their respective timetables.

The faculty members can individually upload
assignment topics to students. After students complete their assignments,
they can upload their files to TCENet for evaluation. All important
notifications and announcements are also posted on TCENet. TCENet also has a
software forum, where students are free to upload utility software.

Furthermore, there’s a purely technical
section containing articles posted by students across engineering domains.
Likewise, chat and discussion forums are maintained within departments.
Other functions of TCENet include biometric attendance for staff using
finger print identification and smart cards. It also has integrated time and
leave management, which facilitates easy maintenance of staff attendance. A
student can search placement statistics, interview and GD tips, and résumé
preparation guidelines.

Directorate of
Education’s CAL solution
Government schools witness a lot of dropouts and most of the
parents keep their wards off them. The Directorate of Education has
introduced a Web-based computer-aided learning (CAL) solution and MIS to
disseminate education amongst 1000 schools, 9.5 lakh students, and a staff
of about 40,000 teachers and administrators.

The system re-engineers processes across all
departments (such as HRM, database management, finance and infrastructure)
to improve efficiency. The multimedia lessons that have been developed as
part of CAL are better than the ‘chalk and talk’ approach followed in
traditional classroom teaching. This leaves teachers and students with more
time to practise and build concepts. Such a technique also enables online
student feedback, inspection of schools and evaluation of answer sheets. One
of the major impacts of this solution has been a spurt of 14% in the number
of students who attend class VI. Further, the admission process has reduced
from 75 days to 15 days.

Claroline
Another Open Source software based on PHP/MySQL that allows teachers and
educational institutes to create and administer courses through the Internet.
You can publish documents in any format, viz PHP, HTML, DOC, PDF and so on. You
can send announcements over e-mail, use wiki to write and collaborate,
administer public and private forums and publish online assignments. It is
compatible with Windows, Mac and Linux operating systems and uses popular
standards such as SCORM and IMS/QTI for exchanging content. The platform is easy
to install, and for managing students through Web, teachers don’t require any
special administrative skills. The software has been designed keeping the
pedagogical principles in mind and lets teachers organize their files and
folders in a hierarchical setup. Similarly, tutorials and assignments from all
students can be efficiently categorized. It also allows a calendar sharing of
important events and appointments. Teachers can even control the home page of
their students and use it for publishing important announcements.

Modular object-oriented dynamic learning environment (Moodle)
An Open Source e-learning platform that follows a constructivist approach to
education, which means that all stakeholders be it teachers, students or parents
can contribute to the education process. The software allows students to create,
comment and contribute to entries in a database, or to work collaboratively in a
wiki. Moreover, it is flexible enough to allow different kinds of teaching modes
such as those from previously deployed software. It facilitates display of
content as HTML pages and assessment of tutorials by teachers.

Collaboration using whiteboards in
schools

Poddar International School have nine branches
across Maharashtra that impart education to over 30,000 students. To
facilitate the exchange of information, they have installed interactive
whiteboards in 39 classrooms. These whiteboards cater to different styles of
learning for different teachers and classes. They enhance the teaching
experience through an intuitive mix of visuals and theory. What’s more,
teachers can download videos related to a certain topic from Internet and
show them in classrooms. Students are also free to share academic
information through their desktops. To increase the zeal in learning,
teachers can use different styles of fonts, for eg, fonts that resemble the
shape of a snake. These whiteboards are connected to the workstations in the
classroom, through which information is transmitted on to the whiteboard.
Learning is made further exciting through the use of Quizdom software, which
a teacher can use to quiz students on any topic. The ‘fasted finger first’
concept used in popular television quiz programs such as KBC is also used
here, wherein students can use a remote control to select the right answer
from the given options.

 

Some recent initiatives in
Education…


Wipro to train engineering faculties across India
While everyone else is finding innovative ways to empower the
student community on technology, Wipro plans to attack the issue from the
opposite side-educating teachers on how to educate students. On Teachers’
Day, Wipro launched in Bangalore, Mission 10X-a training program for
engineering faculty across the country. The project stems out of the fact
that India churns out 5,00,000 engineering graduates every year, but only
20% of them are readily employable, and a further inflation of this
percentage could affect the country’s standing in the IT services arena. At
the launch, Azim Premji said, ‘The number of graduates that our country
creates is increasing at the rate of 12-18 %, but only 20% of them are
readily employable. We embarked on Mission 10X to reduce this widening gap,
and ensure that our learning model enables a faculty member to help an
engineering student inbibe higher levels of understanding of what is taught
in the classroom, and more importantly, train the student on essential soft
skills that are vital to ‘market readiness’ of the graduate.’ Mission 10X is
expected to kick off in colleges and universities by mid-October and in the
first financial year, Wipro targets to empower 1000 teachers. By 2010,
Mission 10X is confident of spreading its wings to all parts of the country,
including the North East, and to successfully train 10,000 engineering
faculty.

Exams via Linux in
Kerala

As you are reading this, 15 lakh high school students in Kerala are
attempting their IT practical exams, using a specially created Open Source
software based on Ubuntu. As part of the state’s IT@School initiative, the
software is packaged as Exam CD (IT@School
GNU/Linux Version 3.0), and has been distributed to 2832 government, aided
and unaided schools. With technical support from the Society for the
Promotion of Alternate Computing and Employment, the IT@School has
successfully trained more than 70,000 high school faculty. Each quarterly
exam will witness the use of more than 30,000 computers, spread across all
schools. The Linux software, that will be used to evaluate students, is
highly illustrative, and along the lines of many popular online tests.
Evaluators have the option of recording performance scores of each student,
and compare them with those of other batches. To reduce resistance to this
new mode of ‘virtual’ examinations, students will be required to answer just
one of the two questions in each section. In addition to this, Govt of
Kerala is in the process of developing Phoenix-an integrated
micro-controller device that integrates physics experiment hardware with a
PC. Ideally suited for learning and teaching the concepts of electricity,
magnetism, electromagnetic induction and transformers, the hardware-software
combo is more of a teaching tool, but ‘virtual practice sessions’ are
expected to simplify abstract topics and ensure better understanding.

VTU’s Satellite learning
Program

Visvesvaraya Technological University (VTU) in Belgaum, Karnataka has joined
hands with Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) and Infosys to initiate
a satellite-based teaching programme. The Edusat satellite is used to
transmit live teaching sessions to over 120 affiliated engineering colleges
across Karnataka, via VSAT and DTH channels. Subjects ranging from Unix,
Shell programming, Visual basic and others are taught ‘live’ by experts who
conduct classes from the ‘studio’ situated in the VTU head quarters. On an
average, satellite classes are held for 8 hours everyday, besides the weekly
‘CEO Speak’ program, where the top brass of affiliated tech companies like
IBM and Microsoft deliver lectures on technology awareness.Edusat is
configured for an audio-visual medium employing digital interactive
classroom lessons and multimedia content. The ground coverage is
specifically configured to cater to educational institutions and
universities. The program is aimed at school, college and higher levels of
education and to support non-formal education. Having started off in VTU
Karnataka, a few universities in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra are also
using it to promote professional distant education.

Adeesh Sharma, Vishnu Anand and Jasmine Desai

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