By Jamie Beckett, Nov. 2005
When Srinivasan Ramani was growing up in Chennai, India,
his parents went without a car and much else to allow him
to attend university, so he well understands the value
of a good education.
In emerging-market countries, education is essential," Ramani
says, noting that it is common for people in India to spend
a third of their entire lifetime incomes on educating their
Now, Ramani – a pioneer in computer networking in
India’s IT industry – is leading an effort
to use high tech to deliver educational materials to millions
more students in India and possibly around the world.
He and others are working to create tools and techniques
designed to support the existence of digital libraries
of educational materials – video recordings of government-funded
educational TV shows, historic radio broadcasts, research
papers, technical journals and more – that could
be easily accessible to students nationwide.
Effective use of digital libraries in India is a trickier
proposal than it might sound because most students don't
own PCs and a large number of the nation's colleges lack
a broadband connection.
What India does have in its favor is a communications
satellite devoted to education, educational TV channels
and pioneering professors like G.D. Sharma and Aji Kembhavi
who promote the creation and use of interactive multimedia
programs in education. Sharma heads the inter-university
Consortium for Educational Communication, which produces
the universities' educational TV channel. Kembhavi, of
the Inter University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics,
mentors faculty at several universities to encourage use
of technology in teaching and research.
India also has an educational community that is willing
to promote and facilitate the necessary digital infrastructure – generating
and storing digital content from the outset, and also working
through permissions and copyright issues for new and existing
It is relatively easy for universities and colleges to
get permission to store content delivered by government-funded
educational channels, and they can often purchase licenses
for content from commercial TV channels. In addition, many
publishers are starting to offer license methodologies
that permit the use and distribution of content stored
in electronic form.
Ramani has teamed with Sharma and Kembhavi to devise a
way of distributing educational video content. The project
will be demonstrated on the HP stand at the World Summit
on the Information Society, Nov. 16-18 in Tunis, Tunisia.
The idea is to start by simply making better use of existing
limited-use educational resources – only a certain
number of students can attend a professor's lecture or
view a broadcast program at a specific time, for example.
Recording content and distributing copies of DVDs isn't
practical in a nation of 15,000 university-affiliated colleges
and more than 15 million students pursuing some form of
higher education, split between those attending colleges
and those engaged in distance education. Plus, there's
the difficulty tracking and institutional cataloguing such
"This is not simply a question of making a DVD or
setting up a computer with the right software," says
Ramani. "You need something which will preserve thousands
of hours of videos and other materials, organize these
materials and make them reliably available around the clock
to thousands of students."
Fortunately, Ramani had an ideal tool available: a digital
repository system known as DSpace that was developed by
researchers in HP Labs and MIT. The open source program
allows academics and researchers worldwide to place a variety
of content – computer programs, data sets, journals,
books, images, audio, video, Web pages and more – in
a freely available archive, get it indexed, and get it
on the Web.
DSpace also allows the export and import of content and
cataloguing information between one digital library and
another, eliminating the need for cataloguing at every
educational institute. Add to that access to the educational
satellite broadcasts to a digital library, a local access
network (LAN) and a video-streaming server, and you've
got the makings of a valuable educational asset."
It is like standing on somebody's shoulders rather than
standing on somebody's toes," says Ramani. "We
are taking elements that are already there, like DSpace,
the educational channel and LANs, and we are building on
Here's how the system would work: A professor's lecture
is captured by the educational TV channel and broadcast
on the satellite (subject to copyright considerations,
of course). The live program is made available all over
the college over the LAN, and it is also copied and stored
at the college (subject to copyright policies).
Although individual students aren't likely to own their
own PCs, most colleges have them available for student
use so lectures can be viewed at any time that's convenient
But that's just the beginning. An important challenge
is in solution-building, using state-of-the-art technology
to pump data over TV channels in addition to video content.
The system uses many techniques developed by a sister project
at HP Labs India, which aims to enable simultaneous transmission
of TV programs and related digital content.
"It's great for students to be able to watch educational
programs whenever they need to, but the next step is much
bigger – to be able to pick and choose from a library
of multimedia materials," Ramani says. "Unlike
a passive video, this would require active involvement
of students, so the educational value is much higher."
A college professor could potentially use clips from several
videos (provided permission is secured from the copyright
holder) to supplement a lecture or to create a multimedia
educational resource, complete with lessons, interactive
quizzes, references to articles or books, images and more.
Students would likely be able to control their navigation
through such multimedia programs and skip materials they
don't find useful.
The system is being tested at the Inter-University Centre
in Pune. A second test is set to begin soon at St. Thomas
College near Kochi.
At the same time, researchers are working to expand the
library collection, which now houses prototypical offerings
illustrating various formats in which faculty could create
These include: an interactive lesson on the chemistry
behind sunglasses; a ‘course’ on the basics
of genetics, complete with a rotating image of a DNA molecule
and interactive quizzes for students; and a short but unforgettable
audio recording of former Indian prime minister Jawaharlal
Nehru announcing the assassination of Indian leader Mahatma
Gandhi (‘The light has gone out of our lives.’).
There's much still to be done. One effort involves transmitting
cataloguing information in XML formats through operational
educational TV channels so that digital libraries all over
India could harvest the data and use it to organize the
library content and make it searchable.
Simultaneously, researchers and educators are experimenting
with different formats for multimedia presentations. In
one effort, they are looking at classroom-oriented, multi-media
presentations which can be projected for 40 or 50 students
at a time. This provides a low-cost way to make such material
available to a large number of students.
Ramani believes he'll find a receptive audience in India's
colleges, in part because college libraries are constantly
looking for educational content to supplement expensive
collections of books and periodicals. The system would
vastly expand the availability of high-quality educational
"You can buy a $200 disk, put 10,000 books on it,
and use it to transport content to various digital libraries” says
Ramani. "The only big cost in adding these books to
these digital libraries would be the royalty you pay to
the publishers. The world is evolving to a state where
we'll have suitable business models for doing this affordably."
Jamie Beckett is managing editor of this Web site and
a former reporter and editor at The San Francisco Chronicle.