Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Internet's positive impact

Here are five more ways the Internet is going to positively impact our lifestyles.

1. A Website for senior citizens is planned by insurance regulator IRDA for senior citizens that will enable them to easily lodge their grievances with their health insurance providers. The background to this development : health insurance companies seem to be taking the short way out when it comes to meeting seniors' insurance needs.

Not only have they of late doubled the insurance premia but - reportedly - often do not accept new proposals or accept proposals for a low sum insured. Over and above, these insurance providers pussyfoot when it comes to clearing insurance claims.On the ground that many claims are for diseases with a "pre-existing" condition.

I should know. My late dad didn't get his claim passed on the ground that the claim he lodged was for a "pre-existing" heart condition : hence not admisible. So he put some of his hard-earned, public sector career savings to engage a lawyer. And fought - against a very Big Insurance company - for over 10 long years. And their attitude all along was : fight us if you can.

2. Domain names in Devanagari (the Hindi language script) will be available by year end. Currently, even Hindi domain names like Nai Duniya are spelt in English. An important psychological move forward in taking the Internet into local languages, I would say.

So far we have had language fonts for the HTML content, language keyboards as also limited availability of OS in local languages. The slow availability of Indian language OS is a mystery. Especially since it is local language OS that helped IT & Internet penetration grow in China, Korea and Japan.

3. The government proposes to set up a National Knowledge Network costing Rs. 1oo crore (Rs. 1 billion) that will connect major education & research institutes at 100 Mbps to enable them to share knowledge. This will also include portals on education, health, water, natural resources as well as online lectures on various issues. Public sector telecom behemoth BSNL is being roped in to set this up.

Expect an announcement in tommorrow's Union Budget.

4. Mumbai city has been looking at various upgrades to it's infrastructure, notably its transport system. The city is currently examining Seoul's Bus Rapid Transit System (BRIS).

Seoul has 10 million population vis-a-vis 14 million of Mumbai. It has 627 area while Mumbai has 468 sq. km. And it has 2.8 million vehicles as against 0.7 million of Mumbai.

In the late 90s, when Seoul had about 2.3 million vehicles it was able to decongest the city by, among other things, introducing dedicated bus lanes with buses leaving every 2 minutes. Currently, Seoul has 10,000 buses (Mumbai currently has 3,400) operated by 170 private bus operators.

5 million of its 10 million population use this bus network.And only 25% of the population take cars to work, down from 40% who used cars in the late 90s.

The important thing for a Neophile (that's my own term, by the way) like me is that the bus schedules for these 10,000 are available on the Net.

That's something that should be done here in Mumbai as well - leaving aside the bigger need for a dedicated bus corridor et al.

5. While on urban transport woes, the local car pooling site has been getting some positive press. There are other sites too.

One issue preventing popularity of these sites is safety i.e. security concerns in travelling with strangers. For which one answer is the creation a social networking car pool site. This can work either standalone or be a widget that works with existing social networking sites.

For more on this idea, see my previous post on "Social Networking : Learnings & Opportunities".

Wishing all readers of Marketers Kaleidoscope a Happy Leap Year Day and a favourable Union Budget !

Monday, February 18, 2008

Teachers’ shortage & Internet's magic wand - III

The break in writing at Marketer's Kaleidoscope has been longer than intended, one only hopes such long breaks will not be repeated. To wit :

Here is a online initiative in higher education that looks like it's going to be larger than any other initiative to date in India and, I would argue, in the world.

6. The NPTEL project

The IIT’s last month put online on You Tube (i.e. for free in video format) ,13 engineering courses. Each course was a complete 40 lectures affair of 1 hour duration each.

This is part of the National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning (NPTEL) initiative that was started a few years ago as a joint project of 7 IITs, the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore and the Union HRD Ministry. NPTEL’s objective is to make available for free or at a minimal charge the knowledge and learning of the IITs to the other 1500 plus engineering colleges of the country, thereby raising the overall standard of tech education in the country.

The plan is to have - by March 2008, in Phase I of the project, a total of 110 courses in video (4500 video hours in all in Phase I). The number will go up to 400 video courses and 16000 video hours in Phase II. When created, NPTEL believes this will probably be the largest single repository of technical courses in streaming video format on any single website in the world.

In addition, in Phase I, 129 courses are to be put online - in web (text / html) format.Which means that about 110 courses will be in both html & video format and an additional 19 courses will be in html only.

The courses span 5 branches of engineering viz. civil, computer science & engineering, electrical, electronics & mechanical as well as the core courses in science that all engineers must know.

