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"The Move To Digital Will Start Happening Rapidly"

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While school education has embraced digital content, the textbook hasn't —and in all probability will not — lose its sanctity. While a number of players are providing digital infrastructure systematically, books and e-learning continue to co-exist independently. With a view to bridge the gap between text books and digital learning, Pearson Education launched Active Teach in November 2011 in India. As a digital learning solution it offers a digitised version of printed book and aims to provide a comprehensive approach towards introducing technology in school education.  Currently available for students from class 3 to 8, for Science and English, Active Teach comprises two separate versions — one for Teachers and another for the students. The product has been adopted by a large number of schools so far across cities such as Delhi, Kolkata, Guwahati, Patna and Hyderabad among others.

Ranu Kawatra, President and CEO of Pearson Education, India, is a champion for the cause of digital education and intends to make significant headway in the domain of e-learning.  Active Teach is being heralded as the first step in the right direction. In an interview with BW Online's Alokita Datta, Kawatra talks about the idea and development of Active Teach, the challenges that plague teaching, as a profession and the future of digital learning in education.

How did the idea for Active Teach develop and why do you intend to differentiate it from other companies (such as Educomp) which have a tangible presence across schools in India?
When it comes to technology, this generation (of students) is different. I met the principal of a school recently, who's been serving in the position for the last 30 years or so, and was talking to her about generation gap, and she says every year is a new generation. The pace of change, happening all across is tremendous. So when you look at the new generation of learners coming up, technology happens to be in their DNA. The media has been a huge benefit when it comes to this phenomenon. Within the context of the rural/urban divide that everyone keeps talking about, the learner's ability to learn is probably equal, in both cases.  Where you suffer is with the educator, the teacher or professor. The way teaching gets transacted in a classroom is that the teacher speaks and the student listens. Thus, mathematically it is not possible for the student to know more than the teacher. And teaching as a domain, doesn't receive the kind of talent it should be getting in classrooms.

The growing technological intelligence of the current generation of students also corresponds with the willingness of parents paying for the education of their child; if a school is technologically enabled, it is preparing their child for the future. Therefore, there are a lot of people who have been thinking of ways to take technology forward (in education). And there have been a number of players doing so, quite well.  We have our company by the name of Edurite which runs digitally. Content is delivered in an engaging way, which is great because once you have engaged learners, you have their attention automatically.

But it is the educators who are most important and here teachers still use books to teach.  Even the students use  books  to learn. If that is the case, then we (Pearson) publish books and hence why shouldn't we make our content a lot more engaging because any which way, they're using our book. Typically if one looks at the technology interventions in schools today; books are published by publishers (such as Pearson and others) and technology solutions are provided by a different set of companies. So there is a lot of burden on the teacher to try and marry the two streams; integration becomes a huge issue. We've gone forward with a very simple concept of making the book a lot more interesting by providing digital content. And digital content is a lot more than just audio and video clips; this platform will be linked to the textbooks used in classrooms. It appeals to the logical mind, and I think one of the best things here is the global depth and reach of knowledge that Pearson has. We're not just hardware providers; we are content experts and are now moving into delivery mode, as we have done, globally.

Could you talk about the research that went into developing the product, keeping in mind the specificities of  the Indian educations system?
Schools in South Africa and the UK had been using Active Teach and it had worked very well. That was a model that we worked on adapting to the Indian education system for a whole year before it was launched (in November 2011). We invited a pool of teachers, experts and spent a lot of time developing the product; not just in terms of content but also making it richer, for instance we incorporated assessments within the learning package. The other important aspect is the application of knowledge being imparted; we looked into what teachers were seeking from us. There was a survey conducted to understand the needs of educators and anlyse them. We then developed the product and then took it out for piloting because that is when the rubber hits the road. We took a lot of material from the BBC Motion gallery and global Pearson material among other sources. While the pilots were being conducted, a teacher would often turn around and say she didn't like a certain voice over or video clip. We received a lot of feedback from them which has helped make the product a lot more robust in the Indian market. When we would talk about this concept to any of the stakeholders: school principals, teachers, coordinator, parent, learner, everybody said that this was probably the best solution that could be given across because it is easy for everybody.  The essential feature is that we provide different sets for students and teachers. What the student takes home is a subset of the teacher's Active Teach pack and that even includes a parents' guide along with workbooks etc. This is step one. Tomorrow, hopefully when we have schools which more digitally aware and stroke connected, we're looking at smart ways when the assignments could be done at home and uploaded directly by students.

Moreover, we're providing a very cost effective solution. We are using what the school already has. If the school has interactive whiteboards, the whole paraphernalia and is digitally equipped, that's perfect In other cases we recommend a not very expensive device (less than Rs 1,00,000) using which the school can become digitally advanced. Technology has got an oomph factor, a futuristic ringtone to it. All schools aspire to be technologically enabled yet not all of them can afford to be. When we started rolling out Active Teach in November, starting with the North East in Don Bosco, Guwahati , because their session starts in February, the initial feedback was very pleasing. At the moment we are focusing on Middle school and a couple of subjects (Science and English for classes 3 to 8) but I believe this product has great applicability in higher education as well. We will also come up with another version of Active Teach very shortly which will support enhanced capabilities.

