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India's Education Sector: Moving Toward a Digital Future

The typical Indian classroom was once characterized by students sitting through hour-long teacher monologues. Now, technology is making life easier for both students and educators. Schools are increasingly adopting digital teaching solutions to engage with a generation of pupils well-versed with the likes of PlayStations and iPads, and trying to make the classroom environment more inclusive and participatory.

india-education.jpgTake Smartclass from Educomp Solutions, one of the first Indian companies in this space. Smartclass is essentially a digital content library of curriculum-mapped, multimedia-rich, 3D content. It also enables teachers to quickly assess how much of a particular lesson students have been able to assimilate during the class. Once a topic is covered, the teacher gives the class a set of questions on a large screen. Each student then answers via a personal answering device or the smart assessment system. The teacher gets the scores right away and based on that, she repeats parts of the lesson that the students don't appear to have grasped.

"Technology makes the teaching-learning process very easy and interesting," says Harish Arora, a chemistry teacher at the Bal Bharti Public School in New Delhi who has been using Smartclass since 2004. "For instance, [earlier] it would easily take me one full lecture to just draw an electromagnetic cell on the blackboard. Though I could explain the cell structure, there was no way I could have managed to show them how it really functions. This is where technology comes to our aid -- now I can show the students a 3D model of the cell and how it functions. Instead of wasting precious time drawing the diagram on the blackboard, I can invest it in building the conceptual clarity of my students."

According to Abhinav Dhar, director for K-12 at Educomp Solutions, more than 12,000 schools across 560 districts in India have adopted Smartclass. More importantly, the number is growing at almost 20 schools a day. On average, in each of these schools eight classrooms are using Smartclass.

"When we launched Smartclass in 2004 as the first-ever digital classroom program, it was an uphill task convincing schools to adopt it," Dhar notes. "These schools had not witnessed any change in a century.... It is a completely different scenario now. Private schools across India today see [technology] as an imperative. A digital classroom is set to become the bare-minimum teaching accessory in schools, just like a blackboard is today."

Dhar recalls that one major roadblock for Educomp's proposition in the early days was on the price front. At US$4,000 (at the exchange rate of Rs. 50 to a U.S. dollar) per classroom, schools found the product very expensive. To get over this hurdle, Educomp quickly decided to make the initial investment and gave the schools an option to pay over a period of three to five years. The strategy worked. Enthused by the market response, in January Educomp launched an upgraded version -- the Smartclass Class Transformation System -- with more features, including simulations, mind maps, worksheets, web links, a diagram maker, graphic organizers and assessment tools.

Huge Potential

According to the "Indian Education Sector Outlook -- Insights on Schooling Segment," a report released by New Delhi--based research and consultancy firm Technopak Advisors in May, the total number of schools in India stands at 1.3 million. Of these, private schools account for 20%. Educomp's Dhar points out that only around 10% of the private schools have tapped the potential of multimedia classroom teaching whereas in government schools, it has barely made any inroads.

"The current market size for digitized school products in private schools is around US$500 million," says Enayet Kabir, associate director for education at Technopak. "This is expected to grow at a CAGR [compound annual growth rate] of 20% to reach the over US$2 billion mark by 2020. However, the market potential then might get as big as US$4 billion [i.e. if the total population of private schools that could adopt multimedia actually adopt it.] Apart from this, the current market size for ICT [information and communications technology] in government schools is US$750 million. We expect this to grow five times by 2020 due to the current low level of penetration in government schools."

Kabir lists Educomp Solutions, Everonn Education, NIIT, Core Education & Technologies, IL&FS and Compucom as dominant players in this sector. New entrants include HCL Infosystems, Learn Next, Tata Interactive Systems, Mexus Education, S. Chand Harcourt (India) and iDiscoveri Education. Except for S. Chand Harcourt, which is a joint venture between S. Chand and US-based Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, all the others are Indian firms.

