Among all the technological marvels and their roles in our lives, the most revolutionary contribution of technology has to be the democratisation of knowledge all around the world.
Online courses on a wide range of topics are provided openly and for free by premier institutions of the world. As these courses reach larger audiences, they will mitigate the huge gap in knowledge created due to lack of fundamental resources and varying methods of teaching. These courses would not only benefit students but will also prove to be touchstone for teachers.
Among the open education courses available on the Web, the most popular one is OpenCourseWare (OCW) run by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which provides all its education materials from undergraduate level to graduate level for free. As of now, more than 2,080 courses are available online. Many of them include lecture notes, interactive Web demonstrations, textbooks written by MIT professors and streaming video lectures. Details of the available lectures can be found at http://ocw.mit.edu. Along with MIT's own site, video lectures are also available on YouTube and iTunes and can be streamed online or can also be downloaded for viewing offline.
MITx, a recent online learning initiative by MIT, offers a portfolio of its courses through online interactive learning platform. It has been designed keeping in mind all aspects of difficulties that might be faced by students on the online platform. It would not only offer online laboratories, student-to-student communication, but would also provide a chance to earn certification of completion award by MITx, based on the mastery of the subject.
Among the courses offered by other universities, video courses of Harvard, Yale University, University of California – Berkeley, and Stanford University are worth checking out, but unlike MIT OCW, these are restricted in number.
In 1999, the idea of having an enhanced learning programme involving the Indian Institutes of Technology and Indian Institutes of Management was conceived by IIT Madras, which was subsequently funded by the Ministry of Human Resource Development. Today, it is known as the National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning (NPTEL).
As of now, 260 courses are available online, but this number is set to reach 1,000 in the next phase of the programme. With more than 4,900 hours of classroom course, illustration of concepts via animations, links for reference books, discussion forums and case studies, it has enough potential to disseminate quality education among Indian students. In the era of ubiquitous mobile phones, 3GP format of video courses are especially made for mobile phone users.
Virtual Labs is a new initiative to provide remote access to labs in various disciplines of science and engineering (www.vlab.co.in) taken up by the Ministry of Human Resource Development. At a time when a majority of institutions are facing a crunch in testing equipment and resources, this would provide a platform where resources can be shared.
The integration of NPTEL with Virtual Labs will provide a complete package for education by bridging the gap between theory and practice.
A major hindrance in taking the online education programme to the remotest of places is lack of infrastructure. Two things that are prerequisite for the programme's success are affordable computer devices and availability of adequate Internet speed.
The low-cost Aakash tablets seem to be a strong step towards online education revolution. However, its availability and reliability are the issues the government must sort out as soon as possible. Making courses available on DVDs and hard disks for affordable prices can mitigate the problem of online streaming of videos on low-speed Internet.
(The author works as Scientist-B at the Defence Research and Development Organisation, Bangalore.)