And Long Before E-Education, there was SITE…

In the education space, stakeholders in India ( at least private
schools and ’learning solution providers’) have moved to E-learning. An estimate is that overall, technology adoption has been accelerated by upto two decades,
thanks to COVID.

Two things stand out. We would not have done it, if we did not have to
do it! While online tutoring had caught on in a big way, educational
institutions were definitely not leveraging technology to the extent
it should have happened—till COVID. The other, more heartbreaking, is
that this is adding to the already stark inequity in educational
access. The point is not to deny access to some because it cannot be
universal. The point is rather to go on a mission to make it
universal!

In contrast—SITE (Satellite Instructional Television Experiment)
undertaken by India in 1975, was a proactive effort to use technology
for education and development communication for the most-unreached.
Imagine 1975, when TVs were hardly seen even in urban households. Here
was an unimaginably bold initiative to take TV to 2400 of India’s most
backward villages in 6 states.

There were questions even apart from our technical ability to do this—was such an experiment necessary for a country at our level of poverty and problems? Surely, there were more pressing problems and more immediate use for the scarce resources? But the conviction of a team led by Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, that technology-leapfrogging was critical to solve India’s development challenges,
ensured that the topmost decision makers saw the advantages and they
could make  it happen. (‘Technology-leapfrogging occurs when
decision-makers choose to adopt leading-edge technology, skipping one
or more technology generations’).

This was a NASA-ISRO partnership with the objective of using technology for the education of communities in the most deprived and unreached parts of the country . A NASA broadcasting satellite was used. In the first-ever Indo-US space collaboration, it was positioned over India for the
duration of the experiment (August 1, 1975 to July 1976). The
deeply-researched content on critical issues faced by the community,
from agriculture and health, to culture to short films promoting
scientific temper, the production was done mainly by All India Radio,
with social research and evaluation done by a special team from ISRO,
and with the involvement of experts from a range of the most
significant institutions of India-Tata Institute of Social Sciences, to NCERT. Apart from community programs, there was a rich variety of special educational programs for schools as also massive teacher training.

AA930C61-3377-476F-B4AC-6E6DE5EAB179The programs were broadcast for a few hours a day, and hundreds of
people would gather in the village community hall or wherever the
village had installed the TV. In villages which did not have
electricity, truck or car batteries were used to power the viewing.
People in remote Bihar were watching television while many in Delhi
had never seen one!

SITE was a resounding success in proving that technology had a huge
role to play in solving the real development challenges of the
country. It helped ISRO develop its capabilities in operational
satellite systems and contributed to a sound platform for the Indian
National Satellite System (INSAT). It helped us develop an
understanding of educational software programming, from social
research to production to evaluation. And it helped develop managerial
capacities. It was probably also the first time in India that a very
young group (mainly in their 20s) formed the core of the team taking
responsibility for such a complex task of national importance.

Well-known science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke called SITE ‘the
greatest communication experiment in history’.

So even as education (for some) moves online, here is a Hurrah for the vision of the
giants on whose shoulders we stand! Can that infuse us once again?

And a Hurrah from the Millennial Matriarchs for some of the amazing
people who were part of SITE, whom we have had a chance to interact
with—Prof. Yashpal, Kiran Karnik, BS Bhatia, Binod Agarwal,
Vishwanath, Mira Aghi—to name just a few. We are thankful to life for
giving us these opportunities.

–Meena

The Moon Is Not Going Anywhere

full-moon-moon-bright-sky-47367If there were no failures associated with space forays, what would Hollywood do, considering that so many of its blockbusters are centered around this theme!

We lost contact with Vikram Lander. But we will still be getting information from Chandrayaan, which will be useful to the world’s scientific community. And if not this time, next time around, we are going to make it to the moon and other frontiers.

Dr.Vikram Sarabhai, father of India’s space program and the person for whom the Lander was named, would laud the spirit of ISRO which has dusted itself after the setback and is all gung-ho to carry on. This was the spirit he tried to imbue his institutions with, as testified by a quote from a paper on him:

“He has come. Tell him.”

“I didn’t do it. You tell him.”

“No, you tell. I feel scared.”

“What is it ?’

“The meter is burnt, sir. We passed too much current.”

“Oh, I see. Well, don’t worry. How else would one learn? Next time you will be more careful.”

That, in a nutshell, was Professor Vikram Sarabhai. Meters were scarce those days. In fact, we did not get a new one for almost two months and the work was held up. But the human qualities of this great man were evident even before he took courage in both hands and shaped the destiny of the scientific institution that was to be PRL, and brought it national and international repute. Visionaries there are many and finally nothing succeeds like success; but in the case of Vikrambhai one could see straightaway that he had to succeed; there was just no other alternative!”

The world’s scientific community is with ISRO. India is with ISRO.

It is a universal human quest—to explore the frontiers and expand our knowledge. This is, in the ultimate analysis, beyond boundaries. It is about the human spirit.

