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e-learning

From notes to notebooks

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Classroom lessons webcast to students, tablets in school bags, online projects, and video conferences with teachers or classmates from the comfort of a bedroom - this may well be the new face of school and college education. After changing boardrooms the world over, cloud computing may soon fundamentally change the classroom experience in India. Whether it is through social networking, advanced email services or a variety of online learning tools, educational institutes across the country are actively looking for ways to use the cloud to help enhance the experience of education.

But this is not 'e-learning', a catchall phrase that appears to be a hangover from the late 1990's. Back then - and even at institutions that were farsighted enough to allow such programmes - e-learning meant downloading some lessons and watching grainy videos of a few classes online. Much early online material, moreover, was mediocre.

So while this e-learning paradigm still forms much of the base, what the cloud has now done is enable one big game-changer : collaboration. Teachers, students and even parents are now beginning to understand just how they may reap its benefits. "Essentially you can extend boundaries and make classrooms accessible from anywhere. E-learning has been around for a long time but it has been one-way. Historically it has been only about content that has been great but not interactive. Today, it is not about just passive consumption, " points out Shivanu Shukla, co-founder of Teamie, a Singaporebased 'social learning' platform.

Teamie is currently running pilot programmes at two institutions in the National Capital Region. "We are starting to approach schools in India. Our target will be the metros, where web access is easy, either on mobile or on a personal computer. We are talking to schools in Greater Noida and Jaipur, " says Shukla.

Microsoft's 'live@edu' cloud-based service has been adopted by schools such as the Delhi Public School, the American School of Bombay and KR Mangalam School. Live@edu also recently won a contract from the All India Council for Technical Education, which means that these services will be used across more than 10, 000 colleges and institutions. This translates to over 7 million students and almost five lakh teachers.

Microsoft's cloud services include a mailing platform, online services for collaboration, webcasting, video conferencing, access to basic Office software, 25 GB of storage, email IDs, and curriculum material.

Tarun Malik, director, product marketing, Microsoft India, says that it is the ability to set up online communities, an intranet, and a messaging /chatting system between various colleges that is the most inspiring. "We have three million students on this right now in India, 25 million across the world, and will be expanding to 10 million students in India this year (1, 000+ schools on subscription right now, 10, 000 by the end of the fiscal year). If someone wanted to do this on their own (with hardware, servers, configuration, software licenses, upgrades etc), the costs would be humongous. "

"The cost of deploying a school wide messaging solution, which would cover over 5, 017 students, 220 teachers, and 52 administrators would not have been feasible just because of the sheer cost of acquisition and maintenance, " says M I Hussain, principal, Delhi Public School, Mathura Road, New Delhi.

"Most cloud-based applications are simple to use - such as email platforms or messaging services, where teachers can be facilitators for a real-time online class with the students sharing documents, presentations and working together on files. But they need to be trained on how to fall back on the support mechanism for these applications that makes the usage much simpler, " says Inder Dev Gupta, chairman, KR Mangalam School, New Delhi, pointing to one important need: teacher training.

Parents also benefit greatly from the cloud. "Parents can now avoid frequent PTA meetings, receive notifications on mobiles, and there is more communication between teachers and parents. They can track teachers' recommendations, grades, homework etc, " points out Shukla.

The cloud also helps institutions do alumni networking on the cheap. Many institutions look to provide an email ID and build networks of alumni they can tap. But for just one email service, an institute would have to spend big money on servers and maintenance.

And such services are not limited to elite schools in big cities either. With cheaper Android phones, affordable tablets, free content, free mobile applications and basic internet services now commonplace, even a small school in a tier II city could look to run a classroom on the cloud. Patchy network access and bad broadband speeds remain major hiccups, however.

But many cloud-pushers are unfazed, like Shukla, who avers that this "is the right time for India because network access has improved, so has awareness. Moreover, the average age of teachers is reducing, which means they are a lot more tech savvy. " The clouds have clearly gathered on the horizon.

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