BITS Connect 2.0 features in Knowledge at Wharton
Monday, July 23, 2012
Posted by: Goonjan Mall
With over 13 million students
enrolled in higher education, India is the third largest country behind China
and the U.S. in student enrollments. However, that reflects a Gross Enrolment
Rate (GER) of only 13% compared to the global average of 26%. The Indian higher
education system faces acute shortage of quality educators, poor quality of
education and very limited focus on research. While the government is taking
baby steps to address this critical challenge, one of the country’s premier
private universities -- BITS Pilani -- has taken a lead through its BITSConnect
Under the leadership of vice-chancellor Bijendra Nath Jain, BITS
Pilani has created a world-class infrastructure to connect its four campuses.
It has created one of the world’s first seamless virtual classrooms using
cutting-edge technology. In a conversation with India Knowledge@Wharton, Jain
describes the genesis of BITSConnect 2.0 and the university’s aggressive plans
to leverage technology to improve learning outcomes for its students and
An edited transcript of the conversation follows:
India Knowledge@Wharton:What is BITS Connect 2.0?
Bijendra Nath Jain:BITSConnect 2.0 envisions bringing state-of-the-art telepresence
and interconnectivity to all four campuses of BITS Pilani. It will enable
remote teaching, participatory coursework, collaborative research and remote
recruitment. BITSConnect 2.0 will be a giant step for BITS Pilani to move from
the top private university in India to one of the top universities in Asia and
We also hope that BITSConnect 2.0 will be a model for education in
India going forward. There is a real need for scaling up higher education in
India. We hope to set an example for other universities to follow.
India Knowledge@Wharton:What is the genesis of the program? What core issues does the
program expect to solve?
alumni body (BITSAA International) has a close relationship with BITS Pilani,
and has undertaken numerous projects for BITS. The genesis of BITSConnect 2.0
lies in this relationship. In 2002, the BITS Alumni designed and implemented
BITSConnect 1.0 in collaboration with BITS, which set up the campus with
gigabit Internet, IP telephony and wireless access everywhere on campus. This
was one of the firsts in India.
Project Embryo, in 2006, then leveraged this infrastructure to
bring state-of-the-art knowledge from industry and academia straight into the
campus. It also created a bond with many alumni. Again, this was one of the
firsts in India on this scale.
Today, BITS Pilani has four geographically distributed campuses in
Pilani, Goa, Hyderabad and Dubai. There is a need to interconnect all of them
for pedagogic as well as administrative reasons. And there is a need to
facilitate alumni to easily connect with all campuses. With this in mind,
BITSAA International designed and proposed BITSConnect 2.0. The proposal was
soon given a go-ahead by BITS.
This project was formally launched during the first-ever BITSAA
Global Meet in January 2011. During the preparation for the meet, a number of
project ideas were proposed and debated by the core team. BITSConnect 2.0 was
the theme everybody converged on because it had the potential to influence the
50,000 strong student, faculty and alumni body of BITS for the next decade. One
of the project's founders describes the main thesis behind the idea as,
"You only need to connect smart people together, and they will surprise
you with what they can achieve."
This project will go live in fall 2012. It will be yet another
milestone in the history of BITSAA and will be a giant step for BITS Pilani in
becoming a world-class university.
India Knowledge@Wharton:How does this program differ from the Distance Education that BITS
Integrated Learning Program (WLIP) of BITS offers degree programs to employed
professionals to enhance their academic qualifications while gaining
significant professional experience at their respective employing
organizations. It does so by conducting instructor-led classes at company
locations across India.
BITSConnect 2.0's mission, on the other hand, is to bridge the
geographical distance between the four BITS campuses. It also allows alumni to
connect with on-campus faculty and students. It enables faculty to deliver
lectures to all four BITS campuses simultaneously; staff to conduct ad-hoc
meetings with telepresence capability; alumni and experts to remotely deliver
lectures and conduct workshops or panel discussions to multiple BITS campuses
simultaneously, and recording and streaming of lectures.
India Knowledge@Wharton:What's new in BITSConnect 2.0? How does it operate? Please
describe the technology involved.
2.0 provides connectivity on a scale never available in India before. It uses
the latest and greatest technologies in video-conferencing using telepresence.
Telepresence is substantially different from video-conferencing, which has
ignored the human factors of communication. Whether it’s a web camera sitting
on top of a computer monitor or an expensive high-resolution camera atop a
custom-built projection screen, these and all typical video-conferencing
systems ignore visual communication fundamentals. True telepresence is a
multidisciplinary art and science that integrates engineering, psychology and
the television broadcast art.
Four classrooms -- each with a capacity of 250 students -- will be
equipped with telepresence equipment. With a 125-inch projection screen and
four big plasma screens, the instructor will be able to see the remote
classrooms. Every desk will be equipped with a gooseneck microphone, which will
be connected to control systems. When a student asks a question, a camera will
autofocus on that student, and his video feed will be transmitted to all
India Knowledge@Wharton:What programs will be run as part of BITSConnect 2.0? How do you
decide which programs are suitable for this delivery model?
2.0 will enable collaboration of all sorts -- whether it's traditional
undergraduate-level courses, or specialized graduate-level courses and research
One specific problem that exists in India is shortage of quality
faculty at the graduate level. BITS aims to increase the Ph.D. enrollment by
500% by 2020. In order to achieve this, and to increase the level of research,
BITS has to hire qualified faculty in a number of areas. With BITSConnect 2.0,
we can hire quality faculty at any campus and leverage the telepresence
infrastructure to provide faculty access to students across all four campuses.
India Knowledge@Wharton:Are there any other uses planned apart from course instruction?
other uses include using the 18-seat conference rooms equipped with
telepresence equipment for administrative meetings and research group meetings;
remote recruitment: companies will have access to four times the talent from
just one location; the web conferencing facility for faculty members will open
up avenues of multimedia collaboration with anybody outside the campus, and
video-recording and streaming services will help set up a learning management
system or a virtual university in the future.
There are many more uses that will evolve.
India Knowledge@Wharton:What are the set-up and operating cost estimates for BITSConnect
set-up costs are in low single digits of millions of dollars. Operating costs
are primarily the bandwidth costs of dedicated network interconnectivity
between the four campuses and the data center, and software licenses. They are
in low single digits of crores of rupees per year.
India Knowledge@Wharton:How will you determine the success of this program? What are the
simplest measure of success will be the number of hours the facilities get
used. We strongly believe that connecting faculty, students and alumni together
will lead to a better university. We hope to see faculty on one campus
mentoring Ph.D. students in other campuses. We also hope to see an increase in
the number of graduate-level electives offered, faculty collaborating more
closely with researchers across the globe and doing joint projects, an increase
in the number and quality of companies offering placements to BITS students,
and qualified guest faculty and alumni from the industry tapping into the
campuses for research.
India Knowledge@Wharton:Do you believe the outcomes justify the high project costs?
costs become relatively insignificant if the outcome of a project helps us
overcome two very significant constraints -- availability of quality faculty
and improved productivity of the faculty we already have. In other words, we
expect to use the facility to deliver on quality of teaching and research with
whatever faculty we have. And if we can effectively use this facility to
network with industry professionals, collaborators in other universities in
India or abroad or with our alumni, the facility will have paid us many times
over. These are the elements that will propel us onto the world stage.