President Pranab Mukherjee and Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed schoolchildren and interacted with them today. Both events, held in the national capital and televised nationally, were largely ceremonious and appeared well-rehearsed, and they demonstrated the power of communication technology tools to reach out to students across the country. The use of video conferencing and live satellite broadcasts for education may sound archaic to many at a time when instant two-way communication, including video chat, is just a swipe away on handheld smart phones, and high-end city schools are going paperless and wireless. But the harsh reality of the Indian education sector is that technology is still a far cry in most schools, which solely depend on ‘chalk and talk’ pedagogy.
The situation need not have been so had India learned its lessons from a unique experiment in distant education it pioneered four decades ago. The 40th anniversary of the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE) should provide educationists and space scientists opportunity to review the role technology can play in improving the quality of education in India. The experiment was a result of the vision of Vikram Sarabhai, father of India’s space programme, who wanted space technology to be used for the socio-economic development of the country, particularly to reach out to people in far-flung regions.
To a great extent, the Indian Space Research Organisation has been able to translate this vision into reality with satellites that provide an array of services — communication, broadcasting, weather forecasting, disaster management, locational services and so on. However, success on the education front has not been so unequivocal despite education having been the focus of its first outreach in 1975. SITE, conducted during 1975-76 using an American satellite, was the first such experiment anywhere in the world to provide proof-of-concept that satellite technology could be used for development communication.