The death of two students by suicide, one in Kerala and the other in Punjab, is tragic, more so when we realise the reason behind them. The two girls, aged 14 and 17, were unable to access online classes because their poor families could not buy them smartphones.
In the current Covid-induced crisis, there are countless other children who are in similar situations, heartbroken and left out of the web-based home learning, either because they are unable to afford technological devices or because of inadequate network infrastructure.
Tragic incidents such as those in Punjab and Kerala could have been avoided if the Ministry of Human Resource Development’s (MHRD) National Mission on Education for Information Technology (NMEICT) scheme, which was approved by the Union Cabinet in 2009, had been fully implemented. It could have proved to be the proverbial Ram baan (panacea) in these difficult times, especially for children whose education has come to a standstill due to the nationwide closure of schools, colleges and universities.
The core component of this scheme was Direct to Home (DTH) broadcasting of e-content in higher education, considering that India now has more than 200 million TV sets. This would help cover at least 70 per cent of the population, in stark contrast to smartphones, which cover a little over 35 per cent.
There are several reasons why the MHRD’s DTH programme could have been a real game-changer.
First, compared to the 32 channels being used for education by Swayam Prabha, about 1,000 new TV channels would have been set up under the NMEICT, one for each subject, every grade, and in every regional language possible on a 24×7 basis. The budgetary support for this was also unprecedented, with an allocation of Rs 4,612 crore (almost $1 billion).
Second, only the top 213 institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs), National Institutes of Technology (NITs), medical colleges, agricultural universities, Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU), state open universities, and leading state and private universities were shortlisted. Top faculty of these institutes were involved in content development, which was by design a continuous and self-improving process.
Third, the programme was designed to be relevant, flexible and user friendly, because the subjects and their content were drawn from the existing curriculum of leading Indian universities. Beside the DTH mode, the e-content could have been viewed simultaneously through multicast mode on various devices — PCs, tablets, smartphones — at the affiliated educational institutes, as well as at home. Students seeking clarifications could ask questions on a real-time basis via video conferencing, mobile phones, SMS, e-mail, and webinars.
Fourth, even though NMEICT was meant for only higher education to begin with, it had the scope to create mirror systems for schools too.
Finally, the most important aspect was that students had to pay nothing. The cost of the entire delivery system, including the set-top box, which cost Rs 2,500, was to be borne by the ministry. All that had to be done at the student’s end was to adjust their family’s TV entertainment viewing time to that of their classroom hours. This was a very small price to pay compared to how dire the situation for many students is in this crisis.
India’s history with TV education
Today, very few are aware that India was a pioneer in the use of television for education. In 1969, India signed an agreement with the United States to share the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)’s ATS-6 satellite for ‘Satellite Instructional Television Experiment’ (SITE). This was the first and largest educational content delivery system in the world at that time, run by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and covering 2,400 villages in six Indian states.
Later, when India acquired its own satellite, the regulatory body University Grants Commission (UGC) launched the countrywide classroom programme in 1984, on the Doordarshan network via INSAT-2 satellites. Next came IGNOU’s Gyan Darshan in 2000, followed by Ekalavya of IITs and Vyas by CEC/UGC. By 2004, India had launched EduSat and became the first country in the world to launch a satellite solely dedicated to education. This is, therefore, a known territory for India — the idea of using TV and satellites for education was a tried and tested one.
An abrupt roadblock
The MHRD officers and the Chairman of DTH Committee, Dr S V Raghavan of IIT Madras — who was the chief architect of India’s National Knowledge Network – NKN — burnt the midnight oil in working out the nuts and bolts of the scheme. They worked on getting the statutory clearance from the Department of Space (DoS), Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB), Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), and Prasar Bharati for their satellite channels.
There were efforts made to set up 213 Teaching Ends (TEs) in India’s top universities and Institutes of National Importance (INI), while working on the nitty-gritty of the delivery of e-content and connectivity. By 2014, the scheme was all set to be launched with 50 channels. Then it went into a blink.
In a democracy, governments are supposed to work in continuity and not waste time, resources, and energy in reinventing the wheel when something works and is meant for the ordinary people, especially those who are economically deprived. Unfortunately, governments tend to downplay, or even kill, the best of schemes, if they do not have the right parentage.
The launch of the ‘Digital India’ campaign by the current Narendra Modi-led government seems to have eclipsed NMEICT and the DTH programme, though they still continue to exist on the official website of MHRD. The newly launched Atma Nirbhar Bharat Abhiyan (self-reliant India scheme) mentions Swayam Prabha, which includes some components of DTH for schools, but it is too little and too late.
Swayam Prabha is a mutilated version of NMEICT and lacks the comprehensiveness and scale of the latter. In fact, NMEICT is much more than just DTH. It has forward-thinking avant-garde programmes, which could prove to be a blessing for students and researchers in today’s time. These involved the development and use of haptic devices, setting up remote laboratories, and even a full-fledged virtual university, which is what the education system of the future is more likely to look like. Who knows how long Covid-19 will last and how long our schools, colleges, and universities may have to remain closed. NMEICT is a scheme tailor-made to meet these challenging times.
The author is the former Education Secretary, Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India. Views are personal.
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