A class act

Think smart, teach smart

Technology and educational aids are slowly changing the way teachers communicate with their students

In earlier times a classroom meant rows and columns of desks and chairs. The teacher would come in, take a physical roll call and then proceed to teach about, say, cell division. She would draw a cell on the board, draw another figure showing it divide, and go stage by stage until one cell had become two complete cells.

She would then answer some questions, wipe the board clean, and leave when the bell rang. For her next class, she would draw the process again to finish the chapter. She would spend most of her time turned away from her students, writing or reading out from notes. The diagrams were, of course, two-dimensional. 

This, however, is becoming a distant memory in an increasing number of upmarket urban schools. The modern, tech-empowered teacher has a pre-structured class plan. She walks into the classroom and fires up a handy computer and projector. And as she explains the concept of cell division to her students, there appears on the board behind her a three-dimensional graphic of how a cell divides.

She spends more time talking to her students and adding value to their learning. This significant departure from conventional teaching methods is the result of a product called DigiClass from Pearson Education Services (PES) that is now used in over 3,000 schools in India. “The teaching process is far more interesting and teachers are able to explain concepts better with the help of animation, graphics and virtual labs,” says Jyoti Bose, principal, Springdales School, New Delhi, on implementing DigiClass. “Another positive is the teachers’ development in using technology.” 

Pearson’s DigiClass, Educomp’s SmartClass, iDiscoveri’s X-Seed (800 schools, 350 were added last year) and Core’s STEMpower, launched in April with five schools including Sanskriti in Delhi and Cathedral and John Connon in Mumbai, are some of the popular examples of smart classroom products that are now crowding the tech education segment.

Together, they have over 7,000 Indian schools covered between themselves including sought-after institutions like Springdales, Heritage and Shivalik in Delhi, Bombay Scottish in Mumbai, Delhi Public School in Panipat, Agra and Gurgaon and Aditya Mallya International  School in Bengaluru, among others. “The lesson plans are aligned with the syllabus, tested in actual classrooms and are constantly updated,” declares Anustup Nayak, vice-president, iDisoveri Education.“Schools see more consistent delivery of teaching.” 

Tech-ed enterprises such as iDiscoveri and Core estimate a market of nearly 120,000 private schools with 50 classrooms apiece for their products. “We focus on tough-to-learn and tough-to-teach concepts in math and science for grade eight and above,” says Sanjeev Mansotra, chairman and global CEO, Core Education and Technologies, which is targeting approximately 11,000 schools affiliated to CBSE, ICSE and international boards. 

Some corporates are also seeing a big opportunity in the sector. Take the case of HCL Learning, the education and talent development division of HCL Infosystems. “We started off three years ago as a small vocational play and the idea was to figure out what could be done,” recalls Anand Ekambaram, senior vice-president, HCL Infosystems and head, learning business. 

Today, his company has several offerings in the market, including DigiSchool (an interactive teaching and learning tool for the K-12 segment) and Learn IT (for IT education), which are used as teaching aids in 2,000 schools.

The prices of these popular products range between Rs.8 lakh and Rs.15 lakh, depending on the packages purchased, and implementation costs Rs.100-200 extra per student, per month. Schools typically get a three-to five-year window to pay for them and the additional cost burden is passed on to students — companies are betting on the fact that upper middle class parents don’t mind paying more for better education. 

Even so, “The peculiarity of this business is that it’s a combination of FMCG and IT products,” feels Ekambaram. “It does take time to understand the customer.” For FY12, HCL Learning clocked revenue of Rs.92 crore compared with Rs.53 crore for FY11. In July this year, the company bought over Edurix, an education content provider, which gave it a bigger foothold in the K-12 segment. Companies such as Core say that they are looking at a 25-30% CAGR over the next five years.

Hello, coach

Test preparation and coaching classes, always a high profile part of the private education sector, are also witnessing tech-driven growth. In the 1980s and 1990s, you typically signed up with Brilliant Tutorials or Aggarwal Classes, who would send you fat parcels of course material that you studied on your own. On weekends, you went for contact classes in an actual classroom where a tutor explained difficult concepts and cleared your doubts. A few star tutors were born — their class scored the best results. The problem with this model was one of scale. The star tutor was usually one person and only a limited number of students could fit into each of his classes. Today, broadband and video is changing this business. 

