How Cisco Helped Education Take Root In the Indian Forests
December 14, 2009
By Jason Deign
Visit Chhindwara in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh and you will find a fertile land rich in exotic vegetation. But it is also a place where hi-tech online learning is taking root, thanks to the efforts of three entrepreneurs who have been helped by Cisco.
Anurag Pawar, Jyoti Pawar and Prachi Jaincreated an online education service for rural high school students, offering after-school classes on everything from physics and computing to accountancy and English language skills, after a top Cisco executive came to town last year.
Cisco Executive Vice President and Chief Globalization Officer Wim Elfrink challenged the trio, along with 22 other young people, to come up with fresh business ideas that harnessed the power of communications technology to improve daily life.
Spurred by the challenge the trio, all computer studies graduates in their 20s, set about identifying community needs and then looking at how technology could be used as a tool to address them.
Education emerged as a natural fit. Many young locals in Chhindwara were keen to take advantage of opportunities in the country's rapidly growing IT sector, but found themselves hampered by a lack of quality tuition and support.
"Meeting with Wim Elfrink was like a dream come true," says Pawar. "We never expected to meet him in Chhindwara, and he asked us how we could leverage technology to transform the town. He motivated us to come up with a business plan that would be sponsored by Cisco."
The online education idea sparked considerable interest within Cisco and mentors were selected who could work with the students to help them turn their idea into a reality.
In late June 2008, Cisco mentors had their first Cisco TelePresence meeting with the Indian entrepreneurs. They provided guidance on everything from setting up the new business to marketing and finance models.
As well as mentoring guidance, Cisco assisted the group with a cash grant and the provision of communications technology. Using this knowledge and support, the trio set to work: Within just five months, they had established a new education company called Lakshya Network.
Lakshya began with a central office serving just a few tens of students. Next the infrastructure was put in place to service a network of satellite classrooms, connected to the central facility via high-speed broadband links.
Teachers now come to the central office where they connect to each of the satellite classrooms via Cisco WebEx links. All students can see and hear their teacher as well as view their presentation slides on electronic display boards.
Cameras and microphones in each classroom also allow the teacher to see and interact with students at each location.
So far Lakshya has established five remote learning centers and has a target of 20 centers by 2010. Cisco continues to monitor and support the growing company.
The team of five Cisco mentors who have been working with the entrepreneurs report the experience has been very much a 'two-way street'.
"We are harnessing the power of IT for country transformation, while bringing jobs into rural and semi-urban areas."
As well as providing valuable business advice and guidance the mentors are getting first-hand experience at what business life is really like in rural India.
Mentor Michelle Fleury says challenges have been presented by everything from the different business culture to the youthful age of the entrepreneurs involved.
"It is a great leadership experience," she says. "Who would have imagined that for a couple of hours a week on the phone with India I would have learned so much?"
Fleury says she is careful to remind the budding business people to make sure they get the basics right from the outset. Once a solid foundation has been established, future growth will be much more sustainable.
"It is a true example of East meeting West," says Wim Elfrink. "It is challenging but extremely rewarding. I would say it is truly the human network at work. We are harnessing the power of IT for country transformation, while bringing jobs into rural and semi-urban areas."
The initiative, Elfrink says, "takes a bottom-up approach by encouraging innovation at the point of transformation, while combining it with a top-down approach where Cisco can make contributions."
Cisco business operations manager Murugan Vasudevan, who has been closely involved in the project, says the business idea proposed by the three graduates was very similar to something that was being worked on within Ciscomeaning it could soon spread much farther.
"We have since been able to take the concept and now have a team working on ways to move it into other markets," he says. "It is very exciting to see this happening. It has become the start of a focused vertical for Cisco in the area of rural education."
Elsewhere, Cisco's support for entrepreneurs in India continues through the introduction of the Launchpad India initiative. Launchpad encourages young Indians with business ideas to present them for consideration and potential support.
Based on the experience in Chhindwara, it could sow the seeds for a lot of valuable innovation.
Jason Deign is a freelance journalist located in Barcelona, Spain.