Tuesday, July 13, 2010

National Knowledge Network

First up, on education matters Linky

Coming Soon to Universities in India: a High-Speed Data Network
Accessible only with a key code and fingerprint verification, the floor contains electronic equipment worth $22-million, including a giant video wall caged in heavy glass without a speck of dust in sight. This is the hub of the National Knowledge Network, which, when it is completed in December 2011, is expected to be the world's largest high-speed data communications. A $1.33-billion government project, the network will connect more than 1,500 universities and research institutions in India to foster collaborations and the sharing of ideas.

The network aims to offer a variety of benefits to to the country's higher-education system. The hope is to allow undergraduates at low-quality colleges access to lectures at top institutions, to share research papers and scientific journals, and to help scientists and students from across the country work together to solve problems, like how to provide food and health care to the growing population. With underground fiber-optic cables and above-ground wires crisscrossing the length and breadth of India, the network will cover almost 100,000 kilometers, or about 62,100 miles. When completed it will have data flowing at a speed of 10 gigabits per second, making it equal with many European and U.S. research universities.

A limited version of the network has been running since January 2009 and has so far connected 76 institutions and helped set up 48 virtual classrooms. Complementing the network is a separate effort costing $1-billion to provide computers to the 18,000 colleges across India, so they can be integrated with the National Knowledge Network. Today in India, except at the elite Indian Institutes of Technology and some top public and private engineering and management universities, most higher-education institutions don't even have functioning computers, except for maybe a few in their libraries.

The project is the brainchild of Sam Pitroda, who chaired India's National Knowledge Commission, which was set up in 2005 and ended in March with the purpose of advising the Indian government on how to improve the quality and infrastructure of secondary and higher education. "It sort of looked like a wild idea when I suggested it," says Mr. Pitroda, who is now the Indian prime minister's official adviser on infrastructure and innovation. "People said, 'Why spend all this money?' But I said, 'If you want to focus on knowledge, we need infrastructure and digital highways.' I think it is very important that we share knowledge so not just 50 people in a classroom of a good college benefit," he says. "We need to broadcast it to all students in some form, and finally when we explained this whole idea, people decided to back it up," he a says.

S.V. Raghavan, the person in charge of the project, is a veteran professor of the world-renowned Indian Institute of Technology in Chennai, and the program is being overseen by the National Informatics Centre, a government agency that focuses on information technology. "The National Knowledge Network is a game changer," says Mr. Raghavan, who is also the scientific secretary in the government's Office of the Principal Scientific Adviser. "It integrates India's higher education and research. If an institution in the northeast wants to collaborate with an institution in the south, it used to be that they had to find a way to do it themselves, which was difficult so there was no motivation to do it. Now if you provide them the infrastructure to do it they will use it," he says. The network will facilitate research collaborations that could solve many problems the country faces in areas like health, sustainable development, and the spread of technology, he adds. Mr. {Prof. would be a better appelation!} Raghavan says the network is working with India's state-owned telecommunications providers and their huge telecommunications infrastructure to make the ambitious project a reality. "This is the hidden treasure of the nation," Mr. Raghavan says about India's public telecommunications infrastructure. "In a large socialist democracy, state intervention is the best way to reach the masses."

The knowledge network will be a vast improvement over the technology now used at Indian universities, Mr. Raghavan says. "Scientific institutions have had linkages, but they've been suboptimal. Now we provide unparalleled optimization. An institute can ask for advice in the morning on a research issue or any other issue and can get the answer at the latest by the evening," Mr. Raghavan says. The network has already helped with the shortage of faculty members in India's eight new Indian Institutes of Technology, which were started in 2008 and 2009. Even before the new institutes opened, the seven older ones suffered from a dearth of professors, and the expansion was criticized by many for that.
For example, the network has assisted India's ability to contribute to research efforts with the Large Hadron Collider, the giant particle accelerator in Europe. Indian scientists are studying data generated by the collider, and the network has helped them receive and process that data. The senior official with the informatics center says Canadian and American universities too are "all excited to be able to connect to Indian institutions," in part because of the network's capabilities. For their part, Mr. Raghavan and Mr. Pitroda envision almost limitless possibilities thanks to the network—the discovery of life-saving drugs, new entrepreneurial ventures, and more. "Welcome to life at 10 gigabits per second," says Mr. Raghavan.

