From ‘smart’ classes to ‘smart’ buses

Shruti Singhal

Be it managing student data or staff records, organizing administrative tasks or fee structures, schools today are embracing technology in leaps and bounds. Tasks that were earlier considered tedious, time-consuming and error-prone are now moving to digital platforms and being automated. This growing demand for technological ‘solutions’ has caused the mushrooming of service providers that are redefining the educational scenario.

When it comes to the safety and security of children, technological solutions are further mandated by the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE). In January 2014, the Board made it compulsory for all school buses to be equipped with Global Positioning System (GPS) for their locations to be tracked. Such a system would need approval from the Automotive Research Association of India (ARAI) prior to installation.

“The transport market has an ever-increasing need for safety and security, so it is natural that we invest in this area. As school transport is an important segment in this category, we needed technology which would safeguard the end-users,” observes Ranjan Sathish, Founder-Director, Atic Data Systems, Bengaluru.

Founded in 2005, Atic stands for ‘Advance Technology Integration Company’ which provides a combination of hardware-software solutions using mobile technology for transporting students, employees and fleet. “We are committed to the safety of people – whether they work or study. People today are health-conscious and any technology that improves their health and promises safety is easily accepted. We cannot sustain our businesses if our services do not give real value to the people,” he shares. Be it schools or corporate organizations, Atic Data Systems works with large institutions like Shell India and National Public School that are willing to comply with the safety mandates.

MyClassboard is another software service provider based in Hyderabad, which provides technological solutions for school management, where managing transport is one among many features. “We offer smartphone-based as well as GPS-based tracking systems, which can be chosen by the school as per its needs,” explains Avinash G, Marketing Head, MyClassboard. With offices in more than 120 cities, MyClassboard supports 1200 educational institutions in the country. Ryan International Group of Institutions, Delhi School of Excellence and Rockwell International School are some of their clients.

MyClassboard studies the bus routes to synchronize these with their software for an efficient transport service. “While the smartphone-based tracking automates SMS alerts to parents, GPS-based tracking allows monitoring of the real-time location of the school bus,” he says, adding that smartphone tracking is more effective and popular in metro cities whereas GPS tracking works better in tier-2 and tier-3 cities. The difference is the requirement of the school and of course, cost. “We also accommodate special requests to organize one-way transport. Sometimes, the same child plies on different routes as the parent prefers a pickup point near their residence in the morning and requests for a drop point close to their workplace in the evening.” The software solutions are tailor-made for each school, alerting the authorities regularly about insurance policy expiry, driving license renewal, driver salaries, repairs and routine servicing, pollution checks and instances of rash driving.

Gone are the days when parents would have to rush to drop their child(ren) to school if they missed the bus. The systems today update parents about the whereabouts of the bus via text messages, enabling them to reach their designated stop accordingly. Parents can also download an application on their smartphones where they can track the buses in real time.

The school often owns the buses and employs the transport staff, while the service provider maintains the software. This makes the system transparent and accountable, thereby providing greater safety of children and vehicles. Rockwell International School, Hyderabad adopted GPS technology in their fleet of 32 buses about six years ago, long before the CBSE guidelines were enforced.

“As the founder of the school, I believe that certain measures have to be in place, and persuading my partners was not difficult either as they shared my views. Surely, cost is a concern with technology, but as a school, we took up these measures at our own expense. We cannot charge parents for all the services we provide, and the safety of our students is our primary responsibility,” says Subash Boda, Founder and Director, Rockwell International School, Hyderabad.

road-map

Glendale Academy International, Hyderabad, was another early adopter of GPS in the transport system. “As a school, we believe in the digital. We did not think of GPS technology as something special that we were providing because we are committed to safeguarding our children. Parents too have gladly welcomed this,” says Minu Salooja, Assistant Director.

She adds that they have increased the number of buses at Glendale over the last three years in order to reduce travel time for the students. Although there were teething troubles initially in coordinating different routes across the city and sending timely updates to parents, their openness to feedback helped build an efficient system. Apart from having a female conductor on each bus, the school has made arrangements with its staff such that a teacher travels in each bus till the last child reaches their destination safely.

Digital solutions are available for all aspects of school management today. By outsourcing management or administrative functions to technological partners, the school is able to focus on the growth, safety and security of the child. “Technological integration is making everything systematic, fast and simple. GPS is only a function to make transport safe and hassle-free, so there’s no reason for not following it. When we took up Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), we wanted to know what all we could do to build a complete and responsible system,” notes Anjali Razdan, Principal, P Obul Reddy Public School, Hyderabad. This view is shared by Minu Salooja who says that technology in education is inevitable and that “we have to make a shift now. As a progressive school, we want to build a system where the students and the teacher collaborate on ideas and work together on activities in real-time.”

School management systems and educational technology are both terms that came up in my discussions, pointing to an interesting shift in the way 21st century education is viewed. Just as ‘smart’ classrooms replaced the chalk and board methodology, it seems natural that GPS-enabled transport is becoming popular among schools and parents alike.

“The tracking system works as an alarm for me, by which I can make sure my daughter reaches the stop on time,” shares Sangeetha N, whose daughter attends Chirec International School, Hyderabad. She adds that the precise system of updates is rarely disturbed, except during exams when the school functions at different timings. The instances of inconvenience are few and far between as the school transport is very punctual, agrees Gowthami Ketharaju, a teacher and parent at Chirec. She is happy to avail school transport and receive separate updates for both her children.

“Although these modules are still dependent on humans, we are trying to bring in more systemization in our daily functions. We do face limitations from the service providers who tend to oversell themselves – promising everything from timetable management to report card compilation – but falling short at the point of delivery,” says Minu Salooja. The HR Module has worked well at Glendale Academy, because, “faculty, too, are important stakeholders.” It has fewer glitches and no complaints, helping conduct recruitments and oversee leaves, automate pay cycles and facilitate channels for regular and open communication between higher management, faculty and parents.

Despite the popularity of tech-savvy and international schools, there are still those that are wary of ‘all this gadgetry’. “The penetration of technology in India has been low because the immediate benefit or the return on investment is better safety, which is not easily quantifiable. Although it is a desirable outcome, organizations often require additional incentives in the form of cheaper solutions and greater efficiency, in order to accept technological solutions,” offers Ranjan Sathish. He agrees conversely that GPS-tracking in school buses may not eliminate accidents, but it keeps parents and school authorities informed and prepared for proactive action in case of any emergencies or untoward incidents.

While schools and service providers grapple with psychological and technological limitations, the CBSE took a bold step in February 2017 by making closed-circuit cameras (CCTV) compulsory in school buses. While there are some early adopters in this area as well like Rockwell International School, there are also others who find this an expensive proposition.

The author is a freelance writer based in Hyderabad. She is a post graduate in Communication from the University of Hyderabad and has worked in academic publishing. She can be reached at shrutisinghal.ss@gmail.com.

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