September 7, 2009
Renji Rajan belongs to the tribal settlement of Machiplavu Kudi in Idukki District in Northern Kerala. He is only one of the hundreds of people whose lives have changed due to the Amrita Jan Shikshan Sansthan (JSS)’s vocational training programs that make an effort to reach out to people like him. Trained as a plumber, Renji now earns Rs. 5000/- per month. Thanks to a new MHRD-funded initiative, soon not just hundreds, but hundreds of thousands of people like him may similarly benefit.
“In the long run, computers and touch devices are cheaper and more accessible than tools and workshops,” explained Ms. Bhavani Bijlani of Amrita. “Normally, learning a skill such as plumbing requires hands-on practice using the tools of the trade under the guidance of an expert. But with touch-sensitive haptic devices, the actual tools can be replaced by a computer and a student can learn the new skill using virtual tools.” The project is called Sakshat Amrita Vocational Education, or SAVE.
“We will make teaching modules using audio, video, multimedia and haptic devices. Since the Mata Amritanandamayi Math manages two JSS branches, we can get the help of experts very easily to develop these modules. To develop and assess a teaching module in say, plumbing, we would take input from expert plumbers who learned their trade in the traditional way, novices who would like to learn using computers and those resource persons who teach the trade in JSS-sponsored vocational training programs.”
Amrita will focus on two pilots — fabric painting and plumbing — to demonstrate the feasibility of this approach. For example, for fabric painting, students will use a Waycom tablet and a stylus connected to a computer. These devices are sensitive to pressure and angle of touch, and a student painter can make a computer picture that uses the same skill to produce a real picture, but without using real paints and brushes. “Availability of resource persons is always a constraint for us,” stated Ms. Rajani Menon, Director of Amrita-JSS. “So this should help us.”
SAVE is funded by the Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India, and has a schedule of four years to completion. Amrita-JSS in Idukki, Kerala, and Sivakasi, Tamil Nadu are collaborators in this multi-crore project. Amrita TV, a 24-hour Malayalam TV channel, will help with the video production. Novint Inc., a pioneer in interactive 3-D touch products based in New Mexico, USA, has already donated two Falcon haptic controllers to be adapted for the project.
This kind of training is not common in India, and Bhavani is keen to be on the forefront of this technology. “Amrita can not only build the systems, but also take the technology to the most needed people. We can use it in remote locations where facilities are poor and also to rehabilitate distressed people. We can use it also to preserve dying aspects of our culture, since, for example, the technology can actually capture details about how a paintbrush moves. The possibilities are endless.”
Dr. Kanav Kahol, Asst. Professor in the Department of Biomedical Informatics at Arizona State University agrees. Dr. Kanav will collaborate with Amrita on this initiative. “I am honored to be a part of this project,” he stated.