A recent trend is that schools in tier two and tier three cities are increasingly adopting the latest technology. Rajesh Shethia, head of sales and marketing at Tata Interactive Systems, which launched Tata ClassEdge in early 2011 and has partnered up with more than 900 schools, says that "more than half of the demand for digital classrooms is from tier two and tier three cities." According to Shethia, schools in these smaller cities realize that it is difficult for their students to get as much exposure as students from tier one cities. "[So] they proactively subscribe to solutions such as ours, which richly benefit both teachers and students by simplifying the syllabus.... Even parents want the best for their wards and are not averse to paying a little extra. They see value in these initiatives by schools to modernize the way teaching is imparted today." Making some back-of-the-envelope calculations Shethia adds: "If we consider the top 100,000 private schools in India as the captive market, the potential is approximately two million classrooms of which currently just about 80,000 have been digitized."

Srikanth B. Iyer, COO of Pearson Education Services, also sees tremendous potential in the smaller cities. Pearson provides end-to-end education solutions in the K-12 segment. Its multimedia tool, DigitALly, has been adopted in more than 3,000 private schools across India since 2004. "DigitALly installations have been growing at three times the market for the past two years," Iyer says. "Currently, more than 60% of our customers are from tier two and tier three towns, such as Barpeta (in the state of Assam), Sohagpur (in Madhya Pradesh) and Balia (in Uttar Pradesh)."

In order to make its offering attractive to the schools, Pearson has devised a monthly payment model under which a school pays around US$2 per student per month. "As the price point is affordable, schools across all locations and fee structures find it viable to opt for our solution," Iyer notes. "We focus on tier two and tier three towns and cities where penetration is relatively low and desire for adoption of technology is high." HCL's Digischool program, which launched about 18 months ago, has also made a strong beginning, with a client base of more than 2,500 schools.

Partnering with State Governments

Meanwhile, state governments are also giving a boost to the adoption of technology in schools. Edureach, a divison of Educomp, has partnered with 16 state governments and more than 30 education departments and boards in the country, covering over 36,000 government schools and reaching out to more than 10.60 million students. "Edureach leads the market with 27% of the total schools where ICT projects have been implemented," says Soumya Kanti, president of Edureach. "We are looking [to add] 3,000 more schools this fiscal year and 20,000 to 25,000 additional schools in the next five years." As of now, Edureach has created digital learning content in more than 14 regional languages for these projects.

In the northern state of Haryana, CORE Education and Technologies is implementing a US$59 million ICT project that aims to benefit 5 million students across 2,622 schools. Five of these schools will be developed as "Smart" schools. CORE is also implementing ICT projects in the states of Gujarat, Meghalaya, Punjab, Maharashtra and Nagaland. The scope of work in these projects ranges from implementation of computer-aided learning in schools, installing bio-metric devices to monitor attendance of teachers, and setting up computer hardware, software and other allied accessories and equipments.

"The task has not been an easy one," admits Anshul Sonak, president of CORE. "There are several logistical issues. Delivery of equipment to rural areas is a big challenge in itself.... There is lack of basic infrastructure -- either there are no classrooms or there are ones with no windows.... Some schools don't even have toilets. Moreover, the power availability in these areas is often poor and we have had to deploy generator sets in many schools."

But despite the challenges, educationists are optimistic. Rahul De, professor of quantitative methods and information systems area at the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore (IIM-B) believes that "ICT can have a huge impact on our education system." He points out that ICT can result in increasing the reach [of education] and in keeping the costs low. "With increasing penetration of mobile phones and Internet kiosks, the potential is indeed immense," he adds.

A study conducted by De in 2009 on the economic impact of free and open source software (FOSS) in India found that it resulted in significant cost savings. "FOSS can play a huge role in education," De notes. "In the state of Kerala, it has already had a huge impact in both saving costs and providing state-of-the-art access computing to students in government schools. FOSS has a huge number of packages for school students, many of which can be ported to local languages and used in schools. It is also helping disabled students in a big way, by enabling them to access digital resources using audio-visual aids."

Edureach's Kanti adds that a study by the Centre for Multi-Disciplinary Development Research in Dharwad in Karnataka in 2006 revealed significant improvement in student enrolment and attendance, as well as a reduction of student dropouts due to ICT interventions. "Yet another study conducted by the Xavier Institute of Management in Bhubaneswar in 2007 revealed that computer-aided education has improved the performance of children in subjects such as English, mathematics and science, which are taught through computers using multimedia-based educational content."

