Making Computing In Rural India, Affordable

With an inadequate computing infrastructure impeding IT penetration in rural India, Microsoft’s MultiPoint SDK 1.1 may provide the much required impetus.

“IT lets people learn things they didn’t think they could learn before, and so in a sense it is all about potential.” These words of Steve Ballmer, CEO, Microsoft Corp, aptly sum up the phenomenal impact that information technology can have on the way we lead our lives.
An example of one such technological breakthrough is Microsoft’s MultiPoint software development kit (SDK) 1.1.

 

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Developed by Microsoft Research India, MultiPoint allows two to 50 students to collaboratively work on and learn from educational software on one computer, using multiple computer mice that drive specifically-designed on-screen cursors, says Latif Nathani, general manager, Unlimited Potential, Microsoft India.

“This not only offers a more affordable solution-the only increase in cost is that of the additional mice-it also creates an active, collaborative learning experience that engages each and every student,” he adds.

The need that drove the innovation
As per a recent research conducted by Microsoft to understand how schools in India use PCs, it was found that only 7.02 per cent of the total government schools have computers and even there, the one or two PCs per class are surrounded by several kids. “In most cases, one observes that a dominant ‘bully’ hogs the mouse and keyboard. The question was how to multiply the utility of the existing PCs without exponentially increasing the cost. This is how MultiPoint SDK was conceptualised by Microsoft Research India.

“On one hand, the technology enables collaborative learning between students, and on the other, helps a teacher engage more effectively with students and monitor each child’s participation and progress, enabling all students to become active learners, thus enhancing the overall classroom experience,” says Nathani.
The hardware/software requirements

For application developers working on the MultiPoint SDK platform, the list of requirements is as follows:

* Supported operating systems: Windows Vista; Windows XP Service Pack 2. Windows Vista is recommended. The MultiPoint SDK will also run on Windows XP SP2 (or greater)

* .NET framework version 3.0 or higher (Install from http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/netframework/aa569263.aspx)

* Microsoft Expression Blend (install a trial version from http://www.microsoft.com/expression/products/Overview.aspx?key=blend)

* Visual Studio 2005 with WPF extensions installed (Visual Studio without WPF extensions is not supported by MultiPoint), or Visual Studio 2008 (install the Express edition from http://www.microsoft.com/express/product/default.aspx)

* Two to four mouse devices for testing

* USB ports on the computer

* 128 MB of RAM (256 MB or higher is recommended)

* 16 MB of video RAM (32 MB or higher is recommended)

* 800 x 600 resolution set in the video card (32-bit colour is recommended)

A platform to build collaborative school content
Using the MultiPoint SDK, curriculum developers can build unique and collaborative applications for schools. It supports new technology platforms like Visual Studio 2008 and includes support for technologies like Flash. The download includes tutorials, white papers and videos to help developers navigate the SDK and build applications.

The actual splitting of screens is completely implemented at the end-user application. Hence, the number of screens that the monitor will be divided into, depends on the screen resolution and end user application that is being used.

A call to build a computing eco-system
To spread the advantages of the MultiPoint SDK to a larger base of users, Microsoft is engaging with partners to develop content, and also working towards creating an environment that will enable teachers to simply customise the content to run on MultiPoint systems.

MS has partnered with Edurite and the Education Development Centre (EDC) to develop the content, curriculum and applications for MultiPoint. Archana Nambiar, program manager, EDC India, says: “EDC has already developed two kinds of MultiPoint applications: physics applications for grades 6 to 8, and an English mentoring application for teachers and students across different age groups.”

Edurite has also developed applications for maths and science for class 5 students. The applications developed by EDC will, post testing, be deployed in 2000 schools across seven states, including Karnataka, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Delhi and Bihar, according to Srikanth B Iyer, COO, Edurite Technologies.

An attempt is also being made to encourage young innovators around the world to utilise the MultiPoint SDK 1.1. “As part of this year’s Imagine Cup software design competition, Team DISHA (Disease and Health Awareness) from India used MultiPoint technology to develop a multimedia platform for children in low income regions. The platform attempts to solve the problem of inadequate disease prevention education among children, while addressing the concerns relating to student involvement, understanding and retention, in a resource-constrained environment,” shares Nathani.

The reach and the impact
An interesting case study is that of Vidya Pratishthan’s Institute of Information Technology (VIIT), which is leveraging the platform to multiply the impact of its initiative to take computing to the rural schools of Maharashtra. VIIT is conducting trials of MultiPoint in its fleet of 30 technology module buses, which it uses to spread computer literacy in rural schools of the region. So far it has conducted pilots in 10 schools. “VIIT will offer these applications to interested schools from this academic year. VIIT has developed around 10 to 15 applications for Classes 4 to 9, in mathematics, English, biology and chemistry,” says Dr Amol Goje, director, VIIT. His observation is that MultiPoint “…is a fantastic technology-simple and yet powerfully apt for a country like India where scarcity of computers for education is a reality.”

Opportunities for application developers
To fill this huge infrastructural gap, as pointed out by Dr Goje, the need is to build innovative applications that help percolate the benefits of this technology to the far-flung and rural stretches of the country. The scope for application developers is infinite. The only challenge is to come up with applications that are contextual and innovative enough to not only engage rural students, but also complement their curriculum requirements.