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VIDYA Amrita Interview

VIDYA Amrita Interview

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Published by Ajai Narendran
I think a lot went into the making of VIDYA..i have to thank a lot of people...without them, without you all nothing would have been possible ...for those who are interested in knowing the untold story of VIDYA..here is that interview that tells it all:
I think a lot went into the making of VIDYA..i have to thank a lot of people...without them, without you all nothing would have been possible ...for those who are interested in knowing the untold story of VIDYA..here is that interview that tells it all:

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Published by: Ajai Narendran on Jan 08, 2011
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06/13/2011

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When did the idea of building Vidyastrike you and how did it happen?
The first spark of idea occurred wayback in the year 2000, few months after I joined Amrita, Ettimadai. Well, mycoming to Amrita appeared sheer co-incidence then which I now understandas nothing but providence. I was previ-ously trained in the area of Avionics En-gineering and had no proper training in‘computers. Since I joined the SystemsGroup ( Now ICTS) and was put in oneof the computer labs I had no other op-tion than to learn computers. Thosewere the times I used to spend almostthe entire day in the lab ( 6.30am-10pm), if routine jobs kept me busy dur-ing the day time, teaching myself thebasics of computers kept me busy therest of the time and it was great oppor-tunity to interact with students as well.Since the campus did not have an in-formative website at that time I tookupon myself to build a website, thatmeant learning HTML , JavaScript, andtools like MS-Frontrpage and HotMetal-Pro and later Dreamweaver. Here Imust thank one of our alumni
Mr.J Srinivasan
( Currently doing is Ph.D atEdinburgh University) who first showedme a website he made, his personalwebsite. That was my initiation into theworld of hyperlinks.It was just around that time Internetbegan to penetrate into the campus, wehad a few machines with internet con-nectivity, if I remember right it was a64Mbps divided connection. So,emails,browsing the web and building awebsite fascinated me immensely andthat kept me occupied all through mypost-routine working hours. Since Iworked in the Computer Lab, I had lotof opportunities to interact closely withthe students and faculty members andit was that interaction that gave me thetriggering pulse towards building Vidya,To be more specific Interacting with
Dr.K I Ramachandran
( Currently withCEN) and seeing him downloadingPowerPoint presentations and lecturenotes which he used to write on a CDand use it to prepare his course notesmade me think of archiving it all in away that could be used by the entirecampus than just his class. So one dayI asked him for his CD of downloadedtutorials, made a copy of it, configureda basic Windows web server andhosted the contents. It was a singlewebpage index pointing to tutorialspecifically on Mechanical Engineering.I showed it to Ramachandran sir andfew other people, they were quite ex-cited seeing it. It was the sort of thingmany at that time thought was possibleonly on the Internet. Thus the initial at-tempt at Vidya became the first “In-tranet Portal” of Amrita.I was in fact enthralled seeing the re-action of students like
 Ajith Pete
(nowworking on his PhD at IIT-Bombay),
Srinivasa Varadhan
( now working for Cognizant Technologies, London) and
Shyam Divakar 
( who just completedhis PhD in Computational Neuro-science from University of Milan, Italy).For them it meant a lot, downloadinglearning material from the internetacross a slow connection was not quitea feasible option for the studentsthen…the idea of making a down-loaded collection accessible across theLAN appealed to all of them and it isthey who made me feel convinced of the enormous potential in developing‘Vidya’. Every one needed quality mate-rial in the quickest way possible. Thiswas the precursor to a series of convic-tions that followed eventually propellingme steadily towards developing ‘Vidya’further. I never had to look back sincethen…I literally breathed and lived‘Vidya’. Yes, I had a big price to pay,sacrifices to make and tough stances totake. In the end, it was all worth the ef-fort. I have the joy of having the task ac-complished leaving it with further possibilities of enhancement and en-richment.To me, Vidya beckoned as thatcourse of work which will add moremeaning to my existence providing our students the opportunities I missed as astudent, so there was that passionateinvolvement. I feel the best way to ex-press it would be to borrow the termsused by
Dr.Deepak Gupta
of ASB whoremarked once
Vidya is a labour of love
”.If you are to start building Vidyaanew, how different it would be?
Yes, it will be different and better organ-ized with a content management sys-tem in place...and if it serves better , it isonly because of what I learnt from build-ing the current Vidya.
What are the other reasons thatprompted you begin building Vidya?
Those days library used to be in themain block (opposite to staircase in theground floor). That used to be oneplace I used to frequent, lookingthrough magazines and journals to findrelevant topics/ key words for down-loading material. During one such visitsto the library I found a good number of quality text books authored byrenowned professors from universitiesabroad remaining untouched. Whenenquired many students expressed theview that they considered such textbooks abstruse. I knew that this view isrooted in slavish dependence on local,popular text books.
Contd on page 27
ANWESHI - ASTHA Newsmagazine
ANWESHI
May2008 Page 26
In Focus - VIDYA
The VIDYA Digital Knowledge Archive that is cur-rently deployed in four campuses of Amrita Universityhad its modest beginning in the year 2000. With an initialcontent volume of 64 Mb, VIDYA has grown to a 1600+Gb knowledge base covering a wide spectrum of areas,comprising of extensive Audio/ Video lectures as wellby leading academicians/ scientists from around theworld. VIDYA over the years has become an indispensi-ble resource for every devout seeker of knowledge mak-ing the dictum “ Study Locally, Learn Globally” a livingreality !
*
*
This logo is designed by D G Suryanarayana & Irshad of 4th Year ( IT )
Mr. Ajai Narendran
(Con-tent manager & Webmas-ter)andthe Architect of ‘Vidya
speaks on his expe-rience of building ‘Vidya’while responding to a bar-rage of questions.He elu-cidates on how Vidya could better beutilised in a way that helps redefine learn-ing and revitalise teaching.
 
