Why e-learning has a promising future in India

E-learning raises the level of education, literacy and economic development in countries where technical education is expensive, opportunities are limited and economic disparities exist…

“Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.”
—Albert Einstein.

While Einstein’s words may have been intended in good humour, they aptly reflect the fact that effective education is constant and always evolving. In fact, the face of education has experienced a sea change over the decades. Once characterised by the traditional classroom model, education has metamorphosed into learning that is instant, online, self-driven and on the go. The journey of education in India, too, has been dotted with innumerable milestones—the most recent among these is e-learning.

The reform push
The government is a strong supporter of e-learning and the Department of Electronics and Information Technology (DeitY) has been actively developing tools and technologies to promote it. DeitY has supported e-learning-focused R&D projects at various academic educational institutes. These include content development, R&D/technology initiatives, HRD projects and faculty training initiatives to improve literacy through distance education.

Expanding e-learning
The rapid increase in internet connectivity has been an important catalyst for the growth of e-learning. A robust internet ecosystem, with a multitude of local and global players, will help online learning make further inroads. The story is not limited to schools alone. Indian companies are adopting e-learning platforms as continuous employee learning has become a strategic necessity.

With the number of internet users in India expected to reach 250 million, rivalling the US and second only to China, India’s potential as a huge market for e-learning is enormous. A large number of new users are accessing the internet for the first time from their smartphones, which is an ideal, personalised and commerce-enabled platform for e-learning adoption.

Universities will see more students accessing their coursework from outside the traditional classroom. As per the Docebo report issued in July 2014, the worldwide market for self-paced e-learning reached $35.6 billion in 2011. The five-year CAGR is estimated to be 7.6%, so revenues should reach $51.5 billion by 2016. While the aggregate growth rate is 7.6%, several world regions have higher growth rates. The highest rate is in Asia at 17.3%, followed by Eastern Europe (16.9%), Africa (15.2%) and Latin America (14.6%).

According to another report, India’s online education market size is set to grow to $40 billion by 2017 from the current $20 billion. India has one of the largest education systems in the world with a network of more than 1 million schools and 18,000 higher education institutions. More than half of the country’s 1.2 billion population falls in the target market for education and related services.

E-learning brings unique advantages, the prominent being the ability to provide personalised attention to all students. In a conventional set-up, this is only possible when a highly skilled tutor offers one-to-one tutorials. However, considering that most institutions have a classroom-based set-up, such attention becomes difficult. Another advantage is people living in smaller towns and cities can get access to the best possible learning resources from across the world, at a very affordable price. This helps create a level-playing field.

The developing wave of adaptive learning will help students with various levels of intellectual capabilities to glean the best from the learning process at their own pace, without feeling left out.

Online tutoring will definitely pose a threat to conventional methods of teaching—while online learning can never look at completely replacing schools because schools offer much more than just academic knowledge inside their campuses. However, private tuition centres will have to take a second look at their business model and adopt digital learning aids to sharpen their offerings.

Aspects of e-learning
Although the foundation of education is still reading, writing and arithmetic, today’s students need broader education. So, what can e-learning deliver?

Live instruction: Certain curricula may require specialised instructors. By using live broadcasts, these instructors can remain in one location and provide instruction to many students in other locations. This type of specialisation increases as students move into higher levels of education, for example towards advanced degrees in medicine.

Video content delivery: Pre-recorded content such as lectures, documentaries and other video content may be delivered in a store and forward model so that the material can be viewed when needed.

Student-to-student interactions (video-conferencing): Students may learn just as much from each other as they do from teachers. So communications technology can be used to connect students.

Remote test administration: In some countries, standardised tests are used to evaluate students on a level-playing field. These tests must be delivered securely and on-time to meet testing schedules. In Indonesia, this is a daunting task simply because of geography and population size. Digital delivery could be the solution.

Up-to-date materials: Basics seldom change. However, virtually all textbooks must be updated. Textbooks are expensive to purchase, maintain and deliver. Digital delivery solves this issue when coupled with e-readers.

Self-learning: Computer-based training or self-paced learning is common in higher education and trade-oriented learning. Kiosks to support this may be located close to under-served areas where populations already work.

At the higher educational level, collaboration is vital to research. Post-graduate students in remote locations may be able to consult instructors at the university when needed. For example, in the medical field, tele-medicine can only be facilitated using broadband.

The VSAT advantage
Satellite broadband, typically VSAT (very-small-aperture terminal), is ideally suited to bridging this gap. In the past, satellite connectivity was typically thought of as too expensive, too slow and not reliable. With the advent of high throughput satellites (HTS) and advances in radio technology, the cost and reliability of satellite connectivity has made it an attractive option. Satellite broadband offers distinct advantages such as competitive cost; multicast capability; universal coverage; and low cost and simple installation.

Further, specialised equipment such as digital white-boards, video-conferencing systems, multimedia systems and even 3D learning experiences may be connected to take advantage of the broadband connectivity.

As e-learning tools become more advanced, so does their bandwidth requirement. Depending on which applications are in use, bandwidth requirements can vary from several hundred kbps all the way to multi-megabit connections.

A business opportunity?
In underdeveloped and developing countries, e-learning raises the level of education, literacy and economic development. This is especially true for countries where technical education is expensive, opportunities are limited and economic disparities exist.

Thanks to satellite technology, the costs have come down so significantly that every student—whether a grade school student or medical student doing a rotation in a remote area—can take full advantage of bandwidth provided by broadband satellite systems.

By Shivaji Chatterjee
The author is business head, Hughes Communications India

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