“Distance learning is very important”

  7 min 31 sec to read

Dr Nishikant SonwalkarDr Nishikant Sonwalkar is a leading expert in the application of computers in education. He has extensive research and development experience in hypermedia authoring, mobile learning, adaptive learning and brain-based synaptic learning, advanced scientific visualization, database management systems, and computer simulation. After receiving his doctorate from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in molecular dynamics of nano-interfaces, he joined MIT’s Mechanical Engineering faculty. His passion for technology-enabled education led him to start the Hypermedia Teaching Facility (Hypermedia Lab) at MIT. He was later appointed Principal Educational Architect of MIT. He is co-chair of MIT enterprise forum and also chairman of its professional development programme.

What is the purpose of your visit to Nepal?
My purpose of coming here is essentially related to the disaster that happened in Nepal. We understood that one of the biggest problems here was communication, because people were stuck in the rubble and they couldn’t call, or there was no connection. So we said is there any way we can create a network in a box so that even in the remotest village, you can put a very small tiny radio system which will then put everyone on the cell phone by connecting the main hub to a satellite. 

So what we have done is called ‘network in a box’. And this innovation is coming out of an MIT spin-off. What we did is that we put it together with education and also created a smart desk for energy. So this is why I am here to talk to Ncell, NTC and other network providers so that we can extend their network. We will set up such networks in around 1,000 villages. This is subject to approval by the authorities concerned. Then we will go to remote villages, and put this network in a box.

And then we will work in three areas that will promote growth. For us, G=CE2, where ‘C’ is communication, ‘E’ is energy, and the other ‘E’ is education. 

How important is technology- enabled education for countries like Nepal?
Lots of people are in remote places they don’t have books, teachers. For that technology can play role. People have cell phones even in remote areas but they don’t have connectivity. So technology can play a big role in education especially making the playing field equal. So whether you are from Pokhara or Kathmandu or whether you are from the remotest village where there is hardly any electricity you can get the same kind of educational experience.

You have developed so many theories like Learning Cube, theory of synaptic learning, adaptive learning technology. Have you incorporated any of these theories in this technology?
Yes. The main theory is the learning cube. So we have multiple learning strategies: apprentice, inductive, deductive discovery. For every course we are creating online or on the cell. You can see there are five different learning models and intelligent feedback. 

If you do not know a subject it will give you more content. We are applying all the theories that I have created. The first one was adaptive learning that everyone learns differently. 

The second one is, we have to put it on mobile technology. Then we said we want to do analytics on how you are learning. So we have big data analytics incorporated and now the recent one is brain wave. We are putting EEG headbands on the head and we can listen to your brain waves and see which content is really working for you. If you are disabled like ADHD or autistic, we do not know how you learn. So we put this EEG cap on you and even if you are a normal person we can reduce your time to learn because we could give you content that works for your brain, because we are now directly connected with your brain waves.

What should countries like Nepal do to adopt technology enabled education?
We have to train the teachers and then you have to provide technology that is easily accessible. Education technology has to be appropriate. You can’t bring in what people can’t use. Also you have to train students. If students don’t know how to use it no matter how good the technology is they won’t use it. 

You have won awards in the US for your work in distance learning. How important is distance learning for countries like Nepal?
I will give you an example of Florida. There are not enough teachers to teach and there are not enough schools and that is very important in Nepal. You know there are not enough schools or students and that’s why there is high competition to go to college. So what we did is to take the college degree which you can now do either in class or online. And that is called distance education. So students who are 100/200 miles away from Kathmandu can do an online degree using a laptop or even smart phones and when they have to give an exam they come to Kathmandu and they can still get the degree. So it is the question of capacity. Kathmandu University, let’s say, can accommodate 5,000 students. What happens to the 95,000 who cannot come to Kathmandu? So, distance learning is very important. Because that way any student from outside can be educated.

So you mean to say even Nepali universities can start online education in Nepal itself?
Tribhuvan University can put their programmes online with the teachers looking over everyone online. Of course we have to train them, we have to give them a technology like adaptive learning systems. Then let’s say they have 5,000 students on the ground they can have 15,000 online. But for online you need different sets of teachers. Those who know computers well, so they can look over that. University of Massachusetts has about 30,000 students online- those who cannot come to the six campuses. So all universities should get involved in distance education and start offering their degrees online along with the on-campus programmes.

The website of MIT says it has an enterprise forum. Can you tell us something about it?
Enterprise forum is one of the arms of MIT which is 80 years old. MIT said there are companies who want to look at MIT technology and invest in that. You have to create an environment where there is entrepreneurship. And it happens when business and academics are put together. So MIT researchers in the lab create inventions and there are investors who want to use that invention to create companies. And there are entrepreneurs who want to run those companies. 3D goggles were created in MIT. Now an entrepreneur may be a graduate student who wants to create a company. So they come to MIT enterprise forum and they will present their idea. And we will have everyone from the business community listen to it. They will give the feedback. So this is an eco-system which creates entrepreneurs.

So is it limited to technology or open to other fields? Is it open only to students of MIT or can anyone participate?
It’s open for anyone. Mostly emphasis on technology but you can also do social entrepreneurship. There are people who are creating companies to help others. For example, if you have any programme to prevent epidemics you can also create an organisation. And they are called social entrepreneurs.

Anything you’d like to say to our readers?
I think Nepal has enormous potential. I know a lot of Nepali students when they grow up they want to go out and a lot of them do not want to stay in Nepal. So we could create research institutes and job opportunities for them right here. And because you are between India and China you are a very strategic, small country with fewer problems than big countries. Nepal is where we can do lots of experiments and get you to the top. And a good example is the lights that you have on the roads, they all are solar. So I think these are the opportunities you should grab and really make Nepal very proud.

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