August 22, 2012

Distance Learning with Zoho SHOW and Google Hangout

image :
Distance learning is a concept whose importance is growing by leaps and bounds everyday. We all know that there is nothing that can beat the physical presence of a teacher in the class but the exigencies of delivering educational services at an affordable price point is forcing everyone -- both students and teachers -- to accept the reality of this technology.

In fact it boils down to the ROI, the return on investment : we all know that it would have been far better to have been at London and watch opening ceremony of the Olympics but the cost of the travel and tickets forced all of us to watch it on TV and I am sure that the Organising Committee earned more from TV rights than what they could have got through ticket sales. So it was a win-win for all to have the show broadcast in a virtual medium even though the experience was sort of degraded by the small screen. So is the case with distance learning.

Most distance learning platforms use a combination of streaming video -- to carry voice and video -- and a way to show slides ( of the Powerpoint variety ) by sharing the screen. I have in the past experimented with Anymeeting and other webinar software to teach my MBA class but the results are very uneven. The Java based software is rather unstable especially if bandwidths are low but what really hurts is the way the screen share is often blocked by campus or corporate firewalls. Moreover when in screen share mode, the presenter -- or teacher -- cannot see the video of the classroom and this makes it very difficult to speak "blindly" into a slide. Believe me, having done this a number of times, I am yet to get used to this and it really cramps your style and having to toggle between the video mode and the screenshare mode is very irritating for the audience.

Which made me look for alternatives and I have discovered that the combination of Google Hangouts + Zoho Show is a wonderful combination.

Let me explain how it works.

We have a class of 60 students and in the front of the class is a computer that is connected to the internet and also to an overhead projector. The teacher creates a Hangout and invites a student to join the same from the computer that is connected to the overhead projector. So the video of the teacher comes on the screen and his voice is heard through speakers. If this computer has a camera then the teacher gets to see the students in the class. [ If you want a better view, a second computer with a camera can also join the Hangout -- you can go upto 10 machines ]

Now it is possible to share a screen from the teachers laptop through the Hangout but this is messy -- the text on the screen becomes small so does the video. So we do not do this.

Instead, the teacher has a second laptop and he uses Zoho Show to run a presentation in broadcast mode. Now each student in the class has a laptop ( all students carry laptops these days, particularly MBA students ) and they fire up a browser and go to a URL of the presentation that the teacher is running. This means that they see the same presentation and -- this is the clincher -- they are always on the same page, or slide where the teacher is ! In fact, when the teacher changes slides, all the students get their slides changed automatically.

So the students watch the teacher talking on video on the common classroom screen on the wall AND they see the slides that the teacher is talking about, on their personal laptops -- closely simulating the situation in a physical class ! And the icing on the cake is that when viewing the Zoho Show broadcast, the students have ready chat screen with them in which to type in questions.

When the teacher sees a student raising his or her hand he looks at the chat screen, reads out the question and then answers it verbally for the benefit of all the students in the class.

The single biggest advantage of this hybrid approach is that because the video is delinked from the presentation the chance of a breakdown / freeze up is far lower. The standard webinar software like Anymeeting, by clubbing the two functions together, introduce a lot of instability that causes frequent breakdowns that degrades the pedagogical experience.

It is not that Hangout does not freeze, but when it does, the teacher can exit the Hangout and rejoin again and the class continues without much difficulty. In fact having two parallel and independent channels across the two locations gives a lot of flexibility to all concerned.

Zoho Show is an excellent cloud based presentation tool where you can either create smart slides or it will happily import existing Powerpoint or OpenOffice/Libre Office presentations. So creating a deck of slides in Zoho is quite easy. But what  makes Zoho Show really useful is the broadcast mode that allows a whole class of students to view the the slide deck synchronously with the teacher and the other students. Google Docs, the other cloud based presentation tool, does NOT have this feature at the moment.

Net-net, after using the Google Hangout + Zoho Show combination for nearly 75 minutes today, both the students and me ( the teacher ) were very happy with the outcome. Let us see how far we can push this technology.

August 18, 2012

The Evanescence of Subhas Bose

On 18th August 1945, three days after Japan's offer to surrender in the Pacific sector of WWII, a light bomber took off from the Matsuyama airport in Taihoku, Formosa, carrying Subhas Bose -- the Head of the Provisional Government of Free India, his young ADC, Habib-Ur-Rahman and a number of senior Japanese military officers. The aircraft was on its way to Tokyo but unfortunately a mechanical failure caused it to crash within minutes of takeoff. Most of the passengers, including Habib-ur-Rahman survived but Subhas Bose and another senior Japanese officer died of burns. Thus ended the illustrious life of one of the most charismatic figures of the Indian independence movement. The accident and the death was announced by the Japanese government on 23rd August 1945.

This is the story that a post Independence generation of Indians have grown up with and it has been corroborated by Government of India on the basis of two different commissions of enquiry led by (a) Shah Nawaz Khan, an associate of Subhas Bose and (b) GD Khosla, a retired judge.

It is now established beyond a shadow of doubt that this story is completely false because (a) no plane ever crashed in Formosa on that date and (b) Subhas Bose was on his way, not to Tokyo, but to Manchuria to carry on with the fight for India's independence with the help of Russia. He had faked the news of his death to throw British intelligence off his trail.

This was a hunch that I have had for years and had blogged about it earlier but the book "Back from Dead : Inside the Subhas Bose Mystery" by Anuj Dhar has removed all shadow of doubt in this regard. Written almost in the style of a racy thriller, but substantiating each claim and statement with precise references to specific documents and personalities, the author puts forth clear, cogent and convincing arguments to prove his point.

