India: Satellites answer training needs

Teachers in even the remotest tribal villages, where hunters still use bows and arrows, are being given a high-tech answer to their in-service training problems.

It is part of a nationwide drive - from the mountain deserts of Ladakh to the granite plains of Andhra Pradesh - to plug a gaping training gap for the country's three million primary teachers through distance-learning techniques.

Professor Ram Takwale, vice-chancellor of the Indira Gandhi National Open University is co-ordinating attempts to create an extensive network of teleconferencing facilities over the next five years. These will combine one-way video with two-way satellite phone links so that teachers can talk live to educational experts, discuss their problems in the classroom and keep abreast of latest teaching methods.

"Asking teachers to come to their district (regional) centre or paying them travel and Delhi allowances costs a lot, especially on administration.But this way we save a lot of money," he said.

This is no fibre-optic pipedream. On the edge of the university's campus in south Delhi, overlooking the makeshift tents of a squatter colony, a new set of video and audio recording studios has been built with Japanese aid and is already broadcasting interactive educational training programmes to teachers across the nation. It comes complete with high-tech editing and dubbing suites, and a lighting system that would be the pride of any commercial television station.

In a trial experiment with districts in Karnataka, about 1,200 miles south of the capital, 1,000 teachers at five-day workshops dotted around the state were linked live to teacher-trainers in the Delhi studio. The participants were able to call the experts live or by fax, and everyone could see their questions being answered on their TV screen.

"The power of this technology lies in the immediacy of communication," Professor Takwale said.

Within five years he plans to have at least five or six dishes in place so that satellite signals can be transmitted to receivers in 5,000 local authorities across India. Eventually, he hopes to have two-way video in place in each of 50, 000 clusters of villages.

The possibility of reaching every village in the sub-continent seems far off, but given the speed of the communications revolution, the vice-chancellor does not discount even that unlikely goal.

"US industry is putting up 58 middle-level satellites around the globe in the next two years and once they are rotating you will be able to just pull out your satellite phone, push up the antenna and connect with the satellite. In five years, technology might be completely different," he said.

The Indian Space Research Organisation is experimenting with the system in a primitive area - the hills of Jhabua in Madhya Pradesh.

BS Bhatia, director of ISRO's Development and Education Unit, said that 150 dish receivers and 12 satellite talkback links have been installed to enable train teachers and local development workers.

"We wanted to see how far this system could be extended. This is a backward area. It is 85 per cent tribal, its women's literacy rate - 6 per cent - is the lowest in the country, and they still use bows and arrows."

The satellite system has an advantage over the Internet links more commonly used by academics in the West in that it won't rely on the scanty network of telephone lines and, unlike the superhighway, infotraffic won't grind to halt at peak times. So far about 350 receiver dishes have been installed in local centres. This will rise to between 1,500 and 2,000 by the end of the year.

The importance of finding a way to bridge the training backlog lies in the fact that many primary teachers enter the profession with only the minimum qualifications of having reached 12th grade at school and might not have any in-service training for 14 years.

The multimedia training links are a high-tech complement to a massive programme of distance education training, which Professor Takwale also heads.

This month work begins on the production of videos, audio cassettes, printed material with case studies and self-study assignments. They are being designed locally with guidance from national experts, because standard materials are not as effective in a country with 26 official languages and thousands of regional dialects and where teachers work is such diverse economic, social and cultural conditions.

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