Are users reaping the benefits of the massive educational television machinery?

As the euphoria following the Right to Education (RTE) Act gives way to realistic appraisal, it brings into focus other areas of education in need of attention, like higher education. Educational Television, with its primary target audience of undergraduates, could be a significant driver of India’s knowledge society but it remains underutilised. Aggressive promotion by the government and more public recognition will help extend the reach of educational television. But more than anything else, the users must be prepared to make effective use of these services.

Three decades ago, the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE) opened up new vistas for education in our country. In the years following SITE, the government brainstormed and came up with a vision as astonishing for its time as Marshall McLuhan’s earlier one of a camel driver with a radio in the desert. A satellite and a television transponder would be the modern equivalent of the camel driver’s radio. Together, they would extend a universe of educational experience to all the remote people of our country.

The dream took shape when INSAT 2B was launched in 1983. Soon after, the UGC set up the Countrywide Classroom through Audio-Visual Research Centres (AVRCs) at six universities in different parts of the country. Production got off to a flying start, enabled by two developments — colour television, which came in with the Asian Games and video, which had already replaced black and white 16 mm film as the medium of production.

Three 20-minute programmes were needed to fill the one-hour noon-time slot allotted for UGC telecasts on Doordarshan. With the freedom to choose their subjects, producers opted for a mix of syllabus-oriented and enrichment programmes in the documentary format. But the AVRCs needed time to build reserves and so, for the first decade or so, production had to be augmented with programmes from abroad to meet requirements. By the mid-1990s, the media centres had built up a substantial corpus. But the unevenness in the quality of these programmes, now in Betacam broadcast-quality format, necessitated their review by a panel at Headquarters. Following the demand for more syllabus-oriented programmes, video-lectures were converted into multimedia e-content DVDs and their content perked up.

The number of AVRCs, now upgraded to Educational Multimedia Research Centres (EMMRCs) to reflect their expanding roles, has grown to 18. Their activities are co-ordinated by the Consortium of Educational Communication (CEC), in existence since 1993. The CEC is committed to “addressing the needs of Higher Education through the use of powerful medium of Television along with the appropriate use of emerging Information Communication Technology.” Edusat, launched in September 2004, further extended the reach of the Countrywide Classroom, providing for two-way videoconferencing, on-line multimedia, and video programming through over a hundred Satellite Interactive Terminals (SITs) and Receive only Terminals (RoTs) installed at sundry colleges and universities. Essentially, the Media Centres under the CEC constitute a network of co-operating individuals that includes planners, technocrats, scholars, production crews, students and teachers. When all their efforts are pooled, the scale multiplies dramatically. But are users reaping the benefits of this massive machinery to the extent possible and, if not, what can be done to extend the reach of educational television?

Inevitably, there is pressure on the EMMRCs to meet targets and deadlines for Gyan Darshan, launched in 2000, and the UGC-CEC’s 24-hour free-to-air Channel for Higher Education, Vyas. Coping with the narrow deadlines and production-related issues such as quality, accuracy of content and relevance to the target audience is something the creative teams at the Media Centres (MCs) have learnt to take in their stride. But poor visibility and a lack of appreciation for their work on Vyas is discouraging many of them. Issues related to the quality of programmes as well as to the accuracy of content and its relevance to the target audience have always been in focus. Marrying the cultures of two industries as disparate as Education and Media has never been easy but, with the right approach on both sides, it has been possible to bridge the gap to a certain extent. On-the-job training is fast-tracked for academics with a passion for their subjects and they learn quickly to adapt scripts for television.

But it isn’t always smooth sailing. Producers are finding it increasing difficult to woo talent as they find that faculty members on whom they have to depend for academic content are often not too eager to help, primarily because their efforts for the educational media do not get official recognition (from UGC, AICTE etc.), although they are compensated monetarily. This is a strange contradiction since universities vie for these EMMRCs precisely because they offer unlimited opportunities for exposure. At the annual UGC-CEC Educational Video Competitions awards are given for a variety of categories. But more than awards, the EMMRCs need to be strengthened academically and technically and given more official recognition and greater visibility through aggressive promotion. It has been suggested that the educational channels run by UGC, AICTE, IGNOU, and NCERT be made must-carry ones by the government to ensure better awareness of their work. This must-carry provision should be strictly enforced by the government.

There are other areas in need of attention. For one, the videoconferencing done through the Edusat network reaching students in the remote corners of the nation. This is sometimes found to be less than adequate as problems with connectivity interfere with two-way communication during interactive sessions. With regard to the e-learning facility, which is essentially the computer and network-enabled transfer of skills and knowledge, the government needs to match keenness to generate e-content with a well thought-out policy on delivery mechanism. Research Officers at the Media Centres do liaise with colleges for feedback from students and faculty, the principal stakeholders. The inputs are reviewed and, if required, incorporated into the e-content. But, unless a proper delivery mechanism for e-content programmes is put in place, Media Centres cannot have a real perspective on their efforts.

The National Viewership Survey conducted by the CEC in 2010 showed that the UGC-CEC’s educational programmes are being viewed by around 13 per cent of the total student population in higher education. Better coordination with educational institutions will ensure that more students and faculty are sensitised to these channels. While it is perfectly legitimate to have expectations from the government, ultimately, it is the entire community of learners from diverse social and cultural backgrounds including those still in college, who are at the hub of this vast enterprise. The onus is on them too; to take fuller advantage of this Promethean gift to higher education in our country.

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