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Report to the High-Level Committee of the Tamil Virtual University

About this report

This document summarizes the findings of an independent study concerning online education, virtual universities and Tamil language instruction being conducted over the Internet. It concludes with recommendations which the Government of Tamil Nadu may consider in creating a Tamil Virtual University. The author, an American-born student of Tamil language and culture, has studied Tamil and three other Indian languages at three leading American universities (U-Michigan, Berkeley and Cornell) since 1974; since 1996 he has been attached to the Institute of Asian Studies, Chennai, as its head of multimedia.

See an Overview of the Tamil Virtual University concept.

I. Observations

A. Background: The role of information technology in preserving Tamil identity

The digital revolution has had far-reaching consequences for almost every aspect of human endeavor in the late 20th century. Its impact is global and increasingly pervasive. It has opened vast new opportunities in the fields of science, technology, education and commerce, to name only a few. Advances in information technology are already greatly enhancing the productivity of workers, educators, scientists, businessmen and others while giving them new capabilities that were undreamed of even a few years ago.

One of the fields most affected has been education. With advances in information technology, computer prices keep falling even as they become more powerful and user-friendly. As a result, computers have entered schools and homes on a big scale, especially in countries of Europe and North America where the computers have penetrated into every nook and cranny of society. The Internet's World Wide Web, which did not exist until 1993, is burgeoning at a phenomenal rate and already is home to vast educational resources that are easily accessible.

There is a widespread perception among educators around the world that, while the human teacher will always remain indispensable, the Internet-linked computer has already emerged as the teaching tool par excellence. Hence it is imperative that educators examine the implications of the digital revolution in their field and take bold steps to harness the power of computers. Only by doing so can a society or individual keep apace with the social and technological changes that are rapidly transforming the social and economic life of people everywhere irrespective of social, linguistic or political boundaries.

At the same time that these technological advances are occurring, the worldwide Tamil diaspora community has been growing dramatically both in terms of numbers and affluence. A large proportion of them are computer-literate and many have their own home computers. In recent years there has been a growing awareness among the Tamil diaspora that, in the process of settling abroad and acquiring western education, tastes and lifestyle, they have been steadily losing their Tamil identity as embodied in the very Tamil language, culture, customs and way of life that their grandparents had cherished as dearly as life itself. It has become clearly evident to the Tamil diaspora that each successive generation is becoming more out of touch with its mother culture and mother tongue such that within only a couple of generations diaspora Tamil children are growing up without ever learning to speak or read Tamil language.

Having achieved economic well-being, they are increasingly anxious to reaffirm their Tamil identity. The Internet has become the preferred medium for the Tamil diaspora’s efforts to establish closer links to their mother culture and mother tongue. This is only natural since many expatriate Tamils are computer professionals who are at the forefront of their field. Over the decades they have begun to transform their yearning to propagate Tamil language and culture into an informal worldwide network of mainly expatriate Tamils sharing a common interest in Tamil culture and literature.

B. Extant Tamil Websites

Out of this well-founded concern for the continuity of Tamil culture and language among the present and future generations, diaspora Tamils (mostly professionals in the hard sciences) have been creating a network of sites on the Internet where Tamils anywhere in the world may share information of common concern including lately entire texts of Tamil literature in Roman and/or Tamil fonts. Most notably, Dr. Kalyanasundaram's site (http://dcwww.epfl.ch.icp/ICP-2/tamil.html) at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne and the TamilNet site of Bala Pillai (www.tamil.net) and others have made an immeasurable contribution to this collective endeavor. For this they deserve praise and, most especially, concrete support.

It should be noted that several attempts have already been made to survey or index the Internet’s extensive digital resources concerning Tamil language and culture. TamilNet ‘99 Conference has compiled the most recent Internet index.

