Education has always been a high priority for the Indian government. Although the percentage of GDP (gross domestic product) spent by India on education lags behind the developed countries, it has increased over the past years. The Right to Education Act was a big step by the government to ensure a policy-based approach to inclusive education across the country. And the government seems to have scored another major victory recently by demonstrating a $35 education Tablet, appropriately named Aakash, to symbolise India’s limitless aspiration. But is this really a victory? What impact, if any, will this much-publicised Tablet have on the Indian education system? Does this also open a new world of opportunities for entrepreneurs?
Let us start with some stark facts about the Indian education system, which includes both urban and rural schools. A 2010 report of the District Information System of Education said that 29 per cent of elementary schools operated without school buildings in 2009-10 and only 59 per cent of schools had a separate toilet for girls. Pratham, an NGO that has been regularly testing students’ progress in rural areas, revealed in its 2010 report that only 53 per cent of fifth-grade students could read basic text and only 36 per cent of children could do simple division. The report also stated that the net enrolment ratio dropped from about 98 per cent in fifth grade to 58 per cent in eighth grade.
In spite of such huge challenges, the government has relentlessly pursued the idea of a low-cost Tablet to help improve the level of education in India. While technology obviously can’t address the infrastructure issues of physical buildings and toilets, it can definitely help improve the skills of students, if implemented correctly. Now that a $35 Tablet is closer to reality, although with huge government subsidies, this is a good time to start thinking about usage models of low-cost, content-consumption devices.
Is the desired usage model just to surf the Internet or is the goal to help improve the level of education? Interestingly, the school my seven-year-old twins attend announced that starting this month children could carry a Tablet to school one day a week. The first question my daughters asked me was, “What are we going to do with a Tablet in school – play Angry Birds?” It’s clear that an entire ecosystem of content, services and software needs to exist before a low-cost consumption device can be effective in improving education levels.
An important opportunity exists for technology entrepreneurs to create new businesses devoted to developing a strong ecosystem to support the use of Tablets in both public and private education systems. Assuming that a plethora of Tablets will be deployed across public and private schools in India over the next few years, here are some of the areas that I believe are ripe for innovation and for building large-scale businesses in India:
Content tailored for the Tablet platform: The most exciting features of a Tablet, from an education perspective, include the built-in accelerometer, GPS and gesture recognition. Children can grasp concepts faster and with full clarity if they interact with content using the features of a Tablet. While content companies traditionally have had a tough time scaling, the Tablet platform presents an opportunity to build a new type of content company which combines interactive core content, supplemental content and gaming.
Improving teacher-student, teacher-parent and parent-student communications: Given that a Tablet is a personal device like a phone, a lot of the data about how students use educational software and services on a Tablet can be mined. I believe there is an opportunity to drive analytics that can help improve communications between all stakeholders, with the goal of improving education levels of students. Clearly, privacy issues need to be addressed, but the data and analytics can really improve the level and quality of education in India.
Edutainment: While this category has failed to live up to the hype created around it, I believe a Tablet platform provides some of the key features required to make this category successful. Again, features such as accelerometers, GPS, 3G connectivity, etc., can deliver edutainment in a much more compelling manner than has been possible with laptops and desktop PCs.
Mobile education applications: Some of the mobile education attempts that we see today (language learning, etc.) on smartphones are probably going to do much better on a Tablet platform due to the form factor.
Will Tablets provide the inflection point for effective use of technology in the Indian education system? If there ever was an opportunity to test the thesis, it is now. If the government’s low-cost Tablet initiative only enables kids to surf the Internet without actually improving their education levels, we would be losing the opportunity to make a significant change in the Indian education system. We need entrepreneurs and investors to take on this challenge.