The Department of Higher Education is taking a number of steps to make higher education in Kerala ICT-enabled, but doubts persist whether all these diverse initiatives with overlapping aims and objectives will yield the desired results.

In the next two months the Department of Higher Education plans to launch a web portal through which video learning materials will be made available to students and teachers in colleges across Kerala.

From a corner of the Government Sanskrit College, Thiruvananthapuram, the Centre for Content Development is already working to record lectures of living legends in the world of teachers. Simultaneously the department has also launched an initiative titled ‘Gurusmarana' intended as a web-based open-access archive of the contributions of teachers, scholars and researchers of repute. The site will attempt to host articles, lecture notes, research papers and books of renowned scholars. Already the contributions of 220 such persons have been archived.

This includes the study on examination reforms conducted by Walker Hill, the student of renowned educationist Benjamin Bloom. The study published in book form by the University of Calicut in 1972 has largely gone unnoticed by academia in Kerala and is now reportedly only available at the ‘gurusmarana' website www.gurusmarana.ihrd.ac.in.

These are but two of the initiatives that have been initiated by the Department of Higher Education for achieving a critical mass of e-content so that higher education in Kerala can be information and communcation technologies (ICT)-enabled in a meaningful manner.

Academicians who spoke to The Hindu-EducationPlus on these initiatives said they had no doubt that these measures have not come a day too soon. However, they also added that given the lack of a ‘driver'—in IT parlance—to dovetail such initiatives into a grand design of sorts, they were not sure about the extent of impact these can have on the higher education sector in the State.

Yet another web-based project set in motion by the Education Department is ‘Scholar', which is intended to be a one-stop-shop for all academic details related to scholars in the State. This portal too, the concept note prepared by the department reads, will host articles, class notes, research papers and books of scholars. Teachers, the concept note reasons further, can upload their notes and other relevant content on to this portal for possible download by students.

The engineering college version, in a manner of speaking, of Scholar would be the ‘KBASE' which is being defined by the department as an e-learning management system and an institutional repository rolled into one. In its repository mode ‘KBASE' will be the “online locus for collecting, preserving and disseminating in digital form the intellectual output of the engineering colleges and polytechnics…”

While ‘Scholar' is being developed by the National Informatics Centre, ‘Gurusmarana' is being put in place by a team led by Achuthsankar S. Nair, the director of the Centre of Bioinformatics, University of Kerala. ‘KBASE' will be crafted in-house at the College of Engineering, Thiruvananthapuram.

These measures assume significance against the backdrop of the imminent inter-connection of all universities under a scheme of the national mission on education through ICT. Under this programme all universities will be connected via optic fibre cable to the National Knowledge Network at speeds of not less than 1 Gbps. This will be done on a 75:25 cost sharing basis between the Centre and the university concerned. This is in addition to the ongoing project for progressively providing a 10 Mbps broadband connection over a virtual private network to all colleges in the country. Each college will get up to 20 connections.

Each university will have to cough up Rs.50 lakh, plus service tax, for a 10-year connectivity and Rs.10 lakh plus service tax for setting up a local area network having 400 nodes. For colleges, the approximate quarterly payment works out to Rs.6,500. The union MHRD ministry has written at least twice to all State governments and vice-chancellors of universities asking them to put in place a team for overseeing the roll out of this project in their institution.

But the key question remains. What can be done to prevent such projects, which obviously have overlapping aims and objective, from getting reduced to victims of inter-departmental rivalry and to being expensive re-inventions of the wheel?

There is a growing body of opinion in academia that Kerala may not have to look far for a model to integrate diverse initiatives into one composite plan to administer the ICT tonic to higher education. Such a robust model, many academics believe, already exists in the form of the IT@School programme which won acclaim for successfully creating the foundation and the ambience to embed ICT in school education.

Dr. Achuthsankar is among those academics who strongly believe that the government should expand the mandate of the IT@School programme so that it can cater to the higher education sector as well.

A recent Impact Assessment study of the IT@School programme done by the T. A. Pai Management Institute, Manipal, revealed that the ‘bottom up' approach of ICT learning wherein teachers of various subjects themselves are transformed into teachers and users of ICT has yielded rich dividends.

Dr. Achuthsankar argues that the way the IT@School ensured adequate IT infrastructure in schools, trained thousands of teachers, thought up the innovative ‘hardware clinic' scheme wherein students and teachers became qualified to repair computers and developed the School wiki system are reasons ample enough to think about extrapolating the programme on the breadth of the educational institutions in Kerala.

Due to the diverse nature of colleges the directorate of collegiate education may be unable to lead an integrated ICT initiative for colleges and universities, he pointed out. All the same a note of caution needs to be sounded here. The assessment report also points out that the readiness of the school system to adopt and integrate ICT into its curriculum is only ‘medium.'

Translated, this means that there is still a resistance to change in the schools. The report also identifies infrastructure, societal support and school leadership as the three key elements which will determine the success of the IT@School's transition from the ‘IT teaching' phase to the ‘ICT-enabled' phase and then on to the ‘ICT-embedded teaching' stage. Such a resistance cannot be absent in the collegiate system.

The negatives of the IT@School programme that the report lists—the report can be accessed at the website www.itschool.gov.in — can mostly be attributed to the fact that the study was done at a time when the programme had not begun the transition from its first phase to the second phase.

Expanding the mandate of theIT@School is a policy call that the government will have to take.