Technology boom transforms how kids in India learn

MUMBAI • From a multibillion-dollar education start-up to wired-up mannequins, technology is helping to revolutionise the way Indian schoolchildren are learning - provided their parents can afford it.

A host of online platforms are taking advantage of a surge in smartphone ownership to engage millions of youngsters with interactive games and animated video lessons.

India's education system suffers from a lack of investment, and the apps aid students who want extra tuition away from overcrowded classrooms and crumbling schools.

Major foreign investors are ploughing funds into India's growing "edtech" industry as they seek to capitalise on the world's largest school-age population who face fierce competition for university places.

Sixteen-year-old Akshat Mugad, referring to a Facebook-backed Indian education app, said: "I have been using Byju's since last year and my performance has really improved. I understand mathematical concepts much better now."

Byju's has become one of the world's largest online learning sites since it was founded in Bangalore in 2011, and is currently embarking on an ambitious overseas expansion.

It is just one of dozens of start-ups betting that children are eager to learn differently from rote memorisation techniques that are used across much of Asia.

India has an estimated 270 million children aged between five and 17. Its online education sector is projected to be worth US$2 billion (S$2.7 billion) to Asia's third-largest economy by 2021, according to research published by accounting group KPMG two years ago.

Analysts say technology has the power to transform education in India but note that, at the moment, it is largely the domain of middle-class families.

At a state-run school in Mumbai, teacher Pooja Prashant Sankhe is using technology in a rather different way to change how her pupils engage with lessons.

Students meditate as a teaching virtual assistant mannequin fitted with Amazon's "Alexa" plays instrumental music at the Ramakrishna Paramhansa Marg BMC school in Mumbai. PHOTO: AFP

The 45-year-old hides an Amazon Echo device, known colloquially as "Alexa", in a shop window mannequin.

When Agence France-Presse visited, children aged 11 approached the mannequin and asked questions such as: "Alexa, how many states are there in India?"

They also did sums and then asked Alexa for the answer, to find out if they had done them correctly. The device plays the Indian national anthem at the start of the school day and healing music during meditation sessions.

Ms Sankhe said: "The kids get really excited when they ask her questions."

"Pupils are coming to school more regularly now because of Alexa," she added.