Ideas and Action for a Better India
By Dr. Leena Chandran-Wadia
The Roundtable was conceived as a brainstorm session to discuss a centralized approach to inducting technology into India’s educational institutions using cloud computing and virtualization technologies. The aim is to try and get the maximum benefit from Government spending on ICT infrastructure in the education sector. These technologies can not only help reduce cost drastically, but they can also overcome the lack of knowhow at many educational institutions. The method of planning centrally using a small team of domain and technology experts and executing in a distributed fashion, using the vibrant IT industry in the country, can help leverage economies of scale and cover geography quickly.
Two ambitious projects are currently being rolled out by the Government of India — 1) the National Knowledge Network (NKN) which will bring high speed connectivity to educational institutions; and 2) the National Mission on Education through ICT (NMEICT) in which (among other things) computer hardware, software and training will be provided to schools and colleges. The aim is to provide the missing pieces namely, to supplement and complete these two efforts by providing managed software, services and training to the institutions involved. This can be coordinated by a ‘Nodal Agency’ created expressly for the purpose.
The nodal agency can oversee several national initiatives that can be rolled out alongside the NKN and the NMEICT. Some possible tasks that such a nodal agency can take up are the following:
Commission and deploy different types of shared software (for better administration, financial reporting, student and examination management systems etc.) to institutions in the Software as a Service(SaaS) model
Conduct User Acceptance Testing and ensure QUALITY as also manage the software lifecycle of the software provided by vendors against the stipulated software requirements
Promote the use of free and open source software and sets standards for interoperability
Provide supercomputing facilities and the associated software libraries (along with technical aid on how to use them) to researchers in organizations who are either isolated or do not have access to sufficient computing resources for their research
Provide campus LANs and secure wireless access to registered users from all campuses, also using mobile phones
Create a database of professionals in the R&E sector through mandatory registration of all computing and communication devices which access the network on campuses
Provide managed IT services (such as domain based email and web services) to compensate for the unavailability of trained IT staff at individual institutions
Design and rollout of various types of training modules for users (faculty, staff, students) in conjunction with partners/vendors
Host national as well as state-wide content repositories (also in Indian languages) with appropriate classification and labelling of content and accompanied by a rating system. In this way empowered faculty and students can create and upload content of which the best will surface to the top using the ‘wisdom of the crowds’. The repository can also host thesis reports, project reports, project proposals, NPTEL videos and other educational material. This ‘distributed’ content creation mechanism will mitigate the problem of paucity of digital material in all Indian languages
Coordinate the use of all this technology infrastructure for skill development, adult education, Internet cafes etc., outside of office hours, using appropriate business models
Conduct regular meetings of representatives of the user community and respond to their feedback regarding rollout of new services, improvements etc.
The provision of managed IT services from a central location (supported by a call center as necessary) can help make maximal use of the infrastructure spending of NKN and NMEICT. Furthermore, institutions will be better prepared to make use of the many online education programs such as the NPTEL, the teachers training and the distance learning initiatives that are currently under way. A success in the R&E sector will allow similar initiatives to be taken up in other areas such as healthcare, agriculture, e-governance and others.
The nodal agency can be created at the national level (optionally with cells in each state) and be mandated to coordinate the activities related to technology induction in the R&E sector, on behalf of the central as well as the state governments. Some issues that will need discussion at the Roundtable include:
The nature and funding of such an organization. Would a for-profit organization be more successful at mopping up additional private investment to supplement that of the government?
What should the roles of the central and state governments be? Should such an organization be created in PPP?
What kind of statutory authority should such an organization have?
What relationship if any should such an organization have with the NCHER or other regulatory/coordinating agencies?
The meeting will begin with a presentation, prepared by ORF, describing the suggested scope of work of such a nodal agency, the innovations that it can bring in and some of the challenges it presents. This will be followed by open and candid discussion among the small group of invitees leading up to an Action plan. This will also require working out the costs involved in the project, the total capital budget as well as that for a pilot project at say, Mumbai University.
The meeting began with a Welcome Address by Sudheendra Kulkarni, Chairman ORF Mumbai. In introducing the subject, Dr Wadia, Senior Research Fellow, ORF Mumbai, made a small presentation in which she acquainted the audience with the details of the proposed Action Plan meant to rollout ICT to educational institutions in the shortest possible time and at maximal value for money. The key is to share the scarce, but re-usable, knowhow on what technologies need to be inducted and how and also to commission shared software and move to cloud computing. This requires the services of a group of experts, a ‘User Group’ which can function as the ‘Voice of the community’ and work with Vendors to oversee the deployment of all shared infrastructure and also help individual institutions with getting their local infrastructure. Dr Wadia raised some of the key issues that needed to be discussed: a) the nature of the ‘User Group’ and its sources of funding as also the business models under which this, expensive, infrastructure could be rolled out b) Governance structures and the role of the government in the initiative c) Support for Free and Open Source, for Scientific Computing, for localisation and Indian languages and d) the need for a representative Pilot.
