Friday, February 16, 2007

EDUSAT: A Satellite Dedicated to Education in India

A satellite completely dedicated to education was launched on September 20, 2004 by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), and Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) has been identified as the nodal institution. The satellite has already completed two years in the space orbiting in its geo-synchronous path. It is now time for the nation to know what is happening to this educational adventure by the Government of India. The satellite is capable of providing high bandwidth two-way interaction by creating a private network of Satellite Interactive Terminals (SITs) and Receive Only Terminals (ROTs) installed all over the country. The interaction mode is based on the popular Hyper Text Transfer Protocol (HTTP) used in the Internet and web applications. Thus, the satellite enables us to create a network through which we can share existing resources (often called as digital repositories), in text, graphics, audio, and video formats; and also can create real-time interactive virtual classrooms (often called synchronous e-learning) across the country. With both these possibilities, the potential is enormous for the educational development of this country. The satellite has six Ku-band and six extended C-band transponders, and the satellite covers the entire country through national and regional beams. But, one may like to argue that why is it that Indian planners and decision-makers thought of launching a satellite for sharing educational resources and providing interactive learning opportunities, when these tasks can be done through the existing Internet technology. The cost of using existing Internet technology would have been significantly less than the cost of launching a satellite, which has a life span of 5-7 years (or say 10-12 years); and thus the resources could have been utilized elsewhere. However, the Internet penetration in the country is limited at present; and thus developing a system similar to what is being offered by EduSat through the existing Internet infrastructure, would have created a digital divide. So, people in rural, hilly and remote areas of the country where Internet has not reached could not have access to the system. With EduSat, this barrier has been broken, albeit at a very high cost.

It has been highlighted that the “
EDUSAT is primarily meant to provide connectivity to school, college, and higher level of education”. At the end of 2006, about 443 SITs and TORs have been installed all over the country with the cooperation of various agencies like the AICTE, NCERT, UGC and IGNOU. Ideally the setting up of these terminals should have been predominantly in the rural, hilly and remote areas of the country. If we consider the issues related to pedagogy (teaching and learning) using the EduSat, it is more critical and complex. There has been little so far done in this respect. This is evident from the fact that till date no Learning Management System (LMS) has been decided to manage the synchronous sessions. Similarly, the online repository is also in the rudimentary stage.

At the ground level, at IGNOU, video lessons are being recorded by teachers in the name of EduSat religiously without questioning its value and purpose. These lessons are supposed to be 2-way interactive sessions. In reality, there is hardly any interaction as the systems are either not functional or not in place. Thus, the recordings being done are only ‘talking heads’, which educational technologists and media educators sincerely avoided all these years. There is also another serious pedagogic issue. This is related to distance education, which is essentially asynchronous learning, where teaching and learning takes place at different time. Of course, there is also scope for occasional face-to-face interaction (synchounous). But, with the EduSat, are we unconsciously moving towards making distance education synchronous? Are we predominantly thinking that distance education should have synchronous interaction? If so, how is it planned for in the educational design? How are we planning for the students to use the system? How to bring them to these so called interactive EduSat sessions – that can only be accessed at a place having SIT or TOR. Not being workplace-based or home-based is a serious impediment of the present system of planning, thinking and technology.

At the current pace of developments, we may not be able to see the real fruit of educational development in terms of increasing access with quality. We may spend huge amount of money in purchasing of hardware and technology, but without any pedagogic thought and planning, all these investments is a waste. Is it possible for us to integrate EduSat into our existing educational infrastructure? The current development is like part of the distance education scenario of the country; whereas, the satellite can effectively cater to all the sectors of education. Also, conventional school, college and university can use the EduSat to deliver online education as a support to their classroom teaching. The system allows us to think beyond audio and video, and we should develop learning resources in multimedia, animation and simulation formats.

The technology also needs improvement to allow access from anywhere (not necessarily thorough SIT or ROT), especially as the technology is based on HTTP. If this can be done, the Govt. of India can focus on setting up ROTs only in the rural, hilly and remote areas not having access to the Internet (Of course, we have to think of electric power supply, and for that matter solar energy could be tapped). This will also bridge the digital divide and improve the Internet penetration in the country. The next important issue is developing digital content as national resource for all levels of education. As we all realize that interaction is important for learning, EduSat can be used for supporting this interaction on the basis of the need of the learner or the need of the subject/discipline. Teachers need to be trained on the new technology, especially how best they can make use of the EduSat for helping the students to learn better. There is a long way to go beyond lecturing to the television camera. If we continue doing this, there is every danger of again going back to the face-to-face teaching implemented through distance education technology. We need to remember that distance education follows the rigor of developing learning materials (in print, audio, video, and now multimedia) in a team mode taking help of best experts in content, media and learning design.

There are always more questions than possible answers. It is definitely time to start thinking about the effective use of EduSat, before many new developments such as SAKSHAT or One-Stop Educational Portal and e-content development take over and we forget about the potentialities of EduSat.
(Note: Views expressed here are personal, and not intended to blame, defame or hurt anyone. Readers are humbly requested to post their views to further educate me on the topic.)