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Monday, July 30, 2001

HTML replaces chalk and blackboard in IIT
Frederick Noronha

INNOVATION is helping educators from across the globe to try out new solutions for old problems. ICTs (information and communication technologies) are helping to make classrooms more interesting, and concepts easier to convey.

From UK to India, from software to microcomputers, many experiments are underway in the classroom. This was reported in a recent international conference held at Goa, called ICSTME 2001. It focuses on harnessing science, technology and mathematics education for human development.

Science Across the World is one innovative example. It is being called an ‘international education programme’ that encourages communication and ‘shared learning’. It links up different societies to look at crucial environmental and social science issues.

In this project, students use a unique series of resource topics like Keeping Healthy, Drinking Water, biodiversity, and Chemistry in Our Lives— in up to 18 languages. Students collect data, facts and opinions locally.


Some 6000 schools have been registered with Science Across the World over the past three years. (www.scienceacross.org). On an average, 1,500 schools with over 2,000 teachers and 74,000 students, aged 12 to 16 in some 45 countries, work with its material at any given time, according to Marianne Cutler of the Hatfield-UK based Association for Science Education.

On the other hand, computer-based lessons, or CBL, can help to centre education on learner-activity, argues S.S.Kalbag of the Pune-based Vigyan Ashram. Kalbag says other advantages of computer-based lessons include savings in time and money, eliminating differences between formal and non-formal, rich and poor, and urban and rural in matters of quality of education.

"India needs to rapidly expand our education network to cover nearly 25 per cent of the population. We shall need a minimum of 1.5 million computers. And these will have to be financed by the community, on the basis of minimum results assured. The dropout rate must reduce. The consequent savings will make the scheme self-propelled," argues Kalbag.

Researchers Shakila Thakurpersad and Reshma Sookrajh from South African’s University of Durban-Westville, point to the role of education in learning. They quote scholars who note that the World Wide Web is "one of the most effective information and communication technology (ICT) to provide an integrated open system of learning". There is a growing trend to use WWW technologies in education.

Mumbai-based Sangeeta Deokattey, of the Indian Women Scientists’ Association, has undertaken an effort to select the Internet sites and "find out their potential usefulness" in an Indian context. She points to her findings for searches on three subject areas— primary health, primary education and appropriate technology.

As Deokattey points out: "Educational resources—in the form of textbooks, tool kits, posters, audio-visual presentations, etc— are in constant demand by adult education and health workers. Tapping the web potential to supplement existing resources will be a viable alternative."

"Of all the subjects taught at schools and college level, mathematics offers probably the most scope for using technology," says Douglas Butler of the ICT Training Centre in Peterborough, UK. He explains how new software and hardware "can combine to give teachers a wonderful new medium with which to visualise the basic principles and to improve their personal productivity".

Butler says there is a ‘rich source’ of software types in mathematics—including spreadsheets, symbolic algebra and dynamic geometry packages. Autograph is a new dynamic coordinate geometry and statistics package.

Butler also points out that teachers can use the Internet at two levels. Firstly, using the Net to provide "high quality" teaching resources, graphics, text and data that can be copied off the Net. But take care: doing this well can be tricky sometimes! Then, using Web sites in the classroom... there are a growing number of web resources that "provide good interactive visualisations".

Technology is also entering the Indian classroom, even if only at the elite level. For several years, first year Mathematics students of the IIT B.Tech course in Mumbai were taught using traditional chalkboard methods. Each class had 80 students in a division. But, now larger divisions take in about 250 students.

This means, the chalkboard is no longer useful. Instead, instructional material is being created beforehand, converted into HTML (Web page) format, and put out on the Web, explains Sudhir Ghorpade of IIT-Mumbai.

In class, the instructor uses projections onto a large screen from the relevant Web page. He teaches with a remote mouse in his hand instead of chalk. This brings up the question: should modern technology alter the approach and content in teaching ‘classical’ subjects like Algebra and Calculus?

Pratibha Jolly and Mallika Verma of the University of Delhi explain the Science On-Line concept. This uses a low-cost microcomputer based Physics laboratory as a teaching aid.

"Its objective is to provide hands-on exposure to the tremendous potential of the micro-computer as a versatile laboratory instrument for real-time capture of data and control of real-world devices," they say.

For instance, the printer-port—which is a part of each microcomputer—can be used without extra cost to get a powerful interface for data-acquisition and the control of real-world devices.

The SOL package has a multifunction printer-port interface for generating time-varying voltage signals and measuring up to eight analog voltage signals, digital input/output application modules, a range of sensors and transducers and menu-driven software designed specially for classroom usage.

This can be used to design and set up simple innovative experiments of direct relevance to a physics classroom. For instance, measurement of displacement-time graph of a moving object; velocity of a dynamic cart; acceleration of a falling body due to gravity; oscillations of a pendulum; angular frequency of a rotating disk; variations of temperature along a conducting bar; and resonance frequencies of an acoustic tube.

Researchers like Abhiram Ranade of the IIT-Mumbai are working to develop an Internet-based textbook for the Maharashtra Board’s matric standard mathematics paper. They want the textbook to be interactive, have good and attractive graphics, and contain "substantially more motivational material" than current textbooks. These books are being planned so that they are available both in Marathi and English, and to students who are bright as well as "supposedly less-proficient" in mathematics.

Less hi-tech ideas are also spurring on educators to new approaches.

Navnirmiti, based alongside Mumbai’s IIT, also undertakes the useful task of designing and producing scientific toys and low-cast learning material. For instance, its three-dimension ‘Jodo’ kits allow young students to experiment and easily construct a wide variety of polyhedra.

In Assam, the Society for Chemical Education (established 1990) aims to popularise chemistry among the masses. It set up its branches in various towns of Assam, and highlighted the beneficial and harmful effects of chemical substances on the living world.

In nearby Kerala, science is being popularised through more down-to-earth means. For instance, the people’s science movement ‘Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad’ publishes magazines. These are aimed at the general public (Sastragathi), high school students (Sastrakeralam) and primary school students (Eureka). These have a circulation of some 100,000 copies!

Roddam Narasimha of the Bangalore-based National Institute of Advanced Studies stresses the need to change approaches to education, if a country like India is to make qualitative strides.

Says Narasimha: "The system now in use in India, largely inherited from colonial times and copied from early 20th century British models, is unsuitable for the needs of a very diverse and rapidly transforming India." This country, it is pointed out, has to be distinguished from the more homogenous nation states of nineteenth and 20th century Europe.