Sarat Jain, nodal officer of the National Knowledge Network at Jawaharlal Nehru Krishi Vishwavidyalaya in Jabalpur, central India, sits comfortably in the university staffroom, browsing through an online journal. It might seem a fairly mundane activity in universities and colleges around the world, but for Jain it is a novelty.
Before his university was connected to the National Knowledge Network, or NKN, academics could not access journals online. Even internet browsing, with its low speed, was time-consuming.
The network, which aims to promote research by connecting top universities, research institutes and labs, and central institutions like the Indian institutes of technology (IITs) via fibre-optic link, has enabled the university’s staff to access more than 2,000 online journals.
The university is also able to video-conference with its constituent colleges in the small towns of Rewa, Tikamgarh and Ganjbasoda in Madhya Pradesh.
This, according to Jain, is nothing short of a “technological revolution”.
The NKN, with an existing budget of Rs60 billion (US$1.23 billion), is slowly spreading access to technology across higher education institutions in India. Through virtual classrooms and faculty sharing, the network has helped to address a shortage of faculty in several institutions, although on a small scale.
Recommended by the National Knowledge Commission and first allocated funding in 2008, it will eventually become a multi-gigabit pan-India network, providing a unified, high-speed network backbone for knowledge-related institutes in the country.
“We are still at the beginner’s stage as far as the NKN is concerned. In the long term we aim to access networks in the UK and US, collaborate with researchers internationally and hold virtual classrooms,” said Jain.
Last week, Sam Pitroda, advisor to the Indian prime minister on public information, infrastructure and innovation, and former chair of the National Knowledge Commission, said the budget for the network could increase by around 65%.
“We will probably end up spending some Rs100 billion by the time the project is completed,” Pitroda told local media.
So far, 693 of the targeted 1,500 institutions are connected to the network; the rest will be linked to it by the end of the year. NKN will also be linked to Edusat – the education satellite launched by the Indian Space Research Organisation – and foreign research labs.
Virtual learning, online exchange
The effort is already bearing fruit.
At the recently established IIT in Mandi, the network made up for lack of adequate infrastructure and faculty shortage in several ways. IIT Mandi has been equipped with cameras, large LCD screens, ceiling microphones and one gigabit per second of fibre-optic connection.
“As a result, five to six of our courses are taught through virtual classrooms by experts at IIT Madras. The speed is excellent and students can interact with the teacher without any interruption. This is an ideal example of sharing and multiple uses of resources,” said Dr Bharat Singh Rajpurohit, the NKN nodal officer at IIT Mandi.
The institute has also collaborated with the IT University of Copenhagen, Denmark, to teach one course through a virtual classroom.
At IIT Ropar, the network has been used to “bridge the gap between students’ requirements and the knowledge providers”, according to nodal officer-in-charge Dr Ekta Singla.
“Experienced professors from old IITs are contacted through NKN for expert lectures. The network is used for receiving educational and inspirational talks from eminent personalities, both from Indian and foreign universities. We have planned to broadcast workshops on specialised topics for teachers and people from the industry through the NKN.
“The best part is that you don’t have to limit the number of recipients,” said Singla.
The NKN, through access to enormous bandwidth and high-speed internet connectivity, has enabled the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in Mumbai to plan for online education, sharing of content and research projects and collaboration with other like-minded institutions.
But the biggest challenge of the NKN is to ensure that tier two and tier three universities and colleges make use of the network to improve the quality of their courses, faculty and research.
“The NKN should not be a network of 15 elite institutions talking to each other. Exchange of information should be both upstream and downstream,” said Professor T Jayaraman, who is in charge of the computer centre at TISS.
“We have to work on creating an international footprint, making our website and work accessible to others and increasing visibility. At the same time NKN by itself will not be sufficient. Local networks should be strengthened.
“We have to share content with smaller institutions and collaborate with them to raise their quality,” Jayaraman said.
While NKN will provide the infrastructure, the creation and sharing of common educational content will decide how effectively the network is used.
“We in India are concentrating on delivery and not on content. So we may have another 500 million mobile phones and broadband in place, which connects every village and district. But if we do not have the content, then it's of no use. We need open-source material and content to actually empower the students…this poses a great opportunity for the IT industry," said Education Minister Kapil Sibal.
Notably, content creation under projects such as the National Mission on Education through Information and Communication Technology, and the National Programme on Technology Enabled Learning, have already begun.
“Teachers, academics and IT solution providers must keep in mind that the content created should not be scanned lecture notes,” said Professor Madan Mohan Chaturvedi, director of the Institute of Lifelong Learning, which is working on developing online content for all undergraduate courses at Delhi University.
“Online content has to be innovative and interesting and should include animation, pictures, web links and simulations,” said Chaturvedi. “Online content needs to be free for every learner, not just in India but across the globe. We should collaborate internationally to ensure diversity and quality in content.”
Talking to Mint newspaper Sam Pitroda, the prime minister’s advisor, said primarily there had to be a “change of mindset at the students’, teachers’ and researchers’ level” if the National Knowledge Network was to be successful.
Receive UWN's free weekly e-newsletters