Edutel classroom
Edutel virtual classroom in the Indian state of Karnataka © Michael and Susan Dell Foundation

Ripan Dutta, 23, spent a year working as a software developer after graduating from the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology Bombay in 2015. But he soon wearied of writing code, and decided to aspire to a more senior role in product management, co-ordinating the teams that were developing, designing and marketing software products.

Normally such jobs only come with an MBA or after long years of software industry experience. But Mr Dutta wanted to jump-start his career and signed up for a five-month course in software product management with UpGrad, a start-up that offers online professional education programmes.

The course, which costs Rs150,000 ($2,230), teaches aspiring product managers to assess consumers’ underlying needs, shepherd development of user-centred technology products and assess a product’s effectiveness.

The programme is not simply offering digital lessons: Mr Dutta, who has a full-time job at a Delhi-based travel tech start-up, is also personally mentored by a senior IT professional from a large Indian online travel booking site.

“It is helping me a lot in terms of what are the concepts, and what are the things I need to build a good product,” Mr Dutta says. “You can also ask the mentor whether you have experienced something like this, or at what stage you have used this.”

UpGrad is one of a growing number of educational technology ventures trying to plug the gaps in India’s education system. There is an increasing demand for knowledge from a young population, but at every level of its education system — from primary schools to universities — India suffers from an acute shortage of qualified, effective teachers and relevant course material.

These deficiencies have left tens of millions of schoolchildren unable to read or do maths to their grade level, while many college graduates lack skills relevant to India’s job market, or their own professional aspirations.

Entrepreneurs, investors and educators are looking to technology to bring more effective education to students — especially those in remote locations — with a limited pool of teachers.

UpGrad, which launched in 2015, has had about 2,000 students enrol on its entrepreneurship, digital marketing, data analytics and product management courses. It expects to widen its offerings and increase its student numbers in the coming year.

Bangalore-based Edutel uses two-way satellite technology to beam live lessons by specialist teachers in science, maths and English to about 2,000 primary and secondary schools in the southern state of Karnataka, and is now hoping to expand its reach.

“When we are trying to solve the kind of challenges we face today, we need some level of standardisation in our delivery, which is only possible through technology,” says Prachi Jain Windlass, director of Indian education at the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, which is an investor in Edutel.

“The quality of teachers that we have for science and math especially is extremely poor, and to be able to improve them by training is a mammoth task,” she says. “Technology can solve some of these problems.”

The EkStep Foundation, meanwhile, is looking at using smartphones to tackle India’s biggest challenge: helping new learners in places where there are few textbooks to develop the fundamentals of reading and maths. The initiative, funded by Infosys founder Nandan Nilekani and his wife Rohini, provides a free app that can run educational content, including videos, in different languages. Users can also design their own content for the open source platform. It is currently being used by about 200,000 children and educators, mostly so far to assess learning levels.

Nandan Nilekani photographed at his home in Bangalore, India on Thursday, August 06, 2015. Photograph by Namas Bhojani
Future investor: Nandan Nilekani © Namas Bhojani

Educational entrepreneurs warn that technology does not provide an easy solution to such serious challenges. “Technology is an enabler — it is not at the core,” says Mayank Kumar, co-founder of UpGrad. “Technology has to enable the scaling up of education. The interaction should not be just one way.”

Mr Kumar says successful schemes should find ways to incorporate various aspects of regular classroom teaching, such as applying concepts to real-life situations, networking and peer-to-peer engagement. “A lot of edtech ends up becoming a content library,” he says.

Edutel’s resources are interactive to ensure students do not lose interest. Lessons by charismatic star teachers are punctuated with intervals in which students can ask questions of teaching assistants. The company increased the frequency of these interludes — and tests to assess students’ comprehension — after realising that they stopped paying attention once the initial novelty of the technology had worn off.

“We are trying to blend the virtual teacher and the classroom teacher,” says Harsha Mahabala, co-founder of Edutel. “The classroom teacher is more a mentor and doubt clearer, rather than the one who stands at the blackboard and explains everything.”

Few question whether advanced learners such as Mr Dutta will benefit from online courses, but some wonder if the technology can help India’s young. “We have been told consistently that screens are not good for small children,” says Yamini Aiyar, a researcher at think-tank the Centre for Policy Research. “We can leapfrog over many things but the basic fundamentals should be taught by people.”

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