Sunday, May 16, 2010

GRE learning on mobile

GRE coaching on the mobile - that's what this player offers, tapping the mobile as an adaptive learning tool. eWorld tunes in.

Don't forget to carry your mobile

No, it's no girlfriend reminding the guy but a sharp parent calling out to son/daughter to have the mobile handy so as to catch up on some GRE coaching during the hours-long commute to and back from college.

This is the scenario the people behind the Chennai-based Valued Epistemics Pvt Ltd hope to see once their Adaptive Learning Programs - under the brand name - gain wider acceptance.

What's on offer? The programs seek to coach students for the Graduate Record Examination — through the medium of the mobile phone. The student who signs up can access the lessons on his mobile phone any time, any place that is convenient to him. The programs can be downloaded on mobile phones that are Java and GPRS-enabled. Alternatively, they can also be downloaded on a PC.

But aren't there coaching centres aplenty? And isn't the Internet also full of software offering help with GRE, GMAT, the works? What would make the initiative unique? According to Anand Kannan, Managing Director, Valued Epistemics, is different because it looks to combine the best of both worlds - classroom coaching and learning on one's own. The sessions are offered in the form of modules, so a student can take up and break off wherever, whenever he wants - during the daily train commute, during inter-city travel, or simply while killing minutes in a bus. Within this flexibility, each session is made as gripping as possible to ensure concentration.

Kannan lists five features distinctive to the service: It is analytical, interactive, convenient, ensures complete student control and is flexible. Hence it is stress-free, which has been a big part of student feedback, he says.

There are two layers to the learning: As the student takes the tests, the software underlying the learning platform generates a performance metrics. This analysis is used to adapt the subsequent coaching to suit that individual student's needs, says Yogish Lavanis, Director (R&D).

Kannan puts the difference between his company's service, and software on the Web, thus: "Individual attention, flexible access (from any device — mobile or PC) and trained human support are not available at most Web sites." He provides an analogy: Just downloading software would be like using a dictionary on a CD, when one wants to look up words, as against the richer, fuller experience of using a Web search engine, such as Google.

"Trying and experiencing is free," but the actual coaching is charged, he stresses. Long-term service and exam-oriented preparation is priced according to subscription. However, this is about one-third the price of classroom with a small overhead of GPRS or Internet access charges. By contrast, a lot of the software on the Internet is free and therefore the user is not supported by a teacher," he says. While there are enough traditional alternatives such as classroom coaching, books and free software, "we are well differentiated from and superior to these," he asserts.

Currently, offers the Verbal Master Program (60 sessions), Complete GRE Program (110 sessions) and a Fast Track Verbal Program. The fast track program will help students prepare for the exam in three-four weeks.

Next frontier application

Mobile learning is relatively new and not well established as an industry. Also, in general, mobile learning refers to learning using PDAs (personal digital assistants), laptops with Wi-Fi, iPods and, of course, the mobile phone.

This is widely recognised as the next frontier application of mobiles along with mobile payments, multimedia entertainment and location-based services, says Kannan. (see `Hierarchy of needs.') He adds candidly: "I do not know if this will turn out to be an industry. However Adaptive Learning, where computational intelligence is increasingly used to supplement a teacher's pedagogy, will be an industry in and of itself in the foreseeable future."

Telecom domain

Founded in September 2004, Valued Epistemics is promoted by Anand Kannan, Yogish Lavanis and Darini Raman. Anand Kannan holds a Ph.D, from Purdue University, US. He was earlier with Nokia and has also worked as part of Arraycomm Inc, a Silicon Valley company.

Lavanis was earlier with Motorola India Electronics, Bangalore, and Tata Elxsi. He has also served as Engineer (R&D), Centre for Development of Telematics, Bangalore.

`No different from an MNC'

For eWorld, Anand Kannan and Yogish Lavanis trace a two-year-journey of highs and lows.

What started it all?, we ask.

"At the heart of this, we have a great desire to build a company that is based here — global in outlook, as good as it gets with respect to technology, facing an end-user market."

They offer examples from a software context: "If you take a typical software company that works according to a global delivery model, every one of them charges their US client approximately $4,000 per month. It varies slightly from company to company, but that is a benchmark. That translates into a per person revenue of Rs 1.8 lakh. Now in the case of these companies, their clients are global players — through their channel partner, the value created reaches the end user — but he never knows who are doing this."

Now look at the other model. Take the 1.8 lakh and divide it by 200 students. That comes to about 900 per student. Those 200 can get access to a high-quality knowledge worker to service them in the same way as, say, an Infosys, gives a well-qualified engineer to service their customer."

"We want one teacher to help "N" number of students effectively. So there can be no compromise on the productivity or efficiency of tools that we use. Every student should feel he is getting individual attention. There is 90 per cent grunt work or repetitive activity in the provision of individual attention. We have to identify that and put it on the computer. And the human aspect has to come from a teacher who necessarily has to be of high quality. Our vision is no different from that of any top MNC," they say.

