Empowering India's Future through IT

Most Innovative-Thiagarajar College of Engg, Madurai-TCENet

Directorate of Education, Delhi-Process Re-engineering

IT in Education

Move Over Chalk and Duster, it's Time to Go Digital

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.

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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