Learning in time of COVID-19: Online education just got bigger, here’s how Amazon Web Services is making it better

By: |
April 20, 2020 4:41 PM

Amazon’s cloud arm has been running a dedicated EdStart program in India since 2018, but it’s only now, that it’s really being put to test.

EdTechAn EdTech service provider is only as good as the cloud-based solution that it relies on. (Photo credit: Reuters)

These are unprecedented times. The ongoing Coronavirus crisis, that’s wrecking havoc around the world, is leading us to make changes, big changes, in all walks of life. Because that’s what we do, as humans — we learn, we adapt, and we keep moving. One such area that’s witnessing change is education. More and more parents, teachers and administrators are now coming online to ensure staying at home doesn’t come at the cost of students losing out on their studies.

This is invariably giving India’s EdTech sector a major shot in the arm. An EdTech service provider is only as good as the cloud-based solution that it relies on though. There are so many aspects to it, and the current pandemic scenario means there’s need for newer, better ideas and turning those ideas into practices at breakneck speed, in this case, features set for clients who can then pass on the benefits to end-users — aka, the students.

One of the key cloud-based solutions that EdTech service providers have been looking up to is Amazon Web Services. Amazon’s cloud arm has been running a dedicated EdStart program in India since 2018, but it’s only now, that it’s really being put to test. Financial Express online spoke exclusively with Rahul Sharma, President – Public Sector, India and South Asia, Amazon Internet Services Pvt. Ltd to understand how AWS is helping make EdTech better in India. Excerpts.

— Let’s start with the AWS EdStart program itself – a brief introduction about your program with ed-tech startups.

We started the AWS EdStart program in 2018 as a part of our overall strategy to help education technology (EdTech) startups, to succeed and be relevant in the market. We created the AWS EdStart program to identify early-stage startups focused on education, and we developed specific criteria to identify the type of startups that typically need help at an early-stage. AWS works with these startups and supports them with coaching, mentoring, technology architecture, making connections within the market and, if needed, AWS also provides credit to start them off on their innovations.

— Were there any initial challenges with the program? 

I can’t think of any specific challenges. We’ve seen enthusiasm in the market, and a number of EdTech startups like enguru, Playablo, Eckovation, ClassPlus, Toprankers, and LeverageEdu have signed up since we announced the program in India. One of the important things we considered was how we could make something specific for each EdTech startup versus the broad community of EdTechs, because each startup has unique challenges and needs. So on the one hand, while we create something that is more general in terms of requests for technology architecture help, market assistance, and credits, startups also want specific help. So, for mentoring and coaching, we had to decide between how specific we can make an intervention, versus how broad we can be based on our own resourcing. We’ve been successful with the AWS EdStart program and these interventions.

— Has Digital India helped you in some way? And also Startup India?

Absolutely. If we think about EdTech startups ten years ago versus now, and see how they have been funded by venture capitalist firms, the interest in them is significantly higher now. The government has programs on skilling, as a part of Digital India, which helps establish the need for more technology intervention, and the need to close the gap between the supply of skills and the demand, at every level. By engaging with startups across the board, the government has made progress, making it easier for startups to move in a particular direction.

— How do you convince young startups to invest in your platform and where does your engagement begin, and at what level?

I think that’s the power of AWS. One, we give functionality that is really broad and deep. But more than that, we make it easy for startups to start – it’s as easy as using a credit card to set up an AWS account.

If a startup wants to create a website for example, they can use Amazon Lightsail that offers everything needed to quickly build a website or application, and get started in a matter of minutes. They can then really focus on the outcome they want to create, and leave the undifferentiated heavy lifting of technology to us. Startups don’t have to worry about spinning up servers, buying them, or to a large extent, managing them; they can just get easily started like this. That’s the reason why there are so many startups that are building on AWS. It’s really that easy to get started.

When startups start thinking about the next level, and if they want to specialize, say in artificial intelligence and machine learning, with offerings like Amazon SageMaker, they can get started on machine learning without even knowing how to code.

— And how do you make them trust you, because anything that’s cloud, and anything that is Internet-connected has to go through privacy and security concerns.

At AWS, security is always our top priority. AWS has been architected to be the most flexible and secure cloud computing environment available today. Our core infrastructure is built to satisfy the security requirements for military, global banks, and other high-sensitivity organizations. At AWS, the same security protocols that are necessary, say for government security agencies to work with us, are also available to startups and our other customers across the board.

We also think about security as a shared responsibility model between the customer and us. In this “shared responsibility” model with the customer, AWS is responsible for “security of the cloud”, i.e., the infrastructure that runs all of the services offered in AWS Cloud, and the customer is responsible for “security in the cloud”, i.e. building secure applications.

— Can you talk about some of your customers who have used AWS services and offered solutions for the education sector in India?

