The business of education

Kedar Nadella

A smart board costs about Rs. 25,000 to 55,000. A projector costs around Rs. 25 – 30,000. A desktop with minimum system requirements to support the software that contains audio visual material costs about Rs. 15 to 20,000. So to set up a digital classroom a school will need to spend over a lakh. This sum multiplied many times by the number of government and private schools in India, further multiplied by the 1.7 million children waiting to be educated, represents a playground of business opportunities for various public and private enterprises. Besides, digital classrooms are just one of the many business avenues that are in the education market today.

The present education system in India is undergoing drastic changes, in sway with our rapid globalization. With a large part of the Indian population, both adults and children, yet to be educated, it has become a fertile ground for both public and private investments. With path-breaking advancements in multimedia and communications, there has never been a better time for us to learn through technology. Schools, colleges, universities – even full time coaching centres and evening tuitions, modern day messiahs of education that have steadily popped up along every street corner and mushroomed into a lucrative industry by themselves – are put to test each day on the basis of how they adapt and use the latest ICT enabled education solutions for students. Venture capitalists and budding entrepreneurs are gradually weaving themselves into both offline and online learning methods, not to mention external coaching centres, which promise to fill the loopholes in our study curriculum.

With the business of education estimated to range around 95.80 billion dollars by FY 15, (The Hindu, November 13, 2013) many national and multinational organizations are coming forward to offer their services to upcoming schools and colleges.

One of the success stories in recent times is of UK’s publishing giant, Pearson. It started in India as a textbook publisher and has been taking steps ever since to become a one-stop shop for all educational needs in India. In order to dominate the online teaching and vocational training businesses, Pearson in the early part of this year acquired an 80 per cent stake in TutorVista in February, and bought out Educomp’s 50 per cent share in IndiaCan in April. As reported in their 2013 half-yearly results, there is an increase in its digital content sales which amounted up to 21 per cent of its global revenue. The report also mentioned that Pearson has 39 schools in India with around 25,000 students currently studying in them.

But it is not good news everywhere. Educomp who was once at the top of the game, now has fallen to bad times. In August this year, due to low returns from the market, it had to lay off 3500 of its employees. Even Everonn Education and Career Point are going through a similar downslide.

Luckily, for many private players such as Educomp and Everonn, the government still represents one of the biggest clients. They offer the setting up of computer labs and provision of computer based learning kits. But are schools, especially their teaching staff, ready to embrace these technologies that meander away from our traditional teaching methods?

“Teachers take time to get used to these newer methods of teaching”, says Chiluka Umarani who teaches primary classes at Government High School, Lalapet, Hyderabad. Teachers are always under pressure to finish the syllabus on time and sometimes can’t afford to experiment on the job. Complete teacher training is compulsory to acclimatize teachers with new forms of learning,” she says.

But not everything needs to be taught through sophisticated gadgetry. Firms such as the Hyderabad-based Creya Learning and Butterfly Fields offer hands-on, experiential learning to students and teachers. As alternatives to rote learning, they spend time with students, assisting them to bring life to physics and chemistry theories that were until now limited to the textbooks. Each of these organizations has a unique approach to learning.

“Creya provides a training program for school teachers to become effective experiential educators of the 21st century,” says Natasha Rajore, a member of the Implementation and Delivery team at Creya Learning. “More than the board or the fee structure, what is important is the school being committed to delivering a truly holistic education to their students.”

The government, apart from initiating various programs to complement the expectations raised by its private peers in education, has also made changes in the curriculum to suit the new trends in learning. Continuous Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE) was introduced by the CBSE in 2010, where teachers need to consider an all-round involvement of the students in all class activities for their grades. Chiluka Umarani says that schools’ administrations pinned their hopes on this new formative assessment for students to strengthen the bond between teachers and students. These changes in the CBSE board can help the government raise its quality of education especially in comparison with international boards such as the International Baccalaureate (IB) based in Geneva and the Indian General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) run from Cambridge, UK. According to an article in the Times of India (in February), there are 197 schools that offer IGCSE syllabus and 99 schools that teach the IB board. The high cost of admission into these schools is not a deterrent due to the increase in high income households, especially in the metros.

In the non-profit sector, to provide external support for teachers, Naandi Foundation and Teach for India are among organizations that work extensively with government schools. They not only provide digital resources and activity based learning to students but also provide compulsory teacher-training classes.