All in a Tab

In line with this increasing interest in technology for school education, there has been a rush of education-focused tablet computers in the market. The most high-profile of these has been Aakash, which was launched by Kapil Sibal, union minister for human resource development, in October 2011. The Aakash project is part of the ministry's National Mission on Education through Information & Communication Technology (NME-ICT). It aims to eliminate digital illiteracy by distributing the Aakash tablets to students across India at subsidized rates. While the project itself has become mired in delays and controversy, it has generated a lot of awareness and interest among students around the educational tablet.

Meanwhile, DataWind, the Canada-based firm that partnered with the union government for the Aakash project, has also launched UbiSlate7, the commercial version of Aakash. "The opportunity for low-cost tablets in India is huge. In the next two years, it will exceed the size of the computer market in India i.e. 10 million units per year," says Suneet Singh Tuli, president and CEO of DataWind.

In April, technology firm HCL Infosystems launched the MyEdu Tab, which is priced at around US$230 for the K-12 version. The device comes preloaded with educational applications and also books from the National Council of Educational Research and Training, a government organization. Anand Ekambaram, senior vice-president and head of learning at HCL Infosystems, is in the process of partnering with more than 30 educational institutes across India for MyEdu Tab. "MyEdu Tab has content offline and can be accessed over the cloud. It allows students to learn at their own pace," Ekambaram notes. "With a topic revision application and a self-assessment engine, students can evaluate their skills and knowledge on their own. Teachers can upload content, which can be accessed by students and parents for tasks such as homework and progress reports on their respective devices. The parent can monitor the progress of his or her child through the cloud-based ecosystem."

Earlier this year, Micromax, a leading Indian handset manufacturer, also launched an edutainment device called Funbook. Micromax has also partnered with Pearson and Everonn to make available relevant content for students. Susha John, director and CEO at Everonn, was upbeat at the launch. "Digital learning facilitated through tablets will revolutionize the educational space," John said. "Everonn has invested in developing content and services targeted toward tablet audiences. To start with, we will offer our school curriculum-learning modules ... and at home live tuition products on the Funbook. Students can now have access to good teachers, educational content and a great learning experience anytime, anywhere."

At Pearson, Max Gabriel, senior vice-president and chief technology officer, is "focusing on K-12 content in English to begin with. We are sitting on a huge repository of existing content. Adding the right level of interactivity and richer experience will be our priority." Meanwhile, Educomp is gearing up to launch content that is device agnostic and can be run on any tablet.

But even as schools in India are going through this transformation powered by technology, one key question is how big a role technology will play in the education sector. In an earlier interview with India Knowledge@WhartonS. Sadagopan, founder-director at the International Institute of Information Technology in Bangalore, pointed out that there are four parts to learning -- lectures, library, laboratory and life -- noting that, "Technology plays a critical role in all these." Kabir of Technopak adds another perspective. "Despite numerous studies on the impact of ICT in education, the outcomes remain difficult to measure and open to much debate. It needs to be understood that technology is only an enabler and a force multiplier and cannot be treated as a panacea. We believe that impressive gains in teaching-learning outcomes are possible only through an integrated approach rather than a piecemeal intervention."

Don Huesman, managing director of Wharton's innovation group, recommends caution in considering potential investments in educational technologies. "These are very exciting times for online and distance education technologies, but there are risks facing parents, educators and policy makers in evaluating the opportunities these new technologies, and their proponents, represent." 

Huesman points to the recent growth in high-quality, free, online educational courseware offered on websites like the Khan Academy and the Math Forum, as well as the work of the Open Learning Initiative in developing intelligent cognitive tutors and learning analytics. "But such technologies, available from a global network of resources, only provide value when understood, chosen and integrated into a local educational community," he says.  As an illustration, Huesman offers the example of cyber kiosks, provided in recent years by foundations at no cost to rural communities in India, exacerbating the "gender divide" in many traditional communities in which young women congregating at public cyber cafes, also frequented by young men, would be considered taboo. "Interventions by governments and NGOs must be inclusive of local community concerns and aware of local political complications," Huesman notes.