Other than clearly establishing the fact Subhas Bose did not die in an aircrash on 18 Aug 1945, the author has also established the steadfastness (if not cussed viciousness ) with which the Government of India, particularly the Congress Party led by Jawaharlal Nehru and later Indira and Rajiv Gandhi, tried to establish the crash-death theory and deliberately blocked every attempt to unravel the real truth.

Why was this so ? Why would the Government of India turn its back on one of its most charismatic sons ? The answer becomes clear if we replace the Government of India with personality of Jawaharlal Nehru and note that Subhas Bose was his direct political rival. Apologists of the (MK)Gandhi-Nehru-Gandhi camp may  argue otherwise but it is a common perception that while Nehru was a wimp-womaniser-litterateur who became the Congress leader by prostrating himself to the whims-and-wishes of MK Gandhi, Subhas Bose was the dynamic, charismatic, intellectual politician who was miles ahead in popularity. Had he not been edged out by MK Gandhi's sordid political machinations, it was he who would have been leading the Congress and should have become the eventual Prime Minister of independent India. While Nehru was writing books and letters to his daughter from the comforts of a British jail during WWII, Bose was out in the field campaigning through Russia, Germany, Japan and finally across South East Asia trying to raise a military force -- the Indian National Army -- with which to secure India's Independence.

It is a different matter that his plans failed when his principal and final backer, Japan was defeated in the Pacific Theater and that is when he put in motion his next ( last ? or final ? ) plan for India's Independence.
Just as he had "disappeared" once before, from his house arrest in Calcutta, fooled the British police, escaped from India and reached Germany through Afghanistan and Russia, he "disappeared" again, this time by faking his death.

Nehru was actually relieved to hear of this death of Subhas since this removed the only rival that he had -- and the only one that he could never match either in ability or in popularity, but the thought that he might have lived and worse might be planning a comeback must have given him sleepless nights. Hence the desperate effort to stymie any honest probe and substitute these with probes done by sycophants and turncoats bribed by the loaves and fishes of office.

While the escapade of Subhas Bose from Saigon / Taihoku is very clearly established, the subsequent story is a little less clear. The author has collected lots of information  -- again meticulously documented and referenced -- about Subhas Bose travelling to Russia, being held in captivity in a Russian Gulag and then coming back to India to live incognito in Faizabad there is one question that lingers and it is one that the author admits to not having a good answer for.

Why would such a person -- who had sacrificed his entire life for the nation -- hide away from public life and life of a hermit ? Some have suggested that he might have been arrested and charged as an International War Criminal but then Subhas Bose was not the person to be frightened of the legal process !

If it was indeed Subhas Bose who was in Faizabad till "his" death on 16 Sep 1985 -- and the author has put together an impressive list of people, facts and correspondence to establish that it could have been him -- then the question will continue to haunt us for ever. Why ? Why ? Why ? did he not reveal himself when he could have had nation at his feat. There is an answer but it is rather weak and I do not wish to reveal it here.

What really rankles is the fact that Subhas Bose did not die in the aircrash on 18 Aug 1945 and yet the Government of India actively colluded to hide this fact about one of India's greatest sons.

That is the tragedy that has been conclusively established by Anuj Dhar in "Back from Dead".

Do buy and read the book. You will be impressed, informed and intellectually stimulated. Jai Hind.

the two images have been taken from

Post Script : 
The BJP led coalition government when it was in power between 1998 - 2004, constituted the Mukherjee Commission of Inquiry into the matter of the disappearance of Subhas Bose in 1999. This Commission of Inquiry concluded that Subhas Bose did not die in the aircrash at Taiwan but is silent on what happened to him subsequently in Russia or India. The Congress party returned in power in 2004 and rejected the findings of the commission when it was presented in 2006 -- in keeping with its tradition of continuing to uphold the theory of the aircrash.

August 16, 2012

The Summing Up

An article written in 1984 on the eve of leaving Azad Hall of Residence, IIT Kharagpur

August 09, 2012

Horoscope of Lord Krishna

On the occasion of Janmashtami, when India celebrates the birth of the Divine Soldier-Statesman who stands at the confluence of history and myth and still moves the hearts and minds of many of us, I present what I believe to be is the horoscope of Lord Krishna.

for my earlier blog on the historicity of the Mahabharata War, please read this post.

August 01, 2012

A day in Tamluk

Tamluk is one of the oldest known habitats in the history of North India.  Situated on the right bank of what is now known as the Rupnarayan River, Tamluk, or Tamralipta, is mentioned in many historical records as a port of great economic significance in the Eastern sea coast of India. Today, the river has shifted away from the town and the port has moved downstream, beyond the confluence of the Rupnarayan and the Hooghly, to Haldia, but the town retains its quaint charms.

The most important landmark of Tamluk today is the Bargabhima Temple that is considered to be one of the 51 Shakti Peethas of the Divine Mother. Here are some pictures of this famous temple.

The current temple is not very old. It has evidently been rebuilt after the iconoclastic Islamic occupation of Bengal in the middle ages but myths and legends about the antiquity of this temple -- one of the most famous temples of South Bengal -- place it in the hearts and minds of those who revere and adore Kali and the Divine Mother.

Not far from the Bargabhima temple is the old RajBari -- the residence of the local ruler -- in a state of utter dilapidation.

Tamluk is easily accessible from National Highway 6 that connects Calcutta to Mumbai. One needs to turn south at Kolaghat and take the highway that goes to Haldia. A couple of kilometers from the turn, one will come across a tiny, "state highway" that branches off to the left and leads to Tamluk. The Bhimbarga temple is located in a very congested area BUT there is a neat, nice parking lot that has been created by some local people where you can safely park your car by paying some money. The Rajbari is more accessible as you can see in the picture of our car parked in front of the ruins.