Q: From your experience of managing schools in a country like India, what differences or similarities are there between India and Nigeria?
Prakash: I think that the challenges facing both countries are similar. They both have a young population. Countries that have a young population have opportunities, but also a danger. The opportunity is that if you train these young people and give them the right education, they can become globally productive citizens. But the danger is that, if you do not provide them the right education, they can become a demographic disaster. So I think the challenges facing countries like India and Nigeria are similar: what should we do about our human capital?
In the 21st century, I believe that one of the most important capitals is going to be the human capital. It’s more important than the financial capital because we are rapidly entering into a knowledge economy and intellectual property is more important than physical property.
For the past 18 years, Educomp has been working tirelessly trying to find the best and the most technologically advanced method of making the students more efficient and productive; improving the curriculum interaction so that we have a better human capital base and we have been very well known across the world for a very large number of innovations.
One of our products is Smart Class. Smart Class brings the power of digital content right inside the classroom. Almost every part of our world has been impacted with ICT or Information and Communication Technology.
However, the education sector in some countries across the world remains very backward. I am not talking only about India or Nigeria; I am looking at the entire world in this discussion. How does a typical classroom look like today in 2013?
In most parts of the world, a typical classroom still looks the same as it was a hundred years back. There’s some furniture, there is a blackboard and there is a teacher. But the society has changed. Today’s children are three screen children: they have the cell phone screen, they have the computer screen and they also have the TV screen? It’s not the same with my generation. When we grew up, there was no internet and there were no computers.
So, our education system also needs to change based on the fact that the world around us has changed. But the big question is: has the education system changed and evolved? I think the big answer is no, it has not. So there is an urgent need for the education system to change with the times.
The place to start developing the skills is right inside the school and that is where Educomp comes in. We have partnered with the government of Rivers State to set up a model up. In this model school, every student in that school has a laptop computer. Every classroom is enabled with the latest smart classroom through this means teaching and learning is enhanced.
I don’t think we are here to sell our product, we are here to create a partnership with the young people, with educationists, with teachers, with the policy planners of the different states in this country because Nigeria recognises the power of young people and it is also a fact that the balance of power in this world is shifting from the western economies and of course everybody is talking of the two important continents for the future, Africa and Asia.
So, the most precious resource we have is young people. So, we bring our product so that we have a better hope and opportunity for our young people.
Nigeria faces a challenge in the area of infrastructure: power, teaching manpower? Is it the same in India?
I have to be very candid to say that firstly, India doesn’t pay teachers very well. For some reasons across the world, teachers’ salaries are not very high, which means that it’s difficult to attract the best talents to become teachers and because the sector is not able to attract the best quality, the delivery of education is not so good, even though the students are very hardworking.
So to bridge the gap we have to use some support and Edumate is that kind of support. In India right now, about eight million students in private schools are using digital content everyday as part of their learning experience. More than 15,000 private schools and 12,000 government schools are using digital contents every day that is 27,000 schools.
So, so far, it has had a very big impact, not just in India but in other countries as well. Putting ICT inside classrooms is one of the big themes of the 21st century. After the successful launch and use of this product in India, we are now launching in Africa and Nigeria is one of the markets in which we are launching this product.
We have done a couple of things; we have mapped the content to Nigerian curriculum so that teaching is outlined in that respect. Secondly, because of the power challenge in the country we are providing solar panel as an option. The school may decide to have its own power or buy the solar panel from us, dedicated or readymade.
So these are some of the issues that we have tried in various Nigerian schools. Some of the unique requirements of Nigeria we have taken care of. Anywhere we go we map the content of the curriculum that is unique in that country. Nigeria’s power problem is prevalent and that’s why we designed the very solid solar panel which is dedicated for Edumate and can support Edumate very well wherever the school is. In other words, the remotest rural school can be equal to the best city school in no time.
In employing these products in classrooms, are you envisaging that soon, items like chalks and blackboards will be phased out and will it cost teachers their jobs?
I don’t think so neither do I want it to be that way. My belief is that the teacher is the most important aspect in the classroom. The magic is not because of the computer or technology, the magic is the teacher. Our job is only to support the teacher. Our Smart Class product has the digital content and the blackboard put together. It’s a specific answer to your question.
If you see the photograph of the Smart Class product, the blackboard, the chalk and the digital is put together. There’s something very interesting: whenever a new technology comes into our lives, it does not replace the earlier technology, it supplements it. In our lives, everything coexists and I think that is the beauty of human life. We can use all the technology together. So we are not advocating that chalk and blackboard should be phased out. Rather, it should be about using all the tools that modern science can put in the hands of a teacher.
On the part of teachers’ jobs, I believe that these technologies are not meant to replace the teacher. They can only help the teacher become more productive. The teacher is at the heart of the education solar system.
It’s very important for the teachers to be trained and teachers are very interested in becoming trained. I have a feeling that once the teachers get fully trained in ICT in Nigeria even better talent will want to becoming teachers and value of teachers will improve rather than decrease.
We have two types of training. One is given to the teachers while the other is for people who specialises in hardware maintenance. Training has been included in the cost, in order to make it mandatory. So whenever we sell, we sell with the training. It’s not that training is an optional thing so we have included it in the cost.
How affordable is the Educomp solution to the average Nigerian student?
You know there has been this debate about what should be the cost of education: should it be high, should it be low? And somebody said in reply that ignorance is the most expensive. We have studied the cost and we believe the product we are launching here should be affordable to at least 80 percent of the schools. They should be able to afford the product and we believe that they can only take advantage of it if the product is available.
What are some of the things you think should be done to improve the standard of education generally?
I often find that governments ignored investment in education. How to measure that is to look at the GDP. For many years, India has under-invested money in education.
Ideally, you should be spending 6 to 8 percent of GDP on education. But investment in education will not yield result in one or two years, it will yield result in 10 years so our leaders need to have long term vision that is the most important aspect.
The moment they can see into the future they will start marking the right investment today. And we hope and expect that our leaders will make long term choices which are good for our country and our work.
Do you also have a technology that can curb examination malpractice?
Malpractices can be checked through the e-exam. When the examination becomes computerised, you cannot have the malpractice. It is impossible to do that because every child will be answering the questions using electronic system, and it’s very transparent. That’s one of the benefits of the computer. Everything is transparent so exam malpractice cannot happen under our set-up.
When curriculum changes, what will happen to the Educomp solution?
We will change according to the dictate of the education board. The content that we provide will always match the curriculum changes that the West African board makes.
When the curriculum changes some of the lessons may have to be developed while some may become redundant. So, even in such cases, there will be a time gap between the curriculum change happening. But thankfully, the core subjects will remain unchanged. The important concept, the challenges, the mathematics, science, those things will remain the same. The changes that happen may require some changes in the lessons to be prepared and we are up to it.
So far, you are active in Rivers State but do you have plans to extend your services to other states?
Yes, but not in a hurry. We don’t want to grow too fast introducing these products to schools and suddenly get our hands full. We will rather have a steady but slow growth in our business because the foundation has to be very strong.
Does the product cater for both primary and tertiary schools and do you have facilities for all the subjects?
It covers primary and secondary. Some subjects that are very specific to Nigeria are still under development, like Nigerian history.