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 2.0 program.

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 at 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 researchers.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows:

India Knowledge at 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 the world.

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 at Wharton: What is the genesis of the program? What core issues does the program expect to solve?

Jain: The BITS 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 at Wharton: How does this program differ from the Distance Education that BITS offers today?

Jain: Work 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 at Wharton: What’s new in BITSConnect 2.0? How does it operate? Please describe the technology involved.

Jain: BITSConnect 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 locations automatically.

India Knowledge at Wharton: What programs will be run as part of BITSConnect 2.0? How do you decide which programs are suitable for this delivery model?

Jain: BITSConnect 2.0 will enable collaboration of all sorts — whether it’s traditional undergraduate-level courses, or specialized graduate-level courses and research meetings.

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 at Wharton: Are there any other uses planned apart from course instruction?

Jain: Yes. The 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 at Wharton: What are the set-up and operating cost estimates for BITSConnect 2.0?

Jain: The 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 at Wharton: How will you determine the success of this program? What are the key metrics?

Jain: 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 at Wharton: Do you believe the outcomes justify the high project costs?

Jain: The 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.