However, there are some inherent weaknesses also in the Web sites owned and maintained by the Tamil diaspora. In his 1996 Review of Extant Websites, Prof. Harold Schiffman of the University of Pennsylvania, USA, points out that "A review of what passes for Tamil websites on the Internet today must conclude that most offerings are not useful for second-language learners, with some exceptions…The result is a great deal of unusable material, often wrongly modernized in orthography (children born since 1978 cannot easily read pre-1978 orthography) but of no use to elementary language-learners, including the very children of Tamils living abroad."

Even Tamil Internet activists themselves have recognised the limitations. As one diaspora Tamil wrote recently, "If we think that a collection of unfocussed web pages created by random individuals as a hobby can become a university, then our expectation of what constitutes a 'university' is rather low." For the most part, diaspora Tamil sites are owned, designed and maintained not by Tamil educators but by professionals in the hard sciences who volunteer their time to promote Tamil culture using information technology. In terms of pedagogy, these sites tend to be deficient in meeting the needs of those who wish to learn Tamil as a second language.

The best site on the Internet for learning Tamil is undoubtedly the University of Pennsylvania's Website for Learning and Teaching Tamil. This is a project of the Penn Language Center with the joint participation of Tamil-teaching faculty at the Universities of Chicago, Cornell, and Pennsylvania, notably Prof. Harold F. Schiffman and Dr. Vasu Renganathan of U-Penn. The site's extensive resources include:

  • Introduction to the Tamil alphabet;
  • Vocabulary drills;
  • Audio files of simple conversational exchanges;
  • Reference grammar of spoken Tamil;
  • Searchable index of Tamil and English vocabularies; and
  • Software for learning Tamil

The University of Pennsylvania's Website for Learning and Teaching Tamil is so comprehensive, sophisticated and popular (over 14,000 visitors since 2.2.1998) that it would be very hard to equal or exceed. As a collaborative undertaking of Tamil-teaching faculty at the Universities of Chicago, Cornell, and Pennsylvania, it incorporates the latest Internet technologies with the expertise of prominent Tamil and American educators. It is administered by:

  • Harold F. Schiffman
  • Henry R. Luce Professor of Language Learning
  • Professor of Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
  • Dept. of South Asian Regional Studies
  • 804 Williams Hall, Box 6305
  • University of Pennsylvania

Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305 USA
E-mail: haroldfs@ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Website: http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/plc/tamilweb/

Prof. Schiffman's Website for Learning and Teaching Tamil satisfactorily addresses the pedagogical issues faced by non-native learners of Tamil language. The site's popularity among Tamil learners speaks for itself in this respect. Moreover the present author, having studied Tamil in India, Sri Lanka and at three

American universities since 1971, can testify from long and hard experience that the U-Penn Website is the best digital resource site for beginning and intermediate students of Tamil primarily because of its pedagogical aptness, i.e. it guides students through the most efficient course to acquire modern spoken and written Tamil.

It should be noted that necessarily a two-pronged approach utilising the expertise of both Tamil educators and Tamil computer/multimedia professionals will be an essential feature of any successful joint effort to create a viable and reputable virtual university for the promotion of Tamil language and culture.

C. Online Education Today

Presently more than half of the world's computers are found in the USA, so it is here that Internet education has proliferated most to include hundreds of universities, colleges and institutes as well as private foundations. The Internet listing of Online University Teaching Centers Across the World (http://eagle.cc.ukans.edu/~cte/OtherSites.html) provides the names and Internet addresses of a few hundred online educational institutions around the world, the majority of which are situated in the United States. There are also many online institutions in the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. Some have also begun to appear in Asia as well. It is likely that within a few years every educational institution of any consequence in the world will establish a presence on the Internet, ranging from simple home page to technically sophisticated Websites offering a wide range of courses for university credit. Already the process has begun here in Tamil Nadu as well.