This project has been a massive, long-term team effort. Each of the 8 Institutes has a NPTEL cell and has developed expertise in creating such multimedia content. The content generation is very nearly, evenly spread across all eight institutions. IIT Roorkee and IIT Guwahati have in Phase I of this project taken a lighter load than others as they both are nascent IITs and have considerably less number of faculties than other IITs.
A large number of the courses have been completed, also reviewed by two or three faculty from colleges and their suggestions have been incorporated. The access is free and open, subject to copyrights. A move is being made towards implementing Creative Commons license in this programme. Several mirror sites are also being added for improving access to course contents.

Here are some value-adds that NPTEL is providing:
• In the course content, emphasis has been laid on “core concepts” so that the courses will hopefully have longevity i.e. remain relevant for an extended period of time.
• The course curricula have been “localized” i.e. as per the engineering syllabi of the AICTE and some large universities. Local case studies have been used. Currently, engineering colleges use international textbooks - which are difficult or costly to obtain - and which do not match well with the college syllabi.
• Simple English has been used.
• Various teaching tools have been used within the videos so as to create or sustain interest.
• Workshops are envisaged for interaction between faculty of these engineering colleges and IIT faculty.
• Online interaction tools e.g. bulletin board too are foreseen.Some other value-adds planned are: question banks, supplementary reading material for overachievers as well as anecdotes and historical information.
• There is a mechanism for assurance of quality and certification of courseware.
• The course content will be made into CDs, DVDs or printed too if need be.

Some or all of the above features can make this a runaway success in other countries, too.

Video courses have also been broadcast over DD’s Eklavya Channel. Further, colleges are to also stream content over local servers / Intranet by payment of a moderate amount, reportedly Rs. 1 lakh payment.

7. Why the NPTEL project is a "big deal"

1. Top quality content (selected faculty from IITs and quality process of content creation).
2. Localized content and in simple English.
3. Will be the largest video streaming site for engineering or higher education in the world.
4. Possibly the largest or second largest web content too for engineering (400 courses as opposed to 1800 courses in MIT) .
5. Leverages social media: Posting video content - for 13 courses to date - on You Tube has enabled viewers (students) to post ratings and comments on each course. This will serve as a self-evaluation tool for the faculty/ NPTEL and give directions for further improvement.
6. Interaction with teachers planned through Open Workshops.
7. NPTEL appears to be a selfless, sincere attempt on part of the players (IITs and Indian Institute of Science) to share knowledge.

In contrast, the other comparable-in-size effort viz. MIT’s OCW does not have any interactivity with the students. In many cases it’s course content is incomplete, with just outline material et al. And a very-well endowed institution MIT has a posting on the OCW website asking for corporate sponsorship (no idea why). One would have expected some munificence from them, instead.

In other words, NPTEL is a magic wand which will help improve the quality of engineering education - across over 300, 000 students and faculty in over 1500 engineering colleges each year in India alone - as well as many more from the world over.

As I write this post, there comes the news that a 24 x 7 education channel called Topper - that focuses primarily on CBSE curriculum for Classes 9 to 12 – has been launched yesterday. This will initially be available on DTH platforms like Tata Sky and Dish TV. The company promoting this channel Greycells 18 Media Pvt. Ltd. is a joint venture of TV company Network 18, education company Educomp and two senior executives from the TV industry. Allied to it is a website where the students can take tests and interact with expert faculty on lessons that they have received on TV. Doordarshan’s Gyan Darshan & Vyas are two other educational channels currently available in the country, though both have low viewership.

Disclaimer: I currently work at education company Aptech.This may have - inadvertently - influenced my views in these last three posts on teachers & the Internet somewhat; of course, the views herein are mine alone.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Teachers’ shortage & Internet's magic wand - II

In post I, we covered teachers’ shortage and technology solutions in use to date.

In this post (II of 3 parts), there are a couple of reflections on how technology can transform learning (higher education) ,over and above it's use in combating the teachers shortage.

4. The Gary Hamel solution

Gary Hamel, (probably still best known as co-author – with C.K. Prahalad - of Competing for the Future) and one of the more radical management gurus of our time, had, in his 2000 book Leading a Revolution, presented a disruptive business model for a B-school. Technology of web and video (satellite TV) was to be used to make this disruption possible.

This is Hamel’s model: create a world-class B-school, as follows.

Take top 2-3 star professors from each of 10 MBA schools in the U.S. Give them a $1 million salary and equity in the B-school.

Aim to reach 100,000 students through live satellite broadcasts and Webcasts.

Have a network of second level tutors to engage with students locally. Do not have an entrance exam but have a demanding exit exam. The entrance should be based on 3 letters of recommendation viz. (1) “against the odds” type of accomplishment, (2) applicant in leadership role (even if humble) and (3) contribution the applicant has made to community.