 A comparison of a few local text booksand books authored by internationallyrenowned academicians revealed thefact that our students will end up miss-ing quite a lot by the time they graduateif they relied only on local textbooks ab-horring books that have found interna-tional acceptance. I tried gettingpresentation slides and class notes bythe same authors and listed them inVidya under different categories ( thiswas the beginning of subject-wise list-ing with a basic collection of material onvarious engineering topics based onUG programmes). In a few weeks time,I could see those untouched books of the library in circulation. Talking to thestudents revealed that the presenta-tions helped them come out of themindset and made them attempt to-wards learning from quality textbooks.This I would say, was the second con-viction- adding a global touch to local-ized learning. On the other hand at thepersonal level I was going through a cri-sis that was emotionally gripping. I hadto keep myself busy during wakinghours to save myself from slipping intodelirium. The best time to work on‘Vidya’ was of course late nights be-cause thats the time we used to get thebest internet speed then. So it was justthe perfect mix of reasons , both profes-sional and personal, and what morecould I ask for - if the very work I choseto plunge deep into ferreted out deeper meanings of my existence, enrichingthe lives of our student community.
How was Vidya received initially bythe campus community?
There was a group of students andsome faculty members who instantly re-alized Vidya’s potential, and of coursethere was the other category whowatched it all with a kind of disbelief (suspicion would be a better word Iguess). For me what mattered the mostwas not the number of people whoused Vidya, instead the differenceVidya can make in the lives of the fewwho used Vidya then. Some even feltthat I encroached into other’s domain, Iguess it is natural for them to think sobecause here’s this guy who is trainedin avionics engineering working withthe Systems group doing things on in-formation science / knowledge man-agement with no formal training either in IT or Information Science . I countedit as a real complement anyway no mat-ter how thwarting many remarks were.Well, I remember a specific remark bysome on Vidya during its fledgling daysthat ‘what’s the big deal…the informa-tion available in Vidya can easily begoogled out’. I do not contest that point,but it takes lot of discerning effort to se-lect the right ones for Vidya. The former remark is much akin to saying that‘what ever available in a library is avail-able in a big bookshop’, the point is wedo not call bookshop a library thoughquantitatively the latter is a subset of the former. Vidya is a sincere attempt toimplement the concept of ‘Selective dis-semination of Information”. This ap-proach is of increasing relevance in thisera of information overload.
How will you define Vidya?
It is hard to define Vidya in any concreteterms because ‘Vidya’ has evolved andwill continue to evolve, each phase of growth in tune with the vision that initi-ated it. Vidya is not a tutorial archive…itis much more. Vidya is envisaged tohelp one deepen one’s knowledge andexpand one’s awareness harnessingthe best of World Wide Web.I wish people get the experience of ex-ploring a rainforest when they navigatethrough Vidya than just walking arounda landscape. If every one who visits‘Vidya’ finds something interesting anduseful , then I believe ‘Vidya’ has de-fined the essence of its existence, inshort ‘ Vidya’ in functional essencemean ‘Something for every one’.
Is Vidya Accessible from outside thecampus?
No , ‘Vidya’ is not accessible from out-side the campus except Amrita cam-puses across the ISRO-EduSat link.‘Vidya’ is an intranet archive and it hasto remain so adhering to the copyrightregulations. A great part of ‘Vidya’ is in-tegrated with the ‘Educational fair use’laws that restricts the use of down-loaded material to ‘ within the campus,for purely academic/ non-commercialpurposes.Well, before we think of ‘out of the cam-pus’ access to Vidya, let us get ‘Vidya’accessible to all our hostels within thecampus. I am sure it can bring in a bigdifference in the learning attitude of our students because I have observed ( Ihave lived in our hostels for the last 7years) that most of our students studylate into night. Yes, those without lap-tops need not feel out of place here, Iam sure that people with laptops cangroup with the ones who do not own alaptop and have combined study ses-sions, this will significantly strengthenpeer bonding as well.
Which is your most favourite sec-tion in Vidya?
That’s hard to answer. Each section inVidya is built with lot of care and it allhad a specific reason behind it. For ex-ample it is on ‘Teacher’s Day’ that wedecided to build a separate section on “Teaching & Learning”… another section‘Envisage’ , the animation repository inVidya. There is a whole variety of suchoff beat sections in Vidya that has to beexplored, to be experienced. I feel thatit is the ‘Video Lecture Archive’ on awide variety of areas that instantly ele-vates ‘Vidya’ to a unique position whencompared to any other repository/ digi-tal library in the world.
Have you implemented all your ideasyou have on Vidya?
Not quite. What you now see as ‘Vidya’is just the core around which many lay-ers could be built. Better user inter-faces, specific community portals, anda whole lot of dynamic elements couldbe built around. I have the architectureclear in my mind, it is impossible for asingle person to build it all. I have al-ways wished that I had atleast twomore people good at programming withme. Had that been the case the lookand feel of ‘Vidya’ would have been far too different. Of course people are try-ing to build layers around Vidya elsewhere in our campuses…if all those at-tempts could be integrated we canmake Vidya one of the most formidableknowledge archives in the world andthis is something ‘Amrita’ alone canclaim of. The core is built, the layersneed to be added. Vidya , where itstands now is just a fractional material-ization of the enhancement ideas I haveon Vidya. Here I must say that twoB.Tech teams have so far tried to build‘search engines’ for Vidya, I must thankthose teams and especially
Mr. Adi- narayanan
of IT department and
Mr.Shivpratap
of CEN who guidedthem. We need more people like themand it is such people who can enhanceVidya and in turn enrich the lives of thousands of students.
 You must have showcased Vidya tonumerous visitors, what was the re-sponse to Vidya?
Yes, quite a good number of visitorsfrom all over the world and Govt. of India ministry officials as well includingthe UGC team. All of them showedgreat interest in learning more about
Contd on
page 28ANWESHI - ASTHA Newsmagazine
ANWESHI
May 2008 Page 27
In Focus - VIDYA
Vidya Story- Contd ...
 