D. Tamil language study abroad

The American education system also supports more departments concerned with the teaching of Tamil language than any other country or region in the world. The following American universities offer Tamil language courses:

  1. University of California--Berkeley (www.tamil.berkeley.edu)
  2. University of Pennsylvania (http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/plc/)
  3. University of Chicago (www.uchicago.edu)
  4. University of Texas--Austin (www.utexas.edu)
  5. University of Michigan--Ann Arbor (www.lsa.umich.edu/asian/)
  6. Cornell University (www.cornell.edu)
  7. University of Virginia (summer session only) (www.uva.edu)
  8. University of Wisconsin--Madison (summer session only) (www.wisc.edu)

Formerly few undergraduates used to enroll in Indian language courses. But with the influx of second and third-generation Tamils into American universities, many students of Tamil heritage have been opting to satisfy bachelor’s degree distribution requirements by taking one or two years of Tamil. This has helped to swell enrollment and has made it easier for cash-strapped departments to hire more instructors or even to create a new Chair for Tamil Studies recently at Berkeley. It has also provided impetus for the Tamil programmes at U-Pennsylvania, U-Chicago and Cornell to join together for the purpose of developing teaching materials including a popular Website for learning Tamil as a second language (see above). Having studied Sanskrit, Hindi, Tamil and Sinhala at U-Michigan, Berkeley and Cornell during the 1970’s and 80’s, I still know many of the instructors at these institutions. Certainly there is scope for collaboration here; already U-Penn has expressed interest.

Outside of North America, there are fewer departments, fewer students and less financial support for programmes in Tamil language. Nevertheless, there are many determined and dedicated students of Tamil language in European universities, many of whom are officially working in related fields like philology or linguistics. Notably France, Germany and Russia still continue their long-standing traditions of indological scholarship. Outside of North America the Institute of Indology & Tamil Studies of Cologne University in Germany (http://www.un i-ko eln.de/phil-fak/indologie/) has the largest programme in Tamil studies; Dr. Thomas Malten (th.malten@uni-koeln.de) of the Institute directs the Pongal-2000 Project to digitize Tamil literature in collaboration with Dr. George Hart (www.tamil.berkeley.edu) at Berkeley and the Institute of Asian Studies in Chennai.

A search of the SARAI (South Asia Resource Access on the Internet) database at Columbia University in USA yields the names and addresses of sixty scholars around the world who are involved in research and/or teaching of subjects related to Tamil culture and language. Undoubtedly there must be many more scholars and students of Tamil who are not listed on this SARAI database, including some prominent scholars and teachers. Notably, there are known to be some outstanding Tamil scholars in Europe working in their respective national languages, especially in France, Germany and Russia. Some very senior scholars of Tamil literature, like Dr. Kamil Zwelebil, are either retired or are not easily contacted by e-mail. Prof. Alexander Dubianski of the Department of Indian Philology of Moscow State University in Russia, for instance, has e-mail access (dubian@iaas.msu.su) but the e-mail service is sporadic. The SARAI listing can serve as a useful starting point Each year more and more scholars in East European universities and elsewhere are coming online with e-mail and Internet access. In the course of time almost every Tamil scholar abroad (and in India also) will be reachable by e-mail.

E. What is a Virtual University?

Widespread concern about the erosion of Tamil identity and decay of Tamil language has prompted officials of the State Government of Tamil Nadu to take prompt steps to address the issues. In early 1999 the State Government announced its intention to establish a Tamil Virtual University designed to promote Tamil language, literature and culture internationally through the medium of Internet-linked computers. A High-Level Committee consisting of senior Tamil educators has been formed and sub-committees drawn up with a mandate to formulate the vision and mission of the Tamil Virtual University, issue a detailed report to the State Government with recommendations. Very soon a course of action will be implemented.