I have a few comments to make having been a minor cog in the system for a brief period and still closely associated with it in some sense. There are giant dreams, and there are people who eff it up. An example from my days, distant as they are now. IITM in those days used to be one of those select few hangout spots in India where IEEE journals and magazines (at least a decent bunch of them) would arrive with surprising regularity. What is more is that the IITs boasted a huge stock of archival material from the mid-50s and up (sometimes even going back to the 20s). The xerox facility in the fifth floor of what used to be then the Central Library (now demolished!) would overflow with xerox orders going all the way from the ground up to six feet high. In fact, I spent a good six sleepless months roaming around the CL discovering and rediscovering various ins and outs of the crystal maze that was CL. Yet there have been more than quite a few times when I have missed out on some papers, all because the person who needed that before me was brave enough to tear it and run off rather than make a xerox order.

While this may seem like an isolated example, I can cite many other. Internets was provided in the hostel campuses hoping that kids would use them to learn more about life, and who they are. I have spent two cherished summers in the then nascent ernet askjeeving and yahooing away to glory. Education, it was, for me. Research, it was, for me on mundane topics from Mongolian history to ramapithecus. Yet I hear about video game slam-a-thons, porn rings, etc. today. Not like they should not be around, not like they were nt there then. We used to have sify chat marathoners even then. But there was (in some broad sense) a cap on stupidity which one would expect from what is richly yakked about to be the creme de la creme. There seems to be a loss of such an innocence as the system evolves(d). This National Knowledge Network will meet the same fate. That is how social networks (howsoever the social part is downsided) evolve.

Plus, India seems to be hurtling from one shortcut to another. Providing basic educational facilities to rural India seems to be too much to ask from the MHRD, despite the goodwill of Shri Kapil Sibal. Why is the onus on the states get any selected tidbits from the big yakkers such as Yindia decides, the big fat ugly debate, etc.? Instead of expanding the pie, the policy seems to be to share it. Surely, I am an impatient uncouth with no sense of reality and on-the-ground grasp of matters. But why is there no "do or die" attitude in either the states or MHRD? The case of reservation is just another patchwork in this mess called shortcut-tism that is India, so there is no point hitting the reservation/quota game without actually tackling the evil elephant inside India: India's lethargy, lackadaisical attitude and plain callousness to a cherished destiny. I captured this crappy attitude a few years back:

Yet India is India, oblivious to its heroes, oblivious to its enemies, oblivious to calamities, catastrophes or cataclysms, surviving day-by-day, hour-by-hour at times, until a new hero arises to save us from the deep throes of revolution and war, only to be quickly forgotten in the chalta-hai attitude of the teeming masses that follows predictably. Blame them, at our own peril, for they have far better things in life to do like feeding themselves once a day or more, if possible; getting an education worthy of its name, if possible; getting a life worthy of its value, if possible, and more. Despite all that, silently, unannounced, unnoticed, change is a-happening. Unlike the loud mouthed neighbors to our north, change is a-happening here, at an Indic pace -- permanent, unblemishemed in terms of purpose, unruffled by might or right, untethered to boundaries, and unforgiving in direction. Not for nothing do they call the elephant, the real king of the jungle.



At July 13, 2010 at 5:50 AM , Anonymous Al said...

" Instead of expanding the pie, the policy seems to be to share it. Surely, I am an impatient uncouth with no sense of reality and on-the-ground grasp of matters. But why is there no "do or die" attitude in either the states or MHRD? "

That is exactly right, if the government was doing things right, we would see a push for lower school education and teachers and that push would gradually envelope higher classes until the entire low-mid-high school system is robust enough to feed the universities with qualified and competent students. Instead, the assholes want to solve the "quota/reservation" problem before they solve the problem of producing ENOUGH QUALIFIED AND COMPETENT PEOPLE TO IMPLEMENT ALL OF INDIA'S GRAND PLANS.

The assholes that run the country have no intention of actually educating the public as an informed public is not in their best interest. Instead they spend a lot of money networking institutions and people, when these same institutions, when left to themselves show no promise or enterprise..and a high-speed network is suddenly going to change things. why not?


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