On June 30th this year, the IIT finished uploading 120 of its most popular science and engineering courses ( www.nptel.iitm.ac.in) that will provide access to classes
and faculty of the IIT to not only the students in the country, but also to the students, teachers, academicians, "and anybody who cares to log in" from across the world; and all this for free to boot.
"We have just completed and put all the lectures of some of our engineering courses online," said M. S. Ananth, dean of academic courses at IIT-Madras who is also the director of NPTEL. "And these lectures are not just the digitized versions of the study materials of IIT , but specially structured courseware crafted specifically for online education."
The brainchild of M.S. Ananth, NPTEL, first mooted in 1999, was mandated to be carried out by the seven IITs in the country and the Indian Institute of Science, a Bangalore-based technology university, as a collaborative project. "The main objective of NPTEL's is to enhance the quality of engineering education in the country so that the hundreds and thousands of engineering students in India become employable graduates at the end of their education," says Ananth
In India, inadequate infrastructure is a one of the major problems facing the country's education system and this is impacting the quality of education. It is estimated that of the approximate 500,000 Indian students who join the engineering programs each year, less than 10 percent come out as employable graduates, mainly because there are not enough teachers to provide the education needed by the industry.
For instance, there are more than 1500 private engineering colleges in the country almost all of which do not have the minimum required number of well-qualified teaching faculty, which according to the country's needs should be 1 teacher for every 16 students. Most higher education institutions run at a ratio of 1:60, or sometimes, even worse.
Moreover, going by the ideal teacher to student ration Indian needs about 160,000 teachers for engineering education for a student population of about two million. "But institutions of higher learning in India are barely able to train no more than 4000 teachers every year and offer them jobs," says Mangala Krishnan, national web courses coordinator, NPTEL.
The IIT is one of the few higher learning institutes in India that can boast of an ideal student-teacher ratio. But then, out of the 350,000 students that aspire to get into the IITs each year, only about 4000 manage to gain admission. This is because this institution is India's "Ivy League" technology institute. In fact, it is ranked as the third best technology university in the world (just behind MIT and California University, Berkeley) by the London-based Times Higher Educational Supplement.
"Against this backdrop, the NPTEL then emerges crucial for the country because distance education and continuous open learning is the only way India can enhance the level of higher education," says Ananth.
NPTEL was inspired by the Open Courseware (http://ocw.mit.edu) project instituted by Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but "even as the goals of the two are same, NPTEL's processes are different," says Ananth.
The biggest difference between the two, says Ananthis, "[Is] OCW provides the icing, but we at NPTEL actually make the cake. While OCW is the digitized version of the MIT courseware, NPTEL courses are modularized and structured with sufficient explanations and
notes to provide a complete, self-sufficient course that can be studied without the presence of a teacher.
The other major difference between OCW and NPTEL is that NPTEL's courses are crafted through a process of workshops and interactions between the various institutions and course developers. "This is a mandatory requirement for the NPTEL program," says Mangala Krishnan.
"We targeted this initially for Indian students but eventually realized that it has been a hit internationally as well," says Ananth. "Ever since we went online (from September last year), the website has recorded 500,000 hits and has about 80,000 professional and 60,000 students as registered users."
The course materials are freely accessible by everyone independent of their geographic location and the website already has registered visitors from more than 120 countries.
"Interestingly, many professionals are using these courses for updating their academic background," says Krishnan, although no certificates are given to the users. "The intention is to keep these courses free and no one is allowed to sell them. So no one using these courses can be given a certificate or degree even though the curriculum is the same as that of the IITs."
Right now the NPTEL website is hosted by servers of the individual IITs, which are also providing the bandwidth. But soon the project will move onto the National Knowledge Network (NKN), which is a $61-million high-bandwidth Internet network under implementation, owned by the country's human resource ministry. The NKN will provide an initial bandwidth of 100 mbps and, in about three years would be ramped up to 10 Gbps.
The first phase of the NKN will be up and running from March next year by when about 1,000 colleges and educational institutions in India, including elite the IITs, IISc and Indian Institutes of Management will connected "with the world's best online study material, research laboratories and faculty members," says Ashok Kolaskar of the NKN project.
"However, all that we have uploaded is just the beginning," says Ananth. "NPTEL, is a long-term venture and envisaged to be much bigger than it is at present."
The second phase of NPTEL, which will begin now with a target date for completion by March 2009 will eventually contain 600 courses. "By when India will have a virtual university," says Ananth.
Indrajit Basu is international correspondent for Government Technology's Digital Communities.
Photo: Central Library of IIT Madras by Akshat Gupta. GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2.