3rd or 4th generation platform

It has not been a smooth ride. Every time the company had to change the system based on the feedback. "We can say we are in the third or fourth generation platform." "Every few 100 or so who have tried this system have significantly impacted the design. In our mind, we want something scalable - something where a few 100 very high-quality people work and, based on that, the rest of India and the world is learning."

They put the challenge in a nutshell: "Can we do it for a million students - with a few hundred or thousand facilitators?"

They feel that the economy achieved by global delivery model software companies can be achieved by consumer-based technology with similar quality people.

What about e-learning?

Kannan and Lavanis say that if one looks at the typical e-learning scene, what is often offered is PowerPoint slides with flash animations. That, they say, "doesn't constitute learning. It is interesting content and for a large corporation that works to substitute training, it is a good alternative." But "when one is largely in a self-motivated learning situation or independent goal-oriented learning structure, the provision of learning, and entirely from a distance, entails complex technology. The time has just come when it has become feasible."

As Kannan puts it: "There are some groups who are working on how to automate teaching - He is the next guy to get automated after the clerk and the accountant! (Laughs)! But what you are really doing is not automating, but taking the population of teachers, taking the good ones and giving them access to a larger population of students."

The macro logic

Kannan and Lavanis present the larger picture thus: "We have 25 per cent of our population in services, 25 per cent in manufacturing and 50 per cent in agriculture. But in terms of production, 50 per cent comes from services, 25 per cent comes from agriculture and 25 per cent from manufacturing. So going by that average, the person in services is four times more productive and wealthier than the person in farming. Among the services, the knowledge sector is 10 times to 100 times more productive. So naturally, people are going to shift from agricultural and manufacturing to services and from less knowledge-oriented services to more knowledge-oriented services. It is a global trend and we can't buck it. It is going to happen here. And the service industry is the one where you need systematic education. In all other situations, you have mostly on-the-job training. As a society we have a challenge of training somewhere in the region of 100 to 200 million people in 20 years. I don't think we are producing that many teachers. The whole process of how learning is being done has to be re-examined.We have to move from older methods to newer methods. That is not in the scope of our company's objectives. But we are working in the leading edge of that movement and we see that whatever we are doing has application in traditional education as well - even though we picked GRE - because we are both comfortable with that. (We had done that exam ourselves and knew what it took)."

Kannan traps us with a sudden question: "Suppose I ask what is the most common use of the mobile?"

Our response: "Talking?"

Kannan: "Wrong! There is a more fundamental need. You keep the mobile switched on? Why?"

"To be connected. To be available to someone trying to reach us," we reply.

Kannan concurs: "Yes. It covers for some insecurity that you have. Security is, therefore, the most fundamental value that you get. Communication comes second. So you can build a hierarchy of needs on this with safety coming at the bottom." (see Hierarchy of Needs.)

Consumer knows best

Kannan and Lavanis reminisce: "We were experimenting, building a quick prototype, understanding what it means to provide learning. Talking to students, surveying them. In about six months, we had a crude prototype (compared to the current system), and we had it tested. We had a professor of market research who did a study for us." (see box).

They point out that two years ago, phones were much more primitive. "Only about 10 per cent of the phones would actually support this. We got lucky. Because the model that we picked to test it on happened to be a stable steady model. Everything worked."

They relive events, with some relief. "Had we tried this on a less stable model - we might have come to a different conclusion. So lucky things happened on the way. We got a lot of feedback from our market research.

No one gives it like your customer. He'll tell you, `It has this, and this but not this.' So you rectify it and then you hear, `It's got this, this and this, but not that.' So the process goes on and that's what helps you discover what is of benefit to the user."

The company decided to commercialise the service first in the Chennai area. And they came up against marketing: "Nobody had the experience of marketing it. Is it an educational product? Is it a mobile product? Is it a computing product? Somewhere along the way we realised we had to provide a PC-based option. Then it had to work smoothly — that also came from the market — and seamlessly with the mobile option. Suppose you took the mobile version, you should feel that you start where you left off on the PC and vice-versa. Once you start asking for money, the nature of feedback changes. But the feedback that comes out then is the best feedback. Nobody parts with money without asking questions," they point out.

GRE, for starters

The Graduate Record Examination or GRE is a standardised test for admission to US universities, which seeks to measure the verbal, analytical and mathematical skills of candidates. It is developed and administered by the ETS (Educational Testing Services) under the direction of the Graduate Record Examination Board. ETS has appointed testing agencies in various countries that act as its franchisees. In India, Sylvan Testing Services Pvt Ltd administers the test, for ETS, at nine centres: Ahmedabad, Allahabad, Bangalore, Kolkata, Chennai, Hyderabad, Mumbai, New Delhi, and Thiruvananthapuram.

An important step

Does the population of, say around 50,000 students who take the GRE annually present a viable market, eWorld asked Anand Kannan and Yogish Lavanis.