The idea of a 'virtual university' is a new concept that has arisen only recently with the growth of the Internet. Accordingly, educators abroad are formulating different concepts of virtual universities. Examples of different concepts are:

  • Gateway to study at other universities. California Virtual University (www.california.edu) offers no degrees or courses of its own, but rather serves as a gateway on the Internet for prospective students interested in obtaining admission to degree courses at any one of more than one hundred California-based colleges and universities.
  • Global university in cyberspace. The Global Virtual University (www.gvu.ac.nz) is based in New Zealand but registered in the State of Delaware, USA. In fact, it exists only in cyberspace (i.e. on the Internet). It aims to become a degree-granting university offering online courses only taught and administered by eminent educators living all over the world. It has been a dream of educators for years and, indeed, the Global Virtual University is still far from achieving its aim, as it has not yet attracted suffcient faculty or students to achieve international accreditation.
  • Statewide distance education. The Tennessee Virtual University (www.rcenter.org) is a project of the State of Tennessee, USA to promote distance education for state residents. The Tennessee Board of Regents and the University of Tennessee assist the Tennessee Higher Education Commission in piloting the Tennessee Virtual University. Students will be able to complete courses and earn certificates and degrees over the Internet at their own time via a computer connected to the Internet. This pilot project is scheduled to begin fall of 2000.
  • Internet access to university courses for credit. The Virtual Jewish University (www.bar-ilan.edu) is a project of Bar-Ilan University in Israel. Students in Israel and abroad may gain admission and follow the same courses for credit, which other students follow conventionally in classrooms on campuses in Israel including online examinations. Their grade transcripts are the same as those of other students; academic credits are transferable to universities in other countries. The project aims to make courses on Jewish culture, history and religion available to Jewish diaspora living outside Israel, especially in North America.

F. Tamil Virtual University versus Virtual Tamil University: What's in a name?

The question has arisen as to whether the proposed institution should be known as the Tamil Virtual University or the Virtual Tamil University. An initial search of the Internet reveals that there are at present at least five 'virtual universities' in the world, viz.:

  1. The Global Virtual University (based in New Zealand but registered in the State of Delaware, USA) (www.gvu.ac.nz);
  2. California Virtual University (actually the Internet gateway to 100 California colleges & universities) (www.california.edu):
  3. Tennessee Virtual University (starting in fall of 2000) (www.rcenter.org);
  4. The Virtual Jewish University, a project of Bar-Ilan University in Israel, the country's largest university (www.bar-ilan.edu):
  5. Virtual University Project in Korea (http://camis.kaist.ac.kr/VirtualUniv/)

Hence, there are precedents for either choice. The name Virtual Tamil University may however be construed to mean a virtual extension of the existing University in Tanjavur. Also, in grammatical usage the word 'virtual' should remain close to the word it modifies, i.e. 'university', such that the two words 'virtual university' conjoined describe a new and distinct concept. Otherwise, 'Virtual Tamil' suggests a virtual language that is not quite real, like saying that someone is a virtual Tamil, i.e. he is not really a Tamil, but almost a Tamil. On these grounds I would support and prefer the designation Tamil Virtual University.

II. Recommendations

Concerned individuals should definitely visit Penn Language Center's Web Assisted Learning and Teaching of Tamil website at http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/plc /tamilweb/ which is the foremost digital resource site already attracting thousands of visits by Tamil learners. Any informed discussion of the design, layout and content of a planned Website to teach Tamil must assume that the planners have already visited this outstanding digital resource site.

Rather than to duplicate work the Penn Language Center's website for Web Assisted Learning and Teaching of Tamil, it may be more sensible to collaborate with Penn Language Center educators and other Tamil educators abroad in designing and building the proposed Tamil Virtual University website. In this scenario, the TVU Tamil-learning programme and the PLC Website may be hyperlinked into one seamless Internet resource, i.e. on two separate Internet servers in USA and India. This partnership could serve as the basis for an extended TVU that incorporates digital resources from recognised Tamil learning sites around the globe. Unless and until the content quality of the TVU online Tamil course is comparable to that of the Penn Language Center's website, planners may expect that Tamil learners will continue to prefer to use the Penn Language Center site and similar Tamil resource sites. The Internet recognises no borders; quality alone matters, not location.

