Close Window  

14 Oct 2009 eLearning market is wide open

Education is a progressive discovery of our own ignorance, says Will Durant. Which, perhaps, explains why the word `education' doesn't often excite people, despite the counsel of Aristotle that education is an ornament in prosperity and a refuge in adversity.

"Education is a better safeguard of liberty than a standing army," instructs Edward Everett. Quite reassuring, considering that the markets and investors have gradually begun to recognise the value of enterprises in the education space, and more particularly in the education-technology sector.

An investor, even as a partner or franchisee, can look at betting on eLearning because of the inherent advantage of going faculty-less and the potential saving of money while ensuring flawless delivery, says S. Giridharan, Chairman and CEO, EdServ SoftSystems Ltd, Chennai ( "Web-based deliveries are controlled better than just locally-accessible contents by way of CDs which are prone to piracy," he adds, during a recent interaction with eWorld.

"My education... in arts and arms. looking for adventures in the world," says Pericles, in the Bard's work. And, Giri's education has been in technology and entrepreneurship, as I learn during our three-hour conversation. Also, much like the `Prince of Tyre,' Giri sees adventures in the eLearning market. It is wide open, addressing schools and college students, corporate learning, job-oriented learning, and skill development needs, he says.

For instance, an order that EdServ won a few weeks ago is a Rs 100-crore deal from the Government to impart modular employable skills (MES) training to school dropouts. Giri is positive about his company's ability, through the `ePlacement' vehicle, to reach out to rural areas and to attract talent seeking new jobs as well as change of jobs. "The ePlacement vehicle can offer more live job positions in non-IT domains in widespread regions, and more options of jobs with varied scales of pay."

And his message to college students who will shortly be on the job market is straight and simple: Don't be choosy with your first job; look at it as providing you with an opportunity to understand how to cope with a job and how to do a job well. "The focus should be on learning, irrespective of what the salary is and the location of job. Again, it is important to realise that IT (information technology) is not all. There are more blue chip companies in India that are non-IT," sums up Giri.

Excerpts from the interview:

What are the challenges relating to the eLearning market in India?

Language of communication, access to affordable and faster broadband connectivity, interactive and intuitive e-content, ability to address curriculum-compliant content requirements of higher education, cost of access/usage of content, students' acceptance of the self-paced mode of learning, parents' acceptability of e-contents for their wards at a cost, and piracy are some of the challenges relating to eLearning.

Real India, the bottom of the pyramid, still lacks education, and guidance to a proper career. eLearning could be a solution that can elevate this section to apt employability in a scaled framework within a realistic timeframe.

The presence of multimedia-compliant systems in abundance, availability of broadband connections at competitive rates, regional language-based content for technical subjects, two-way interaction for doubts, and performance feedback with students. These, when incorporated in eLearning courses, can make them more popular and help in the faster adoption of the eLearning system in India.

You recently entered the online tuition services space. Is there a market for such an offering? What kind of inroads are you planning to make in this market?

Online tuition service is a huge market space in India. More than eLearning, this is online and face-to-face, with live lectures mode of learning. This covers up the dearth of right staff for explaining a topic of interest for a student wherever he/she is. Further, staff can address multiple students across many locations.

Online tuition services supported by good software system on the Web can further improve the planned execution of the tuition sessions, with tutors scheduling the classes and the students choosing the same. School students and college students spend a lot of money on tuition. Students believe that self-paced automated learning may not help much and that face-to-face training sessions are a must to pass exams with better scores. But then, only when a student's interest is high in understanding, and the concept explained in any mode of learning, can one look at scoring high marks.

In India, every student is more exam-oriented rather than knowledge- or skill-oriented. This also makes a student look for tuitions.

We have been upgrading our to enter into college segment as online tuition service providers. Further, we are also merging our EdClass product which automatically schedules and brings in a tutor of choice to the student and also enables multiple students to join such sessions. Details of sessions, performance of tutors, students' attendance and feedback information are also recorded for processing. Our plan with EdClass and is to make significant inroads into the school and college tuition market across India in the near future.

