GenerationNext Must Get Online

My latest column in Business Standard:

375 million. That is the number of Indians in the 6-19 age group. As they grow up and enter the workforce, they are bound together by one need education. And by all accounts, they arent getting enough of it. In an article, Business Week (Jan 31, 2005) called India a nation of dropouts. The facts bear out the stark reality. While 96% of India’s children enroll in primary school, by the age of 10 about 40% have dropped out, says the education department. Just over a third of high school students graduate.

Educating Indias young is a problem that needs immediate attention. Every year, we are closing the window to a better life for tens of millions of Indians. At the same time, it is not an easy problem to solve. India has a million schools. Most of them are in rural areas and government-run. Teachers and teaching leave much to be desired across most of them. Unless we come up with innovative, radical solutions quickly, we will be squandering Indias greatest asset.

If India has to continue and build upon its recent growth success, an educated workforce is critical. Business Week put it: Without a much deeper reservoir of educated youth, India may see its gains in software and manufacturing evaporate.

Across the space, India will need an educated and trained youth. We are not talking a few million here. 25 million new Indians are ready to join the schooling system every year. The magnitude of Indias education challenge is huge. We are past the point where conventional solutions can work. What we need is out-of-the-box thinking which can educate Indias millions with speed, quality and at affordable price points. This is where technology can play a role.

The challenge of education can be split into two components: teaching (and learning), and testing. Teaching itself has two elements: content creation (typically the preparatory work done by a teacher, aided by textbooks), and then its communication to students in a classroom environment. So, the education value chain can be thought of as comprising three elements: content creation (and/or aggregation), distribution (or communication), and testing. Let us consider each of these elements independently, starting with the content.

Writing on his blog at Deeshaa.org, my colleague, Atanu Dey, advocates a shift from the teacher-centric model to a learning-centric model. The learning-centric model recognizes these two basic truths: that the universe is connected, and that every student is unique. The model makes available to the student a very rich, deep, and connected set of content which the student navigates through a process which can only be called discovery. Although the basic material is accessible to students is common, the path that a specific student takes is unique to the student. Conceptually, the content is a fully-connected network which can be traversed in a potentially infinite set of ways. One can start from any one of a very large set of nodes, and then move from one node to another till entire structure has been visited.

For all of us, our memories of school and college have a special place for that extraordinary teacher who made a complex subject simple and a joy to learn. If we think deeply about it, what that special teacher taught was not merely the subject but more importantly how to learn. In a dynamic world of rapid change, the most important thing is to learn how to learn. This is what we have to do with the content that needs to created and aggregated.

The Web has a vast array of incredibly good content which can make learning a delight. But this content needs to be identified from among the average and even poor quality stuff that is out there. In addition, there are amazing teachers who can simplify even the most difficult of concepts. We should be able to make videos of their teaching so their power and reach is multiplied many times over.

So, the underlying principle for content creation and aggregation is of identifying the best and re-using it across the spectrum of schools. This will not be a cheap process, but considering the fact that the cost can be amortised over tens of millions of students each year for the foreseeable future, it will be a very small cost per student.

The next challenge is content distribution. This is where we can look at multiple approaches. The interactive content can be made available on computers at the school for local access, without the need to rely on real-time connectivity. Teaching videos can be broadcast (or narrowcast) over television via cable, satellite or the Internet. In fact, broadband can make possible IP-TV, which can then enable the distribution of content on-demand from central servers to schools. The quality content created can also be distributed over other media printed and electronic.

Testing is the third leg of the education system. Through the education process, it provides feedback to students, teachers, parents and administrators about the areas that need improvement. As part of a certification process, it provides a quality of assurance to prospective employers at the end of the value chain. As such, instruction needs to be separated from testing to prevent conflict of interest.

Education is the best investment we can make in building our tomorrow. As Atanu puts it: Education is the lynchpin which holds the entire economic machinery together. It is so fundamental and basic that without an educated population, there is no conceivable way for an economy to prosper. Show me any economy that has ever done well, and I will show you that at its foundation is an educated population. I grant you that for short periods of time due to special circumstances, an economy may flourish without an educated workforce, such as an economy buoyed by a natural resource such as oil. But it is a hollow sort of an economy and cannot survive in the long run.

It is not just money that is needed. A mix of disruptive thinking and new technologies are needed to deliver quality education to an increasingly aspirational India. This must be our promise and commitment to Generation Next.

PS: This is likely to be my last column for ICE World, since the section is undergoing a redesign.

American Competitiveness

Fortune writes:

Were not building human capital the way we used to. Our primary and secondary schools are falling behind the rest of the worlds. Our universities are still excellent, but the foreign students who come to them are increasingly taking their educations back home. As other nations multiply their science and engineering graduatesbuilding the foundation for economic progressours are declining, in part because those fields are seen as nerdish and simply uncool. And our culture prizes cool.

