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Engineering virtual learning
The Indian Institutes of Technology have for long been sensitive to they fact that they are an intellectually gated community.
The National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning (NPTEL) was an effort to open the doors of their classroom, a kind of intellectual philanthropic movement in a country where the electric growth of engineering colleges has been inversely proportional to the overall quality of technology education.
"For the first time, we decided to have an outreach programme to benefit thousands of other engineering colleges. Technology, we knew, can be a leveller, " said Ashok Misra, former IIT-Bombay director.
The NPTEL architect was a feisty man - former IIT-Madras director MS Ananth. The idea germinated in 1999, at the same time when the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, too, thought of OpenCourse-Ware, which displays lecture notes, previous exams and study materials offered to MIT students for anyone to access, unlike, say, Vanderbilt's Online Access to Knowledge which is restricted to Vanderbilt University students.
But funding came in a bit late and NPTEL finally took off only in 2003. There were some fundamentals that needed to be addressed: the experiment was undoubtedly large, but it also needed to be resourceful to any engineering student, irrespective of the university s/he attended. Also NPTEL courses had to cater to all students, regardless of what they picked up in their college;so NPTEL could not just be a clone of the efforts put in by several Western universities, which were more focussed on enrichment or merely providing the basic raw material.
"So, after nine months of internal academic quarrelling, we developed a national syllabus for all the courses that could satisfy the needs of any university, " said Ananth.
There was a lot of buzz going on in the backrooms of IITs, which did not even have digital studios for a dream that was so ambitious. So, the tech colleges proposed to develop web-based courses, just hours and hours of audio.
But the then HRD minister Murli Manohar Joshi felt the idea would not click with rural students, who needed to see the faces of their teachers.
Hence step one of the flowchart of the NPTEL programme was to build digital labs in all the IITs. "When the idea was shared with faculty members, there was phenomenal participation from them, as it was thought to be a service. If 325 faculty members made up the army for phase one, we now have over 1, 000 heroes developing content for the second phase, " added Ananth.
Presently, the seven IITs, as part of the NPTEL project, have provided online access to 260 courses, each with over 40 hours of lectures. The Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, partnered with them in drawing up syllabi for these streams. These are in two forms - digitally-taped classroom lectures, and web-based lecture material, besides links to high-end research works available under the NPTEL (www. nptel. iitm. ac. in) project.
The HRD ministry put in Rs 20 crore for the first phase of the NPTEL project. Over a 1, 000 courses - in engineering, science and humanities - are being developed in the second phase that will close by December 2012.
NPTEL is now on YouTube;in fact it boasted of the largest viewership till last April, following which Facebook took over, is the IIT faculty's claim.
Kannan Moudgalya, who headed the distance engineering education programme at IIT-B and worked with NPTEL, said, "Students from all over the world log on to NPTEL today. Our reward is their feedback. "
The grand end, of course hasn't been accomplished - when NPTEL scholars will be able to graduate and get a degree through a virtual university that the IITs have proposed.
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