Every customer is a key customer for us. An example of this is Classplus – this startup is a classroom management app for private coaching centres in India, helping them take their brick and mortar classrooms online. Classplus has discovered there is a need for tutors to access a learning platform for their students, and is helping tutors run all their communication, payments, assessments and online learning programs on a full-stack mobile solution that doubles up as their online content repository. Over 3,000 tutors across 50 cities in India use Classplus to address more than 500,000 students on a regular basis.

Another example is Toprankers, a startup that focuses on the test preparation market for government entrance exams such as Staff Selection Commission (SSC), Union Public Service Commission (UPSC), railways, banking, or teaching. Toprankers is addressing a dual need – on one hand, it is providing a platform for students in smaller cities to access the best coaching online instead of having to move to larger cities, and on the other hand, it is helping drive additional revenue for coaching centres by increasing their customer base. Toprankers works with over 500 coaching institutes, and has registered over 3.7 million student users on their platform. Toprankers relies on AWS Cloud for platform hosting, to meet usage demand efficiently and effectively, and deliver video content seamlessly.

Our job is to make sure that we remove technology roadblocks for startups to scale. As an example, one of our EdTech customer’s video volumes is growing at an enormous exponential rate – 10x this year compared to previous year. Our job is to make sure that we give them stability and a scalability roadmap that they need.

— So, is online education, really the future of education? How prepared is India for this at this point of time?

I can’t gaze into a crystal ball, but I can tell you that there is a need for us to have a bridge between the supply and demand gap. The pace at which skills are evolving, and the frequency of the evolution of skills at a higher level, means that there are imperatives that will be needed in India to fulfill the demand. The challenge is how quickly we can meet the skills gap through scaling interventions. And that’s what some of these startups are addressing. When we look at the overall skilling problem, between 400 and 450 million people need to be skilled or reskilled in India as per the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD). It’s an enormous task.

— Are you doing something to address the huge skilling requirements in India?

AWS works very closely with NASSCOM on its FutureSkills program. The NASSCOM FutureSkills portal runs on AWS, and the AWS Educate program also provides the content, cloud credits, and hands-on experience to the participants of the FutureSkills program, along with the setting up of cloud labs on the campuses of academic institutions. Here, we give them learning content, career pathways, and learning pathways around technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, IoT, big data, cloud, among others. We have done this with Common Service Centres (CSC) as well, where we give students access to content, learning paths, and accounts for them to do their projects and experiments.

The biggest gap today in skilling is to make it more experiential, enable students to be more hands-on, and get more internships and industry experience. The AWS Educate program helps in addressing these needs. Tens of thousands of students are enrolled in AWS Educate today in India.

— Do you also tie up with educational institutions, schools, colleges, universities? 

Yes, we have collaborations with many institutions for the AWS Educate program in India on cloud skilling, including the Indian Institute of Technology (BHU) Varanasi, Maharaja Ranjit Singh Punjab Technical University (MRSPTU), and West Bengal Electronics Industry Development Corporation Ltd. (Webel).

— Is AWS playing any role to support education institutions to conduct online classes during the current lockdown due to COVID-19?

We are working with Impartus, an EdTech startup in India that provides innovative video learning solutions to education institutions across the country. The video learning solution by Impartus is powered by AWS, enabling it to scale quickly and reliably to address rapid and peak usage, and stream significant amounts of data in real-time, providing teachers and students optimal audio, video quality for live video classes, mirroring a physical classroom experience. Since early March, Impartus has hosted live virtual video classrooms on AWS for more than 500,000 students and 40,000 teachers across 80 institutions in India, including IIT-Delhi, BITS Pilani, Manipal Group, Shiv Nadar Schools, Fr. Agnel Schools, and Symbiosis. Impartus is using multiple AWS services to power its live video learning solution, such as – Amazon EC2 to autoscale without downtime and enable live videos; Amazon Elasticsearch Service to enable video search, because students watch live videos and also access recorded videos; Amazon S3 to store on-demand videos; and Amazon Relational Database Service (Amazon RDS) to ensure students are registered and authenticated, as education institutions want to ensure their video recorded classes are secure. Impartus is providing its virtual classrooms free to all Indian schools and colleges until the end of April.

We are also working closely with CareerLauncher – its Aspiration.ai portal is built on AWS. The portal blends learning, fun, parenting, and mentoring to provide offline learning resources with practice tests, educational games, and career guidance. CareerLauncher is working with the Delhi Government to help train teachers in Delhi on effective virtual teaching techniques and technologies using CareerLauncher’s Aspiration.ai portal. CareerLauncher has launched a pilot program on March 26, 2020 across 55 public schools in Delhi reaching 15,000 students. By April, the program is expected to roll out across an additional 1,200 schools and 190,000 students in Delhi. CareerLauncher is using AWS to build robust scalable services of live streaming of classes as well as archival and replay of past recordings. It uses services such as AWS Elemental MediaLive and Amazon Cloudfront.

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