There is a lot of talk on the potential of the Government-private sector partnership in the school education space. Do you expect this to take off? What are the key challenges here? What is your strategy for the schools market?

The Government's PPP (Public-Private Partnership) is being rolled out to cover school education under the Right to Education Act. The recent announcement that the Government will spend Rs 1.8 lakh crore on the Right to Education implementation in the next five years explains the priority of the Government in education.

Government schools require much-needed support in terms of infrastructure, teacher training, student performance improvement, all-round skills development and enhancement and also to improve the GER (Gross Enrolment Ratio) in secondary school education as well.

However, the key challenges are the methods of implementation. High investment requirements from the private sector can be a roadblock for many of the private companies to enter this segment.

Our strategy is to make ourselves ready for this space - quickly managing schools ourselves, so as to understand the complexity of running and improving school education. We would like to succeed in the challenge of elevating school education standards when we are given an opportunity to be part of PPP.

You have spoken about offering career seeding and mapping services at a very early stage in the schooling life. Why is it important to map careers for young school students?

Currently, school students are more focused on exams and scoring marks in exams. Teachers are into continuous assessments of students but still the assessments are more to understand their overall score in order to rank their performance among the class and make them pass. The students and their parents, on the other hand, lack exposure on the right career choice and the industry/domains that can fetch the career of their choice versus capabilities, especially the non-IT careers.

We see some students dreaming of careers in hotel management and Army, looking at some of those portrayals on TV/films. But, in reality, their parents push them to engineering (read computer science!) or management or accounting or medical, professions that fetch maximum salary and career growth.

Parents don't understand the aspirations of their wards nor their flair, skills, interests and aptitude. By understanding the students' nature and also their skills at a younger age, say, at 9 or 10, with the help of our system which also has information about industry, we are confident of guiding the students as well as their parents with counselling towards right careers that help the student to apply his/her mind better and grow in that career easily.

What is your view on the scope for innovation in education, using technology?

Technology-led education can transform the education standards that are prevalent right now in a big way. Education without metrics has no accountability and also does not provide the much-needed inputs to help students progressively learn and excel. Technology can play a huge role in shaping a student's mind. Fun-filled learning, self-paced learning, metrics-based learning can all help a student in gaining interest in studies in stages and make him/her continue education even beyond higher secondary and till they reach their careers. Technology can also manage a huge repository of data - several thousands of students in a school - and provide the decision support data about students for the school management.

What is the role of assessments, and how does technology help on this front?

Assessments can be automated and made real-time. Assessments can also check a student's preparedness for an exam apart from skill tests and can crucially provide inputs to improve a student further in order to make him/her ready for exams. Assessments, when automated, become a more scientific way of understanding and improving a student's knowledge and performance. Automated assessments can provide a lot of decision support information which a manual assessment may not be able to provide all the time.

Do you feel that some of the IT initiatives in education can be working at cross purposes, remain in silos with little synergy or interoperability?

IT infrastructure in schools has come in a big way, especially labs with systems and servers with all software, such as office automation and animation/multimedia. Yet, IT is currently used in schools to provide learning in IT subjects and tools such as OS and multimedia which may probably give more push to a student's dream of IT careers, which is not bad but too much of IT exposure makes a student neglect other non-IT domains where opportunities are in excess and blue-chip. I also believe IT can be used to store and process student performance metrics.

What is the placement scenario that you are currently witnessing? Have you seen a rise in the number of profiles on your site and a fall in the final placement? What are the types of jobs finding favour in this market place?

We find more jobs coming in nowadays on our Online Jobs Engine (EdCampus). Job aspirants access our system to understand jobs on offer, with inputs from our automated LAMPS portal through partner centres.

Lower-end jobs continue to come in a big way providing opportunities to diploma-holders and higher-secondary dropouts. Non-IT jobs have started coming up especially in tier-II locations. This, we believe, will increase the number of aspirants reaching out to our centres, because the moment a job lands in our system, all our registrants get an automatic SMS, thus making them visit our system to choose their apt job.

(C) 2009 EdServ Softsystems Limited, Chennai, India.