Courses should be based on issues e.g. globalization & it's impact, not traditional disciplines e.g. international trade.

Unlike faculty of regular universities, these star faculty will not need to do research themselves but can instead hire research staff whom they will supervise. (In the U.S., research is a key requirement of faculty). They will thus have free time to devote to create quality videos and online course material.

Course fees will be kept lower than at the top MBA schools. The GLA can afford high salaries as well as keep course fees lower, since it will have high margins.

Importantly, as opposed to about 6000 students in the 10 MBA schools who receive quality education, a 100,000 plus will now be covered.

Business education will then begin to resemble investment banking or basketball (or cricket, if I may add my own two bit) where the best get paid star salaries (In cricket, the salaries are not outstanding, but the endorsements are. Thus, Sachin Tendulkar current wealth is ~ Rs. 400 crores or $100 million, by one report).

So that was Hamel's global virtual B-school.

I believe :
  • The above B-school model can be applied to courses other than business management.
  • There is value in having a few global "star" teachers, any which way. In today's globalizing world, such teachers will help provide an unparalleled perspective for practicing professionals.
  • The creation of some "star" faculty will raise the stature of teaching as a profession and make aspirational teaching as a career.
  • Creation of "star faculty" will also hopefully give rise to a second rung league of many more top-notch professors who too will be paid very well.

    Not unlike the increase in match fees for players who play in Ranji Trophy, India's domestic cricket circuit. This increase came consequent to an increase in emolument of the Indian national cricket team.

    Incidentally much of Gary Hamel's model has been tried already. The current online universities viz. University of Phoenix and Universitas Global practice some of these ideas. But, they don’t dream big enough. They don’t have star faculty AND top notch quality,relevant content AND affordable fees.

    MIT’s OCW is one model that has made rapid strides. But for reasons, I can't put my fingers exactly on, it leaves me dissatisfied.

    It's typically got lecture presentations in pdf or word format put online. But these presentations have not been edited to cater to a non-MIT audience. Some lecture notes are often only in an outline form. Video or even audio content is available only for a minority of the 1800 odd courses. There are no tools available for interactivity with M.I.T. or among the learners. Just static, vanilla content. Did M.I.T. really want to encourage open education or did they just want to put content online ? Am going to take another look (it's vast content ,cutting across 1800 courses) but..I was expecting more.

    And the content is of course not suitable as is to local e.g. Indian market needs or Indian university curricula. The textbooks and journals from which readings are prescribed may not be available in India / outside the U.S.

    6.1% of the visitors to the OCW site, as per the latest report available were from South Asia (no data on India). This seems low. None of the top 100 educational domains or 100 non-educational (corporate) domains from which visitors land on the OCW site are from India.

    Coming up in part III of this blog post, a model for education which promises to do it all :-)
5. Advantages of an online education:

A couple of comments here :

5.1 Here are some excerpts from a piece Peter Drucker wrote on online education in a May 15, 2000 issue of Forbes magazine. A synopsis of that article :

"Today demand for lifetime education is high, especially from people who are already educated. These people sense they are not keeping up with what they need to know on the job. Greater speed of change in the world means more demand for learning:

Firstly, professionals can barely keep up with the rapid progress in their fields. Secondly, earlier, one could expect lifetime employment with organizations, not so today. Organizations themselves do well only for short periods of time. People have no chance of working for their company even a decade later. So from a job mobility point of view, it’s important that people keep themselves up-to-date.

Continuing education could already be another 6% of U.S. GNP and growing. 40% of total US work force are knowledge workers.

These working people however are busy & cannot commute. They need flexible and accessible ways of learning.In addition to it’s convenience, the interactivity of online education with its facility for blending graphics and pictures with the spoken word, gives it an advantage over the typical classroom. It is like a 1-1 student – teacher ratio. Online Chat rooms are also useful.

This new online education channel would be complementary and additional to existing channels".

5.2 Some advantages of online learning, from a working professional’s point of view :

  • Doesn’t uproot your family
  • Doesn’t put your career on hold
  • Doesn’t require you to pay exhorbitant fees
  • You can live far away from the faculty
  • Not so tough to get in, there is no limit to the number of students
  • Flexible timings and number of classes per week

    More in post III.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Teachers’ shortage & Internet's magic wand - I

This is the first of 3 posts on the above. The issues covered , with special reference to higher education, in these posts are :

  1. The teachers' crunch

  2. How to run a successful education business

  3. The technology solution

  4. The Gary Hamel solution

  5. Benefits of an online (distance) education

  6. IITs' NPTEL project

  7. Why the NPTEL project is really a “big deal”

This first post covers 1,2 & 3

1. The teachers’ crunch

The demand for education is on the rise. Knowledge is,in today’s world, king. There are very many knowledge-based vocations, and in each of these the accumulated pool of knowledge is growing rapidly. This creates a need for continuing education.

