Friday, July 13, 2007

ICT in Education

A couple of months back, I visited my daughter's school. They had called me when they heard that I had "something to do with eLearning". The group I had to address was a mix of enthusiastic teachers on one hand, and reluctant participants on the other. But one heartening aspect was that they all were eager to listen to whatever I had to say.

At one point of time, I was introduced to the school Math teachers as a professor, and I had to immediately disown the honour bestowed. I explained to them that I was keen to teach the teachers (and hence their students) how to use the internet resources in their regular classes. Over the years, I had gained some expertise in tapping the resources.

During the few interactions I had with the school teachers, I realized the vast gap in the intent and actual usage of technology. For me, technology didn't mean using fancy hi-tech gear like an electronic whiteboards and wi-fi campuses. These could come later. First, we should be able to use the internet for knowledge access. So, these teachers would need to know how to tap into it. My task in the first such interaction in this school was to show them an internet-enabled lesson. So, I just took up the topic fractions, and typed "teaching fractions" in Google search. Some million-odd pages figured in the result. I told the teachers that whatever lesson material they would have ever seen in books would be there in the first two pages of this search. So, that covered what they had seen in print. The next step was to show what else was there on the net. So, I tried "fractions applet" and got a bunch of results that showed "hands-on" results. The teachers could use these applets to give a "visual" appeal to their lessons. Some teachers rightly pointed out that these would need some investments in every classroom for installing a projector at the minimum.

Now, ICT is not all about using applets and flash animations. I explained that internet is now more of a communication platform. On another search for "math teacher forum", we could visit a few more sites where teachers from far-off places interacted with each other to share teaching ideas. We found out that this school could benefit from an interaction with another school in USA. At a later stage, the children from the two geographies could also start interacting to gain knowledge from each other. The ideas now started flowing in the same room that had reluctant observers some time back.

That is the power of ideas. Internet has become one such great idea, though its inventors wouldn't have imagined such implications at that time!

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Online Tutoring 2.0: Getting Past Approximating the Home Experience

Going by the reports of millions of dollars being pumped into the online tutoring industry, it seems like we have finally come of age. Two companies - India-based TutorVista and U.S-based - have each raised over ten million dollars in the last 6 months or so. And this wasn't a "first time" for either!

The recent infusion of capital offers an opportunity for providers and investors to take a closer look at online services. I am excited with the money the online tutoring model has attracted, but not too excited with the way in which it is being used. Investment for marketing and expansion of current services is justified for now. Yet, the more important opportunity for online providers lies in breakthrough technology.

For any student, or her parent, the "wow-factor" that drives them to "test" the online option is its price advantage over traditional home tutoring. Yet, apart from this and the national or international sourcing of tutors, there isn't much that is visibly different from the home-tutor model. They share a common instructional strategy. Tutor and student interact in the same way, but online they are not in the same physical room and may not see each other, primarily because of bandwidth constraints .

Some online providers have deliberately chosen to compete with the home-tutor model by being similar but less expensive. And this is why, in spite of investment and investors' interest, the online model remains a poor cousin to conventional face-to-face tutoring.

I added the 2.0 suffix to the title of this column because technology can make online tutoring better than its competition by offering an entirely different experience.

Online Tutoring 1.0: Approximating the "Home Experience" Most online services use shared text, voice and the whiteboard to deliver academic content to the student. Some deliver ancillary content including animations.

Testing and assessment tools used by a student during a tutoring session then come next up the value chain. A value-added feature allows student to take more tests outside the session and merge the results. This helps the teacher to know more about what the student needs. Tests done independently as assignments also reduce tutoring costs.

When all is said and done, these add to the online experience in ways that approximate a home experience.

The strategic shortcoming of this approach is that it accepts home tutoring as the standard against which online tutors should be compared. That puts online firms in marketing equivalent of "when did you stop beating your wife?"

Online Tutoring 2.0: Creating a "Web Experience" The 2.0 suffix is about creating a web experience. Newspaper articles on such technologies as MySpace, text messaging, iTunes, and blogs, massive multi role-player gaming, and behaviors from sharing to bullying show that students use virtual space as more than an approximation of their social lives in the real space they physically inhabit.

Online Tutoring 2.0 is about exploiting similar pattens of use and enabling technologies in a more secure, controlled and teacher-guided manner. The most common worry of a parent of a teenager using the internet is content. The big advantage in merging this with online tutoring is the fact that it is now under the direct supervision of an adult, and is constantly monitored by the system.

So what 2.0 add-ons would be the most exciting to watch in the coming years?

• First, "content aggregators" for lessons. tests, educational videos and edu-blogs.

• Eventually, virtual reality tools like secondlife to enable a more vibrant and open learning atmosphere.

