Saturday, January 18, 2014

NPTEL: A Bold Initiative to Enhance the Quality of Indian Engineering Education

Engineering Education in India

Since the early 1990s, India has seen an explosion in the private provision of engineering education. This started in the southern states of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, but has now spread across the country. I am not sure what the exact number of seats is on offer, but some estimates point to more than a million. Any student who aspires to study in an engineering college today can do so. Even money is not a constraint with organizations like Foundation for Excellence (FFE) giving scholarships, and programmes like Udaan run by my friend Sanjay Jain trying to make sure that unfilled seats don’t go to waste (Disclosure: I am associated with FFE).

But, as is well known, this explosion in quantity has not been matched by quality. In its report of a decade ago, the UR Rao Committee on Engineering Education identified serious gaps in the availability of qualified faculty to teach in engineering courses. Those gaps remain unfilled. Even when faculty are available, they are often graduates from the same college who turn to teaching soon after they complete their course.

NPTEL: A Creative Solution

The rainbow in this cloudy picture is provided by the National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning (NPTEL), a government-sponsored initiative that was spearheaded by the older IITs and the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) starting in 1999. (Professor MS Ananth, former Director of IIT Madras, and one of the pioneers of NPTEL is in the picture below).

NPTEL has created videos of lectures by top professors at the IITs and IISc on a wide variety of engineering topics in tune with the curriculum of the largest technical universities in India like Anna University and Karnataka’s VTU. It is not as well known or glamorous as the Khan Academy, and was started on a modest budget of Rs. 15 crores. But, today it is a great resource for the serious student.

NPTEL has several important features. Firstly, all videos are made in broadcast quality, in professional studios. They are then converted into alternate formats such as MPEG and FLV. Each participating IIT has three studios. Secondly, there is wide availability and access. All content is streamed on Youtube and from a server at IIT Madras. If a college lacks adequate internet bandwidth, they can obtain the video lessons on CDs from the NPTEL office. Thirdly, all content is peer-reviewed and lessons follow a standard format agreed upon between the participating institutions. This ensures quality.

Over time, NPTEL covers basic engineering courses in all the engineering disciplines. Foundational science courses, and some courses in management are also a part of the course portfolio. Some specialized courses and postgraduate electives have also been included in the last few years. Courses in humanities and social sciences are the next frontier for NPTEL.

NPTEL’s Impact

The numbers are impressive. NPTEL covers 260 courses and has 18,000 videos. 1,000 colleges are using NPTEL videos in their curriculum in some form or the other. 1,200 faculty have been involved in creating content. There have been an estimated 100 million channel views.

According to Professor Ashok Jhunjhunwala of IIT Madras, a recent committee reviewing India’s National Institutes of Technology (NITs) has found that many of the toppers in the NITs use NPTEL. Clearly, the NPTEL resource is very valuable to the motivated student. However, the average student uses NPTEL for much shorter durations, as low as 1-2 hours. Another government-appointed committee on Quality Enhancement in Engineering Education is recommending that colleges use NPTEL content for about one-third of the class time, with the remaining time used by college faculty – this is to make sure that the college faculty does not feel disempowered (this is important – I remember hearing from some VTU faculty a few years ago that many faculty did not like using NPTEL content in their regular courses because it showed them in a bad light).

NPTEL: What next?

All the NPTEL material is now being transcribed and pdf files created so that students can refer to the material easily. This will also help the creation of subtitles to help students cope with the wide spectrum of accents used by Indian professors. NPTEL content is in English. There is demand for the content in local languages. This will enhance access and may increase student interest. Once the content transcription is completed, translation and dubbing will become easier to do, so that this need can be fulfilled.

NPTEL was created as a support for existing colleges, hence there is so far no independent certification based on using the NPTEL content. But with such a rich content base, independent certification for viewers who use the content and pass some prescribed tests is a distinct future option. MOOCs already offer this, though the number of participants who complete a course on a typical MOOC is less than 5%. (See my earlier post on MOOCs).

A third issue is pedagogy. NPTEL content is mainly in standard lecture format. It is not realtime. Some videos are of actual classroom content, but that still does not make it interactive for students viewing the video. Offline interaction exists for some of the courses – students can send questions and these are then answered by professors. Web-based courses are slated to start in February 2014.

But, it could be argued that NPTEL is not completely exploiting the power of the internet in terms of pedagogy. The fact that NPTEL is not “sticky” for the average student suggests that this is an important area for future work. I remember seeing a film on the Khan Academy which underlined that it made learning more interesting by making learning fun – this could be an important focus area for NPTEL in the future.

Other Government Initiatives

Credit has to be given to the IITs and the government for backing NPTEL. Buoyed by this success, the Government of India has impressive plans to improve the quality and access of higher education using Information and Communication Technology.

Under the NMEICT, government has approved Rs, 10,000 crores funding. One of the first goals of this effort is to provide 1GBPS connectivity to 400 universities and 10MBPS connectivity to 22,500 colleges (both public and private) across India. Virtual laboratories, remote access to laboratories in leading technical institutions, low-cost access devices (such as an enhanced version of Aakash), a DTH channel for every subject, a virtual technical open university, and a India-centric MOOCs platform are some of the new initiatives on the cards. As always, there are considerable implementation challenges, and legitimate questions can be raised as to how all this will be integrated together, but the government can’t be faulted for a lack of intent or aspiration.

(The information on NPTEL used in this blog is based on a presentation made by Dr. Mangala Sunderkrishnan, IIT Madras, at a meeting at MHRD. I am responsible for any errors. The views expressed here are the personal views of the author.)

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