how it is built and was awe struck at thevariety of sections in Vidya. We had vis-itors from Chinmaya Mission Schools, Arvind Eye Hospitals and DRDO aswell who spent hours with me dis-cussing on the possibilities of buildingsuch archives. The most touching mo-ments are those when I see studentsbring their parents to show Vidya .
Do you think that Vidya’s full poten-tial is effectively utilized by the stu-dents and faculty members?
No, we are yet to even understand thepotential of Vidya, let alone utilizing itfully. I have been interacting with stu-dents closely over the last seven years,right from day 1 of my joining Amrita. Alot of awareness on ‘Vidya’ had beenspread through word of mouth, informaldiscussions etc. This does not work be-yond a limit. I feel that the best ones tohelp students understand the useful-ness of ‘Vidya’ are, the faculty membersbecause they get that unique privilegeof interacting with/ addressing no lessthan 50 students at a time. This doesnot seem to happen, students arenever told about the learning resourceswe have and I can tell this with totalconviction based on my interaction withthe students. Innumerable times I havehad students come to me and askquestions like “do you have tutorials onthermodynamics? Do you havebooks on Networking? Do you have in-troductory lectures on Java? …etc. Ifeel that this would not have happenedhad they been made aware of thelearning resource we have here.I have also had faculty members com-ing and asking me for material on areasthat is already there in Vidya in abun-dance. So there is clear lack of aware-ness of our own resources among thestudents and the faculty members. Thebest thing I could do from my side wasto map the entire B.Tech/ MCA syllabusto the content in Vidya. Despite this aswell I feel many have no idea whatVidya is all about. Of course here I mustsay that there had been incredible sup-port from faculty members , I mustthank
Dr.K.I.Ramachandran, Dr.DeepaGupta of ASB, Prof Subba Rao of Chemical Engg Dept, Mr.Adi- narayanan of IT Dept, Dr.Shanmug- mavelayutham of CSE Dept, Dr.R K Suresh of Mech. Engg Dept, Dr.K P Soman, Mr.Rakesh Peter, Mr.Shiv- apratap, Mr.Loganathan of CEN 
.They are doing their best to bring Vidyacloser to Amrita fraternity.
To a newcomer , how will you ex-plain the potential of Vidya?
 Assuming that the newcomer is a firstyear B.Tech student who is aiming for acareer in the Industry or core R&D, Iwould present Vidya to him/her as theprime source in that campus that willhelp him learn with the aid of some of the finest tutorial material, ever created,from across the globe. Vidya is un-doubtedly one of the best assemblagesof Audio/ Video lectures on almost allmajor areas taught here. This is on theacademic front. Looking at an individ-ual’s overall development there isenough material on Humanities, Apti-tude and Soft skills, Philosophy & Com-parative Religion, ManagementSciences , Journalism & Communica-tion and an array of allied areas. Sohere is an archive that you can count onand grow along with. Vidya has also in-corporated gateways to IEEE, ACM,Digital Engineering Libraries as well.Journal papers can be accessedthrough this gateway from any com-puter in the campus. The best thing thatcan come out of utilizing Vidya re-sources to the fullest extent is aware-ness that one has learnt / explored anarea of interest listening to the mastersfrom around the world. Isn’t it great if our students tell that they learnt Linear  Algebra from people around plusthrough video