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Media, Education and Development

July 7, 2009

I deem it an honour and a privilege to deliver the Prof. G. Ram Reddy Memorial lecture, and I am grateful to the Vice Chancellor and IGNOU for inviting me to do so. It is, personally, a special event as it renews my association with Prof. Ram Reddy, whom I knew for many years. What first brought us together was his pioneering work in distance education and particularly his interest in the use of media and technology for distance learning, as part of his deep commitment to education. I recall many a discussion in the early stages of the formation of IGNOU and his vision about what it would be. He was a great enthusiast for the use of technology to extend the reach of education, and played an important part in realizing and taking further Prof. Yash Pal’s brainchild: the network of media centres that create content for the Countrywide Classroom and train media professionals. This was overseen by the Consortium for Educational Communication, which I headed for a few years, with Prof. Ram Reddy chairing its Board. His vision is, even today, a beacon to guide us.

Over the last few years, advances in information and communication technologies (ICT) have resulted in the creation of “new media”. Television has progressed: its modes of delivery were conventional terrestrial, analogue and digital cable, and satellite, but now include IPTV and wireless for mobile reception. U-tube, social networks like Facebook, Twitter, pod-casts, and blogs have transformed interaction and communication. Radio, which seemed to be dying in India, has been re-born through FM – thanks in part to traffic jams that result in many hours of being car-bound. Its chatty, interactive, “younger” programmes have, undoubtedly, helped. E-mails, blogs and instant messaging continue to grow rapidly as means of communication.

These new media – growing rapidly, and finding special favour with the young – along with their more conventional predecessors, present an extraordinary opportunity for use in the fields of education and development. In many ways this is reminiscent of the 1980s, when a rapidly expanding TV network, spurred and complemented by satellite TV, opened up exciting new possibilities. While this triggered many new initiatives, their promise was only partially fulfilled. In many ways, this has been the story of media usage for social purposes: “partial success” may be the most apt summary.

It was about half a century ago that television first came to India, with one TV-station in Delhi – the only one, for many years. Its potential use in education was immediately recognized, and programmes for schools were begun. A few years later (in 1967), the Krishi Darshan programme for farmers was initiated. The brainchild of Dr. Vikram Sarabhai and Dr. M. S. Swaminathan, this was the pilot for the extremely ambitious plans for nation-wide satellite-based TV coverage. Krishi Darshan was not just aimed at increasing farm yields; it also had social ramifications because of the “community set” installed in each village, resulting in a congregation of viewers that cut across caste, class, gender and age. An independent evaluation proved the impact that TV programmes could have, and strengthened the case for expansion of TV. From a luxury that a poor country could ill-afford, TV got recognition as an investment that could contribute to economic growth and social change. Krishi Darshan – much reviled in later years as the epitome of “boring” programmes (especially by the growing middle-class urban elite) – was, thus, the genesis of developmental TV in India.

The success of Krishi Darshan gave an impetus to plans for a national TV system, using a satellite to reach rural and remote areas. Such a large-scale programme would be complex and require very large investments, besides posing technological challenges. To test and prove the technologies involved, and to understand better the overall system, a one year pilot project was undertaken in 1975–76. This pilot, the Satellite Instructional TV Experiment (SITE), was described by Arthur Clarke as “the most ambitious communication experiment in history“. It used a US satellite, the first of its kind, to beam TV signals directly to augmented TV sets in 2400 villages spread across the country. The technology, precursor to today’s direct-to-home or DTH, was path-breaking and particularly relevant to a country like India, with a large area, dispersed villages and almost no terrestrial TV infrastructure.

SITE combined educational and development content, with science programmes for primary school children; agriculture, health and other development programmes for adults; and a large-scale teacher-training programme. It took forward the Krishi Darshan model of community TV sets (mostly installed in schools), and created an extra-ordinarily efficient system of maintenance. The education programmes developed the concept of production by a team comprising a content-expert (generally a teacher), a communication researcher and a producer. Also distinctive about SITE was the emphasis on communications research, and the amount of time, effort and resources devoted to it. Audience profiles, needs assessment, pre-testing of programmes, feedback and summative/impact evaluation were all done, using a large team of social scientists. In many ways, this was the result of acknowledging that urban-based TV producers and programme planners did not know enough about the rural audience that they were addressing. However, it was also part of a “scientific” methodology of creating content on the basis of hard data and testing it before transmission.

