(Reproduced from an article in the Hindu of the 12th. October, 1999)
(Courtesy : The Hindu)

    It is a stark reality that even after 50 years of Independence, India has been unable establish a educational system that can reach the millions who live in abject poverty, and give them the basic education and skills that will enable them to lead lives of fulfilment. This is, firstly, because the prevailing bureaucratic or institutional approach to education is so expensive, wasteful and unproductive, that it's reach, content and quality have been severely limited. Secondly, there has been a failure to seriously explore alternative, pragmatic and productive solutions. It is clear that any solution must prima facie, rest on a methodology that enables :
(a) reaching huge numbers spread over vast areas ;
(b) accomplishing this at low cost; and
(c) using local languages as the medium of instruction.

    One such solution has been formulated as a unique Social Engineering Project and jointly implemented by the Indian Institute of Technology, Chennai, and Vidya Vrikshah, a Voluntary Social Service Organisation based in Chennai. The Project methodology rests on two components, the first, an Information Technology solution, and the second, an Implementation Approach based on Community Participation.

    The Information Technology solution is comprised of a Software Package developed by the Indian Institute of Technology, Chennai, that enables a computer to accept input and display, speak and print output in any Indian language, in addition to English. The output can be in ink or Braille, the latter being standard Bharati Braille or standard English Braille.

    The Package enables easy computer usage by the sighted and the blind alike, and is offered free of cost by the IIT. The Implementation Approach puts the basic educational process back into the hands of the Community, to be handled on a self-help basis. It has been developed as a working model by Vidya Vrikshah, a Voluntary Social Service Organisation, based in Chennai. It consists in providing Training in the use of the above Software Package, free of cost, to batches of Volunteer Trainers and creating through them, by a multiplier effect, the large numbers of Trainers needed to bring computer skills and education to the needy, blind and sighted alike, in the local languages, free of cost, close to where they live, in all parts of the country.

    Many Volunteers, so trained, may have their own computers and may be able to run the training activity in their own homes, entirely on their own resources. Many however, may not have such resources and these will have to be provided through common resource centres to be organised by committed individuals, citizen groups and institutions of the community. Perhaps in due course, the resource centres could also be funded by Government, taking care, of course, not to impose needless bureaucratic or other institutional overheads and controls. A Computer system that would be adequate for this activity would today cost not more than Rs 35000/- . The likelihood is that this cost may come down dramatically in coming years and come within easy reach of every home.
This happened not long ago in respect of the electronic Calculator, and is now happening in respect of TV. But even the level of cost obtaining today can be seen as economically viable when worked out on a shared, per beneficiary basis. Assuming that a Volunteer Trainer can train 100 persons (many of whom could be visually impaired) in a year, and assuming a life cycle of five years for a computer, the cost of training one person, inclusive of running expenses, would work out to not more than Rs 100. Such a pro rata cost of imparting education and skill should obviously be considered worthwhile, and quite certainly, be within easy reach of the Community or the Government All that is needed is to discover and establish an implementation methodology that is reliable and practical.

    Each Volunteer who has been so trained and has access to such computer resources, may offer his or her services free of cost, on a full-time, part-time or spare-time basis. These Volunteers will thus constitute what is visualised as a system of Volunteer Teachers, extending across the country. It would be a system without expense or unproductive elements like salaries, service conditions, or an overseeing bureaucracy. Such indeed was the traditional education system of ancient India, where single scholars and craftsmen, working in their homes and ashramas, attained extraordinary levels of knowledge and skills in all sciences, arts and crafts and imparted them free of cost to anyone who came to them seeking such instruction. The strengths of ancient India lay in individuals in the community, not in any bureaucratic or institutional super-structures.

    These resources are to be found even today in the willingness and motivation of members of the community, especially students, housewives and senior citizens, to contribute in terms of voluntary free service and other resources. Vidya Vrikshah today has over 60 such Volunteers, as an example of how these resources are just
waiting to be tapped.

    What will these new Volunteer Teachers of tomorrow teach and how ?. Their starting point would remain the traditional three R's, except that these would be taught through the fourth R of modern times, viz. the ComputeR. A lot of misconception and misapprehension prevails today, where many simply assume that the computer is
an advanced tool and the illiterate cannot start the learning process on a computer. But the truth is that today computer usage has become so simplified that an illiterate can learn how to use it as easily as he would learn how to weave a mat, or ride a cycle, or use a telephone. The alphabet, numerals and other symbols of a language,
and the onward steps of reading, writing and arithmetic, can be interactively learnt on a computer far more speedily and effectively on a computer than with blackboard and chalk or paper and pencil alone. This is already being convincingly demonstrated today in many primary schools. Such a start will enable the illiterate of India to
leapfrog into a new style and level of literacy, relevant to the 21st.Century.

    The more far-reaching result is that having so acquired knowledge of the three R's, it will then become possible to use the proficiency acquired in the fourth R, further and with far greater speed and effect, for education and training in other subjects and skills, which will finally lead to different types and levels of productive employment. Subject content of educational and training material is already extensively available, though largely in the English medium, but it will be a simple matter, using the Software Package to create electronic versions of such material in all the Indian languages. With the Computer itself enabling a powerful, inter-active, self-learning process appropriate to any level of learning in any subject or skill, the Volunteer Teacher does not have to be a qualified teacher. Thus anyone from the Community with a modicum of general education can function as a Volunteer Teacher. Indeed as already stated, school and college students can easily take this role, which will incidentally provide for them, an enriching experience.

