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Education gets a digital touch


It is the stark reality that ICT has made deep inroads into the fabric of the education system. The use of devices and digital technologies has become so pervasive in our educational institutions that for many youngsters the tablets, smartphones and computers are tools for learning as well as for entertainment.  Even the play-schools are full of digital paraphernalia. The debate on whether ICT can be useful for improving the quality and scope of education is now all but over. Today every institution in the country is trying to make the best possible use of multimedia devices. Even the municipal schools are upgrading to smart boards and digital content.

UK has launched an ambitious programme under which children as young as five can be taught coding.    Companies like Microsoft and Google were involved in the designing of the new ICT curriculum in UK.

In India, we are yet to take the giant leap where we can imagine 5 year olds having a tryst with coding. Here ICT is being mainly looked at as an answer to myriad ills that plague the nation? education system lack of quality teachers, abysmal infrastructure, etc.

The education industry is convinced that through the effective use of technology it is possible for us to create an infrastructure that can meet the education related needs of the entire country. New technology must be integrated with the classrooms and teachers should be properly trained in using this technology. This can lead to improvement in the quality of instruction, as well as trained teachers will be able to remotely address students through video conferencing and other systems.

The private sector players are seeing lot of new opportunities in the area of education. A report titled “India E-Learning Market Outlook to FY2018 – Increasing Technology Adoption to Drive Future Growth estimates that Indian e-learning market will grow at CAGR of 17.4% over the period FY2013 to FY2018. The growth rate is likely to accelerate, as the Indian e-Learning  content market is expected to grow at a CAGR of 18.4%  from FY 2014 to FY 2018.

The current K-12 school system in India is one of the largest in the world with more than 1.4 million schools with over 250 million students enrolled, reveals EY-FICCI report on the education sector in India. The report also finds that the schools have grown at a CAGR of 2.5% from 1.2 million in 2005 to 1.4 million in 2011 and enrolment has grown at a CAGR of 2.2% to reach 253 million students in 2011.

Looking at the numbers alone one can imagine why the IT solution vendors are keen on laying their money on education vertical, across solutions from back-office applications,  content for digital classrooms, to client devices.

For smarter K-12 system
“The K-12 segment is an interesting proposition, even though it is difficult. The difficulty is because the sector is not organised,says Xavier Kurian, National Manager-Enterprise Product Marketing, Dell India. He explains that there are two massive sub sections under the Indian K-12 system?he private and government schools.

As per EY-FICCI 2014 report, about 54% of all 1.46 million K-12 schools in India, are managed by the Central/State governments and 21% are managed by local bodies/ municipal corporations. Private schools account for 25% of the total number of K-12 schools in India.

According to Kurian the government educational institutions will see an increased demand for solutions around content delivery, connectivity, VDI (desktop virtualization), etc. However, the scale for these solutions in a private set up will be very different from that in a  government school even though the solution remains the same. ?e are already doing VDI projects for government institutions with a few 1000 students each,he says.

Most of the premium private schools have already deployed or piloted digital classes and are now marketing those to their advantage. However, the government schools continue to grapple with the problem of setting up basic computer labs.
“In my estimate, out of about one lakh government schools  nearly36000 have deployed ICT solutions,says Ashok Mehta, President, Educomp Solutions Ltd.  This leaves a large proportion of market still untapped.”

The government controlled section of the education space has been a laggard in ICT adoption due to the inherent challenges that this segment faces. The decision making is slower and in many instances there is very little enthusiasm for deploying new technologies. More than anything else, it is the  BOOT  (build, own, operate, transfer )  method of deployment that makes the deployment cycles very long,says Manish Sharma – Vice President of sales for NComputing’s Asia-Pacific region.
“The government in its 11th plan aspired to bring about 6.5 lakh schools in the country under ICT, we are already in the 12th plan and the target still looks away,Mehta says.

“Thanks to the government? new aggressive strategy, the industry’s hopes are renewed,he adds.

“Earlier, only the L1 players used to get the tender, but now government’s aspirations have got higher, in a bid to cover more schools, the government now involves more vendors and distributes orders to L2 and L3 bidders as well,he explains.
“What is more impressive is that now the government tenders not just focus on stetting up infrastructure or labs, they have also started marking large proportion of the funds to ensure that there is improvement in the quality of services. This means better training of teachers and ensuring access to students,he says.

“In  2004-08 the government focus was on developing infrastructure, but now other factors like power provisioning, etc., have also become central to vendor conversations with the government,says Mehta. He informs that they have already conducted smart class pilot projects in government schools in Assam, Bihar, Karnataka, Himachal Pradesh and Haryana.
The cost of technology is one of the major barriers for schools in adopting technology. According to Atul Kulshrestha, Chairman, Extramarks, hardware alone for setting up a smart class costs up to Rs 1.20 lakh. In many cases individual heads of government institutions or schools have been more proactive and  managing budgets for smart classes. We have already deployed smart classes in a couple of Kendriya Vidyalayas in Chennai and Vizag , and also in some Army and Airforce schools,he informs.

On the client devices side too, price has acted as a spoiler as earlier the market was dominated by premium brands. Suneet Singh Tuli, President & CEO, Datawind, says that the education tablet market has become very competitive with major OEMs targeting solutions for this segment. There are two segments of tablets in the market, one is of high-end, feature-rich, tablets, and the other is of low-cost budget tablets.

“With our product, we have been able to surface a new customer segment that was lying dormant and lost all this while in the din of premium product segment. This is the forgotten billion, whose aspirations to join the digital age were being inhibited by the affordability price tag for these budget conscious customers with low cost Android tablets that deliver both quality and value at the most discernible price.  Our devices have found their way to the grass root communities in India and they are being used today for varied literacy missions and campaigns by several NGOs besides the everyday use,Tuli says.