In parallel with SITE, an intensive, limited coverage experiment was initiated in Kheda district of Gujarat. The Kheda Communications Project – which continued for many years after the end of SITE in 1976 – concentrated on development (rather than education) and particularly on social change. With deep local involvement, including audience-created programmes, it was India’s first “local TV” or “community TV” and marked a radical leap in the use of TV as a tool for empowerment of the disadvantaged. There are few – if any – examples anywhere in the world of the use of TV in such a powerful manner, or the systematic attempt to utilize TV to further development goals by breaking down the oppressive social and structural barriers.

Six years after SITE, India’s own satellite, INSAT, helped create the nation-wide satellite-based TV network of which SITE had been the limited pilot. UGC, in partnership with ISRO, launched Countrywide Classroom – enrichment TV programmes for university level students and others – using the INSAT system. This was, at the time, a bit of a leap of faith, for there were neither dedicated studios for it nor a large team of dedicated staff. A small and very committed team sourced programmes – buying and borrowing from various organizations in India and abroad – and went on air. The strategy of “seeding the market” and also blocking a time-slot on air (thereby pre-empting commercial or trivial uses of air-time) worked , and UGC was able to retain an important time-slot for Countrywide Classroom for many years. While many felt that the programmes were dull and lacked slick packaging, almost everyone greatly appreciated the content. At its peak, it had a substantial audience, though a majority was interested general viewers and not students. Apart from logistic problems about convenience of time and availability of TV sets in the college classrooms, the “beyond the text-book, outside the classroom” philosophy and the trans-disciplinary nature of the programmes were not attractive to the majority of students who focused on academic performance and grades.

These efforts did, however, have a considerable impact on the distance education community, and the use of media – especially television – for distance learning began to accelerate. Amongst the pioneers leading this transition from correspondence courses to multi-media based distance learning was Prof. Ram Reddy. As a result, IGNOU today is globally recognized not only for its size and the breadth of its courses, but also for its delivery of content – including its work through dedicated TV and radio channels.

Considerable work has continued in the area of use of TV for education and development. ISRO has led much of this, in partnership with various user organizations. Edusat and Training and Development channels are functioning, as is Gramsat. In schools, both the TV component and (in a more limited manner) early initiatives on the use of computers have been taken forward.

Meanwhile, the media scene has witnessed rapid evolution. From a choice of one or two TV channels, viewers can today select from – literally – hundreds. The range of languages, format, content and genre is all-encompassing. The technical and production quality, packaging, special effects and animation are all of extremely high standards. Of course, all of it is market-driven, and commercial interests pre-dominate. Public service broadcasting is rare and, barring the specifically educational channels, education and development programmes are few and far between.

The proliferation of channels and increasing segmentation of audience has marginalized channels that focus on education and development. They are often not carried at all by cable networks or are carried in bands (frequencies) that cannot be received on all TV sets. The evolution of the industry has led to the concept of “carriage fees”, where channels pay the cable operator for being carried. This cost has made it difficult for education and development channels to reach large audiences. The present system clearly puts at a disadvantage channels that have small viewership or are specialized. Though its reach is yet very limited, as compared with cable, DTH does offer a positive option. Soon, IPTV and wireless broadband will be here on scale. Clearly, looking ahead, signal carriage – taking the programme to interested audiences – is going to be a decreasing problem.

As we begin to prepare for the future, it would be well to look back and introspect. What, then, are the lessons that can be drawn from five decades of media experience and what are the portents for the future? One key element is access. This is constrained most often, especially in the case of television and computers, by affordability. However, access is often limited by time, location and comprehensibility (including language, idiom and level of content). Storage media, time-shifting capability, audio/video on demand and other technologies have effectively nullified the time problem, making possible anywhere, anytime, any device reception of audio, video and data. While this does take care, technologically, of the time and location issues, there are pedagogic factors that need to be kept in mind. A great deal of learning depends upon teacher-student and peer interaction. Technology does provide solutions for this too – through various forms of connectivity – but this need for interaction emphasizes the desirability (if not necessity) of “contact” sessions. Complete courses (or modules on agricultural/health practices) can be taught through distance learning, but real learning and optimum outcomes would require a degree of real (as opposed to virtual) interaction. It is important – even though obvious – to note that access to education often depends upon reach. There are many towns with no colleges and many villages without secondary school. If the concept of “reach” also subsumes quality, then there is a more serious problem. Technology, through media, provides a solution – not necessarily a substitute, but a possible solution, nevertheless.

