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ICTs driving the Education sector in India


15 March 2010

Brian Pereira

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Use of ICT in the education sector in India, though recent, has picked up fast, and the benefits are already starting to show. Brian Pereira highlights the promising scene for technology-aided education and the opportunities it holds in store.

Thanks to Rajiv Gandhi's doctrines backed by his technical advisor Sam Pitroda, the personal computer arrived in India in the early 1990s. Suddenly we witnessed a flood of computer classes in the metros with everyone signing on for courses in DOS, Wordstar, dBase III and Lotus 1-2-3. Most of these institutes have long closed shop, or evolved into ‘Learn English’ institutes. Others cater to professionals with specialized training for animation, graphics, game development, Java, .Net, Oracle, BPO, management etc.

When cable television arrived in the 1990s, enterprising coaching classes set up dedicated channels for distance learning. Then VSAT technology extended this to remote regions. Now it is digital television with service providers beaming educational programs for school children into homes and schools. And that was how ICT (Information and Communications Technology) saw its roots in Indian education.

In recent years we witnessed many radical changes and rapid growth in the education sector. This is due to several factors, and the one factor that needs to be mentioned first is India’s telecom success story. Thanks to extensive telecom coverage and affordable rates, bandwidth and Internet access is available pan India. The Internet offers many free tools for audio-visual instruction. State governments too have got their act together and are joining hands with private solutions providers and NGOs to use ICT for education.

Another driver is the high level of PC penetration among students, especially in the metros, thanks to a significant reduction in hardware costs, and the increased usage of open source applications.

With the introduction of new education policies and the opening of the Indian education sector, we are seeing increased participation from overseas universities, many of whom are setting up operations in India. It’s only a matter of time before Yale, Harvard, Oxford, etc. are here. Meanwhile, the demand for business degrees or skills-oriented courses is soaring. Distance education courses are popular once again, thanks to the Internet.

Teacher salaries (in government schools) are poised to increase following the recommendations of the Sixth Pay Commission. Hiring is expected to pick up with the entry of more private players who will help set up new schools.

High percentages are a priority for Indian students training their sights on that highly coveted IIM or IIT seat. To ensure this we spend USD 50 billion annually on private education.

Opportunities Abound

All this has generated a huge interest in education and private companies are rushing to tap market opportunities. A recent research study by Springboard Research says India’s Education sector will step up its IT spending from an estimated USD 356 million in 2008 to USD 704 million in 2012, reflecting in a CAGR of 19 percent during 2007-2012. According to Springboard’s report ‘Inside the Campus: IT in India’s Education Sector,’ Wireless LAN (WLAN), Storage Area Network (SAN) and ERP are the three most popular IT solutions adopted by education institutes in India.

Nilotpal Chakravarti

“Educational institutions in India are presently focused on deploying IT systems that will enable them to improve the educational process for their students, and to stay ahead of the competition,” said Nilotpal Chakravarti, Senior Research Analyst – Vertical Markets at Springboard Research. “A large number of institutions are opting for networking solutions, storage and ERP implementations to support their business, upgrade operations and streamline budgets,” Chakravarti added.

A first mover here is IIM Shillong, which went in for ERP and SCM as soon as it began operations in 2008. IIM Shillong becomes the first among India’s centrally funded technical institutions and universities - which include IITs, IIMs, etc - to complete the implementation of a comprehensive ERP solution. More details about its ERP implementation and the numerous benefits are included later in this story.

Success Stories

While universities and private institutes are using ICT to set new standards for education, it has been observed that the fastest pace of change is happening in rural India. Thanks to a partnership between the government, private sector and NGOs, we see many successful examples of village schools using ICT to spread education. Later in this story, we tell you about audio-visual lectures beamed to students in satellite towns in Madhya Pradesh - using Web collaboration tools. What’s praiseworthy here is the sheer enthusiasm among these students and the support received from certain state governments.

Abhilash Sonwane

Says Abhilash Sonwane, VP, Product Management, Cyberoam, “The government is doing a commendable job of getting the network infrastructure to the grassroots levels. After the connectivity, you also need to put security in place. The connectivity also has to be regulated for productive usage. You should be able to control how the bandwidth is used, perhaps at the application layer itself. And there needs to be accounting for usage of the bandwidth.”

Piran Doctor

The ASCII Group of Companies has been conducting rural training activities in Gujarat since 1990. Its Director, Piran Doctor says, “We see higher levels of appreciation for technology tools and more enthusiasm in rural areas. From technology, it is now moving to products, which are becoming more affordable. For instance, projectors, which used to cost upwards of Rs 2 lakh, are now available for Rs 40,000 or less. With state government support, schools across Gujarat have widely adopted audio-visual aids like projectors. They will next move to the network model which is where each classroom is equipped with digital infrastructure and is connected to a campus-wide network and content server.”

Challenges

Those thinking about tapping the opportunities in the education sector should also take note of the typical challenges. Veterans like Piran Doctor of ASCII and George Paul of HCL point out that it’s not as simple as installing a PC and running a CBT (Computer Based Training) package.

Says George Paul, Executive VP, HCL Infosystems, “There are many challenges when setting up projects at a state-wide level and in rural areas. One challenge is the consistency in the way teaching is done. The second challenge is that these are small schools with limited staff. The teacher plays multiple roles—as a teacher, administrator, principal and one who is highly respected at the local community level. So the challenge lies in consistency in the delivery of education and also in evaluation. In that context digital technology gives you the ability to bring about a standard in the delivery of education.”

Rahul Bedi, Director, Corporate Affairs, Intel South Asia cites language and contextualization as one of the bigger challenges. “The teachers and students should be able to relate to the content, rather than just mug it up.”

While the future of education in India looks promising, ICT can certainly help in disseminating educational content, and facilitate remote learning, especially in the Indian context. It can overcome challenges like teacher shortage and student dropout—and bridge the digital divide.

 
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