"IF we did only GRE we would be viable - but still small business. Scalability would not come from GRE alone. Eventually we have to take GRE global and get into systematically fulfilling other learning needs. So GRE for us is an important step. It goes to a market that has some discretionary spending power - that has a learning need which, in many cases, is not adequately fulfilled. It covers Math/English - two major prototypes," they say.

They elaborate: "Suppose we need to teach Std 6 students - only the lessons need to be changed - but the prototype would work. Same model would work. It is a strategic choice. We'll have to diversify later."

A lot of work needs to be done on the marketing side, building the correct eco system, channel partners. There is a lot of interest from publishers, we have been approached by authors too. We talk to everyone who approaches us. We need a network. For now, having a small passionate team helps."

Fun... and fruitful

eWorld sought to get a first-hand feel of the GRE training.

We downloaded the vocabulary session... and promptly got hooked.

The screen interface and instructions were clear and crisp. The learning was interactive - you couldn't move on unless you gave the correct option and understood why it was correct. It was friendly rather than patronising.

The instant feedback was encouraging and made one feel, as the company says, that a "high-quality, devoted teacher is always present nearby." The subtle progression to higher levels of complexity, with more scope for error, was good training for the real thing.

The scores that popped up periodically were a reminder that even as one took the test, at a deeper level, the software platform was generating a performance metrics chart.

This knowledge will be used to provide detailed feedback and to adapt subsequent lessons and tests to suit individual needs.

So insightful is the analysis, says Anand Kannan, that the student facilitator at the other end can make out whether the test participant is vacillating, inattentive ... . or simply sleeping! Something that a CD can't detect.

The technology used to administer the courses is Adaptive Learning through Measurement of Interactions (ALMI), supplemented with processes and systems that enable high-quality delivery of services.

Watch out for one thing though - the cheery little icon that applauds you when you are correct could become so addictive that you might pause for timely pats while doing your actual GRE.

`Useful guidance'

This is what Seethalakshmi Hariharan, a student who opted for Wizdom's coaching, says: "The lessons were set in such a manner that the first set was slightly easy and the level of difficulty increased as one got acquainted better. So, it was easy to cope.

If I faced any difficulty between sessions, I had the option of getting my doubt clarified through the mobile. I would get replies within a day either through SMS or through mail.

The queries were well solved, and a good example was provided to ensure better understanding of the word in question. There were tests at the end of each session that helped me understand how well or otherwise I had fared. After every test, I received feedback through mail. The feedback would tell me how many questions I had answered right or wrong. For those questions I had missed, the right answer would be given with an example stating the usage of the word.

Sometimes I found it difficult to understand why that particular word should fit in that sentence. So, I got back to the company, suggesting that instead of giving a sentence showing the usage of the word in question, it would be better to explain why and how that word fit into the sentence.

After every session I took up, the words I learned got added to the word bank, which can be used anytime for revision. Although I took up the coaching while I was in my hometown (Madurai), since it was all mail-based I was in touch with WIZDOM wherever I went. As far as cost is concerned, it is cost-effective as you need only a GPRS-activated mobile connection."

Heeding the market's call

Prof Rajendra Nargundkar
Valued Epistemics had market research done, with the help of Dr Rajendra Nargundkar. The professor shared his findings with eWorld.

The research was done in two stages, he says. "One before the product was actually launched, with a group of Bangalore-based engineering students. This was a concept test with a statement describing the concept followed by questions regarding the interest in the concept. This also included a qualitative research component, a focus group discussion with a smaller group, before conducting which Wizdom executives gave a prototype demo). The discussion was on the merits and demerits of mobile-based learning for GRE."

The second study was at a remote location college between Bangalore and Chennai among a group of engineering students preparing for GRE a few months after the product was launched, to test awareness and interest.

The findings from the first study (pre-launch concept and product test) were that though the product concept was innovative, people had reservations. Anxieties included the small screen of the mobile phone which might be unsuitable for quantitative analysis and comprehension questions, quality of cell connections which may cut off in the middle of learning, and scepticism about M-learning as a full-fledged tool to replace other forms of learning totally — particularly, classroom and Net-based, says the professor. Still, one-third of participants were interested in the concept, saying they would buy such a service.

From the second survey in a smaller town with mainly a hostel-based population, the results indicated that awareness was low for the product concept and brand, but interest was high. Almost 70 per cent students said they would be interested, at the indicative price mentioned. This study was more detailed in measuring preferences in the buying process, price, payment mode and the role of influencers. A wide range of questions was asked through a questionnaire.

An important change between stage one and stage two was that the service metamorphosed from being only mobile based (M-learning) to a mobile and PC-based (Adaptive Learning). Significant decisions based on first stage of research and inputs from brain storming included user-friendly features such as online counselling, some promotional tours with a demo in Chennai colleges (where the company is located), and the pricing of the product. Future markets where interest would be high have also been identified. The second stage has given inputs for further modification in plans, says Prof Nargundkar.

[source]::::Business Daily from THE HINDU group of publications

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