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E-learning comes of age

Monday, 26 November 2012 - 9:00am IST | Place: MumbaiBangalore | Agency: dna

As a large part of the school curriculum goes online, kids are going to walk lighter to school. 7-10 inch tablets, with customised school text books and internal assessments in a digitised format, replace the books and notebooks.

The dreaded school bag could be history in a decade’s time.

As a large part of the school curriculum goes online, kids are going to walk lighter to school. No longer would they need to heave 5-6 kilos morning and evening as 7-10 inch tablets, with customised school text books and internal assessments in a digitised format, replace the books and notebooks.

The Diwali week saw President Pranab Mukherjee introducing the advanced version of the government’s ambitious Aakash tablet, an improved version of Aakash I, which will cost students about Rs1,130 apiece.

That, together with a host of other tablets in the offing, could vastly enhance the reach of technology amongst the student population and make textbooks redundant.

Tablets such as ClassPad and MX Touch, costing Rs4,000-12,000 each, are compliant with the syllabi of schools belonging to the ICSE and CBSE boards, and carry digitised assessments, worksheets, animations and quizzes.

In short, teachers can teach subjects, while students can learn and understand and further attend assessments and quizzes – all through the tablets. So, teachers won’t need blackboards and chalks, nor would students require textbooks, pens or pencils.

This progression towards e-learning is but natural, say experts, pointing out that going ahead, our reliability on electronic gadgets will enhance the integration of e-learning in our lives.

Dhiraj Mathur, executive director, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) recollects an incident that testifies to the power of electronics in today’s education scenario. During lunch at a friend’s place last week, he noticed that the host’s one-and-a-half-year-old child was hooked to a tablet. “It was initially being used to distract the child and then later to point at a few pictures and illustrations. That is how early today’s generation is being introduced to e-learning, “ he says.

Small wonder, estimates predict India’s online education market will double in just five years, from the present $20 billion.

Textbooks vs tablets
Sacrilegious as it might seem to some, replacing holy textbooks with tablets offers several benefits.

“The tablets are designed in such a manner that they not just present textbooks in a digital format, but the assessment modules also personalise learning,” says Naveen Rajlani, senior vice-president and head, schools division, Pearson Education India.

The concept is relatively novel in India, but in another five years, it might well become the trend, says Rohit Pande, CEO of online education firm Classteacher.com.

Even pricing would not be a deterrent as prices tend to fall with time.  “It’s more about acceptability,” says Pande.

“Another advantage with tablets is that teachers can constantly monitor exactly what the students are doing,” says Rajlani.

Very few schools in the country have actually adopted the tablet model. While just two have chosen to buy tablets for all their students, around 38 have incorporated the shared model – wherein a set of tablets are rotated between classrooms for specific subjects, say mathematics or science.

“In 18 months, we want to reach out to about 100 schools which would be ready to take tablets for all students and not just adopt the shared model,” says Pande.

Does this mean the tablets will make school teachers redundant?

Unlikely, says Mathur of PwC, though the devices can replace private tutoring.

But Pande of Classteacher.com believes it’s a possibility in five years’ time. “At least in a few schools.”

Further, the tablet or video content could assume the role of a teacher in the distance education and professional learning space, believe a few trainers.

MV Laxmi, general manager (curriculum), Indian Institute of Job Training, says they have adopted discussion threads, blogs and chats for students sitting at different locations and using e-learning to interact.

From the mundane to multi-media
If tablets are something that only a handful of schools are implementing, multi-media content, including animation and videos, are seeing far greater acceptance by the teacher and student community.

Over the last 3-4 years, multi-media has gained in popularity amongst schools, said Pavan Chauhan, managing director of online education firm Meritnation.

According to him, multi-media content is increasingly seen as being supplementary to formal school education. “It is perceived to be adding more value beyond what students are already getting.”

Moreover, certain concepts in the syllabi, like say photosynthesis, can be taught and understood better through animated media and videos as well as quizzes and activities,” says Rajesh Shethia, head, Tata ClassEdge, which creates lesson plans for syllabi of state boards, ICSE and CBSE by providing videos and animation.

“Larger number of schools are making use of such content,” he says.

According to Sethia, ClassEdge currently reaches around 1,200 schools with their multi-media content. “We want to reach another 800 by March next year.”

On its part, Meritnation has around 1.5 lakh teachers and 33 lakh students registered, said Chauhan. “We want to reach 1 crore students in the next few years time.”

Small towns scale demand
Not just the metroes, demand for online education is also zooming in the semi-urban and rural landscape. Knowledge-hungry residents of Tier-IV centres and district level towns like Ranaghat, Tonk, Talipramba, Chiplun, Kannur, Hissar, Churu are demanding the latest tools and modules in e-learning.

“Of the 33 lakh students registered on our site, nearly half belong to such small towns,” says Chauhan.

One big factor contributing to this interest from the hinterlands is the increase in sale of computers and laptops, say experts.

Data by the Manufacturers Association for Information Technology shows that in 2011-12, the sale of personal computers increased 16% compared with the previous year. The total sale of notebooks, desktop computers and netbooks during the year amounted to 10.8 million units.

Government support key
Government support can greatly help the spread of online education, say experts. The field has been slow to evolve mainly because the government and government-affiliated institutes are yet to widely embrace the system.

Narayan Ramaswamy, head, education practice, KPMG India, feels the much-needed impetus for e-learning will come when the University Grants Commission accepts it wholeheartedly. “Right now, they are blissfully ignorant about its existence and this is proving to be a huge deterrent.”

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