    The Volunteer Teacher will serve both the sighted and the blind without distinction, because, as already stated , this is made possible by the Software Package through both video output and audio output of the computer in all Indian languages. This Package will enable entry of fresh text or review of text entered earlier, structured as lessons or exercises. Students can have lessons read to them by the Computer, or take away lessons, as ink print-outs. The lessons can also stored on floppy disks, which can be reviewed later through other computers, or can be taken by the visually handicapped, to local Braille Printing Service Centres that are envisaged, to obtain Braille embossed outputs, for later study or reference.

    It is also envisaged that the software will be given free to the blind who are trained in it's use, for their use in institutions where they may be engaged in studies or where they may get employment in jobs that involve computer usage. It is also envisaged that new educational and employment opportunities for the sighted and blind alike, will rapidly proliferate in the rural areas, once computer usage in the local languages becomes widely established.

    It is important to recognise that the Information Technology solution on which this approach rests, has even greater relevance to extending the reach and enhancing the quality and content of the formal education system and making it more effective and productive. This IT solution can indeed be taken to the regular schools and literacy
centres in every part of the country, directly, or through Communication networks, of which the Internet is an outstanding example.. High quality programmes designed by central teams of experts, to impart literacy, education and skills are already appearing on the national radio and television networks and on the Internet.

    The Software Package from the IIT Madras makes it possible not only to prepare these programmes in all the Indian languages, but also in HTML formats suitable for dissemination on the Internet. New powerful and inexpensive solutions are emerging from a dramatic convergence of computer and communication technologies and capabilities. This which will enable such programmes to reach classrooms and homes throughout the country through television and cable networks connected through set-top boxes, to conventional TV sets, These new developments can bring education of phenomenal quality and value throughout the country at very low cost. Till such a formal education system with a truly national reach, in the sense of reaching everyone, especially the socially and physically disadvantaged, in every home and school of the country, is established, the Volunteer Teachers will have to fill the gap, and perhaps continue even thereafter as an important complementary community-based resource.

    Even today there is a lot of misconception and misapprehension in respect of the role of computers in the educational process. A common view is that it will weaken the faculty of memory and the process of reasoning and the analogy is often given of the electronic calculator's displacement of the traditional skills of mental calculation. But this is an extremely narrow view. It is obvious that in an environment of accumulation of phenomenal volumes of information of mixed value, a capability of selective and instantaneous retrieval of what is important and relevant is becoming increasingly critical to the optimal use of time and of the faculties of memory and reasoning, in activities related to the advancement of knowledge. As long as the focus of the educational process remains on the primacy of the faculties of memory, reasoning and knowledge, and aids are strictly kept in their place as aids and no more, there is no reason for any anxiety. Computers have not, by any stretch of imagination, hindered human creativity and advances of knowledge

    As of 01-11-1999, a total of nearly 50 Trainers have been trained at Vidya Vrikshah. These include participants from Tamil Nadu, Andhra, Kerala, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, and Madhya Pradesh. The Software is extremely simple in it's operation. The ASCII keyboard is used and character mapping on the keyboard is phonetic and is therefore uniform across all Indian languages. The experience at Vidya Vrikshah has established that a person even without any background knowledge of computers can be trained as a Trainer in four days, which is the duration adopted for it's Training Course.

    The Software Package is essentially an Editor Programme and is available in three Versions : a DOS version, a Windows-95, and an Enhanced Windows-95 version.. All the versions enable creation of text files in any Indian language, as also in English. Languages can be mixed in input, within a file, and even within the same text line.
The enhancement in the third version is that it is speech enabled for use by the visually handicapped in most Indian languages and also English, with options for speech echo letter by letter, word by word, line by line, or of a whole file. Pitch and speed of speech can be adjusted. The DOS version is carried on a single Floppy Disk and can work
even on a PC-XT. The Win-95 version is carried on two Floppy Disk and can work even on an entry level OC-486. The Enhanced Win-95 requires 50 MB of Hard Disk storage for the Package, and will work on a Pentium with a speed of 133 MHz of over, with RAM of 32 MB or over, together with a sound card and speakers.

    A phonetic code design makes it possible for the Package to be extended virtually to any language. The DOS version supports Devanagari (for Hindi and Sanskrit), Gujarati, Bengali, Assamese, Oriya, Punjabi, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada, Grantha, Greek, Hebrew, Japanese and IPA. (The last item is the standard International Phonetic Alphabet for diacritised English representation of non-English text). For want of acceptable fonts, some of the above languages are not yet supported in the Windows versions. Support for the Urdu script is expected shortly. All three versions follow a uniform file format, making the files transportable between all the versions.

    Utilities are available to convert an ASCII file to the file formats used by these versions of the Language Editor. Utilities are also available for adopting other popular keyboard layouts and for conversion to or from ISCI file formats used by other Editor Packages. Finally, it must be noted that this Software Package forms part of a continuing commitment of the IIT Madras to the cause of multi-lingual communicaion, literacy and education in the country. Though today, it's synthesised speech output of the Enhanced Windows Version is monotone, it is clear enough and has been hailed as a new dawn by the blind of different language groups in the country, who do not know English. Work continues on improving the speech quality by adding the inflections and overtones that will make it closer to natural speech.

    In due course it will also become possible, for people to speak to or give instructions to the computer in the Indian languages. Web sites and web browsers for Indian language content, online multi-lingual dictionaries, automated language translators, local language interfaces to business applications, programming in Indian languages etc are all in the pipe line. The great hope for India is that a national educational institution of eminence
like the IIT Madras is committed to the fulfilment of this national vision, as repayment of a social debt through thr free spread of learning in the highest of Indian tradition. This vision is as important to the sighted as to the blind, especially those constitutiing the rural masses of India who live below the poverty line.