Educate, enlighten, empower through open source distance learning

R. N. Bhaskar

As developing countries try to re-affirm their ability to be counted among the best in the world, one of the most serious vulnerabilities they will confront is the quality of skill sets available with their respective populations.

Ten years ago, the problem was not so serious. Trade and tariff barriers could insulate any workforce that was unskilled and illiterate. But today, the unskilled – especially the illiterate -- workforce remains more vulnerable and a social and political nightmare.

This will hit the poor most savagely, as most well-educated members of the workforce come from higher income families. They can cope with change far more effectively, and even move up the value chain. Unless the poor are given the benefits of good and employable education, they will be far worse off than today.

But this will require confronting three challenges: (a) the proportion of good teachers and trainers, at all levels, is rapidly declining at an alarming rate; (b) the number of potential students is increasing; and (c) quality education is usually frightfully expensive.

These problems can be overcome, by using innovative solutions like open source interactive distance learning and quality content at extremely low costs.

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As small and medium sized nations try to re-affirm their ability to be counted among the bold and the best in the world, one of the most serious vulnerabilities they confront is the quality of skillsets available with their respective people.

Contrary to theories that believed a burgeoning population to be one of the gravest dangers that a country could face, the world has now begun to accept that any population is an asset - after all people are, even traditionally, one of the classical resources of production. What makes them an asset or a liability is not the sheer size of the population, but the quality of skillsets they carry with them. If the skills are top grade, some astute businessman will find a way to make them marketable - the simplest way being labour export (crudely put, even grunt export is marketable at a price). But if the skills are missing, then even the smartest of businessmen will be at a loss to cope with the numbers of people milling around.

That is why, while the biggest benefit India enjoys is its manpower - very very young, and extremely large - the same manpower becomes a liability when it lacks the skills which the markets want. Ten years ago, the problem was not so serious. Trade barriers could have insulated its workforce, which remains largely unskilled. But in a globalised world, the white and blue collared workers will see the best of times. The unskilled workforce could become a social and political nightmare.

This will hit the poor most savagely. The reason for this is that almost all the well-educated and the blue collared workers come from upper income families. They can cope with change far more effectively, and even move up the value chain. But most of the unemployed and unskilled workers come from poor or underprivileged families. Unless they are given the benefits of good education and skills, they will be far worse off than today.

But providing them with quality education and skills leading to employability is difficult today for three reasons.

First, the number of good teachers and trainers, at all levels, is rapidly declining at an alarming rate, especially in India.

Second, the number of people desirous of gaining access to good education is increasing.

And, third, this group cannot get good education either because it cannot find the teachers or, when it does, the cost of gaining such knowledge or skills is horrifyingly expensive.


One way to overcome these seemingly insurmountable difficulties is through the use of Interactive Distance Learning ( One can use this technology, and find out ways to adopt schools where courses can be offered at extremely affordable fees.

The trouble is that Interactive Distance Learning has not come in very cheaply. The licensing patterns adopted by most software companies - and that includes behemoths like Microsoft and Oracle - has often made this technology financially unviable. This has been compounded by the absence of terrestrial cables in most developing countries, thus preventing the last mile connectivity to the cluster of people whose children need to learn the alphabets on the one hand and skills on the other. All this has retarded the progress of Interactive Distance Learning even further.

And that why there is a crying need to look at this field once again, by considering the use of technologies and processes that eliminate the need for seat licensing on the one hand, and the barriers posed by poor connectivity on the other.

How is this possible?


This is where my company, E-convergence Technologies Limited (ETL), appears to have made a breakthough by adopting Mozilla as its Internet browser, as this runs quite well both on Windows and on Linux ( Instead of using the ubiquitous Windows Media Player, where the very stream (the *.wmv file) is a licensed product of Microsoft, we use open source media players and media servers. And for databases too, we have opted to use open source database solutions that offer both the absence of seat licensing, even while allowing for recovery of data when the system crashes and stored procedures.

By tweaking available technologies further, we even managed to work with thinner pipes. Typically, video files have demanded huge bandwidths - usually between 384 kbps and 512 kbps. But ETL discovered that the use of open sources technologies allowed one to reduce the need to 128 kbps. When one uses satellite bandwidths, this meant a reduction of costs to almost a quarter those required with proprietary technologies.


But why use satellite bandwidth? And this is where we discovered the advantages of the broadcast medium. Unlike terrestrial cables, where each subscriber pays an access charge, satellite (and radio) broadcast works on the basis of the cost being paid for the bandwidth at the source. From this point on, irrespective of the number of users receiving the broadcast stream, the cost of broadcasting remains the same. In the case of education, since each user who receives this broadcast stream has to be authenticated for access (for commercial and security reasons), this type of broadcast is more specifically referred to as multicast. Thus, the entire system can be very very expensive when there are only a handful of users on the multicast network. But once the population of users exceeds 200 persons, the cost per user falls dramatically. If one adds together all the costs involved in paying the access charges by each individual, and by the central server site, what becomes evident is that the multicast route is significantly cheaper than, often one-tenth of, conventional charges.

There is a variable, of course. In addition to the multicast bandwidth, you will also require a reverse stream - from the student to the central servers from where the instructor addresses the students. The reverse stream carries the login authentication of each student, the answers he submits for his tests and examinations, and the questions and interactions he has with his teacher or his peers. This reverse stream is shared by all the students, and tests show that one 128 kbps stream is adequate for around 500 concurrent users. While the costs do not vary in respect of the multicast stream, they do vary in respect of the reverse stream. But even if one includes these costs, the multicast method turns out to be significantly cheaper than those of terrestrial networks. Moreover, there are other invisible benefits of

  • security,

  • 24 x 7 access,

  • the shortest time to market for remote and inaccessible terrains and

  • tremendous control of each user computer/console.

