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".

3 comments:

  1. PJ2056:00 AM

    I just recently read about the Smartclass and actually got to see it while it was in use. I thought it was a useful tool for education.

    You stated at the end of your post that although some of the new ways have been successful, it hasn't been beneficial enough to students.(Am I reading this right?)I was just wondering if you think there will EVER be a possibility for teachers to be replaced by technology?

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  2. Hi pj205

    No, you are right.

    I am not saying that these initiatives like Smartclass have been beneficial. On the contrary. I am saying that there haven't been enough of it.

    Nor can technology replace teachers. But it can be a very important supplement. It can make an average teacher look brilliant. This is important because society doesn't seem to be able to find people for or reward people in the teaching profession.

    My point of view - actually - is that Smartclass and other such initiatives are excellent, but none of them have scaled up so far. They are very limited in their reach and impact considering what needs to be done. A company like Educomp has covered 500 scholls after these many years. Hughes Net has reached only 4700 part-time students of management in all.

    In contrast, say, ISRO's satellite SITE in the 1970's reached millions of farmers in India through the farmer education Krishi Darshan TV programme.

    Today the demand for education is phenomenal. It is possibly the world's biggest market.In the US alone it is 10% of GDP.

    Given this size and scale one would have expected very aggressive players (private or government) and/or much higher use of technology tools like Smartclass or satellite TV or mobile phones etc.

    More in my subsequent posts :-) Thanks for your feedback, pj 205.

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  3. Sorry, in my previous comment on this post, in para 1 , please read :

    " I am not stating that initiatives like Smartclass have NOT been beneficial".

    In the previous comment, the word NOT got left out.

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