Business Today

Message in a tablet

Dearton Thomas Hector        Print Edition: Apr 29, 2012

Chances are that you have a toddler, or your next cubicle colleague has, or your next door neighbour does, who is already familiar with YouTube. Chances are even higher that her familiarity is bred by a tablet computer, one of those nice little touch screen miracles which have marred the growth of laptops.

The lesson from this - that tablets are easy to master and easier to learn on - has been imbibed, and is now being imparted through schools. One of the first things Akhilesh Yadav did on becoming the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh was to announce a free tablet computer for every student who completed Class X. It was quite a turnaround for the Samajwadi Party, which only a couple of years ago had spoken against the use of computers. Not to be left behind, the Bharatiya Janata Party's Manohar Parrikar, Goa's new Chief Minister, announced that all Class V and VI students in the state would be given tablet computers. The Union government has been championing, and struggling with, the Aakash tablet, which Union Communications and Information Technology Minister Kapil Sibal says will "end the digital divide".

Suddenly, the tablet has become all the rage in education. By packing a student's entire curriculum within its hardware, or allowing her to access it from the cloud - remote servers - it threatens to make the schoolbag obsolete.

Shantanu Prakash, MD & CEO, Educomp
Our solution will have the entire curriculum on the tablet, including textbooks: Shantanu Prakash
The UP government estimates that 2.5 million tablets will be needed for those passing Class X at the state's schools. On a national basis, the potential is far greater - there are 1.3 million schools in India, estimates consultancy firm Technopak Advisors. "Tablets will change the Indian education sector because of their reach and delivery," says Narayanan Ramaswamy of consultancy firm KPMG.

Many companies have woken up to the opportunity and evolved different business models to grab a slice of the pie. One model has seen tablet makers tie up with content providers. Boston-based AcrossWorld Education, a content provider, has tied up with Delhi-based Go-Tech to launch a tablet called ATab in India. The two companies have been trying to persuade schools to adopt the device, priced at Rs 5,000.

AcrossWorld claims to have developed the world's first cloudbased platform for school education. The platform enables K-12 schools (kindergarten to 12th standard) , colleges and universities around the world to access open source - free - educational resources. Stephan Thieringer, its President and CEO, has been criss-crossing the country to meet students, from Gajraula in UP to Rourkela in Orissa and Puducherry in the south. "As our product is a combination of service and hardware, we are very confident that the consumers in India will adopt it."

Educational Initiatives, a company that focuses on training of teachers and other educational services, has joined hands with AllGo Embedded Systems, a technology design company, to conduct pilot projects with tablet PCs in different parts of the country. In mid-January, a group of executives from the two companies descended on Parivallal School in Singampunari, a town in central Tamil Nadu known for its coir industry. They chose 60 students randomly from classes VI, VII and VIII and gave them a test on their tablets. After the initial surprise, excitement, and exploring, the students quickly got down to the test.

HCL Infosystems, a hardware giant, does not feel the need for a partner. "We are already into tablets and also into education, so it makes complete sense for us to get into this," says Anand Ekambaram, who heads the company's learning business. The company has launched two tablets, one for K-12 students and the other for higher education, both with bundled content. The K-12 version is priced at Rs 11,499 while the higher education tablet sells for Rs 9,999.

Educomp Solutions, a content provider for e-learning, is gearing up to launch content that is device agnostic and runs on any tablet. "This product will be the first of its kind in the world," claims Abhinav Dhar, Director, K-12, at Educomp. "Our solution will have the entire curriculum on the tablet, including textbooks, digital content, remedial and tutorial services," adds Shantanu Prakash, the Managing Director and CEO. The company is also planning to introduce its own branded tablets.

Career Launcher, an institute offering coaching and counselling services, has started pilot projects with tablets in its Indus World schools. "The students can take these tablets, do their homework, come back and have it uploaded directly to the server," says Satya Narayanan R., Founder and Chairman of Career Launcher.

Wishtel India, a Mumbai-based tablet maker, has launched two new educational tablets named IRA and IRA Thing, priced at Rs 4,000 and Rs 5,500, respectively, in partnership with VIA Technologies of Taiwan. These tablets support 23 regional Indian languages. "Our tablets will enable students to access virtual labs for physics, chemistry and so on. A student can also subscribe to our special packages, such as astronomy content, which may not be available in the school curriculum," says Milind Shah, CEO of Wishtel India.

Handset company Micromax Informatics jumped on the tablet bandwagon recently with its Funbook, priced at Rs 6,499. The company claims that its tablet will provide students with both education and entertainment. It has joined hands with Pearson India and Chennai-based Everonn Education for content. There will be different kinds of content, from Class I to degree courses to preparatory material for medical, engineering and MBA entrance exams. "Our partners are hosting the content on the education platform and the parents and the children can choose which content to buy," says Deepak Mehrotra, CEO, Micromax.

But is India ready for this revolution? "Electricity is needed to charge these products," says Pankaj Mohindroo, who heads Indian Cellular Association, pointing to a common bottleneck in the country. The other hurdle is uneven Internet connectivity.

And then there is the issue of content. "I am not sure if interactive content at the higher secondary level is available. If it is just a PDF of a textbook on the device, that does not help," says Naveen Mishra, an analyst with Cyber Media Research.
 
Additional reporting by Sunny Sen


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