Since affordability (at individual/household level) is likely to be an issue for many years yet, especially for the disadvantaged in both rural and urban settings, the proven method of installing community TV sets needs to be adopted, with appropriate maintenance back-up. The Common Service Centres being set up for computer access need to be extended to cover all villages as soon as possible. Power supply is a serious problem, especially in rural areas, and needs serious attention from both R & D and operational viewpoints.

TV sets and Internet-connected computers in schools and colleges are absolutely essential. A major programme to ensure their availability (including Net connectivity for computers) must be launched – beginning with all colleges and secondary schools, and extending to all primary schools in the shortest possible time. Today, these learning tools are as essential as blackboards and buildings, or laboratories for science.

All the hardware will, however, mean little unless there is appropriate content. Comprehensibility and relevance of content are key parameters. As noted earlier, both language and idiom are important; so is the right level of difficulty/ease of understanding, relative to the desired audience segment. The amount and depth of content, as also its pace of delivery, will determine both comprehension and interest. Attractive packaging of the content and use of appropriate and creative formats and techniques (documentary, drama, lecture; animation, graphics, slow-motion, etc) can enhance interest and learning. Getting viewers to see the programme, and to then stay with it, is essential. After all, one click of the remote is all it takes to move on! In the competitive arena of multi-channel availability and the viewers exposure to slick productions, education and development content can no longer afford to be dull, staid and boring. This certainly means far greater resources and more imaginative handling in content creation.

The production process (of creating content) needs to be re-engineered. The SITE model of an inter-disciplinary team is worth emulating, even in today’s environment. The aesthetic, pedagogic and communication disciplines must come together to create truly exceptional content that is attractive, relevant, learning-orientated and audience-friendly. Now, more than before, content is king.

Amongst the most important lessons from the decades of experience of social communication is the critical importance of an overall system view and of a system manager. Too often we see efforts that do not cohere, though the individual pieces are excellent. The result is poor or sub-optimal outcomes. Broadcast programmes need to be linked to follow-up on the ground. This is as true of education (where a teacher or facilitator has to work in synergy with the programme for best impact) as it is of development (where integration with grass-roots activists is even more critical). A regular and sensitive feedback system, with a short time-constant, is essential. Where supplementary material is needed or intended, it has to reach the target audience and reach them in time. A whole host of other factors need to be brought together if synergy is to be achieved. This cannot be done without good, holistic system planning and an overall system manager (individual or organization). Too often, rivalry and “ownership” issues between organizations preclude a single system manager or coordinated effort. The result, in such cases, is always far below par.

Communication research must be a key element of social communication, particularly because there are always gaps in knowledge in three areas: the audience, their needs and reactions/feedback; the best pedagogic approach for the particular topic and subject, in the context of the medium being used; and the broader more basic aspect of human-machine interaction and learning process in this milieu. Research must also provide on-going inputs for corrective action through process feedback and summative evaluation of final outcomes.

The relevance and impact of local TV and decentralization was demonstrated in Kheda. It is clear that almost all development issues need to be addressed in the context of the immediate environment. This is obvious for matters related to agriculture and local resources, but is equally true for health, livelihoods and even social issues. Real development requires mobilization, and this cannot be done without deep local involvement and addressing local-specific issues. In education too, production of programmes for Countrywide Classroom has been done in a decentralized and dispersed manner, recognizing not only the diversity of the audience but the fact that creativity too is equally dispersed across the country.

Configuration of the network is often neglected. This is important since it determines aspects like extent of local inputs, decentralization, flexibility, interactive capabilities, etc. The overall system design needs to be based on a clearly articulated philosophy on these and related key issues. The network configuration will then follow and will facilitate the desired goal. For example, satellite broadcasting tends to create a great deal of centralization (since programmes for all areas can be beamed from a single uplink);therefore, if one is following a philosophy of decentralization, then one has to consciously plan the creation of multiple studios and other facilities, even if there is only a single uplink. In this context, it is interesting to note the different approaches followed by IGNOU (large central facilities in Delhi) and CEC/UGC (dispersed production facilities in some 15 locations). The network configuration must be based on conscious decisions; if not, the tail will wag the dog.

