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Monday, April 23, 2001

Pits in Panjab University’s drive down IT highway
By Pardeep Dhull

THE dream of Panjab University to speed down the information highway, that began a couple of years ago, seems to have met only with potholes interspersed with patches of clear stretches.

While several science departments do seem to have made headway on their own, others are still trying to grapple with the fund and technology problem. A large part of the student body as well as faculty are not into using computers for a lack of either infrastructure or skill. Nobody seems to know what exactly is the level of infrastructure available and, as such, each department walks alone.

The process of computerisation in the leading university of the North started in 1998 with the aim of "keeping in step with modern technology." At present, the university is wired with the help of an ATM network through a fibre-optic backbone cable. This backbone connects 19 buildings of the campus to the Department of Computer Science and Applications (DCSA), which is the "hub" of the network. The DCSA has a 64 kbps leased line for Internet access that is distributed among the users on the campus. Each department has been provided with Internet outlets (IO), or Internet boxes, into which they can plug in and have "high-speed" access.


So far so good, but the problem begins hereafter. One generally accepted fact is that there is a desperate shortage of computer terminals for students’ use. The PCs kept for general use are crowded, while a few are maintained for exclusive use by teachers that, however, can be accessed on request. This ensures that MA-level students only dream of the Net while research students are at times able to realise that dream.

A senior teacher informed that the university had provided only the basic infrastructure. The responsibility of purchasing computers lay with the departments themselves. Due to the continuous fund problem, not many departments have been able to set up computer labs.

Among the departments that have done well for themselves are Computer Science and Applications, Chemical Engineering, Physics, Chemistry, Maths, Statistics, Pharmaceuticals and the University Business School. In these departments students have good access for research, while the facility eludes most of the social sciences students.

Also, there is a lack of optimisation of the facility that is available. Students want that teachers and old scholars who have done research on the Net should make a pool of the resources and sites that have relevant information. This would enable students to use the limited time and access that they have to maximum effect. There is a lack of coordination and guidance, they complain. As most research is cross-disciplinary, students also want that there should be central place that should have information on the resources that have been tapped for the large number of researches done by students and teachers.

A student of the UBS says while research work of PU teachers is published on sites that have nothing to do with the university, they have no information on which are these sites. They come upon them accidentally, only to realise that the work could have been available to them had the university put up a common site this purpose. The departments could have their own sites too, so that students could get to know of all the valuable data and information that has been generated till date by the university’s own faculties.

However, there are six departments that have made a beginning in this direction, though they have as yet only put out basic information on the faculty, syllabi, etc.

The university library, which boasts of 21 computers, actually provides only one terminal for Internet access. Two computers are, however, put to the good use of accessing the online catalogue of books in the library. (Of the total 6.5 lakh books, about 4.25 lakh have been catalogued.) The rest of the computers are for use in offices behind the walls, essentially for data entry. The library also has a telnet facility through which departments can access its data, however, this does not have many takers.

On the general surfing standard, students have the same complaint as the rest of the country—slow download. DCSA Chairman R. K. Singla, admitting the fact, said at present the connection was through a 64 kbps line. A sub-committee formed by the Vice-Chancellor had cleared upgrading to 256 kbps.

In the absence of better facilities, students depend on a private cyber-café housed in the library building. They pay Rs 20 per hour for Internet access. The queue to get a seat here can, at times, get dauntingly long as there are only four terminals. The access here is through dial-up connections. There is a cry for expanding this service too.

A general talk with students reveals that the blame for low IT-penetration on the campus lies with them, too. Even the students who do use the Internet, do it is mostly for e-mail and chatting. Only very few students, particularly of science departments, use their time on the Net for subject-related browsing. Though, on the brighter side, there are a few students who have even found jobs using the Net and gone abroad.

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