Mobility and cloud
The higher education scenario is also witnessing major churning due to the advent of systems like  Massive Open Online Course (MOOCs) that is providing international students with alternative avenues for gaining education.  India must continue to expand access to quality higher education while reducing costs. MOOCs could well be a key solution to India? higher education woes.  Indians are among the most aggressive users of MOOCs. In March 2014, of the 2.9 million registered users of Coursera , more than 250,000 were from India. The Indian registrations are second only to those from the USA. MOOCs is grinding legitimisation to online learning.

“IT is no more restricted to distance learning,says Shree Parthasarthy, Senior Director, Enterprise Risk Services, Deloitte India.
“Improved last mile connectivity is supping greater adoption of IT by the vertical,he adds. It is not just the educational institutions, but also the corporates that are evaluating more effective ways of training the workforce. The insurance and the medical professionals are increasingly relying on interactive content for training purposes.

Karthik Padmanabhan, Country Head, Ecosystem Development at IBM Software, India and South Asia, observes that the Indian education market requires initiatives that will help in bridging the academia-skills gaps. It requires a three-pronged approach,he says. ?uilding and managing IT infrastructure through an Infrastructure Management Services construct with a combination of on-premise and cloud based solutions. Secondly, improving the employability of students by focusing on building skills for the future, around Big Data and analytics. Lastly, innovating methodologies of imparting education while customising the content and delivery options based on the individual learning requirements of the student.

“The Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras, The Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Bhopal, Karunya University Coimbatore, and the Shiv Nadar University (SNU) have selected IBM High Performance Computing (HPC) solutions to aid high-end research, refine processes and elevate the IT infrastructure in the universities,says Padmanabhan.

Similarly,  Kurian says, He have helped IIHT  to deliver Learning-as-a-Service to internal training centers and enterprise customers. We designed a Software Defined Networking (SDN) approach to deliver a solution for about 20,000 students and they can enjoy a concurrency of  about 22%. We have also seen several HPC solution deployments by educational institutes engaged in research.”

“Interestingly, social media has emerged as a useful platform for collaboration and learning,adds Padmanabhan.
Connected campuses
Interactions form the crux of IT investments in the education vertical today. The big things happening in this space are linked to the fact that all institutions want to enable connectivity, and develop infrastructure to facilitate ICT enabled education.
In fact, BYOD is not a trend only at organisations, but also at educational institutions. These institutions are investing in enterprise-grade storage, networking solutions. Gone are the days of basic internet connectivity. The educational campus networks sport enterprise-class features, right from 24×7 connectivity and Wi-Fi coverage to multi-device support. That is a clear indication that there is a significant change in the way these institutions bought their switches, servers, cables and other networking hardware and software.

Over the years institutions had been managing their back-ends using Excel sheets, but that too is beginning to change, led by private institutions. For instance Amity University has automated all its operations through the intranet; it has an interactive intranet portal called Amizone, a home grown ERP system that can be accessed by students, faculty and parents.

Similarly, Sharda University has automated and integrated its Admission, Finance, HR, Inventory, Hostel Management and Library systems with Oracle PeopleSoft ERP. The Oracle solution offers scalable online, self-service interface for the institution’s 6500 students, faculty members and administrative staff. IBM P series Servers and IBM Storage have been deployed to support the ERP system.

The Government of India has implemented several national as well as state specific schemes that run concurrent to large number of privately led IT initiatives at school and higher education levels.

The National Mission on Education through Information and Communication Technology (NMEICT) is envisaged as a centrally sponsored scheme to leverage the potential of IT/ICT, in teaching and learning process for the benefit of all the learners in Higher Education Institutions in anytime, anywhere, mode. Content generation and connectivity, along with provision for access devices for institutions and learners are the major components of the mission.
Going by a Calsoft Labs report, over 400 universities have been provided 1 Gbps connectivity or have been configured under the scheme and more than 14,000 colleges have also been provided VPN connectivity till date.

The National Knowledge Network (NKN) and Connected Digital has launched an initiative to cover 1,000 institutions besides providing digital campuses, video – conference classrooms, wireless hotspots, laptops/desktops to all students of professional/ science courses and Wi-Fi connectivity in hostels.

Content and intelligence

IT has undoubtedly become central to India? growth story, and recently the industry has seen several ?T  for educationrelated sops being announced by various political parties. The Uttar Pradesh government? scheme to provide free laptop to students is an example of such projects.

Parthasathy of Deloitte says these devices can solve no purpose if the ecosystem to support these systems is absent.?he device without connectivity and effective content is nothing but a box,he says.
Somnath Nag, Director-ISV & Enterprise Solutions, Alten Calsoft Labs agrees with him. ?ontent is crucial for effective learning. The content needs to be adaptive and not just literal translation.”

According to Somnath, content will have to be carefully woven around  SMAC technology. This is important especially in light of the fact that today we have a slew of new devices on which content is being consumed. ?ewriting content for HTML5 will mean additional cost. Content needs to offer superior experience and at the same time it should be tightly integrated.”

Even though open source learning management systems are available in the market they are not well integrated with analytics to lead to automatic learning paths. For instance, if a students reports weakness in a particular subject the learning management platform should be intelligent enough to identify the improved learning path for him, where gamification of the content could be one possibility.

“The systems should be prepared to deal with 3D and multimedia content,Nag says. He adds that digital education can really take off only when there is a consolidated approach for provisioning infrastructure, connectivity and content.

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