If the industry can keep excitement levels up and more money keeps coming in, it can create a real "web-based" wow-factor!

Sunday, April 08, 2007

The Online-Offline debate: Forging alliances with the competition

With every new initiative and invention, there usually are fallouts. For instance, with automation, lot of workers lost their jobs, and with automobiles, the horses moved to the race courses. On the other hand, there have been situations when a new technology has facilitated a new product form, instead of killing the old one. Electronic Media was once touted as the killer guy. But we know for sure that newspapers, magazines, electronic media and now, the blogs live together, in harmony.

Online tutoring is one such innovation that has seen all the arguments against it from varied quarters. Some critics claim that the distance mode doesn’t ensure the human interaction necessary for an effective learning. And since there is no physical face to the service, the student is not able to relate to the tutor. The etutoring service providers refute this claim, and give counter arguments as well. Technological improvements have also helped allay some apprehensions. Inspite of this healthy debate, the etutor is being seen as an “outside” competitor to the home-tutor or an in-center tutor.

However, one does not need to take a bipolar view of the world all the time. In this situation, it does help to put the two together and provide the best of both worlds. I must confess that we came to this opportunity more by accident than by design. One tutoring company actually got in touch with us, asking for online tutors that could assist them in getting more business! After the initial response of disbelief, we went through a couple of rounds of discussions to understand the philosophy. This company has about 5 teachers on their roles, who visit the children’s homes to teach them face-to-face. But there was demand from their region that they couldn’t satisfy because of the few teachers. Hiring more teachers was not only costly, but also difficult considering the quality of service needed. Hiring online tutors made sense because of the flexibility it offered them. We worked out a model where their teachers would enroll a student, and take a couple of classes in the beginning. Later they would introduce the student to her online tutor, and complement the learning process with regular face-to-face meetings. In effect, they became our face to the student. The parents were less apprehensive because they had someone to talk to in person. We could provide an extremely localized service because of the inputs provided by the student’s local tutor. It has been a win-win for all of us, and provided us with an option to collaborate, not compete!

There are more instances of such efforts, and we are still learning the new models of business. The conventional thinking of splitting the business verticals into clearly defined roles for the partners doesn’t seem to work here. In our case, the two partners exchange notes, almost on a daily basis, to arrive at the best service to the student. Slowly, the new concept of a “hybrid tutor” is catching up, and we hope to replicate the model in other places.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Impacting the Ground Zero...

In the far away land called India, there is a big metropolis called New Delhi. On quite a few occasions, I take the Public Transport Bus from my home to the office. Besides saving me some bucks, this sojourn gives me an opportunity to see the real India...far away from the high-tech world of the NEW "Bangalored" or "Gurgaoned" India that the world now knows about.

Of course there are more mobiles than watches in people's hands, and they are spending more on things that they could do without. But this is the story about the silver lining in all of this contrast...After I get down from the bus, I have to cross a railway crossing on foot and a huge container depot, where you would see large containers carrying everything from iron bars to sleek cars to and from all corners of the world. The place is so full of muck and filth that you wouldn't feel like putting your foot on it. But then this is exactly the place where more than a few thousands of people step in and out of to earn their livelihood everyday, twice.

Now, lets talk about the silver lining. Towards the end of this filth, there is a small structure (for want of a better word) that could easily pass off as the neatest place around. This place is a daytime host to several children from the neighborhood. It is almost a morning ritual for me to spend a few minutes taking in the sight of this "school". I see children between ages of 6 and 11 years dressed almost out of place. There is usually a teacher (who makes my day by his or her mere presence), who is trying to instill a sense of confidence and belonging in the children. Occasionally, I see a proud parent dressed for the occasion of dropping in his child who got late for the school. I have even heard students saying "Good Morning" and "May I please come in?" in English, while everyone "outside" the school is using the choicest of words in Hindi, the local and national language. The school only has an invisible boundary (meaning a truly "open" school), but it is wonderful to see how everyone knows and feels its virtual presence! The strength of this small effort doesn't lie in getting the school in place, but to keep the students and teachers from leaving it midway.

Now what does it all have to do with me, and my job? Well the fact is that I work not more than half a mile away from this school. And I just keep thinking about the school until, of course, getting busy working for my students in far away lands in the US of A. The contrast couldn't have been starker. I am involved in designing a state-of-the-art technology platform that a teacher sitting at home uses to teach a student logged in from the comforts of her home. And at this place they are grappling with getting the basic infrastructure to teach, and to get more teaching resources who can find motivation to work here.

If you have any suggestions on how to tackle this situation, please feel free to drop me an email. There are technologies available, which don't really take much to implement, and I will be very happy to anchor the initiative. But more than the money (which anyway is the first step, though), I believe what is needed is that "killer idea"...