Following the successful launch of an education-only satellite by the government of India last fall, educators there were engaged in regional meetings throughout that country last month to ensure that Indian students are ready to compete globally in science, mathematics, engineering, and related disciplines.

The U.S. reaction to the launch of a dedicated education satellite by India was in stark contrast to what happened nearly 50 years ago, when the Soviet Union’s launch of the Sputnik satellite drew headlines, news bulletins, and fevered calls for education reform from coast to coast. The perceived threat then sparked a heavily financed U.S. effort to improve education and regain the lead in the global race for technological superiority. That U.S. effort culminated with the moon landing 12 years after the launch of Sputnik. That was 1969.

American politicians and pundits today say the United States faces a new challenge from countries such as China and India, a challenge that has prompted President Bush to propose a plan to keep America competitive in the global economy, with math and science education at its core (see story, Page One).

A major challenge for educators in India, meanwhile, is to provide access to high-quality instruction in key subject areas, especially in rural and remote areas, explained the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), which launched EDUSAT in late September. India faces a significant shortage of qualified teachers, ISRO said.

EDUSAT aims to connect urban and rural educational institutions throughout India to provide a formal educational infrastructure and also to help spread knowledge about health and other related issues to more remote areas of the country.

The satellite will enable distance education to take place throughout India by interfacing with video from each school. The ISRO satellite program currently covers more than 1,000 schools and is expected to grow to 10,000 schools in the next three years.

India first used satellites to distribute educational programs in the mid-1970s, using the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE) to beam programs related to hygiene and family planning to a large number of Indian villages. In the early ’80s, multiple educational programs were telecast. Because those programs had such success, ISRO formed the EDUSAT Project in October 2002, the group said.

The satellite will be used for learning in many ways, such as beaming local language-instruction programs to address illiteracy. For example, one program allows students to send video questions to any teacher in any connected classroom, anywhere in India, using a streaming video card over the EDUSAT satellite. The teacher then responds to these questions through EDUSAT. The satellite also will be used in teacher training.

The satellite will use multiple regional beams to cover different parts of India, according to ISRO.

Schools and teachers using the satellite will be expected to generate classroom content, and ISRO says the quality and quantity of content ultimately will determine how successful the EDUSAT program is. Five regional conferences have been organized to help create awareness about the educational satellite and its potential.

India isn’t the first country to launch a satellite dedicated specifically to education.

Other countries, including Mexico, also have launched satellites to extend the benefits of nationwide education initiatives to hard-to-reach students. Mexico reportedly has digitized its entire K-12 curriculum, making more than 15,000 hours of educational programming accessible via satellite to schools in Mexico and in South and Central America.

The United States doesn’t have a national satellite dedicated specifically to K-12 education–reportedly because the U.S. believes in local control over education. But Susan Patrick, former director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology and now executive director of the North American Council for Online Learning, said there are now as many as 200 satellites in orbit that are used, on occasion, for educational purposes in the U.S.

In many cases, she said, universities and other groups lease satellite time from private corporations. The satellites have been used for everything from videoconferencing to streaming educational videos for instructional purposes.

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Indian Space Research Organization