The entire morning session was devoted to a general discussion on all aspects of education: the lack of innovation in it currently, the role ICT could play to change this, the role of government, the nature of the initiative and the details of the action plan, what is meant by ‘ICT infrastructure’ and so on. There was agreement on the fact that there has been very little innovation in the field of education in India in the years after Independence. There was also agreement with Prof. Morris’s observation that the current regulatory environment is at the core of the problem since it has produced an education system that is far worse in quality than one which would have been produced by a completely unregulated environment!
The afternoon session began with a presentation on ‘Cloud Computing’ by Mr. Chetan Pisal. He brought the audience up to speed on the technology. While there are still several challenges to overcome, several vendors including Tata Communications are readying for a commercial launch of their cloud services. The slides of this presentation are available on request. The rest of the afternoon was devoted to issues relating to the support for Indian languages, requirements for scientific computing, promotion of Free and Open Source, and the contents of a representative Pilot. In the following, the summary of the discussions is presented, under a broad classification of issues:
Prof Morris pointed out that there are serious debilities in Indian education today. Universities in India don’t have scale on-campus, even though they have enrolments of the order of 40,000 students. The only exceptions are the universities in the metros. The reason for this is that traditionally, universities have only been affiliating institutions. Most of the scale is in the colleges. However colleges don’t have either the scope – vertical scope in terms of multiple levels of education and research and horizontal scope in terms of being multi-disciplinary – or the resources (finances). Elite teaching institutions (example, the IITs) have the resources and the vertical scope, but not the horizontal scope. Elite research institutions have believed in research without teaching and dissemination and therefore they do not have vertical scope. None of our institutions are therefore complete in all aspects. ICT can help them to help each other and to overcome their individual debilities.
Prof. Morris explained that worldwide there is only one model of funding education that works: education funded in part by students (fees), contributions made by faculty (consultancy, miniscule in India), donations, corpus and government. The real problem in India is with regulation. This is why it is only in India that Businessmen and Politicians get into education. Elsewhere in the world, it is the charities and educationists that do so.
As is well known, ICT and broadband Internet are considered as basic infrastructure (akin to roads, airports etc.,) in most of the developed countries in the world. This follows naturally from the fact that when people get connected to each other through the Internet, communication and collaboration improves and consequently their productivity increases. Access to computing resources increases the classes of scientific problems that researchers can take up and innovate around to generate new technologies and patents. Similarly, education of all kinds – Skill based (Vocational) education, Adult education, Lifelong Learning (all in Indian languages as needed) – get a tremendous boost when there is access to infrastructure. As per the ITU, a 10% increase in the penetration of broadband Internet can increase GDP by an average of 1.3%.
The real need is to facilitate access to infrastructure for this community, as pointed out by Dr. Nagarjuna. There is plenty of unused fibre available with many Telecom players. In the US unused fibre was purchased cheaply by Universities allowing them to become Gigabit campuses overnight. However, the Indian R&E community does not have access to the unused fibre in India. There are many cases of institutions locking up their computer rooms and not allowing access to computers, peripherals and other hardware to their staff and students for much of the lifetime of these devices. There are also cases of sophisticated computers and other scientific equipment which have been purchased yet remained unused for many months. These regressive practices must stop.
Dr. Sherlekar clarified that any concern that ICT Infrastructure, if provided, will remain unused is completely unfounded. Students and researchers will most certainly think of innovative ways of using infrastructure provided they are given access. Once a student has paid the fees there should be absolutely no further restriction on his/her use. The days of locking up computers must become a thing of the past. One way to do this is to remove the fear of breakage, damage and inability to repair which institutions that resort to locking up resources suffer from. Provided these fears could be set aside (through services of the kind outlined in the Action Plan), hardware will actually get used.
Optimal delivery of Open and Distance learning is best done through the induction of ICT. We must ensure that interfaces and communication are standardized in order to ensure maximum interoperability. Standardization is required not just to save money but to increase usage because then interaction among users can be very high. For example, IGNOU had engaged TCS to create ‘ODLsoft’, an ERP software package for open and distance learning. It would be useful, to make this software available to other institutions that conduct open and distance learning programs.
Besides distance education, on-campus education will also be enriched by ICT. Students these days learn and interact very differently. They use SMS extensively; appear to prefer watching video lectures than to sitting in class, and so on. It would be extremely interesting to tap into student networks and document the change that is happening in the classrooms. Using student networks and Web 2.0 technologies to create a buzz around this activity could be extremely useful in an initiative such as this, where information dissemination on the project is so critical.
