EDUCATION PLUS

The VIRTUAL campus

G. MAHADEVAN

The VIRTUAL campus

Piggybacking on such IT arcane as VPN, streaming data, threaded discussions and virtual campuses, school and college education in Kerala is poised to fashion citizens for the knowledge society of tomorrow.

With the completion of the State Information Infrastructure, and with the implementation of projects such as `Kerala Education Grid' and ` Education Server', schools and colleges can start offering quality e-resources to students, irrespective of the geographic location of students and teachers.

The Kerala Education Grid (KEG) is a project of the Department of Higher Education, Government of Kerala and the Indian Institute of Information Technology and Management-Kerala (IIITM-K). It aims at linking all institutions of higher education in the state via broadband Internet and by satellite in order to create a `knowledge network' of such institutions.

In the first phase of the project, institutes offering technical and professional education would be linked. The institutions offering life sciences, arts, commerce and law would be covered in the second phase of the project.

At the core of the grid would be course-specific material, including texts, animated material, audio and video material, which can be accessed by students and teachers of all member colleges of the grid. This material would be continuously updated and housed in the e-libraries of the grid.

"This will eliminate at one stroke the problem of expertise in one subject being available at one place and the demand for this expertise existing in another place. As water flows from a higher level to the lower, knowledge too would flow in the grid from where it is to where it is needed," K. R. Srivathsan, director of IIITM-K, told Education Plus.

The VIRTUAL campus

This flow of knowledge in the KEG, however, pre-supposes one thing; a State-wide Internet backbone with sufficient bandwidth to make such things as `on-demand education' and `just-in-time education' a reality. The KEG project envisages utilising the Net-power of such organisations as BSNL and Reliance Infocom to set up such a backbone. (In fact, the State, thanks to provisions in its `right of way' policy, already has at its disposal a bandwidth of 8 MBps - given by various organisations that were allowed to lay optical-fibre cables across the state.) Each member college will be connected to this backbone through a dedicated education server. This server will, in turn, be connected to a Local Area Network (LAN) in the college. This would allow the entire student community to have simultaneous access, if need be, to KEG.

Mr. Srivathsan, however, cautions against duplication of Internet backbones in the State. " It is best to share the pipe as it were when it comes to bandwidth. We have the State Information Infrastructure, the University Grants Commission's lines connecting universities and private operators laying cables. It will be a huge waste if backbones are laid for, say, education, agriculture and so on. The huge bandwidth already available should be wisely used. I will be happy with 155 MBps for education, as EDUSAT can chip in for visual data transfer," he said.

With the IIITM-K providing the back-up for management, technology and coordination, KEG will be executed through the four Education Grid Resource Centres in the State; one each at the College of Engineering, Thiruvananthapuram, the Cochin University of Science and Technology, the National Institute of Technology, Kozhikode and at the IIITM-K.

These resource centres will be responsible, along with IIITM-K, for developing adequate material in different areas of technical education. The resource centres have already commenced work on developing courseware in such areas as superconductivity, Total Quality management, Object-oriented Analysis and Design and Control Systems Engineering.

KEG would also be drawing heavily on material generated for the National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning. Under the NPTEL courseware would be generated for more than 100 engineering-related courses.

Actually, KEG is much more than just networking computers and providing online course material. At the heart of KEG pedagogy is what is called Technology Enhanced Learning and Teaching or TELT.

In other words, KEG will make available the latest e-learning tools to both teachers and students so that the quality of both the learning and teaching processes can be enhanced many times over.

For starters, KEG will seek to provide focused computing resources to the students accessing the grid, by customising both the information space and the computing processes needed for each user group in the grid.

Once logged on, the usage level of a student can vary from as simple a thing as browsing the web for some information, to participating in synchronous and asynchronous interactions online and using multimedia streaming to catch up on an e-lecture that he missed out earlier.

The quality and intensity of the efforts put in by the students for a particular course can also be enhanced through KEG.

Using interactive self-tests prepared by experts in different fields, the students can continuously assess their performance in any given area of study.

This can help students reorient their study patterns to bridge the gaps in proficiency in any given area.

KEG also plans to put in place a Course Knowledge and Collaboration Space in its cyber space to enable teachers of a particular subject to share teaching methods and course contents with other teachers of the same subject elsewhere in the State.

The teachers can even carry out real-time interaction with experts in their subjects to better their teaching methods and course content. Teacher-training programmes using KEG will be totally different from what it is today as the teachers can even participate in the programme by logging on to KEG from their homes.

The VIRTUAL campus

Even though the KEG is far from being a fully operational entity, the IIIT-K has gone one step ahead and submitted a proposal to the state government for setting up a `Virtual Institute of Science Technology and Arts (VISTA).

The proposal envisages setting up a Virtual Learning Campus, drawing up formal and open learning programmes and collaborative research by premier institutions in the State and the country.

At the heart of the VLC would the proposed National School of Advanced Informatics. As its primary function, the virtual campus will offer advanced postgraduate and research programmes in the field of informatics. In order to fulfil its `enabling' role the VLC envisages computational portals and e-learning facilities in various institutions.

With its vast network, the VLC would be ideally placed to offer open learning programmes across the state in various fields. Using the KEG, the VLC can serve as the nodal agency for conducting continuing education of teachers, non-teaching staff and representatives of managements of colleges. Another activity envisaged in the VISTA proposal is the establishment of Knowledge Resource Centres, which will disseminate useful information in such areas as Agriculture, health and business developments to institutions and individuals.

To be sure, all this broadband connectivity and threaded discussion boards do not come free of cost.

According to IITM-K estimates each college would to cough up Rs. 20 lakhs as initial expenditure for linking up with KEG. The Institute has also calculated that the recurring expenditure to each college would be to the tune of Rs. 1000 per student per year.

Schools in the State too are close to taking their first faltering steps into the Internet autobahns; the proposal drawn up by the IT @School for setting up an `Education Server' is pending approval by the State Government.

The `Concept Paper on Education Server' proposes to provide multimedia educational content, links to subject-specific web sites, interface space for exchange of school projects, study material, chat forms, career counselling corners and host the web site of various schools on the server.

Once the server goes online, teachers and students would no longer have to spend costly Internet time for looking up relevant material. The paper points out that the server can be a one-stop-shop for infotainment material - intellectual games, interactive puzzles, IQ tests and quizzes - for the school students. Now that the Government has introduced the concept of project-based learning in the schools, the facility in the proposed server for exchange of study material, project reports and presentations can help students and teachers avoid duplication of work and can encourage collaborative work between teachers and students of different schools.

One feature of the proposed server would be of much interest to parents.

According to the concept paper the server will permit access only to those web sites that have been designated as `clean sites' by the system administrators. Therefore, a student cannot - either by mistake or by design - access sites having objectionable content. The proposal also provides for content research and for continuous upgrading of the course material on the server. There would also be space in the server for an FAQ domain, which would serve as an SOS-point for students with queries of an academic or a general nature. The initial investment required would be about Rs. 30 lakhs.

Ambitious plans have been drawn up to connect Kerala's colleges and schools through education networks. The tough part is making these a reality.

Photos: Vipinchandran,H. Vibhu

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