Millennium Post

Gearing up for the E-Revolution

At the launch of the government's 'National Digital Literacy Mission', Hon. Prime Minister Narendra Modi last Thursday said, ‘A digital revolution is about to begin.’ The statement has come not a day late, though the nation had the potential to drive such a revolution more  because it was never a part of the industrial revolution that swept the countries a long way back.

The dream of a 'digital' India when the common man is able to track the government's work from his mobile phone is eminently realisable with a nation on move, bright young minds at work, a robust infrastructure in place and commitment of the top to bank on.

Many years back as the IT expert for Maharashtra, I remember implementing the citizen facilitation centre where more than a hundred services were offered through a single window in the Kalyan – Dombivli Municipal Corporation. From the initial hiccups of accepting the change to a current replication across the municipalities, the journey has truly been making technology central to enabling change.

It is a fact that India has more mobiles than pass books which, be  as it may, also needs to change.

Are we really harnessing the mobile’s or other gadgets’ power as technology enablers is the moot question? Digital infrastructure as a utility to every citizen giving himself a digital identity with mobile phones as vehicles, a transparent and effective governance paradigm, citizen centric services available in real time - online and on mobile platforms, where financial transactions are made electronic and cashless are all great ideas eminently doable. Further digital repository of all relevant documents will truly empower citizens. All these services made available on a cloud would be the technical solution. Aadhar tweaked as a social security number, making available, user centric cutting edge applications has to be driven as a parallel activity. Needless to say, security of the cyber space assumes great significance.

National Digital Learning Mission hence essentially should look at education to drive and value added services to sustain. These two are looked at in two parts of this exposition. India is the world’s second largest country in terms of population – at 1.2 billion; it comes a very close second to China at 1.35 billion. This statistic indicates two important aspects – A: India doesn’t have a dearth of manpower, since there are nearly 27 births every second; and B:  somewhere the population explosion doesn’t equate the resources available or help the poor economy. 65 per cent of the population of India is in villages, hence a major portion of our Governmental decisions and resources are spent on ‘rural India’. Rural India has three important concerns today – all access is limited, resources are very few and far between and most importantly, the deep seated ideas are difficult to shake and mould. In such a situation, what comes handy always is sound education.

However, a new problem is being seen here. Villages, with limited access to resources like good teachers, infrastructure etc. pose a big concern to the level of literacy and education. Increasing poverty also doesn’t help the condition in any way- only makes it much worse. Child labour, primary school dropouts or no schooling at all are the problems being faced by children of these villages.
Even within the better connected cities, we have a problem of lack of cognitive skills. Cognitive psychologists study mental processes such as attention, language use, memory, perception, problem solving, creativity and thinking. Results should make the learning process better and also be a part of the digital literacy mission. A way to explain this situation is Pareto’s Principle- 80 per cent of the solution will come only if 20 per cent of the problem is rightly diagnosed. The widespread illiteracy can be countered only if simple solutions can be used for creating literacy pockets in every village.

Looking at all the available media and technology today, it is appalling to think we can’t do anything for these people. Technology in the world has grown leaps and bounds – and we can put that to use here as well. Digital technology can seamlessly transform even a small rice field into a classroom, in less than few minutes. In the days gone by, Gurukuls existed where children were sent to learn the way of life in terms of education and vocation. Creating a digital Gurukul today would work wonders – children won’t have to lose out on studies and they could also help their folks in their work- thus creating a perfect work life balance at an early age. Creating Wi-Fi belts in villages, using televisions, radio and computers as teaching aids, creating a new set of tech enthusiasts who could go all over setting these up could be one way of looking at it. Another is by transforming existing schools and other infrastructure to setup new avenues of learning. Cloud computing as referred earlier, would work in this case where all learning/teaching aids are put together in a cloud entity and can be accessed from practically anywhere in the world. Essential research in big data would open newer markets. Institutional edifices are changing and MOOCS like content will be made to order recipe here.

All this requires a lot of disposable time and energy, but more than anything, a dedicated work force more than ready to put in the hours to make this a success, is necessary. Necessity is the mother of invention – and our country needs necessary education. How we invent and innovate newer ways to share the knowledge far and wide is to be seen.

Today we are connected across the country with a single thread – mobile phones. A majority of Indian houses have completely bypassed the landline phones and have cell-phones and cell towers at their disposal, even in remote corners of the country. What is also surprising is the number of households with access to cable TV, which can work as a huge source of information broadcasting.
Hindustan Unilever (HUL) has started the famous, award-winning ‘Kan-Khajura Tesan’ campaign. All a person has to do is give a 'missed call' to the KKT number. HUL calls back and starts playing entertainment content comprising Bollywood music, RJ talk, jokes, sher-o-shairi, educative content (for example, Shabdkosh teaches the listener English words) and timely information (content to spread awareness regarding voting around election time, for instance).

If a caller hung up after say five minutes of listening, the next time he/she, will tune in, the entertainment would literally pick up where it left off the previous time- content would  start flowing from the sixth minute. Every week, a caller will have access to an 18 minute capsule of entertainment. Once exhausted, a fresh capsule can be availed in the following week. The caller is also given the option of listening to the previous week's capsule again. After sampling the content, if a caller fails to tune in again, HUL places a 'reminder call'. On being answered, KKT starts playing the content from where the caller left.  Users are given these reminder calls twice a week, for five weeks. If incoming calls from KKT go unanswered 10 times, HUL puts that number on a 'DND' list.

This was implemented in the media-dark geographies of UP and Bihar, and caught on very well. Taking on this particular case, if this capsule works in an FMCG company’s customer interaction, it will definitely work in terms of imparting education to the people in those geographies where taking these resources around is difficult. Most certainly such innovative ideas in education can be explored in better endowed villages as well. A very interesting implementation that can be done is by using the existing resources of buses and trucks that are cast away. Once these vehicles are suitably repaired and refurbished, if they’re road ready all they need to become is ‘Mobile Schools’. Data would be available on the cloud, and the vehicle needs to be Wi-Fi enabled to access that cloud-stored data. Replete with a screen, teaching / learning aids and ‘seats’ for the children, these vehicles can go to villages around the country – literally imparting knowledge on wheels. 

A teacher who travels with this bus would provide the handholding proving the proverbial perpetual force multiplier. The requirements for this setup are few – as steady infrastructure is not required – thus saving time and energy and making the most of all the available resources. Recognition of this learning through appropriate certification would solve the puzzle. Yes, the advantage is reaching all unreachable places and covering the value added services that I will enumerate in the second part thus giving meat to the digital revolution that the Hon PM spoke of. All these implementations use existing resources and not spend millions on acquiring new ones- based on a simple premise; our country is economically not as advanced as the others in the west. Thus building on a perfect Indian way of life, we have to make the most of what we have. As Indians, we have been doing this for centuries in every day and every way possible. This is the time to play on our strengths, and eliminating any last mile hiccups.

The author is Chairman, All India Council for Technical Education
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