India’s education sector: moving towards a digital future

Posted by Admin on February 10, 2016

By Knowledge@Wharton

More often than not, in the Indian classroom, students listen to teachers’ hour-long lectures. But technology is changing all that. Schools are increasingly adopting digital solutions to engage with a tech-savvy generation, and trying to make the classroom environment more participatory.

Educomp Solutions is among the pioneers in this space in India. Its Smartclass, essentially a digital content library of curriculum-mapped, multimedia content, was launched in 2004. It let teachers quickly assess how much of a lesson students had absorbed, and know what topics to repeat.

By mid-2012, more than 12,000 schools in 560 districts in India had adopted Smartclass, according to Abhinav Dhar, director for K-12 at Educomp, and the number was growing by almost 20 schools a day. “When we launched Smartclass… it was an uphill task to convince schools to adopt it,” he said. “These schools had witnessed no change in a century.” But today, private schools see technology as essential, and are willing to spend.

When Smartclass started out, its price – $4,000 per classroom – daunted many schools. So Educomp decided to give them the option of paying over three to five years. The strategy worked. Educomp followed up with an upgraded version — the Smartclass Class Transformation System — that had more features, including simulations, worksheets, and a diagram maker.

Huge Potential

In a report titled “Indian Education Sector Outlook — Insights on Schooling Segment”, released in May 2012, New Delhi-based research and consultancy firm Technopak Advisors noted that India had 1.3 million schools, of which one-fifth were private. According to Educomp’s Dhar, only around 10% of private schools used multimedia classroom teaching, and government schools had barely made any inroads.

Enayet Kabir, associate director for education at Technopak, estimated the market size for digitized products in private schools at around $500 million in 2012, and expected it to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 20% to cross $2 billion by 2020. He estimated the market size for information and communications technology (ICT) in government schools at $750 million, adding, “We expect this to grow five times by 2020 due to the current low level of penetration in government schools.”

Educomp, Everonn Education, NIIT, Core Education & Technologies, IL&FS Education, and CompuCom are among the early dominant players in the sector. Later entrants include HCL Infosystems, Learn Next, Tata Interactive Systems, Mexus Education, S. Chand Harcourt (India) and iDiscoveri Education. They are all Indian companies, barring S. Chand Harcourt (now known as DS Digital), a joint venture between S. Chand and US-based Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

The demand for the latest technology has been growing in Tier Two and Tier Three cities. 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, estimated that more than half the demand for digital classrooms was from these cities.

According to him, schools in these smaller cities recognize that it is difficult for their students to get as much exposure as their big-city counterparts. “[So] they proactively subscribe to solutions such as ours,” he says.  

Based on a back-of-the-envelope calculation, Shethia reckoned a couple of years ago that “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 only about 80,000 are digitized.”

Srikanth B. Iyer, COO of Pearson Education Services, also sees tremendous potential in small cities. His company provides end-to-end solutions in the K-12 segment. More than 3,000 private schools in India adopted its multimedia tool, DigitALly, between 2004 and 2012. “DigitALly installations have been growing at three times the market for the past two years,” Iyer noted in a mid-2012 interview. He added that more than 60% of Person’s customers were from small towns, such as Barpeta (in Assam state), Sohagpur (in Madhya Pradesh) and Ballia (in Uttar Pradesh).

To make its offering attractive, Pearson devised a monthly payment model, which let schools pay around $2 per student per month. Schools across all locations and fee structures found it viable, he said, adding that he focused on towns where penetration was relatively low and the desire to adopt technology was high.

HCL’s Digischool program, which launched in 2011, also made a strong beginning, building a client base of over 2,500 schools over a year and a half.

Partnering with State Governments

State governments have been helping schools to adopt technology. Edureach, a division of Educomp, partnered with more than a dozen state governments and over 30 education departments and boards in the country, covering more than 10.6 million students in over 36,000 government schools. As of mid-2012, according to Soumya Kanti, president of Edureach, the division was leading the market with 27% of the total schools where ICT projects had been implemented. He noted that Edureach planned to add “20,000 to 25,000 additional schools in the next five years.” The venture has created content in more than 14 regional languages.

In the northern state of Haryana, CORE Education and Technologies took on a $59-million ICT project that aimed to benefit five million students in 2,622 schools. This was in addition to undertaking ICT projects in Gujarat, Maharashtra, Meghalaya, Nagaland, and Punjab, including implementation of computer-aided learning in schools, installation of biometric devices to monitor teachers’ attendance, and setting up hardware, software and allied equipment.

CORE president Anshul Sonak noted several logistical issues, including delivery of equipment to rural areas, lack of basic infrastructure (no classrooms, classrooms without windows, schools without toilets), and unreliable power supply. CORE even deployed generators in many schools.

Despite the challenges, educationists are optimistic. As Rahul De, professor of quantitative methods and information systems at the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore (IIM-B), noted, ICT could help increase the reach of education while keeping the costs low, adding, “With the increasing penetration of mobile phones and Internet kiosks, the potential is immense.”

A study he conducted in 2009, on the economic impact of free and open-source software (FOSS) in India, found that it led to significant cost savings. “FOSS can play a huge role in education,” De said. “In Kerala, it has already had a huge impact in cutting costs and providing state-of-the-art computing access 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 letting them access digital resources using audio-visual aids.”

Edureach’s Kanti noted that a study by the Centre for Multi-Disciplinary Development Research in Dharwad, Karnataka, in 2006 revealed significant improvement in student enrolment and attendance, as well as a reduction of student dropouts, due to ICT interventions.  He added, “Another study, 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 using multimedia content.”

All in a Tab

The increasing interest in technology for school education was a rush of education-focused tablet computers in the market around three years ago. The most high-profile of these was Aakash, launched in October 2011. The Aakash project was part of the government’s National Mission on Education through Information & Communication Technology. The aim was to tackle digital illiteracy by distributing Aakash tablets to students across India at subsidized rates. While the project got mired in delays and controversy, it did generate a lot of awareness about and interest in tablets among students. DataWind, the Canada-based firm which partnered with the Indian government for the Aakash project, also launched UbiSlate7, the commercial version of Aakash.  

In 2012, technology firm HCL Infosystems launched its MyEdu Tab, priced at around Rs 11,500 (around $230 at the time) for the K-12 version. The device came preloaded with educational applications and books from the National Council of Educational Research and Training, a government organization. In the same year, Indian mobile maker Micromax also launched its Funbook edutainment device, and partnered with Pearson and Everonn to make available relevant tablet-specific content for students.

Kabir of Technopak noted that despite numerous studies on the impact of ICT in education, outcomes remained difficult to measure, adding, “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, has recommended caution in considering potential investments in educational technologies.  He says: “These are 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 growth in high-quality, free, online educational courseware offered by sites such as 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.