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Solving India’s education dilemma

Experimental solution is high tech and affordable


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Effective use of digital libraries in India is trickier than it might sound because most students don't own PCs and many of the nation's colleges lack a broadband connection.

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 children.

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.

PCs, Internet connections rare

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.

Cooperative educational community

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 works.

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.

Available around the clock

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 physical assets.

"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."

Building on existing technologies

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 those."

Creating digital libraries

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 to them.

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.

Interactive multimedia programs

"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.

Current collection

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 multimedia presentations.

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.’).

Ongoing experiments

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 materials.

"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.

Related links

» HP Labs India
» News release: HP researchers aim to enhance learning experience on college campuses
» HP press kit for WSIS
» Related feature - Access for all: HP and the information society
» World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS)
» DSpace

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