The ed-tech promise

A couple of days ago, I reached out to Vinod Karate, who is the Founder-CEO of a start-up called the Teacher app. Through our 15-minute conversation, he warned me a couple of times that the call could get cut, because he was in Chhattisgarh. The Teacher app is an android application, directed at teacher training, much needed, given that there are 9 million teachers in India, a large number of whom lack clarity on concepts they teach. Most of these teachers also work in what are low-resource settings: areas where the internet works at 2G speed with constant disruptions, or the phone experiences intermittent loss of network and frequent call drops.

The app delivers content through online videos and podcasts, which can be downloaded for use offline. It uses HTML5 as the content output format that consumes less than 100 MB data for a 1-hour video, unlike the HD format that uses 300-400 MB. It works in 3G, but the company has no plans to tweak it to 2G. How will this content reach teachers? “We will initially look at targeting teachers that have some access to 3G, whether in their homes or training institutes,” says Karate.

Karate says he is relying on Reliance Jio to up the infrastructure and bring down the cost, examples of which he claims are already visible in Chhattisgarh. And herein lies the gap: software or solutions conceptualized in big-city contexts can’t often be delivered the nascent, poorly maintained infrastructure of remote settings.

The Google drive

Google.org recently set aside a grant amount of USD 50 million, across two years, in support of non-profits (globally) building tech-based learning solutions. India is the largest recipient of this grant having received $ 11.4M between 2017 and 2018. This year, the Teacher app and its incubator, Central Square Foundation, both Delhi-based companies, were recipients. Last year StoryWeaver by Pratham Books, Pratham Education Foundation, Million Sparks Foundation, and Learning Equality got grants.

So why is Google investing in ed-tech? “We strongly believe that technology can play a powerful part in solving the learning gap in India, and we are expanding our investment here to ensure that all teachers and students are able to benefit from it,” said, Nick Cain, the Education Lead at Google.org.

Reality check

There are over 2,400 ed-tech start-ups in India with over 200 new ones coming into being every year since 2012, according to Tracxn that tracks innovative companies and emerging sectors worldwide. With 50% start-up founders having engineering degrees and 80% being founded in tier 1 cities, it is no surprise that most solutions to tackle the education problem are software driven, with increasing use of advanced concepts in gaming, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality. While all this is exciting from a tech, start-up perspective, how do these match up with the realities of low-resource settings, where most of the intended users live?

Suresh Gopalakrishnan, Founder and CEO of BeeHyv, an IT company in Hyderabad that works across education and health solutions, tells it like it is. “Even if people do have phones, the level of mobile and internet literacy is not high, in low resource settings” he says. For instance, a teacher may clog her phone with photographs and then not know how to free up space on the device, which could make the app slow or even unusable.

Gopalakrishnan also points out that applications such as gaming, need hardware devices (phones or tablets) to have higher processing abilities (memory and processor), something that most bare-bones handsets don’t possess. Intermittent internet connectivity could also lead to data corruption during syncing.

Some though, like Pratham Books, have got around it in another way: by leaving that last mile to organisations that work within the community. Their digital library, StoryWeaver, is accessible for free and each electronic publications are between 1-5 MB . “Suchana, an organisation that works with tribal children in rural West Bengal have translated books to Kora and Santhali for the children they work with. While in Kishanganj, Bihar, the Azad India Foundation has been translating stories to the dialect Surjapuri and then downloading and printing the stories to share with children in after school centres. In both cases, despite limited infrastructure, the organisations have been able to use StoryWeaver because it also allows for physical printouts,” says Suzanne Singh, the chairperson of the organisation.

On ground

Digital infrastructure for low-resource settings remains the bastion of the government and its allied partners, with large initiatives such as Digital India or RailTel’s optic fibre cables (OFC) seen as solutions.

The RailTel projects seem to have made significant progress. There is about 47,270 km of OFC already laid, out of the proposed 63,000 km of railway track that passes through 7,000 stations across the country (as stated in RailTel’s notice inviting expression of interest). The Central Government’s Digital India plans however, are nowhere near completion. The India Exclusion Report, 2018, tells us that out of the planned broadband connectivity to 2,50,000 gram panchayats by September 2015, only 48,199 panchayats were covered by April 2016, and only 6,727 panchayats had Internet access.

The ed-tech promise

Some states, such as Telangana and Andhra Pradesh are taking matters into their own hands. The Telangana Fiber Grid (T-Fiber) is piggybacking on its own drinking water project, Mission Bhagiratha that will take drinking water to the interiors. This will save digging and trenching costs and aims to provide 31 districts with broadband connectivity.

Andhra Pradesh recently partnered with Google X to use the Google-patented Free Space Optical Communications (FSOC) technology to provide high-speed, wireless, internet. The technology uses light beams in free space to transmit data between two FSOC points, where otherwise a physical connection would have been difficult (across forests and rivers, for instance).

So while things are happening, a lot more needs to be done. In our country, close to 1 billion continue to be offline, hardware devices are either not present or barely there, electricity comes and goes, and the internet is still an expensive commodity. So software solutions must be designed and extensively tested to work in low-resource settings or be matched by the pace of innovation in digital infrastructure, to fulfil the promise of change.

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