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Interactive devices seek a handhold

Interactive devices seek a handhold
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First Published: Tue, Jul 26 2011. 10 14 PM IST
Updated: Tue, Jul 26 2011. 10 14 PM IST
Every night before going to sleep, Sai Chandradeep, a class IX student at Delhi Public School, Hyderabad, spends an hour studying with the help of a small interactive, touchscreen device.
The device has every chapter of every course he needs. But more than that, the device uses audio, video and graphics that explain concepts students find difficult to understand through simple textual reading.
Chandradeep is among the first users of the Edutor Advantage e40, a hand-held learning device for children studying the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) syllabus in classes III through X.
“I have been using the Edutor product for a year,” says Chandradeep. “I used to get around 70% (marks), but now I have been able to score 82%.”
His mother, Sudha Rani, a teacher at IMS Test Prep, a chain of management entrance test training centres, says Chandradeep has benefited from the device. “More than anything else, he is able to understand and answer not 100%, but about 80% of the questions,” she says.
Edutor Advantage is among a handful of devices attempting to make education hand-held. Sized 14.9cm by 8.2cm, it runs on a chip with a year’s syllabus in the audiovisual format. It also has mind-development games such as chess and sudoku, but is otherwise distraction-free: there is no Internet connectivity, nor can it play any CD or chip other than the ones designed for it.
Each device costs Rs5,845, while a chip with a year’s syllabus is priced at Rs1,635.
It’s early days yet for Edutor Advantage, but analysts say India’s education sector is becoming increasingly driven by technology, particularly audiovisual content. This is the latest among a number of innovations that have hit the market to enhance students’ learning experience.
Interactive whiteboards, for instance, entered the market some years ago. Powered off, each functions like an ordinary board, but when plugged into a computer, which in turn uses a projector to throw the display on the board, it becomes a touchscreen interface that enhances the teaching experience.
“Every child has a laptop or a computer these days. The audiovisual method of teaching is becoming more popular and text books are becoming passé. Parents are also graduating to the idea to help the child learn,” says Nitish Poddar, associate director of transaction services for consultancy KPMG in India. “I think the next big revolution that will happen in education is in technology—maybe not in one or two years, but definitely over the next 5-10 years,” he adds.
See, hear and learn
Edutor Advantage is the brainchild of a group of four engineers-turned-entrepreneurs who are now engaged with the CBSE system, which has 11,902 affiliated schools and 12 million students, to plug the device. It has sold about 1,000 units in a year since it was launched.
A CBSE official, who did not want to be named, said there was no substitute for classroom education, but technology can enhance the process of learning.
“Independent technology cannot replace classroom, but yes, it enables the learning process,” said the official, declining to comment on individual technology products in the education space. The official added that there is a need to guard against commercialization of the CBSE brand name in the name of promoting technology.
India has the largest education market in the world, with approximately 540 million in the 0-24 age bracket, according to the report Private Equity Pulse on Education, released in June by Venture Intelligence, a provider of information on private equity (PE) and venture capital (VC) investments in India. A KPMG report said the education market is estimated to be worth $60 billion (Rs2.66 trillion) a year.
Around 55% of 1,000 PE and VC firms said they found education an attractive sector and plan to invest around Rs4,500 crore over the next three years, a study by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (Assocham) showed.
Recently, the iProf, an interactive education tablet that claims to increase retention by 25%, attracted Rs11 crore investment each from Norwest Venture Partners and IDG Ventures India.
To be sure, not everyone is convinced about the utility of such gizmos.
“These devices may be useful to the child. It may help about 50%,” says Soumini Reddy, an educationist and member of Satsang Foundation, a spiritual organization that has founded schools for rural children as well as for alternative education in Andhra Pradesh. “Personally, I don’t think it makes much of a difference. Ultimately the teacher is needed to clear the children’s doubts, and the methods of teaching are important.”
When they came together, the question Edutor Technologies India Pvt. Ltd founders asked themselves was: “how do we make the best possible content available to students so that the learning process becomes very efficient and very effective?” says Ram Gollamudi, chief executive.
Three of the founders—Gollamudi, Ramesh Karra (vice-president, sales and marketing) and Prasanna Boni (chief operating officer)—graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Bombay, while Sravan Narasipuram (vice-president, engineering) studied at Andhra University in Visakhapatnam.
Once the device was ready, the team approached CBSE schools around the city, spoke about it to students and teachers, and also tied up with local bookstores.
“We’ve not done any outright marketing as such; it may happen in due course,” says Gollamudi. “We also engage with a lot of leaders in the industry, to have them buy into the idea that this is fundamentally good for the whole student body and they, in turn, percolate the message.”
Manufacturing and promoting Edutor Advantage has cost the team $2 million, sourced mainly from their own savings and from friends and family members.
The team is looking to raise $2-3 million in the next three years from venture capitalists and other institutional investors, to scale up operations and spread to six-eight cities.
Attracting money
PE investment in the education sector was $140 million across at least 20 deals in the year ended March, compared with $180 million across some 10 deals in 2009-10, according to the Venture Intelligence report.
A poll presented in the report, conducted among 35 fund managers of PE and VC firms, shows education technology is the fourth most attractive sector for investment out of 12 education-related sectors, behind vocational education, test preparation and tutorials.
“If you ask a PE or a venture capitalist guy, he is interested in investing in education,” says Poddar of KPMG. “The only problem they have is in terms of an exit route, because the market is so regulated. So they are looking to invest in a company linked to education but not regulated, and these companies are the best option.”
Milestone Religare Investment Advisors Pvt. Ltd is exploring investment opportunities in the space, said managing partner Srinivas Baratam. “In the end, for us to make an investment, the price point of the offering has to make sense as technology, at least for the time being, would be used to supplement the main offerings and not as a substitute,” he said. “Thus, we believe this segment would be price sensitive and affordability would be a distinct advantage.”
SETU Software Systems Pvt. Ltd, started in 2008 by two faculty members of IIT-Hyderabad, is testing myDrona, a hand-held education device targeting students of all syllabi, from nursery to postgraduation, in smaller cities and towns. Currently only in Andhra Pradesh, the company is expecting to expand across the country in the near future.
“Once we expand into other states, the challenges we are expecting to face are to find good partnerships for distribution channels in the go-to markets for the state,” says Sri Harsha, business development head of SETU.
“We have made the best-quality learning material on the Web available to students, using our own search and retrieval technologies,” Harsha says. “So far, we have about 70-80 terabytes worth of content.”
The device costs Rs 3,499-4,499, depending on the class. Like Edutor, this firm has sold around 1,000 pieces, mostly through word-of-mouth publicity. SETU is self-financed and is not looking for funding right now.
Karra of Edutor says their focus is to make the device more accessible. For this, the company may tie up with state governments and offer chips with the syllabi of state boards to make Edutor useful for more students.
“I ideally want this kind of product to be available to as many students in as many places as possible,” says Gollamudi.
Prashant K. Nanda in New Delhi contributed to this story.
namrata@livemint.com
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First Published: Tue, Jul 26 2011. 10 14 PM IST