–Meena

Vikram Sarabhai Centenary

header_leftA remarkable man was born a hundred years ago in our country. He dared to dream impossible things and proceeded to make them possible. I would have thought the country would have been abuzz this year, with multitudes of events to remind the younger generation of his achievements in myriad fields from space science, to management, to atomic energy, to textile research, to education. That the institutions he had set up would not just celebrate the moment but also introspect and re-dedicate themselves to his principles.

ISRO is the only one which seems to be doing it at any scale. Chandrayaan went up, and all those associated with ISRO did remember and thank him. The mission’s lander is appropriately called Vikram. They are also launching a year-long calendar of programs for schools; awards for journalists in space science, technology and research; releasing a commemorative coin, a coffee table book, a space education van, etc.

But what is really disappointing for me is that his contribution to management and institution building is not being celebrated. Everyone acknowledges that his greatest achievements were probably in institution building. ISRO, IIM, PRL are just some of the prominent institutions which stand testimony to this in the public eye, but ‘Sarabhai was a prolific institution builder. He set up an institution every year beginning from 1947 till his death in 1971. He left his imprint in fields as diverse as space technology and performing arts.’

That makes it about 2 dozen institutions!!

There are a few old papers on his approach to institution-building. But I would have thought it should be seriously taught in management schools; there should be training programs for all levels of managers based on his thinking; that academics would delve into it and write papers by the dozens; that seminars and workshops would be held. In this year at least! But I haven’t heard of any such.

Indian organizations wither and die (if not physically, in spirit and achievements), within decades of their birth. Is it not important for managers in both the public and private sectors to understand how institutions that Dr.Sarabhai built have been able to retain the spirit and reaching the heights—literally the moon—close to five decades after his passing away? Dr.Sarabhai straddled the worlds of industry, government, academia and research, and used the same approach to all. So his approach to institution building should have messages for every manager.

Well, I owe a lot to his approach to institution building. So I thought to put together something as my tiny tribute. (The following are quotes majorly from two sources, one whose authorship it has not been possible to find. Since this is not an academic paper, I have taken liberty to quote from it.).

On Institutional Culture:

‘Trust was an important element of both personal and organizational relationship’.

‘The operating culture of (his) institutions were such that administration played a supportive role and helped the institutional growth through implementation of research programmes. This is unlike many organizations, especially educational, research, governmental, and public sector organizations, where the tail wags the dog.

He believed that an institution based on caring for people gave assurance to individuals to innovate and to respond to situations creatively.

Sarabhai was opposed to rigid controls and often wrote and spoke against controls which, he believed, “damaged innovative behaviour and consequently the growth of new institutions.”

On Building People to Build Institutions:

‘Sarabhai’s institution building philosophy was centered around development of individuals. For him people were more important than buildings. He created and nurtured various institutions through developing and nurturing young individuals. He gave trust, freedom of work and autonomy and showed care and concern to them in return he received creativity and commitment, which ultimately strengthened the institutional goals’.

On Institutional Leadership:

‘Vikram Sarabhai was very particular in selecting the head of an institution. The chief executive can make or mar the institutional fabric.’

In selecting a head of institution, it was very important to Dr. Sarabhai to see ‘how suitable he is as a human being’.

‘According to Sarabhai, a basic requirement of an institutional leader is the ability to provide the appropriate operating culture which would be created by the attitudes and assumptions of its people rather than by the formal organizational structure’.

On Staffing A New Institution:

‘In selecting researchers for ATIRA, Sarabhai insisted on recruiting fresh candidates with knowledge of scientific methodology and preferred those without previous experience. This was a deliberate move, for he believed that taking away experienced and trained people from universities and research institutions would create a vacuum which would weaken them.’

Respect for Individuals:

He showed tremendous respect to each individual he, met. Parikh (1972, p44) described this “Many times I have seen Dr, Sarabhai patiently listening to people who would go on with long incoherent monologues which seemed to convey nothing. Yet, In the end, Dr. Sarabhai would summarise the monologue, giving it a very constructive interpretation and meaning. I am told that when asked why he suffered fools so lightly, Dr. Sarabhai had replied that in a vast country like India where people come from diverse backgrounds not everyone has had a privileged upbringing. One should, therefore, allow for this in listening to people and try to see behind the words what they are trying to say.”

Summing up the Spirit:

And finally, in his own words: ‘There is no leader and there is no led. A leader, if one chooses to identify one, has to be a cultivator rather than a manufacturer. He has to provide the soil and the overall climate and the environment in which the seed can grow. One wants permissive individuals who do not have a compelling need to reassure themselves that they are leaders through issuing instructions to others; rather they set an example through their own creativity, Love of nature and dedication to what one may call the ‘scientific method.’ These are the leaders we need in the field of education and research’.

References:

Institution building: Ganesh S.R., Joshi P. (1985) Lessons from Dr. Vikram Sarabhai’s leadership. Vikalpa. Vol. 10, No 4.

Click to access 09_chapter%204.pdf

–Meena