E-governance in education: the power of a portal

 

Premised on the understanding that e-governance is not an end in itself, but a means to achieve for its citizens what a government promises, this paper suggests the development of an India Education Portal to ensure the fundamental right of every Indian citizen to education, as endowed by the Constitution.  We have, in our country, an intricate administrative set up to oversee the operation of the education sector. Government initiatives to disseminate knowledge – both through formal and informal education and training in skills – are supplemented by the private sector including corporates and NGOs, trusts and foundations and other civil society organizations (CSO); Commissions and Committees, in addition to elected representatives of the people, have deliberated, and legislated, on various aspects of education; schemes and scholarships have been devised by the states, the centre and in cooperation with local, national and international bodies, and governments, to not only make education accessible and equitable but also to recognise and encourage talent and potential.  We have more than ten lakh schools to provide a solid foundation in general education over a period of twelve years of education, and more than 10,000 colleges – including universities and institutes of national importance – to provide higher education in both professional and specialised streams of study, that lead to degrees and diplomas. There are also programmes for vocational education, adult and continuing education, and non formal education besides institutions and programmes for the disadvantaged and the differently abled.

 

Academic supervisory and support systems exist and are expected to act as the link between the planners and policy makers and the grassroots-level implementers (teachers and voluntary organizations) and users (community consisting of students, community leaders and parents).  Though not computerized in all cases, educational planning and management – including personnel management, financial management and information management – are systematized and statistical machinery and methodology are  in place to ensure universal coverage and regular information flow.  Experiments and innovations are legion and cover not only all levels of education, but also a variety of aspects pertaining to education, such as teachers´ training, curriculum changes and textbook production, examination and assessment methodologies, as well as use of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) not only for open and distance learning but also for supplementing teaching at all levels and to address the special needs of rural learners.    And, at all times, review and research of educational policies and programmes is underway – both institutionalised within the government machinery itself and undertaken by external agencies, including institutes of advanced learning, donor agencies, interested individuals and organisations all of whom use the government machinery in some way or the other.

 

The tragedy of Indian education is that despite the methodical manner in which a well-oiled administrative machinery has been functioning, the plethora of policies that have been put in place, the vision that persons of eminence have shown in setting the agenda for the nation – starting from the Radhakrishnan Commission´s Report (1948) to the Yashpal Committee´s ´Learning Without Burden´ (1993) to the launch of EduSat (2004) – the children and youth, due to their own lack of awareness, continue to be deprived of access to schools and colleges, exposure to meaningful learning, and opportunities to study in-depth a subject of their choice or nurture a skill or talent that they would like to.  Besides, once the goals are set, the plans made and operationalisation initialised, official apathy sets in, and the smoothly functioning administrative machinery begins to operate in fits and starts.  Institutions and programmes have been carrying on for decades with cursory reviews of, and little intervention in, their functioning.  Even where review of their functioning has been done, the best minds are brought together to constitute the committees and their findings are released with much fanfare, but the reports are consigned to the archives – their recommendations often quoted, but rarely acted upon.  For example, there has been little discussion in the public fora about the comprehensive findings and recommendations contained in the Indian Institutes of Technology – Report of the Review Committee constituted by the President A P J Abdul Kalam in June 2002 under the chairmanship of Prof. P Rama Rao; the Committee submitted a 170-page report in 2004. A major reason for this abysmal state of affairs, where ideas for progress and change flow from the top, but little change actually happens on the ground, is probably the inconsequential role assigned to grassroots level stakeholders in the implementation of the plans.  There is a regular flow of ´data´ from the field to the ministries, departments and agencies, but the stakeholders who provided the data get to know little about how the data they provided has defined the decisions taken in their name.  There is little awareness about the policies and programmes that have been shaped for their progress.

