Now, even those who didn’t make the cut for admission to the legendary Indian Institutes of Technology can still get an IIT education.

Within the next few months, the seven institutes and the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore plan to stream lectures and course material online, as part of a Rs110 crore government project to help lift generally poor standards at an estimated 1,500 engineering colleges across India.

The development represents an innovative way to address several issues plaguing higher education. The private sector has long complained that engineering graduates arrive ill-equipped to work and need much more training and exposure. Meanwhile, academia finds itself in the midst of a crippling faculty shortage.

“The project is aimed at providing a standard for academic content for both faculty and students across India," says Mangala Sunder Krishnan, principal coordinator of the project at IIT Madras. “A large number of private institutions have entered the field of engineering education with inadequate faculty support and training."

Education for all: Students at the computer lab in IIT Bombay.

“We are in advanced stages of discussions with a few service providers to provide our course content on a non-exclusive basis," says Kannan Moudgalya, head of IIT Bombay’s distance engineering education programme.

This initiative stems from the National Programme for Technology Enhanced Learning (NPTEL), a project that was initially conceptualized by the faculty at IIT Madras and has been under development since 2003.

“The days of gurukulam are now being redesigned," says M.S. Ananth, IIT Madras’ director and national programme coordinator of NPTEL. He refers to the shift in how knowledge can increasingly reach Indians instead of a privileged few.

A gurukulam is a sort of residential school popular in ancient India.

While some course material is already available on the NPTEL site, an alliance with service providers—Google has been mentioned—would make both text and videos available at one location.

Google India said it could not comment specifically on a venture with IIT. “Google is very committed to making our products as locally relevant and useful as possible, but we have nothing specific to share at this time," a company spokesperson said in an email.

Many of the courses that will go online, especially core science and engineering curricula, are similar across IITs and, to a lesser extent, other institutions in the country.

The ministry of human resource development, which oversees education, has already invested Rs20.5 crore in the completed phase I of the project. For that, the institutions developed 240 courses in five streams of engineering—civil, computer science, electronics and communication, electrical engineering, and mechanical engineering.

They were supplemented by more than two dozen courses in core science, language and management recommended for all engineering undergraduates.

Engineering colleges can also acquire the courseware and provide it through their own intranet for a fee, estimated at about Rs5 lakh. The revenue will be used to sustain the programme, and is expected to be a fraction of the investment in the courseware.

For the colleges, the IIT faculty is also studying the use of a “creative commons" licence that favours users’ rights. This alternative system means colleges can tailor the course material to suit training requirements, as long as the IITs get credit.

“Engineering colleges across the country have their own methods of training and they may be constrained if they are provided material that is copyright protected. By using the creative commons licence, we are providing them with a lot of flexibility in using the material," says Shishir Jha of IIT Bombay and project lead of Creative Commons, India.

The project is loosely modelled on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s OpenCourseWare, a free publication of course material.

But, says IIT Bombay’s Moudgalya, the efforts that have gone into the creation of this project have been far more intensive. “We have gone through the syllabus prescribed by the All India Council for Technical Education and evolved the programme around this syllabus to ensure that it is relevant," he says, referring to the government agency that regulates private engineering colleges.

The NPTEL project is now ready to move into the Rs90- crore phase II, which is still at a proposal stage. This involves expanding subjects covered to include chemical, metallurgical and aerospace engineering and some sciences, in addition to engineering electives and postgraduate courses.

It is also looking to create and share content with the National Institutes of Technology (NITs) and other prestigious colleges.

“By 2010, we hope to cover most of the learning materials in post-secondary science and engineering education. This can be achieved if we establish a strong partnership with 20 NITs and other leading engineering institutions," says IIT Madras’ Krishnan.

An early benficiary of NPTEL, the NIT in Karnataka says experts’ knowledge benefits both faculty and students.

“For an institute such as ours, where lack of resources is not a very big concern, the courseware provides good support as supplementary education," says director Sandeep Sancheti.

The project, he adds, has tremendous potential in revolutionizing engineering education in the country. “Engineering education is in a constant flux and we do not have enough expertise in a lot of emerging fields. This initiative can help us overcome a shortage problem by maximizing our limited resources," Sancheti says.

Several workshops have been held and more are planned to bring teachers around the country in touch with the NPTEL faculty, eventually enabling them design their own courses and spearhead technology-based education in India.

The institutes involved in the project also plan to develop support facilities to enable two-way communication between students who access the material and the institutes that create the courseware.

“To make the learning experience complete, it is important that we address the aspect of answering questions," says Moudgalya.

NPTEL may consider employing retired faculty members to do so.