On a train called Knowledge, travel opens eyes and minds

Gandhi is the inspiration for a rail-based college. Joanna Sugden reports from New Delhi

December 6, 2012

Credit: GettyAll aboard journeys on the Dawn of Knowledge College will last a semester

Distance learning and student mobility are key phrases in higher education, but in India such ideas are taking on a different meaning in a university project that will use the country’s famous railways to its advantage.

The plans by the University of Delhi to set up a mobile college on a train are inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s railway journeys around India and South Africa, where as a young man in 1893 he was expelled from a whites-only compartment.

“It’s a huge process of education travelling in a train,” said Dinesh Singh, Delhi’s vice-chancellor. “Gandhi understood that very well and discovered his calling in life on a train journey.”

Learning in India used to be based in practice and experience, Professor Singh told Times Higher Education. “At some point down the track we have lost that; our education is now largely blackboard orientated.”

Equipped with science labs, classrooms, libraries and dormitories the train - known as the Dawn of Knowledge College - will also have wi-fiand 200 laptops for video-conferencing so students can keep up with lectures and classes taking place on the campus in Delhi.

“Students will do experiments to figure out the speed of the train, investigate the cultures that they pass through, the agriculture, the rivers they cross, examine the design of the toilets on board,” Professor Singh said.

“There will also be the business of learning to get along with a large group of people as they undertake a journey of discovery.”

India’s railway network is one of the largest in the world: it covers about 40,000 miles and has more than 7,000 stations.

Journeys will last a semester, and students will be selected from among the university’s 200,000 undergraduates based on a written proposal for a project to be undertaken during the cross-country venture.

The train will carry about 1,000 students and 150 faculty members as well as staff from the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation, who will be in charge of its operation.

Delhi hopes that the Dawn of Knowledge College, which it expects to cost about £6.7 million to purchase and modify, will set out in October 2013. Students will be involved in the design of the carriages.

Professor Singh said that the Delhi government had promised funding for the venture, whose cost would also be subsidised by about 100 students the university hopes to attract from the US.

Earlier this year, the university ran two short residential railway journeys for its students, few of whom had ever been on a train.

Parminder Sehgal, chief coordinator of the trips, said a longer journey would allow students to become more involved with the communities they visit. “They could be living with villagers and seeing their problems and then trying to solve that problem for them,” Dr Sehgal said.

Professor Singh said that he also harboured aspirations to open a college aboard a ship, which would sail students around the coast of India.

“Education must be in action, that way ideas will come to you,” he added.

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