Apart from multinational companies and government agencies, there are also aspiring entrepreneurs who are actively invested in the education business. Aditya Kumar, is one of the founders and Chief Business Development Officer of Xamcheck, a Hyderabad based entrepreneurship. “Wouldn’t it better if teachers were relieved of their administrative responsibilities and spent more time with the students?” he asks. Xamcheck, which currently serves 15 schools all over Hyderabad, provides extensive diagnostic reports to teachers about their students’ performances.

Sitting in the office balcony, while a couple of teachers discuss a mathematics question on percentage behind us, Aditya explains the need for companies like Xamcheck. Parents pay more for private education these days and schools in turn need to be capable of delivering more. Schools should equip themselves with various customized ways of approaching students and find newer ways to personalize attention on each of them. We have a team of education experts who prepare standardized question papers which reach the school in a sealed envelope on the day of the exam,” he explains. A consolidated report card for each student along with his/her customized workbook is then distributed among the students.

But what is the importance of the alluring fruits of modern technology? Companies such as Educomp, HCL, Tata Interactive, TutorVista and Meritnation promise to deliver high quality learning that will suit the needs of all students. But do these teaching aids, supposedly designed by education experts for students from KG to class 12, actually work? No they don’t, says Shiva Shankar Goud, Principal of Sri Chaitanya Techno School, Mehdipatnam. “What good are these costly equipments in places where there is no power?” he questions. After the slump of the big players in the market, school administrators are sceptical about spending lakhs of money to turn tech savvy.

“Most of the schools use these brand names as a route to market themselves to parents and investors. It is the parents who feel the heat of such expensive equipment when the tuition fees are hiked,” he says. Many videos on various science and maths lessons are now available online for free anyway, he argues.

YouTube and other free video hosting sites can turn out to be the greatest threat to these organizations that want to sell their content to schools. Also then there are the much debated MOOC to consider. MOOC are Massive Open Online Courses which are offered by companies like Coursera and world renowned institutes such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

“We have about 100 channels in YouTube, out of which 60 are related to education,” says Vandana Chada, CEO of Edewcate. “Our videos, which are for students from nursery to High schools, receive about two lakh views per day. And depending on the content a click can cost up to 10 dollars,” she says.

Some administrators raise a counter argument on the absence of regulation on the information over the Internet. “But the Internet is vast and there are a lot of distractions out there. The software that we buy, show only what is necessary for the students,” says Nageshwari Devi, principal of Pulla Reddy School, Mehdipatnam. Each class in the school, from KG to 12, has about 18 hours per week set aside for viewing videos in the classroom, specifically maintained as a ‘digital classroom’. “These have surely helped the students understand the lessons better as they come in a package with which children are familiar,” she explains. ‘Fast education’ like fast food that can be served quickly to the mind has become the norm of the day. Schools are always on the lookout for that something extra that will not only attract parents to enrol their children but also keep the kids occupied in the classroom. “But these can never be a substitute for the learning teachers and parents can provide,” she concludes.

Here is a small observation from one of my visits to schools. Asif Nagar Road, near the Mehdipatnam bus kiosk in Secunderabad, takes a beating from the huge amount of traffic that passes by on it every day. The chaos on the roads, along with the afternoon heat, drives the traffic to its peak during the lunch hours. This is the time when the concrete sidewalk also gets choked with hawkers and street vendors. The students of Gowtham Model School flag down a sugarcane seller through the large grills that bar them from the road during recess. A grizzly old watchman with a short wooden stick, keeps a stern eye on them. The sugarcane juice seller hands over a juice glass to one of the kid’s outstretched hands. The kid draws back, enjoys the juice and returns to the concrete play area, sliding from wall to wall with his classmates. After a couple of minutes, the end-of-the-lunch bell rings, dragging the kids back to their classes. The classes will continue amidst the blaring of horns stuck in traffic and the grumble of disgruntled pedestrians negotiating their way out of the cacophony.

Is this the bane of privatization of education? Is the rat race that crossed over the school gate adversely affecting children’s learning? The technology boom has surely diversified education but interventions are necessary wherever quality is being compromised. There must be an open channel of information rather than financial transactions between people who teach and those who learn from them. Efforts to raise literacy percentage are initiated every day. Various NGOs such as Pratham and Digantar are working in tandem with local communities in trying to realize their full potential. Borders are slowly merging with foreign capital already being invested into international schools in several metros. Meanwhile, the reach of Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and the RTE, 2009 (government initiatives) is yet to be gauged. With the Indian education system an open book now, it is prime time for creative educators to guide the next generation of students to brave new worlds.

The author is a student of communication. He also writes fiction. He can be reached at kedarismyname@gmail.com.

Related articles

Branding education
Education at the cost of ethics?
“Tis the cause, the cause, my soul…”