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Enabling Education: Mobile devices offer a ready platform

May 05, 2014
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Wireless technologies have played a key role in connecting millions of people in India. Besides facilitating communication-based services, the platform has significant potential to drive socio-economic growth in the country through the improved delivery of basic services like education. Information and communication technology (ICT) is proving to be a key enabler for providing easy, quality and affordable access to education, given the country’s vast geographical spread and disparity in the levels of infrastructure development.

Growing broadband connectivity has led to the development of various web-based models for providing online education and e-learning services. Increased availability of low-cost PCs and growing usage of mobile phones for accessing broadband services, particularly in rural areas, is providing a major fillip to the country’s e-learning industry. Technological advancements such as cloud computing and the introduction of next generation high speed services are also key growth drivers for this market. Consequently, the e-learning market in India is estimated to witness a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 17.4 per cent between 2013 and 2018.

Accessing educational services, any time and anywhere, has become important for learners and teachers and adoption of e-learning solutions is witnessing growth. Telecom operators and application developers are cashing in on this opportunity and are offering new online services for the education sector. These services are generally delivered through the cloud, fibre or mobile handsets.

Role of mobile devices

In the past few years, mobile has emerged as a relevant platform for providing educational services. In developed nations, education-over-smartphone is a supplementary service to the traditional classroom infrastructure; however, in India, the handset will be a primary medium for accessing basic educational services for millions, especially in rural areas. As of January 2014, there were 893.31 million wireless users in the country. Of these, about 364.01 million were rural subscribers. Further, with the introduction of HSPA technology and 3G services, a large population base is now accessing data services through mobile handsets. As of September 2013, 210.38 million users in India were accessing data services on mobile phones vis-à-vis 22.19 million DSL and broadband subscribers.

The uptake of mobile-based educational services among urban users has grown rapidly. High school and college students generally use services like corporate learning programmes, examination alerts, coaching and e-courses. For instance, Ericsson has developed a learning platform that uses mobile phones to download the Indira Gandhi National Open University’s course content. Also, Educomp has partnered with Zeebo to launch a platform which enables schoolchildren to download academic content through 3G services. Further, the mGurujee application allows users to access content on engineering, management, medicine, etc. Students often seek online services for assistance in their homework and interact with international faculty/student volunteers online for assignments. Further, students across the world take standard tests such as the SAT, GRE and TOEFL through their mobile devices and benchmark their performance vis-à-vis other candidates.

There is significant untapped potential for mobile-based e-learning applications on the rural front as well. These areas typically lack physical infrastructure for providing education and face several other challenges in terms of inadequate teacher turnout, poor quality of teaching staff and high dropout rates. Although the government has made efforts towards establishing ICT kiosks and exchanges, etc. in rural areas for the delivery of e-learning services, their success has been limited. Further, the reach of these kiosks (12,450 as of August 2013) is limited as compared to the huge rural mobile user base. As of January 2014, rural mobile teledensity stood at 42.43 per cent. M-education can unlock significant value for people residing in these areas. Moreover, adult illiteracy rates in such areas are very high and providing language and vocational training through relevant applications can be a game changer for such communities.

Mobile value-added service (MVAS) developers have recognised this opportunity and are developing very specific content. Language training is one application which has found many takers in rural and semi-urban areas. These applications allow easy mobile-based learning of English and other languages.

Increased affordability and accessibility of smartphones have also been key drivers for mobile internet services in rural areas, which is encouraging the adoption of m-education services. Going forward, significant progress can be made towards achieving 100 per cent literacy by lever-aging the growing penetration of mobile handsets and MVAS.

Government’s role in encouraging e-education

In the past, the government has supported the e-learning drive to overcome such challenges and strengthen accessibility. It has launched the National Mission on Education through Information and Communication Technology, which aims to encourage the use of computing devices and benefit learners/teachers in institutions providing higher education. The mission focuses on appropriate pedagogy for e-learning, creating virtual laboratories, online testing and certification, online availability of mentors to guide learners and utilisation of the satellite and direct-to-home platforms. So far, 400 universities and about 20,000 colleges in the country have been connected through Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited’s IP-based cloud services. Another scheme, the National Program on Technology Enhanced Learning, which is aimed at providing video- and web-based course content, has also been introduced. Over 250 courses in various disciplines are currently available under Phase I and about 900 courses are being developed. Low-cost tablets – Aakash 1 and Aakash 2 – have also been launched with a view to enable students to access anywhere, any time e-education in an affordable manner.

The National Telecom Policy, 2012 (NTP, 2012) is aimed at transforming the country into an empowered and inclusive knowledge-based society, using telecom as a platform. The thrust of the NTP, 2012 is on the multiplier effect and transformational impact of telecom and broadband services on the country’s overall socio-

economic growth. Further, the successful roll-out of the government’s National Optical Fibre Network (NOFN) project will provide a platform for the delivery of e-education services in the country’s hinterlands. The NOFN aims at providing fibre connectivity to 250,000 gram panchayats for the provision of high speed and high quality broadband access.

Industry initiatives

E-learning offers significant business potential for operators and VAS developers. In the past few years, operators have taken several initiatives to make mobile a relevant platform for providing education. These companies generally converge their IVR, SMS and WAP services to deliver m-education. The following are the key industry initiatives in this regard:

•Reliance Communications is delivering interactive, real-time courses across over 100 cities

•Bharti Airtel is providing educational services through IVR, which includes spoken English courses. The company has also launched mEducation, which allows subscribers to access courses such as English learning, preparation for competitive exams and career counselling on their mobile phones

•Aircel and MTS have partnered with non-governmental organsaitions for educational initiatives aimed at underprivileged children. BlackBerry, in partnership with Vodafone, has launched an application, Study Buddy, for B-school aspirants

•Vodafone has developed a low-cost mobile internet teaching tool, WebBox, which can be plugged to a television for delivering online digital education content.

Other applications introduced by service providers include HCL Infosystems’ MyEduWorld – an interactive learning app which offers school curriculums in the digital format. iProf Learning Solutions has also launched an online service, TheDigiLibrary.com, which offers content for entrance exam coaching and language training. Similarly, Vriti has partnered with Tata McGraw-Hill Education to provide free online smart courses for engineering and management on Android-based tablet devices.

The way forward

ICT, with its countrywide reach, is an effective tool to address India’s illiteracy challenges and has the potential to make “education-for-all” a reality. Connectivity, cost and content hold the key to drive the uptake of online educational services in India. Going forward, with the growing affordability of mobile devices, introduction of high speed broadband services and the development of new e-learning solutions, mobile handsets will transform the way education is provided in the country.

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