No one is saying that Americans cant adapt and win once more. But look at our preparedness today for the emerging global economy, and the conclusion seems unavoidable: Were not ready.

RSS Fund

The Boston Globe writes about a $100 million RSS fund started by Jim Moore and John Palfrey:

Moore and Palfrey are looking for companies that will not only apply RSS in innovative ways, but also clean up the technology’s inevitable problems. Consider the double-edged matter of spam.

Those mounds of digital junk in your inbox could serve as fertilizer for new RSS businesses. Say you’re a company that wants to promote a special deal to customers who’ve asked to hear from you. Use e-mail, and your valuable message may be lost to an overzealous spam filter. Or you could hang an RSS feed on your website. It’s the ultimate in opt-in marketing, since your customer must ask to receive the feed. And since it’s not e-mail, your messages never get mistaken for spam. So companies that provide RSS-based marketing solutions are worth a look.

Multi-Purpose Mobile Phones

NYTimes has a story about Amp’d Mobile:

When Amp’d begins service, its handsets will practically overflow with content and features more commonly associated with television and the Internet, said Peter Adderton, the 38-year-old founder and chief executive of the company.

The offerings planned at the outset late this year include full-motion video of news, sports, concerts and other live events, as well as movie and television clips and music videos. Added to the mix will be high-speed music downloads, 3-D games, video blogs, a dating service, text messaging and an assortment of ring tones and wallpaper.

Early glimpses of the service’s offerings and the phones’ strikingly visual menu system suggest the sort of multimedia experience found on personal computers…Thanks to advances and new economies in processor and memory chips, mobile phones increasingly serve as still and video cameras, personal organizers and Web browsers, not to mention video game devices and global positioning system navigation units.

Search vs Tags

Umair Haque writes:

Google finds itself facing a similar tension to Macrovision. If Macrovision makes perfectly efficient DRM, it puts itself out of business. If Google makes perfectly efficient search, it loses revenues fast.

Now, let’s think about tagging for a second. As the size of the tagosphere grows, the number of clicks it takes me to find the the thing I’m looking for drops.

In other words, search costs are falling rapidly as the tagosphere grows and gets interconnected between taggable apps across media.

At some point, tagging becomes more efficient than search. This point is reached when the number of Google clicks is greater than the number of related tag clicks (or similar proxy). When this happens, tagging becomes a perfect substitute for search.

Alternatively, you could consider a world where tagging picks up where search leaves off – you search for tennis racquet, click over to racquetworld, and then tag your way over to the perfect racquet. This is imperfect substitution, but still close enough to cause Google problems.

TECH TALK: Disruptions: Software, First Markets, Putting IT Together

Software: Packaged, Silos to On-demand, Suites

Software is becoming a service, delivered on-demand over the network. This is a big shift from the world of packaged software which stored information in their own silos and required consultants or expensive enterprise application integration tools to integrate the different applications. Even as the application service provider (ASP) model makes a comeback, the emphasis is shifting to integrated suites. This is one of the factors that is driving consolidation in the enterprise software market.

From the perspective of small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), the software-as-a-service model gives them the capability to leapfrog non-consumption and automate their businesses rapidly at price points they can afford.

First Markets: Mass-Market, West to Micro-Markets, East

Someone I was talking to recently mentioned that the sun first rises in the east and finally sets in the west. He used this as a reference to the emergence of the Asian countries as the harbingers of tomorrows technology. Led by Japan and South Korea, with China and India as fast followers, and the US as a laggard, new technology is following the footprint of the sun.

The mass-market is giving way to a long tail of markets. Tomorrows world is not just about targeting what is popular culture, but focusing on what are our likes. It is about finding the niches and serving them.

Putting It Together

The future can be viewed as shifts from the present. What will be these shifts? Each shift can be thought of as a disruption, and therefore an opportunity. Once we understand what is going to change, we will then need to understand how we can catalyse and capitalise on these disruptions. What is needed is to apply these ideas to the industry we operate in.

As an example, Gerd Leonhard identifies the transformation we are seeing around us:

The Great Transition:
* Music Industry (top down) to Peer to Peer (bottom-up)
* Scheduled Television to Tivo
* Media Publishing to Weblogs
* Client-server applications to Web services
* Circuit-switched telephony to VOIP
* Licensed cellular to Unlicensed wireless

The Key Megatrends related to the digital entertainment industry:
1. The on-demand media lifestyle is here
2. The end of customer sacrifices is near (music !!)
3. Everybody is short of time, and must make choices
4. The end of browsing is near (see Google morph)(This may be controversial though)
5. In media, the traditional scarcity principle of valuation morphs into the ubiquity paradigm
6. Radio is finally unbound (by spectrum or schedule)
7. Consumers are starting to generate their own content
8. A mass of niche markets evolves (lowest common denominator concerns becomes irrelevant)
9. Time-shifting and space-shifting and device shifting become standard
10. Long-tail opportunities are everywhere.

Tomorrow: Personal View

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