Other benefits of Interactive Distance Learning

  • One good teacher sitting in a studio to reach out to a large number of students anywhere in the country using broadband and multicasting technologies;

  • The training to be available anywhere in the footprint territory.

  • This training to be provided, at any time of the day or night, in three ways:

        • 'live'

        • recorded

        • simulated live

  • A high degree of personalisation and interactivity so that the student does not feel lost in a sea of numbers, or cramped in an overcrowded classroom;

  • The costs of quality education - in any language medium - to be reduced considerably;

  • Constant - yet unobtrusive -- monitoring of the academic progress of the child; so that the teacher, ETL's administrator, the student and the parents can all view how the child has been faring on a day-to-day, even hour-by-hour basis.


ETL recognizes that there is a crying need for strengthening the skills of children especially in English as the language of mobility and commerce, and Mathematics, the only subject that has application right from purchasing food to ensuring that the wages one gets are not less than what they ought to be. Moreover, it is the one subject that allows a teacher to evaluate the reasoning skills of a student with a reasonable degree of certainty.

This became obvious when ETL, along with Nurture (an organization focused on the development of children), conducted a survey involving school children. The survey was conducted during the months of February and March 2002 covering 34 private-trust-managed, English-medium schools, in and around Chembur, a suburb of Mumbai, India. Around 16,500 students (from Std VI to VIII) participated in a quiz devised to determine their comprehension levels in English and Mathematics.

The results were startling. Over 60% failed in Mathematics and over 70% in English.Similar findings have also been documented in the studies on Indian Education published in 2002 by the Oxford University Press. This author has also written articles in newspapers on this same issue. ( And what is true for India may also be true for several other developing nations where government officers maintain a vested interest in inflating the number of literate, and minimizing the erosion of standards and competence among school children. A national evaluation system - preferably through the IDL route - may be a good solution.


ETL knows that education cannot reach the far flung areas without the assistance of NGOs and missionaries. Learning centres in these areas need to be managed by such bodies for the hand holding of young students that is a critical need, as well as for neutralizing forces that look upon education with suspicion because they view it as a threat to their feudal authority.

There is also a critical need to move into job related courses as soon as possible, preferably in partnership with the best industry brands. This is because unless poor people see a value proposition at the end of five years of study after the primary level, they will prefer to see their children work in cottage industries, making carpets, working as houseboys, or as delivery boys, or as farm helpers in the field.

Why industry brand leaders? That is because when education is viewed objectively, there are three parts to it.

The first is the need for a good teacher or trainer. If the teacher is good, the student learns, even loves, the subject. If the teacher is bad, he gets turned off, sometimes forever.

The second part begins after the teaching part is over, sometimes concurrently. It involves practice. Learning how to multiply fractions is only the first part, practising multiplication sums hones one's skills till the knowledge becomes a part of the student. With skills like truck repairs or two-wheeler repairs, or even electrical wiring, it means going to a workshop and practising what one has learnt to become more perfect.

The third part is earning a certificate. In management terms this is akin to branding. The better the brand, the more marketable you are. And along with the brand come a host of other pre-requisites - quality, values, skills etc. Thus while the learning subject matter may be the same, the market values a Harvard more than a Bhaskar University (if there is one) because the Harvard brand represents value that has been borne out empirically. We see the pricing of certification as a discrete business/revenue stream. Thus you could have generic content being offered at a nominal price, while certification would depend on the brand that one would like to opt for, and live up to.

And what should the fees for generic courses be? ETL's formula is based on a rule of thumb guide - they should not be more than one (or maybe two) month's salary that the course could fetch for that student in the unorganized sector.


Of course, none of this will be easy. There will be many difficulties that will have to be faced. Some of them are:

Funding: When it embarked on implementing this project, ETL discovered that there were few organizations willing to fund this concept. That is why this project has been largely promoter funded. However, of late, this problem appears to have become less acute.

Concept selling: Few people understand this concept. And ETL has found corporates to be better at adopting new technology than NGOs and schools. But more and more NGOs have begun to understand the power of this medium - especially after they have come and had a first hand look at our centre and have seen how effective this medium is in teaching students. A few NGOs have already started paying on behalf of some needy students and have been sending them for being 'educated' to our only centre in Mumbai.

Identifying schools: It is not easy to identify schools where the benefits of this technology can be offered through the school computer laboratories to deserving students. More problematic are municipal schools where it is difficult to identify the person who will be responsible for the VSAT (costing around Rs.1.2 lakh each) installed atop the school. Unless there is ownership, there is a great risk of the VSAT getting stolen or damaged. Private schools have been more willing and capable in offering guarantees against misuse. If a way to put up VSATs over municipal schools is not found, ETL will have to rope in computer centres (cybercafes, computer classes or other centres) near such schools to break the impasse.

Good teachers: If all goes well, hopefully this technology will not only train students but will also expose more teachers to new methods of teaching. It could accelerate the availability of a fresh crop of teachers.

If we do not do this in India, we will have almost 40 million people under the age of 25 years continuing to be poor and ripe for organized crime. When you have such large numbers, and illiteracy and poverty, and the crumbling of institutions that were supposed to mete out justice and fairness, the only alternative is organized crime. And that is definitely undesirable.


The network essentially involves a studio that is linked to the VSAT service provider's hub through a (2 mbps) lease line. From there is it 'multicast' across the entire country with two-way VSATs as communication devises at each remote centre.

Unlike a television broadcast, which is essentially one-way communication, this involves constant interaction with students.

At the remote centre, the VSAT is connected to a Linux proxy, which in turn is connected to the LAN network. (please append pix network.gif).



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