In contrast, the majority of our forefathers were in manual occupations (e.g. plumbing or farming), where one's learning was essentially once and for all complete by the time one reached adulthood. And this learning was essentially passed on from one’s parents - because the techniques in use had not changed for centuries.

Continuing, knowledge-intensive education, however, needs qualified and motivated teachers. And these are not to be had.

My guess is that the teaching profession probably never ever attracted very many talented people. However, societies earlier could "get away with it" since not every one was educated or even supposed to be educated. A few Dronacharyas (Drona was Guru to the Pandavas’, as was Aristotle to Alexander) were enough to take care of the education of the elite.

In today’s democratic world, though, a (quality) education is one’s birthright. There is no reason, for example, why every aspiring executive should not get high quality management education. At the risk of stating the obvious, MBA or engineering or medicine curricula are themselves not so demanding as the respective entrance exams. So availability of higher education is actually constrained by supply issues (teachers, infrastructure), not by the number of quality applicants.

In India, as per the recently released India Development Report, 2008, just 9 out of 1000 Indians are currently enrolled in higher education, a number lower than most other countries. So the teachers’ crunch can only increase.

2. How to run a successful education business

Good education requires quality in many areas – an updated curriculum, an effective pedagogy, good content, well-designed and conducted examinations, a recognized i.e. brand name certificate or degree and qualified,motivated teachers. And education businesses try to provide these on an "what we can afford" basis.

Among these, good content is no. 1; one must have quality, credible content in order to succeed in the education business.

The above aspects including content can however usually be attended to. The chief issue is ability to invest a minimum amount in infrastructure and content. With teachers, however, one encounters what in business is called a scalability issue. There simply aren’t enough of them around.

3. The technology solution

Technology for education has been in use for a long time. There have been radio, satellite TV and online chat services for education and now there are 3D animations, Rich Internet Applications (Flash) , VOIP and webconferencing. These have been put to use for different applications. For instance, conducting exams online. Or, practice question papers. Training teachers.

In India we have had several such services. We have had egurukool, Zee Interactive, onlinevarsity and netvarsity at the height of the dotcom boom.

There is Tutorvista which leads in the online tutoring business. This is a $150 million outsourcing-led market: the students reside in U.S. or elsewhere overseas and the tutors are in India. And Elluminate is a "synchronous collaboration" software that forms the core of online tutoring services like Tutorvista, creating a virtual classroom online.

Then, there is Smartclass from Educomp. This is 3D animated content for schools that is delivered from a central server in the school to a whiteboard-type display inside each classroom and which acts as a aid to the teacher. 500 schools of the estimated private 50,000 pvt. schools in the country are currently covered. Analysts believe that the addressable number is 12,500. They just launched an ad campaign in Mumbai to extend their reach beyond the dozen odd schools they have signed up in Maharashtra.The company’s prospects are much fancied by investors.

There is HughesNet, the satellite (VSAT) -based management education service targeting working professionals. However, these guys have not been able to scale. They say they have reached (just) 4750 students across 34 cities in two years.

Earlier,radio and later,satellites were used. "The potential of space technology for mass education, especially in terms of immediacy, omnipotence, visual power and outreach was recognized in the early 70's. Keeping in view the larger aspects of education, especially rural education, India undertook in 1975-76, the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE) to telecast a series of educational TV programmes on health, family planning, agriculture, adult education etc., to cover 2,500 Indian villages via the US satellite, ATS-6. It was the largest sociological experiment ever carried out in the world".

There is Blackboard LMS which has been deployed at thousands of universities. There is MIT’s OCW (Open courseware) project that boasts nearly the entire MIT courseware (1800 courses) and has been around for seven years now. They claim 1.5 million visitors a month to their website. Here is a report. Then there is the Open Course Ware Consortium that is based on the MIT model and has over 100 participating institutions from the world over.

And the University of Phoenix is a pioneer in and one of the largest online universities.

So, use of technology to supplement or even substitute for teachers has been around for long. Some of these like MIT's OCW and Educomp in India have been quite successful too.

So what's new ??

I believe that none of the above initiatives have been or will be carried through to their logical conclusion i.e. potential. On the ground, the number of students benefitting from each of the above services is far lower than should been the case,considering the demand that exists.

But now here in India there's been launched a service that looks like it's going to be very large in terms of it's impact - both in quality delivered and in the number of students taught.

More on this in my two subsequent posts on "Teachers' shortage and Internet's magic wand".