lectures by none other than Prof. Gilbert Strang of MIT. Isn’t itgreat for our students to learn JAVAprogramming from the video lectures of the legendary Dr.Andy Vandam of Brown University - the same professor who taught programing to Prof.RandyPausch. So here is an opportunity for our students not to feel second to any inthe world when it comes to learningusing globally accepted tutorials fromsome of the best universities/ researchcenters across the world. In shorthere’s a resource that will help yougraduate with, immensely more than just a UG or PG degree.
What is the single aspect or the mostvital element that one requires tobuild an archive like Vidya?
I cannot pin point ‘the single mostthing’. I feel it is a combination of factorsthat contribute towards building some-thing like Vidya. Still, if I am to general-ize I would reduce everything down tothat single word “Passion” – passion togather, organize and disseminate infor-mation, passion to reach out and inter-act, passion to read,explore and learn,passion to share and give, passion tomake a positive difference no matter what you do… all these primary factorscoupled with freedom at work can workwonders. Yes, I was fortunate enoughto have that kind of freedom with nostrings attached all through my sevenyears here. What is the point in havingskills and ideas if one does not have thefreedom. In my case I had the freedomin abundance and I owe a lot for it to
Mr.M Sreeevalsan, Head , ICTS.What are the significant phases of growth Vidya went through?
My work on Vidya started as a pleasantpass time activity, as one of my hobbiesand soon it began to take huge chunkof my waking hours. Routine workinghours kept me busy with other respon-sibilities, of which working on the web-site was the most demanding one for, itmeant being on task 24X7. Vidya hasbenefited immensely from lot of eventsand people in terms of ideas, input andsupport. The first phase was of coursearchiving few PPTs and PDFs on Me-chanical Engg. downloaded by Ra-machandran sir and later we worked asa team. We shared the downloadingtasks, he could get some of the best tu-torials on Mech Engg and related areasand I began to do some kind of oscillat-ing downloads on many other areas.My love for reading came to great helphere, I never ran out of ideas on what todownload on a specific day…I alwayshad something to search for. It was justaround the time I began developingVidya, MIT released news on their OCW launch. The idea really fascinatedme and I wrote to the then MIT Presi-dent’s Office at once appraising them of our modest efforts in building local webarchives. The reply from the MIT presi-dent’s office was really encouragingand that reinforced my belief in the po-tential of Vidya. So clearly the nextmajor phase of development Vidyawent through was with the developmentof MIT-OCW. We were perhaps the firstones in the world to systematically mir-ror locally the choicest best ( based onour requirements/ courses taught) of MIT-OCW right from the day OCW waslaunched to this day, this includes mas-sive collection of audio/ video lecturesas well. In Vidya you will find an exclu-sive MIT-OCW section categorizedtopic-wise and mapped to our Engi-neering curriculum. In fact it is with theaddition of MIT-OCW materials, Vidyagained the recognition and trust of many in the campus, they believed they
Contd... on
page 29ANWESHI - ASTHA Newsmagazine
ANWESHI
May 2008 Page 28
In Focus - VIDYA
Vidya Story - Contd ...

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