While e-learning solutions have increasingly enabled students to learn better, the examination system in India still continues to follow the tradition pen to paper format. From this point of view, isn't there a disconnect that comes in and how does one try and reconcile that?
First of all, any book we publish follows the curriculum mandated by the (Central Board of Secondary Education) CBSE and we also have research partnerships with them. Our content is created around the CBSE curriculum. We're starting to influence them on the nature of the curriculum but it is a process that works step by step. With regard to the system of evaluation being followed, changes are starting to take place. With technology, one can introduce a system of assessment after every module which will evaluate both knowledge and application.

I think the CBSE is taking some radical steps  — and this seems like the forward looking board — with the system of continuous and comprehensive evaluation , once it is rolled out. They are very keen in making the examination system a lot more robust. We may not be there right now, but the movement is in the right direction. And with the kind of people who are driving this change it gains momentum. India's like an elephant which takes time to move but when it does, it is difficult to stop it. The move to digital will now start happening rapidly because this generation is happy with technology. The only think probably holding everybody back is the device space. To access digit content you need a device; whether it is Akash (tablet) or something better. It could turn out to be like the mobile phone revolution.

Based on its acceptance and progress in other countries, what are your expectations from Active Teach In India?
When I joined Pearson (about a year ago) one of the main objectives was to not only bring Pearson to India and we wanted to take India to Pearson as well. Bringing Pearson to India entails inculcating the experience from the company's presence in 60 countries and importing the leaning and educational products. However, India is different and we all realise that.  I remember, when the iPad was launched a lot of people thought, how many people can afford this in India? But the fact is that even if 1 per cent of India can afford it, it amounts to 12 million people which is half the size of Australia's population. And this excites everyone, globally and it is the Idea of India as a non homogenous country/society that we want to take back to Pearson. Therefore, we want to build on the capabilities that we have and take it to Pearson (worldwide).  For instance in vocational education, 500 million people being trained for the future, this arises from an inherent need emerging from the economy. There is an opportunity for Pearson to utilise its expertise and when you overlap the need and the available resources it is beneficial for everyone.

Since you talk about the importance finding competent educators (in order to bridge the urban/rural divide), is that a focus area for Pearson at the moment?
It will be an area of focus for us. I think when you create a product it flows to where the need is. Our initial belief was that only schools with advanced IT infrastructure would be interested in Active Teach but I was in Punjab recently where I realised that even smaller schools had a digi-class and smart boards because if you don't have these you're left behind. Technology has the strength to cut across this rural divide. There still is an issue with the educator's competence, because today when you're setting up schools in small towns, the aspiration level among parents is much higher (as compared to their counterparts in big cities). There are a number of schools across India which have the hardware in place but the chip needed to make it function is missing, because you don't find teachers of that caliber. There was a school in Vellore, where the owner was building quarters to attract teachers from Chennai and other cities. Active Teach hopefully helps fill a larger gap that is prevalent in smaller towns. Also, teaching as a profession has to be made far more lucrative considering the multiplier impact it has. But this is a global struggle. At Pearson, India we take teacher training seriously and want to invest in it a lot more

What is the methodology you follow with teachers training? Is the modus operandi different with e- learning?
We provide training on the digital content we have and how, where it is to be used. There is a lot of resistance also. The resistance comes from the fact that teachers perceive digital learning as an additional burden. And all of us are generally scared f something new. But when they saw what we were talking about they were more receptive to the idea. Digital content in schools has been present for over 10 years and teachers have a set notion of what it involves:  coordinating with different resource centres to educate students on a subject. We had to explain to them that our content is essentially a page from the book; a page that is more interactive and familiar for the learner. Even when a student buys his/her bundle of books from school, now the Active Teach kits for English and Science are to be found at the bottom and it piques the parent's interest as well.

The digitisaton of English, for instance, was not an easy task. On the contrary if you want to demonstrate a volcano there are great video clips (from BBC, Discovey) to serve he purpose. The system of assessment in India is based on reading and writing; language is based on speaking. With English therefore, listening and speaking makes a huge difference. It is also a fact that we judge people's abilities based on their command of English. The CII states that your proficiency in English could give you a multiple of two to four times in your job. A number of young professionals start working and realise that English is a stumbling block for their growth. With our product, it is also about selling a concept that schools take time to understand. We believe a number of schools will adopt the product in the near future.

How has Active Teach been received by the schools that have adopted it? Is there a feedback mechanism at work which influences the further development of the product?
We intend to get back to selected schools at an interval of 3-6 months to firstly see if it is actually being or used or not and secondly, to see what kind of issues teachers face when they actually start using it. Because this is really the feedback that will help us develop the product in the next phase. As such the product is simple and doesn't need much hand holding in the process of its implementation. Active Teach is a learning step for us in the digital space. We will take the product further to include management and engineering programmes. The digital infrastructure is much better in engineering schools anyway, where it is needed a lot more.