Concerned individuals should also visit the Websites of these virtual universities:

  • The California Virtual University (www.california.edu);
  • The Virtual Jewish University (www.bar-ilan.edu);
  • The Global Virtual University (www.gvu.ac.nz); and
  • The Tennessee Virtual University (www.rcenter.org).

The Virtual Jewish University in particular parallels many of the elements of the mission of the proposed Tamil Virtual University, namely:

  • Like Tamils, Jews are enterprising people who value education and hard work.
  • There is a large Jewish diaspora living outside the state of Israel, especially in North America.
  • Jewish leaders are concerned about the loss of Jewish identity among the Jewish diaspora.
  • The Virtual Jewish University was explicitly founded to teach Jewish culture and history to young Jews living in Israel and around the world.
  • Educators at Bar-Ilan University have made great pioneering strides in using information technology to promote these objectives which parallel those of the Tamil Virtual University.

Should the TVU be envisioned as part of a broader initiative or programme to promote Tamil identity at home and abroad? Israel's Virtual Jewish University is a project of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. France's Alliance Francaise also has an explicit mission to promote not only French language and French culture abroad, but also to promote French business interests as well. It is not an issue so much of budgetary or manpower constraints but of assuming a broad perspective of the possibilities entailed in Tamil Nadu’s initiative to promote Tamil language and culture worldwide via information technology and the Internet -- and then seeking the mandate to implement that vision. That is, the High-Level Committee may wish to consider its broader objectives and incorporate those objectives into the visions and mission statements.

The TVU may incorporate certain features of other extant virtual universities, such as:

  • Like the California Virtual University (www.california.edu), the TVU Website may serve as an Internet gateway for those wishing to study Tamil language and culture at Tamil Nadu-based universities and institutions of higher learning. It can provide visitors with complete course offerings and admission requirements, etc., thereby encouraging Tamils and others living abroad to come and immerse themselves in Tamil language and culture in a structured academic environment. The Institute of Asian Studies in Chennai gets frequent inquiries via its Website from Tamils and non-Tamils alike, many of whom opt to come to Chennai and affiliate themselves with the Institute for months or years of study. The State Government could encourage this trend by creating an integrated TVU Website like the State of California does. The existing Tamil Resource and Tamil Nadu Page is an example of a Website directory that serves the interests of Tamils and Tamil culture.
    Like the Global Virtual University (www.gvu.ac.nz), the TVU should avail itself of the expertise of Tamil savants and technical experts scattered across the globe. Like the GVU, the TVU need not be geographically confined to Tamil Nadu. The TVU Website may be hyperlinked to existing Tamil Websites like the Tamil Electronic Library, Penn Language Center, the University of Chicago's Tamil Dictionary on the Net Project), the Key Word Search of Tamil Literature (IITS, Univ. of Cologne, Germany), TamilNet and so on.
  • Like the Tennessee Virtual University (www.rcenter.org), the Tamil Virtual University Website could eventually serve as the appropriate electronic platform for statewide distance education. In the not-so-distant future, students in Tamil Nadu may be able to log onto the TVU site from their home district to complete courses in Tamil medium that are being conducted at schools in other parts of the state or even in other parts of the world. It may become reality only some years hence, but the foundation for statewide distance education may be envisioned and planned even now.
  • Like the Virtual Jewish University (www.bar-ilan.edu), the TVU could serve as an effective medium to promote Tamil language and culture abroad by making courses on Tamil language, literature, culture and history available to Tamil diaspora outside Tamil Nadu. If there are courses and Website content that are attractive and suit the needs of young people living in foreign cultures, they will frequent the TVU Website and make use of its course offerings as auditors at first. Eventually the best TVU courses may qualify for accreditation, such that diaspora Tamils living abroad may complete TVU courses and transfer the academic credit to their home institutions in Europe, America and worldwide. Once accreditation is achieved, the number of enrolling diaspora Tamils will greatly increase. Success breeds more success.

