On Monday, the temple town of Tirupati saw the launch of an ambitious, but apparently hurriedly executed, National Mission on Education. The two high points of the Rs4,612 crore mission are the launch of a National Knowledge Network and the unveiling of the Rs500 laptop.
The former, a brainchild of the National Knowledge Commission, is a high-bandwidth network connecting all institutions in India; the latter is meant to provide an ultra-low-cost computing, or maybe just an access device in the hands of rural students. Both initiatives, well meaning and long needed, lack clarity—as does the mission itself, which doesn’t clearly spell out how the money is to be spent in the 11th Plan and how participating institutions, several hundreds of them, will pony up resources to sustain the network.
India tried setting up an even a higher bandwidth national network in 1998 called Sankhya Vahini in collaboration with Carnegie Mellon University, but after two years of hectic activity, the project was shelved. Meanwhile, even Eastern European and Latin American countries went ahead with their national gigabit-per-second networks.
Hopefully the lessons were learnt and the architects of this programme know that merely democratizing access to the Internet will not jump-start India’s college and university education enterprise so blatantly lacking in innovation and quality. That brings us to the second issue, which is the Rs500 laptop. Surprisingly, the prototype has been unveiled, but none of the institutions involved in its making is talking about the details, where, in fact, the devil lies.
The government’s spiel is usual—e-learning, virtual laboratories, online availability of teachers for mentoring, and utilization of Isro’s education satellite which, as many of us know, has been suboptimally used. But the new mission’s website hardly promises all this in the absence of any tailor-made, modern content. Sure, it will come up in time, but given the government’s penchant for rolling out schemes with hardly any in-built provision for course correction, it will be left to the smaller institutions to seek their share and pursue excellence.
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