 

For example, this researcher undertook a study among the Soliga tribals and the Ashramshalas[1] of Chamarajanagar district, Karnataka state, to find out their level of acceptance for Soliga Siddhi – a composite English, Science, Mathematics and Language reader that was specially developed  for Soliga children studying in the the first and second standards.  Though the initiative was taken six years back by the government of Karnataka, even a fundamental awareness about the existence of this book is appallingly  low among all sections interviewed – students, teachers, community members; even the Tribal Welfare Department knew little as they had not been included in the planning and implementation process.[2]  All schools were using the regular Kannada textbooks and few had copies of the Soliga Siddhi textbooks – in fact, most had not even received copies of the textbook. It is not only rural awareness that leaves much to be desired; the knowledge of the availability of crores of rupees worth of schemes being implemented for their benefit is dismal even among urban students and teachers.  For instance, among students and faculty of the 100-plus engineering colleges of Karnataka, who were supposed to be receiving satellite mediated supplementary classes via EduSat, there was little awareness about the availability of the broadcast. [3]

 

This paper envisages the creation of an India Education e-Portal (IEeP) to make sustainable educational development of the nation a reality.  ¨The availability of a content-rich, diversified public domain tool is a key ingredient in the construction of a knowledge society¨ [4]. The principal beneficiaries of the India Education Portal would be students, teachers, administrators, researchers and policy makers.  The ´service´ – which here refers exclusively to access to and use of the India Education Portal and its sub portals –  could be delivered through Community Service Centres, either as PPPs (public-private partnerships) or on a BOT (build-operate-transfer) basis, with the government building the infrastructure and gradually transferring the operation to entrepreneurs or locally identified, and trained, motivated agents of change who could be individuals, groups or organizations. The rural knowledge centres that each of India´s six lakh villages is expected to have by 2007 under the ´Village Knowledge Centre´ project[5] may be ideal for the purpose. It is assumed that competencies will be built, attitudinal changes will be brought about and awareness created among all stakeholders so that the India Education Portal will become an effective gateway for access to and exchange of information, based on which considered decisions can be made and knowledge horizons, widened.

 

OBJECTIVE OF THE INDIA EDUCATION e-PORTAL

The India Education e-Portal (IEeP) would establish itself as a citizen-centric initiative to ensure that the inputs made in the education sector result in fruitful outcomes, and continuous appraisal of the inputs, outputs and outcomes will, in turn, determine the future course.

 

Through user friendly, dedicated, for-profit community centres, manned, preferably, by trained, local persons, the IEeP would:

i) Provide comfortable access to diverse information and the facility to conduct a wide range of transactions online so that the fruits of educational initiatives reach the intended beneficiaries and users.

ii) Help the formulation of cohesive educational policies based on a continuous flow and exchange of legitimate data from and among stakeholders.

iii) Ensure better implementation of policies so as to render real change by creating greater awareness among all stakeholders and enabling them to actively intervene in their evaluation and execution.

 

The IEeP would be the official repository of dynamic or continuously updated data pertaining to education in India and an active interface facilitating interaction between the community, researchers, policy makers and others concerned with education – a knowledge gatherer and knowledge provider with easy access to the community at the grassroots and easily accessible to them through dedicated IEeP community service centres.

 

The India Education e-Portal, with its sub portals, would provide information beneficial to students, educators, researchers, policy makers and anyone looking for raw data about education in India.  By providing strategic links, it would also enable users to compare the Indian scenario with other countries, and learn from best practices across the globe.  The IEeP would provide tools for researchers to collect data from a wide spectrum of stakeholders in education – from planners and policy makers to the community at the grassroots.  It would also enable them to access select secondary resources from a library of literature containing publications pertaining to Indian Education from all over the world.  Planners and policy makers can make informed decisions based on the latest research findings, the actual ground situation and outcomes of similar initiatives.

 

Through the IEeP, educators can access resources in cyberspace to improve their competencies, enhance their knowledge, network with the national and global teaching community, exchange notes with experts and even view live or recorded lectures of eminent persons, subject experts and reputed professors.  Students and their parents can have a pan-India view of educational opportunities available, make their academic plans to suit their needs, inclinations and budgets, and even apply online to the institutions of their choice.  Students can also access digital libraries and online lectures and demonstrations to learn what they are not taught in their classes.

 

The IEeP suggested here also envisages the active involvement of the concerned citizen who wishes to contribute to the creation of policies that are more representative, and the involvement of educators and others who wish to reach out to native language learners.

 

A BASELINE STUDY

The first step, prior to the creation of the India Education e-Portal, would be to undertake a baseline study to assess the state of e-readiness, using the existing statistical machinery, to:

i)Take an inventory of the ICT infrastructure and skill availability in the country.  An in-depth survey of primary and secondary sources may be undertaken to understand where the country and its individual states, right up to the smallest administrative division, or village, stand with respect to teledensity, broadband connectivity, Internet access, computer system availability, computer literacy, IT skill and knowledge among developers, officials and users, knowledge of English, presence of computer training institutes and power situation.  This would provide a comprehensive picture of the present status, and the steps that need to be taken to make the Community Service Centres effectively functional so that the India Education e-Portal may serve the community as envisaged.

ii)Compile a user profile, on the basis of available administrative and demographic data and educational statistics, and undertake surveys to identify potential users and partners.  The beneficiaries and associates could be local individuals or located in geographically dispersed areas including remote locations across the globe; they could also be ministries, departments and agencies, educational institutions, non-governmental organisations and corporate houses.  A systematic compilation of the potential users would help to plan the Community IEeP Centre network and design the e-Portal in a manner as to achieve the goals set.

 

THE INDIA EDUCATION E-PORTAL FRAMEWORK

Qualitative improvement in education policy making is contingent on the availability of reliable, timely, integrated data, and analyses of this data from various perspectives, with prospective and retrospective assessments and provision for comparing performances.  The IEeP would bring together educational statistics pertaining to India, and the world, at present stored on isolated computerised and manual systems in government offices and institutions of standing including non-governmental organisations such as NCAER, world bodies such as UNESCO, University research departments and others. The database would include raw data and analyses as well as reviewed research on implications and  suggested future action.   The findings of the baseline study would also be included. All information would be updated dynamically. Besides data storage and dissemination, a role in data collection is also envisaged for the IEeP community service centres.

 

Study Opportunities are not restricted to the formal mechanisms. Many such study programmes have few takers as the awareness about the availability of such opportunities is negligible.  Recognised, informal teaching initiatives by various governmental and non governmental organizations exist, to promote regular curricular learning, provide vocational training and training in fine arts, folk arts, Sanskrit, sports, etc.  The National Institute of Open Schooling, for instance, provides post-secondary/ senior secondary school vocational training courses in diverse fields, and even a certificate course in Rural Health for students who have just completed  primary school. The University of Agricultural Sciences, Bangalore also has some short term courses in the state language, Kannada, for persons with minimum levels of formal education.  Similarly, when it comes to higher education, there is little awareness about the plethora of opportunities available outside the mainstream courses in regular colleges.  The IEeP would expose students and their parents to the potential of diverse study programmes  and related career opportunities. The portal would provide comprehensive, district-wise, or even taluk-wise, information about educational institutions, identifying each by name, level, address (with links to institutional website, if any), affiliation, physical campus area, facilities provided, courses offered, fee structure and admission norms. The IEeP would also list, streamwise, the opportunities that are available to special students for higher studies through regular domestic and foreign institutions, and open and distance learning institutions (ODL), besides informal initiatives that have the support of civil societies. Uniform, downloadable forms may also be designed and provided on the portal for purposes such as student admission and transfer.

 

The portal would also list the officially approved schemes and scholarships available to students, giving details of their target population, selection norms and contact address of the concerned state or central agency, foreign entity, corporation or NGO, etc. with links to the sites of the concerned parties, where available. Alerts pertaining to various state and central examinations, as well as other competitive exams, and results of these exams would be available.

 

Going beyond information dissemination, the IEeP would also be a vehicle for knowledge dissemination by enabling users – particularly researchers and policy makers – to derive the maximum benefits from data mining and knowledge sharing. The  portal would also facilitate better and more widespread use of e-learning  initiatives such as ISRO´s EduSat whose mission is to reach the unreached at their doorsteps, IIT Bombay´s ´eKalavya´ (the eContent component of which intends to create Open Source digital content, for all levels, in Indian languages, through translation of existing works and creation of new content), and IIT Kanpur´s Brihaspati (an open source software tool that can be freely downloaded, modified and used for creating virtual classrooms). E-training for teachers to enhance their competencies and e-learning to bridge the knowledge divide and skill divide would be a major component of the portal, with text-based curricular material of Universities and Boards of Education being linked to each other and to select books, articles, assignments and projects in cyber space.  The potential of links to data servers, satellite mediated classes and live lectures through EduSat may also be examined.  Over a period of time, the process would, potentially, help the emergence of uniform standards across the country in teaching, learning, syllabus and textbook content.

An ambitious constituent of the IEeP content would be what may be called a Wiki-Board.  Eminent professors and professionals, who have the inclination, may be encouraged to post translations of subject books in their domain using wiki-technology so that regional language learners may be benefited.  They could also edit the language and content of the official textbooks certified by various boards, for all levels.

 

E-referendumcould be a tool for policy makers to assess the mood of the nation on matters of policy, particularly with regard to crucial decisions such as those pertaining to reservations, opening campuses abroad, expanding intake or legislating on faculty matters.  The portal could also include a grievance redressal mechanism with a compulsory 24-hour cut off for citizens to get a considered response that includes a clear deadline for resolving their problems.

 

Towards E-planning, E-quity and E-democracy

If Planning means ¨Developing a view of the future that guides decision making today¨, and Strategy is ¨Stating the direction you want to go and how you intend to get there¨[6], then, going beyond computerization of records and provision of services online, which would merely serve to support current operations and plans that are underway, e-governance must become a vehicle for strategy making to achieve the goals set. One method of doing this is to enhance citizen participation by facilitating their right to information, so that the choices they make are informed, voluntary and wilful, and their voices are heard so that the recommendations, decisions and policies reflect a real understanding of their aspirations.  Seldom do respondents at the field level get to know of the conclusions  researchers and policy makers arrived at on the basis of the raw data they provided.  This provides scope for manipulation by vested interests, resulting in resources being sunk into projects that never realise their potential nor address the genuine needs of the target populations.  The government can also interact with the community, officials, the faculty and students to evaluate the implementation of programmes and review the functioning of institutions and intervene if the need arises, or deploy better control mechanisms.

 

Dominance of politics and self interest is a major reason for the failure of most projects to achieve their expressed purpose[7], and the absence of pressure from ground level functionaries, affected individuals and CSOs due to their inability to make an informed, collaborative protest is the reason most such failures are never called to account.  By providing a forum for discussion, exchange of information, and better appreciation of citizen rights, the IEeP makes concerted action, and positive outcomes for those actions, possible.  For instance, in 2004-05, the amount spent under Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan was 4,754 crores.  For 2005-06, the budgetary allocation for SSA is 7,156 crores.  What were the schemes the amount was spent on last year?  What was the allocation for each? How many of those projects have been completed or are continuing?  Who have been the beneficiaries, say, in the Mandya district of Karnataka? What did the process of selection or rejection entail? How is the education cess, expected to yield 4000 to 5000 crore every year, planned to be spent?  When answers to these kinds of questions are made available to every ordinary, interested citizen, and they are empowered to start a dialogue on such matters that affect them, we become a working democracy – a government not only of the people and by the people, but for the people too.  Besides, strategies gone awry and plans that meander can be brought back on track through periodical, appropriate course correction to realise the set goals.  It may be appropriate here to recall the Supreme Court´s ruling in S P Gupta´s case, in the 1980s: ¨No democratic government can survive without accountability and the basic postulate of accountability is that the people should have information about the functioning of the government.  It is only if people know how government is functioning that they can fulfil the role which democracy assigns to them and make democracy a really effective participatory democracy.¨[8]

 

The IEeP can also help colleges form collectives to reduce costs on course development by avoiding duplication and taking advantage of each others´ faculty strengths.  The Massachusetts Institute of Technology´s (MIT) open courseware (OCW) is a good example – the course material of more than 500 courses is now available for free to users all over the world, and this includes course outlines, lecture notes, suggested supplementary reading material and assignment lists. Inspired by MIT´s example, many other universities – in China, France, Japan, USA and Vietnam – have taken to the idea of OCW, and instituted projects for this purpose. All these courses can be freely downloaded. modified and translated with no fear of copyright infringement. MIT also has a WebLab project for use by its students.  This model may also be replicated on the India Education e-Portal to provide online access to state of the art laboratories to students who are deprived of such facilities, particularly in rural areas.  To make assessments more equitable, uniform, non-threatening and student friendly, the IEeP can, ultimately, become the vehicle for conducting examinations that are programmed to the match the competency level of the examinee – the possibilities are endless.

 

THE ISSUES TO BE ADDRESSED

Harnessing the power of advances in ICTs and the possibilities made available by the Internet, governments can change the way they reach out to citizens and the time it takes them to do so.  Citizens and CSOs can also react proactively, and together with researchers and others can use dynamic data to generate a healthy debate that ensures that the government is both in touch with the real aspirations of the citizens and the long term vision is always guiding the operationalization of its policies. If this is not happening in India, to the extent of the potential, a major cause is the educational backwardness of the society at large.  While the India e-Education Portal would seek to provide study opportunities for all, ensure holistic learning and facilitate continuing and lifelong education, there are fundamental issues that need to be addressed before the IeEP can become a realiy.

 

According to the International Telecommunication Union[9], there were only 0.7  Internet users per 100 in India (2001). The users were mostly concentrated in a few regions, understandably, as rural teledensity stood at only 1.49 per 100 even in 2002.  Urban teledensity percent, in comparison, was 15.49.  There is significant regional variation as well. Increasing connectivity is an expensive proposition. The pilot project undertaken to network 70 villages of Kolhapur and Sangli districts in Maharashtra, under the Warana Wired Village Project, cost $600,000.[10]  The infrastructure included high-speed VSATs connected to the National Informatics Centre, Pune, an electronic telephone exchange and a software supporting local language for the network. The annual cost of sustaining the project is Rs.60,000.[11] It is estimated that the cost of replicating the infrastructure across all villages of India would cost around $5 billion.   Such a huge investment would be worthwhile if the people´s participation is as envisaged.

 

The literacy level of Warana is around 70% and it is a rich village, which is not typical of most of rural India.  An effective e-governance structure cannot be built without addressing social inequities, even if the purpose of the e-governance project is in fact to address one or more such inequities as in the case of the proposed IEeP.  The solution, perhaps, lies in reclaiming the potential of less sophisticated, more commonly used communication tools such as radio and television and channelising them to work in tandem with the newer ICT and Internet-based e-governance systems, and also use local language software, visual and voice interfaces to address the needs of the marginalized sections, who may be overwhelmed by the new technology and their scant literary and numerary skills.

 

The inability of most initiatives in the education sector to sustain the zeal with which they are launched and succeed to the extent anticipated may be attributed to their  failure to effect three A´s – create Awareness, induce Acceptance and render Attitudinal change.  Every member of the community at the grassroots – be it student, teacher, or parent – has a stake in ensuring that the IEeP realises its potential.  At the other end of the spectrum, policy makers, administrators and researchers would benefit both directly from the Portal as well as from the data generated by the usage of the portal.  The IEeP would also invigorate the ´education ecosystem´ by encouraging greater cooperation between the private and public sectors, industry and institutes of higher learning.  So, once Awareness is created about the applications of the Portal through a sustained multimedia campaign, if necessary, Acceptance and Attitudinal change will not be difficult to achieve.

In the realm of education – a sector that is a bureaucratic maze for the uninitiated – e-governance initiatives need to go beyond putting Management Information Systems in place to satisfy the norms of international donor agencies.  For, ´govern´ means to manage, control, to rule over; ´govern´ also means to influence the action or conduct of, to hold in check or curb[12].  E-governance, hence, it becomes automatically clear, needs to go beyond ´administration´, which means to manage the affairs of a government.   A fund of human, material and intellectual resources are being expended, with little to show as India continues to lag behind in the quest for meaningful, sustainable education for all – an education that makes the student an avid seeker of knowledge for knowledge´s sake, and an education which encourages diversity and ensures livelihoods.


[1]Ashramshalas are special schools for tribal children under the jurisdiction of  the Tribal Welfare Department.

[2]Findings presented in 2005 in the report, Assessment of Utility and Usage of Soliga Siddhi Textbooks Developed for Soliga Tribal Ashramshalas of Chamarajanagar District, based on a study undertaken by the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore, for Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan.

[3]Findings presented in 2004 in the report, Review of the VTU-EduSat Pilot Project, based on a study undertaken by the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore, for the Department of Space.

[5]From a report in The Economic Times, May 4, 2006, Taking IT to the Grassroots, featured in www.nasscomfoundation.org. Site last visited on May 27, 2006.

[6] McNurlin, Barbara C, Sprague Jr, Ralph H, 2004, Information Systems Management in Practice, Pearson Education, Inc., pp. 115.

[7].  Richard Heeks, Avoiding e-Gov Failure: Factor Specific Techniques, IDPM, University of Manchester, UK, www.eGov4Dev.org. Site last visited on May 27, 2006

[8]Soli S Sorabjee, Soliloquies, Right to Information, The New Indian Express, May 21, 2005

[9]Regional Human Development Report (India) – Promoting ICT for Human Development in Asia, UNDP, India.

[12] Webster´s New World Dictionary.

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