Will diversity increase or decrease? Tremendous diversity in education needs to be encouraged as befits the needs of the country. We must of course ensure that diversity in learning processes is carefully nurtured and preserved, even as we standardize technology.
Distributed content creation is the only way that the issue of paucity of digital content, particularly in Indian languages, can be addressed. NGO, individuals, civil society, all need to be engaged in creating content and making them widely available, also in Indian languages. Translation services and the ability to read other languages in Devnagri script would also be a good idea. Since less than 10% of the country’s population speaks English, support for Indian languages is critical and a fair degree of coordination will be needed to ensure that all the valuable educational content is made available in most Indian languages.
In terms of coordination across institutions, the Inflibnet initiative of the UGC is one of the major successes. However many more journals and databases, even in social sciences, need to be made available to all ‘students’. It is important to negotiate hard and get the best prices for access to the whole country especially since some databases, particularly in the social sciences, are very expensive.
Software for administration: So far we have not yet developed administrative software such as school and student management, financial reporting etc., and deployed it in educational institutions. Part of the reason could be that many of our premier institutions are over manned (more staff than faculty and students) and there has not been enough incentive to create such software. Wherever institutions are using in-house software for administration, finances etc., these can become good candidates for sharing. It is important to look into whether such software be made more widely available as they would help improve operational efficiency. IITs can lead in this effort but innovative approaches such as contests for developing software must also be thought about. Free and Open Source (FOSS) would be a good way to go in this effort. The extensive amount of testing that needs to be done, for competitive exams for entrance to many premier courses, is another major area where the use of ICT can go a long way. Standardized testing services need to be created.
Many institutions in the country are already doing cutting edge work on par with the rest of the world. The aim here is to focus more on those institutions that have not seen as much investment in money from the government. A common feature about such academic institutions (unlike their more fortunate counterparts in India and those in the developed countries), is that there is very little IT knowhow in these places. This is the result of the sustained denial of Internet access and of computers and related resources for more than two decades. Even today there are only approximately 9 million broadband connections in India, of which very few are from academic institutions. As a result, there are many institutions where there is insufficient awareness of the power of the Information Technology Revolution. Even when there is awareness, there is incomplete knowhow of what technologies to use and which services to deploy in order to empower students. Consequently young students, particularly at Tier 2 and tier 3 institutions continue to be denied access to these powerful resources. One way to break the deadlock is to supplement the local knowhow with information regarding best practices in other premier institutions. This approach is the subject of the initiative discussed in this report.
Dr. Sherlekar brought up important points in the discussion on Free and Open Source (FOSS). Besides the issues of significant cost-saving and utility for educational purposes, FOSS is also important because no Company or Country should have the option of holding us, as a nation, to ransom.
The most scalable model for educational content creation is to allow the community to create and share. Open Education Resources (OER) is a recognized movement which seeks to take advantage of our collective knowledge. The Wikipedia is a brilliant example of how users can become active resource creators. We in India need to take the OER and the Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) movement forward in innovative ways and create similar archives for content of various kinds. Given that less than 10% of the Indian population speaks English we need to initiate this kind of activity in Indian Languages also. This effort will get a boost when critical masses of educators who are comfortable with creating content in Indian Languages have access to the Internet, to the content creation infrastructure, and to training on how to use these.
The uplifting thing is that students use Facebook and Twitter without any training. They are natively comfortable and therefore they need to be a significant part of the rollout of infrastructure, allowed to help with the induction wherever possible. Dr. Sherlekar also described the recent example of how 400 young people participated in the sequencing of the TB genome.
In India students either contribute nothing or everything and this situation must be rationalised at the earliest. There is definitely a case for government paying for the shared infrastructure and they should do it. We must start by outlining our needs and also where government can come in with support. Government must also subsidize the cost of bandwidth. Institutions can pay for it and get reimbursed. It is important that institutions pay for local infrastructure and start using it. Otherwise all the external infrastructure being created by the government (NKN and others) will not be used. One can look at models where, government can top up the spending on local infrastructure, similar to R&D subsidies.
As Prof. Morris of IIMA put it, “the tragedy in India is not that the adults are illiterate. The real tragedy is that, of the children being born now, a third will remain illiterate. We ought to be hanging our heads in shame!” This is an extremely sobering thought and it is true that we as a nation ought to be in a tearing hurry to try and correct the situation. Although a lot more needs to be done besides inducting ICT, the latter is a powerful tool that can assist in the fight and therefore must be utilized to its maximum extent.
Finding a successful model in the field of education will open up the similar opportunities in other disciplines such as 1) Healthcare, 2) Agriculture, 3) E-governance, and 4) Citizen services. The initiative can be adapted to the special needs of each new discipline.
 There is well over 5-lac Km of public fibre. Planning Commision report – 11th 5-year plan report, Chap. 12, ICT