By Asim Choudhury
The current e-learning boom in India has added to the existing woes. Standards apart, the industry hangs on the edge where processes and players are dubious. Much of this blame can be put on the Indian government’s inability to put together a regulatory body. Unregulated and unstructured, the e-learning industry in India is likely to wreck havoc for the global e-learning industry as small vendors pile up huge "learning garbage" for clients worldwide.
E-learning in India has come of age. Two decades and the nation already cherishes several global e-learning players on its soil. This can be attributed to some basic reasons like cheap human resources, a large pool of English-speaking workforce and ‘business discounts’ offered by the central and state governments. Although exact figures of the size of the industry is not available, a conservative estimate shows the offshore e-learning industry at about $150 million in 2004-05, up almost by 200 percent in the last two years.
Inspite such impressive figures, the e-learning industry in India remains mired with a plethora of issues. Some of these issues include lack of uniform e-learning standards and workplace practices, and the lack of adequate human resources to power the spiraling upward growth. These concerns apart, government apathy has also bolstered fly-by-night e-learning entrepreneurs who eye quick bucks and increasingly deliver ‘learning garbage’ to a global clientele.
Smaller vendors in India have setup e-learning business houses with paltry investments of a few thousand dollars – in the hope of getting a sizeable pie of the global e-learning business. Most of these short-term vendors run their shows from North India – from places in and around the National Capital Region of Delhi. A sizeable segment of these street-smart vendors eye the US e-learning market – given the current explosion in e-learning expenditure in the US. According to the International Data Corp., in 2004, U.S. companies spent $14.5 billion training employees on the Web and through CBT.
The modus operandi for these vendors is simple. They rent in a couple of rooms in an urban area and advertise for resources in job websites and newspapers. Writers, designers and technology professionals – mostly unskilled – are hired by the dozens. The average salary of the employees ranges anything between $100 to $400 and the working hours stretch well over 72 hours per week. Next, these companies setup small sales calling teams to call up international clients asking for work. The sales pitch is often exaggerated and boasts of a few “big names”. To show their experience, these vendors cull-out a few odd CBTs from other companies or ‘steal’ courses through their contacts.
The basic quality that behooves a standard e-learning company is absent in these companies. Proprietors remain ignorant of even the most basic information that is essential to run the show. A Java programmer, for example, is asked to hone his skills in C++ or any other program since he is responsible for all ‘programming’ needs. Almost anyone who walks in for the position of writers is employed as an ‘instructional designer’, primarily because they can be asked to work for lesser salaries on the pretext that they lack instructional designing experience. Vendors also rely on these writers to validate the learning content for authenticity even when content validation remains the domain of the expert, the Subject Matter Expert (SME). The writers and designers are instructed to download content from Internet websites and ‘rewrite’ them before using it. A basic ignorance of the Internet medium on the part of the owners means that the writers are often confused with the content because no single idea or information on the Internet appears consistent.
E-learning processes are virtually absent in these companies. All that offers a direct benefit to the proprietor becomes part of the practiced processes. A Project Manager, for example, may be required to recruit people, review e-learning courses, undertake marketing activities, and do just anything that catches the fancy of the owner. In some companies, it was observed that programmers were asked to work as typists. The motto: no resource should sit idle. Employees who work for more than 9 hours a day are neither paid additional remuneration nor are given facilities like cabs and food for their late stay and long hours of work. As an e-learning professional once remarked, “employees in these fly-by-night ventures reminds one of the rampant practice of human slavery in Africa and Arabian countries a few centuries back. Professional torture apart, these employees are also subjected to extremely inhuman conditions of work – congested workplace, outdated computers, stinking toilets, and the same paltry salary year after year. Employees in these companies too appear to have resigned to their fates – partly because their poor education that doesn’t stand them in good stead for jobs in big e-learning MNCs and also because most do not have a professional competence in English language.
This phenomenon is rarely reported by any section of the Indian media, perhaps due to ignorance or for fear of antagonizing the international fraternity. The abysmal condition and the unplanned e-learning sector, however, have both a positive and a negative side to it. The positive side is that these e-learning ventures help to reinforce the fact that there is no alternate to quality, and quality comes from the big guys, not the fly-by-night operators. The flipside is that the employees in tiny Indian e-learning ventures rarely get the exposure to standard work processes and world-class e-learning products thereby subjecting themselves to professional impairment.
Unfortunate for the Indian e-learning industry, at an era of globalization and information revolution, Indian laws too have failed to contain these IT hawks. While the existing labour laws do have provisions against inhuman practices in the private workplace, in practice they remain a mirage. Most of the employees neither have the financial resources to chase a litigation nor are they willing to ‘waste’ their time.
The Southern part of India presents a striking contrast to the North. Recent years have seen a rapid and strategic development of global e-learning companies in the South, in places like Bangalore and Chennai. Several global players have also setup their centers in Pune, Mumbai and Hyderabad. Not surprising, the South has become a favourite e-learning destinations for serious e-learning players because of the absence of the mayhem so ramphant in the Northern part of the country. Although the same Indian laws apply to all states across India, security and infrastructure is usually better in the Southern states than in the North.
Consequently, most of these global giants are reluctant to setup their operations in the North for obvious reasons: lax security, incompetent e-learning resources, and rampant corruption. However of all the paraphernalia, one primary reason that dissuades the big names in e-learning from setting bases in North India is the abysmally poor skill-sets of the workforce here. In an era of cut-throat competition, generalized skills fetch little or paltry returns. In the past companies like Tata Interactive Services, Brainvisa, Sify e-learning and Accenture have all failed to locate substantial trained workforce from the North for its setups in the South.
Amidst all the rigmarole, smaller global clients seeking ‘cheap’ e-learning courses remain unconcerned about the operatives of these vile businessmen. The only thing that seemingly matters for them is ