February 23, 2007

Open source is key to reaching 500 million Indian children

Author: Mark Rais

To support more than 650,000 villages and one half billion youths who need education, the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) created a nonprofit organization called Shiksha India in 2001. One of Shiksha's primary initiatives was the creation of a collaborative online Web portal, which the president of India launched in a formal ceremony last month. The new e-learning and collaboration portal uses open source technology such as Moodle, Drupal, and MediaWiki.

CII-Shiksha India focuses on equipping schools with five fundamental needs: computers, connectivity, coaching (teacher training), content, and commercial sustainability. Collaboration and content is provided in English, Tamil, and Hindi languages, and further language support is expected as the project grows. The initiative relies heavily upon open source tools to help bridge the technology divide between those who have technology access and the many poor who do not.

Narinder Bhatia, project manager for CII-Shiksha India, says, "It is our firm belief that open source has a lot of potential to impact the education process, if harnessed properly.

"Beside using open source for our various channels of communication and engagements, we have been using open source tools like CamStudio and ZipGenius for delivering training programs," Bhatia says. Shiksha also incorporates specific training programmes that focus on the use of open source.

Open source key to project phases

The new e-learning portal for collaboration among Shiksha schools

Shiksha's work is planned in four project phases. Phase one is focused on providing academic content for training and education to Shiksha schools and institutions. Phase two relies on open source software (OSS) to help encourage collaboration, development, and education. Phase three includes programs with partners in the IT industry. And phase four initiates a national educational repository, which will serve to provide tools to school systems throughout India.

Bhatia gives five reasons why open source plays such an integral role in the Shiksha strategy:

  1. No investment required from Shiksha for creating of educational content
  2. Low cost of investment for schools
  3. Availability of tools catering to academic and non-academic needs
  4. Freedom to choose the most suited product
  5. Opportunity for all educators and schools to participate in defining the quality of the end product

"CII Shiksha has been constantly striving to offer open source solutions at different levels, including the operating system (Linux), applications (learning management systems and Web portals), and hardware solutions (Linux thin-client networks)," says Bhatia. In Shiksha's own offices, open source tools are common, with most of the day-to-day work being done on computers running Ubuntu and OpenOffice.org.

Many of the school systems that Shiksha is working to assist in development are too poor to afford essential teaching aides. Shiksha's leadership sees the use of open source software as a fulcrum for change in India's poorest regions, as it is viewed as an empowerment tool.

Many of these schools are also interested in making technology available to individual teachers and educators, which requires software that can be freely distributed under amicable licenses.

Linux is also being used by non-governmental organizations (NGO) and educational institutions that have limited technology infrastructure and often rely on refurbished or outdated computers. They use educational flavors of Linux that provide thin-client connectivity and can run on outdated PCs, such as Edubuntu and K12LTSP.

The benefit with regard to open source is also seen in the ability to customize and provide products in local languages (including Hindi and Tamil). To achieve this goal, Shiksha partners with the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (CDAC) in Noida.

From the experience of deploying open source tools both in the form of collaborative sites and CD-ROM based tools, Bhatia notes that there are good and bad sides. "The good side of OSS is that we become the master of our fate. We no longer need to rely on outside support." He says that the ability to customise without inhibitors is also a great benefit, especially when it comes to tailoring localized versions of educational tools.

"The bad side is that with so much available, a newcomer to OSS is bound to get confused about what to use." He says this is often exacerbated due to some projects being fixated on proving that their product is best.

The future for India's open source initiatives

Shiksha plans to create further learning channels using open source. Its goal is to set an example for others in India to follow. Bhatia says, "After the creation of our e-learning portal for teachers, we feel more confident that we can harness open source to benefit other stakeholders in education, including students, parents, and institutions."

One future initiative that Shiksha India will be involved with is helping their institutional partners transition from proprietary software to open source, and highlighting the advantages that accrue from open source usage.

Shiksha is dedicated to reaching out to technology-starved rural areas in India and helping them become computer-savvy. Open source software is one key ingredient in the plan to reach India's nearly 500 million youths with technology and education.

Mark Rais is a freelance technology writer, and serves as senior editor for Reallylinux.com.


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