The evolution of media technology and the availability of new media open up new opportunities. It is imperative that the social sector move quickly and put its stake in the ground – as UGC and ISRO did with Countrywide Classroom over a quarter century ago. There is, today, a proliferation of media, decreasing cost of bandwidth and rapidly increasing demand for education, information and knowledge. This confluence of greater supply, lower costs and burgeoning demand provides many avenues to take forward our educational and developmental agenda. The only real constraint is imagination. One example: till recently serious constraints for development communication were access, reach and affordability. Reaching rural populations in dispersed villages was a technological challenge, compounded by the fact that even in areas with good coverage, access was limited by affordability. While this problem has not quite disappeared, there are today 500 million mobile handsets (more Indians own this device, as compared to any other), many with capabilities that extend beyond mere voice calls. Each of these is part of a network, enabling instantaneous connectivity to all others. The hand-set itself is no longer a mere telephone for voice linkages, but has wide capability for a variety of uses. How to leverage this for development through social communication? This is a worthy and exciting challenge, begging for imaginative alternatives. A similar challenge and opportunity presents itself in the form of 100,000 villages with Common Service Centres (Internet-enabled computers). How can these be best used for education and development?

The Internet has become a powerful tool for education. It not only provides all kinds of information and a platform for linking up with other learners, but also has full courses on-line. It is also a greater tool for teachers, enabling them to down-load specific content for use in their classrooms. As each teacher draws from but also adds his or her own contribution of teaching aids, the Net is becoming a repository of ever-improving material, available for free down-loading by anyone anywhere.

In the broader sphere of development, especially rural development, the utilization of the full capabilities of the media – conventional and new – is constrained by the lack of appropriate system-level initiatives. The broadcast media is under-utilised because the State-supported public broadcaster is torn between its societal role and its commercial one. Inevitably it does more of the latter, seeking to compete with (and emulate) private commercial channels.  It seems that a fully State-funded model, or – better still – an assured-funding model (with financing coming from an annual license fee or one-time fee on TV/radio sets), with no dependence on commercial advertising may be preferable. Alternatively, as in education, should relevant non-commercial and autonomous organizations operate radio/TV channels rather than Prasar Bharati?

From time to time, there has been discussion about mandating private radio/TV channels to compulsorily carry a fixed percentage of “social” programmes. This issue needs serious debate, because the role of media in social communication has been minimal and is further decreasing. This is a pity, because India was – at one time – at the forefront in this field and some extraordinary work had been done.

Overall, despite many occasional sparks and some outstanding work, media has not quite lived up to the expectations with regard to its role in education and development. It has often flattered, but only to deceive. The pioneering work and many much-acclaimed pilots have not fructified into an operational system that truly delivers, especially in the area of development. It is possible that the expectations were unrealistic, that the pilots were but sprints, and sprinters do not win marathons, nor should one expect a marathon to be run at the pace of a sprint. Yet, with so many new opportunities opening up, it is worth looking – once again – at what might be done differently to achieve better outcomes.

Based on the last few decades of the experiences in using media for development and education, some of the critical factors for positive outcomes have been enumerated and discussed above. In the context of the pressing need to quickly expand education at all levels, to ensure its out-reach across the country and to continuously upgrade and update learning, the role of media is more important than ever before. Equity and excellence both need media as the facilitator and catalyst. As we look at this new context and the emerging opportunities, there are many obstacles and challenges to be overcome; but, the rewards promise to be huge. Educationists, technologists, creative content creators, communications experts and social researchers need to work together to evolve and then implement a multi-modal system that seamlessly integrates media and personal contact, so as to create a new learning paradigm. Ideally, this will accelerate learning, take it to all corners of the country and ensure the best teaching, with relevant and topical content, for all. A variant of this will be used for developmental goals – which integrates education, but also goes beyond it.

This may require structural changes in our present systems, especially in the field of development. Compartmentalisation may have to be given up, walls broken down and fiefdoms destroyed. It will also necessitate a change in mind-set, with boundaries that are often fuzzy and powers that flow down the line. Most important, it will require creativity, innovation and new thinking. Prof. Ram Reddy epitomised these qualities in ample measure, especially in the early years of distance learning.  I am optimistic that once again we will rise to this new challenge and transform India.

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