Star tutors with companies such as Edyounet access hundreds of students all over the country — students only have to visit the company’s local studio-hub (usually a franchised part of its retail network) and attend the class through a two-way video mechanism.  A company in the ‘coaching industry’ needs Rs.7-10 crore to start a business.

It franchises its studio-hubs in different locations, including tier 2 and 3 towns. It costs the franchisee about Rs.10-15 lakh to set up a studio, and cutting edge IT allows high definition videos to be sent through broadband instead of satellite to students who enroll locally. So teachers can point to a student in Jabalpur and ask him to answer a question and then pull someone out from Ahmedabad and ask him to explain why the first student’s answer was incorrect. 

However, “There is the issue of localisation,” says Trideb Roy Chowdhury, director of products, Adobe India. “The problem is the paucity of good teachers. How do we use technology to scale up to the reach of the good teachers we have? How do we take video content from Tamil Nadu, for example, and localise it to West Bengal?” But such questions aren’t stopping the growth in the sector. Even professional bodies of higher education like the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India and the Institute of Cost and Financial Accountants of India are now offering courses through offsite centres. 

In another development, HCL Learning has joined hands with Resonance, a Kota-based coaching institute, for engineering entrance examinations. “This is the Kota model in the classroom,” explains Ekambaram, referring to the results-driven sweatshops of education that have made the Rajasthan city (in)famous. Though he declines to discuss margins, Ekambaram says technology in education remains a very big bet for HCL Infosystems: “People in India will willingly spend on education.” 

The government angle

Most of the cutting edge technology in education is visible in the private sector and the government, which traditionally plays a significant role in education infrastructure and policy, is trying to catch up. The HRD ministry has committed a significant outlay of close to $1 billion in five years for enabling technological improvements in government schools as well as colleges. The National Mission on Education through Information and Communication Technology, launched in 2011, is meant to connect a large network of schools and colleges to a digital learning platform, which will require broadband connectivity, course-relevant content and teacher training. Currently, 18,000 colleges have access to 2G connectivity and this number will grow to 36,000 colleges over the next year.

PP Sunil, director-education, Adobe India, whose Creative Suite products are used in these programmes, says, “The government is focusing on three issues: content, connectivity and access.” If 2G broadband solves the issue of connectivity, Aakash, the low-cost tablet launched by the government, is expected to solve the access problem. “We are working with the government on a number of programmes. We have tools that help teachers build and distribute content,” says Sunil. The government wants to improve the employability of students and Adobe is looking at a comprehensive training and certification process vertical in India. 

The content question

Technology is advancing with leaps and bounds but content creation, a dynamic process, has not been able to keep up. “The problem in this area,” says Chowdhury of Adobe, “is that many teachers are possessive of their content and unwilling to share it. But as the demand from students grows, this is likely to change.”

The other challenge lies in getting teachers to actually use these products. Often, they are not comfortable with technology and their students — who are digital natives — race ahead of them, rendering them uncomfortable. Urban teachers, who have some exposure to computer usage, are comparatively easier to train. Most companies provide one resource coordinator per school for problem-solving and intense seven- to 10-day training capsules for teachers — they bundle the cost of training into the pricing of the software.

“We provide close to 50-60 hours of workshop-based training, web-based seminars and classroom-based coaching to teachers,” confirms iDiscoveri’s Nayak. HCL Learning’s Ekambaram makes it clear his division’s objective has never been to replace the teacher. “We think our quality of content is the USP,” he says. “Obviously, we would want the teachers to work with us and make the process better.”

Certainly, says Adobe’s Sunil, the education sector is more receptive to technology now than it was 10 years ago. “Earlier, the issues were largely about networks. Software was not so important,” he says. “But now that the hardware is set, at least in large institutions, there is a more serious attempt at incorporating better software.”   

Meanwhile, it no longer seems farfetched to imagine a scenario where you are sitting in your garden, an iPad in hand and a pair of augmented-reality sunglasses projecting an image of General Sherman to take you through the American Civil War. No, you aren’t just whiling away your time. You are actually attending the history course for Class 12 and the teacher has registered your attendance. While it could take a while for your actual classroom to be in your garden, perhaps it isn’t as unreal as we tend to assume.

With inputs from Krishna Gopalan