The Committee may also consider the scope for establishing the TVU Website as a venue for the distribution of information and software to promote electronic commerce in Tamil medium for the following reasons:

  • Electronic commerce or e-commerce is the fastest-growing segment of the Internet;
  • In an increasingly globalised world economy, Tamil Nadu needs to remain competitive;
  • Tamil-language e-commerce is now in the elementary stage, so its growth may be expected to be phenomenal in years to come;
  • TVU could serve as a State Govt.-sponsored digital resource center for fostering Tamil e-commerce by making available Tamil-language software tools for creating commercial and educational Websites, providing online Tamil-medium information for Tamil businessmen, etc.;
  • The technical issues involved in promoting Tamil language learning and promoting Tamil e-commerce over the Internet are very similar. Only the audience for e-commerce would include both Tamil diaspora and Tamils residing in Tamil Nadu. The greater potential audience however is here in Tamil Nadu, and that is a very great potential indeed that the State Government should not overlook or underestimate when contemplating a comprehensive educational Website.

The Tamil Virtual University website should include:

  • a virtual campus 'map' of programs and offerings on its home page;
  • an attractive TVU logo or banner on each TVU Web page;
  • a complete listing of course offerings at Tamil Nadu universities;
  • information about admission to institutions of higher learning in Tamil Nadu; and
  • a listing of faculty and staff engaged in the TVU project.

It cannot be emphasized enough that the pedagogy employed in teaching Tamil language and culture via the Internet to diaspora Tamils and non-Tamils must be substantially different from that used to teach native Tamil speakers here in Tamil Nadu schools. In particular, the course content and methodology must suit the foreign students’ needs. The great majority of them want to acquire modern spoken and written Tamil rather than ancient classical or literary varieties of Tamil. Most diaspora Tamil learners want to learn the language from scratch for practical communication purposes. Therefore the introductory and intermediate Tamil courses should be designed with this constantly in mind. Classical and literary Tamil can be offered in advanced courses. Educators having extensive experience in teaching Tamil to foreigners and diaspora Tamils should be consulted and their views respected. Otherwise diaspora Tamils will go elsewhere for Tamil instruction and the TVU will fail to achieve a very important part of its mission. Kindly note that I speak from long personal experience in this regard.

To avoid litigation, the TVU should try to obtain copyright permissions before publishing modern Tamil literature, etc., on its Website. Even dictionary materials if mishandled may become an issue for litigation later.

In the interest of diaspora Tamils and other foreign students and auditors, Tamil language course material should include glossaries, vocabulary and cultural notes, etc., with glossed items anchored to the glossaries, i.e. directly integrated into the Web page in the form of hyperlinks for maximum convenience to the user. Vocabulary and cultural notes may be hotkeyed (i.e. anchored) so that students only need to click on the item and information will be supplied. Images pertaining to texts should be added to Web pages where appropriate.

Periodic evaluations of the TVU should be undertaken. One way to determine whether the site and its materials are meeting the needs of the users is to create a 'comment box' on the site where users can send email messages in response to questions put to them or allowing for open-ended commentary. Another way is to circulate questionnaires among the small number of people professionally involved in teaching Tamil in North America, Japan, Europe and elsewhere. A third metric of quality would be to ask some multimedia professional(s) to evaluate the site as an outside consultant.

If the Tamil Virtual University remains narrowly confined to the corpus of Tamil literature and materials for learning Tamil, then it may never deserve to be called a true university. Hence I recommend that the Committee not close the door on proposals for appropriate programs such as that for offering education and resources in Tamil-language e-commerce and statewide distance education via the TVU website. Here again the experience and achievements of other virtual universities are well worth considering before any final policy decision is formulated. That is, some day the TVU could become a full-fledged internationally recognized and accredited university. This possibility should not be excluded. The possibilities, indeed, are enormous.

Submitted on 3 September 1999
to the Chairman of the High-Level Committee

by Patrick Harrigan
Head of Multimedia
Institute of Asian Studies, Chennai

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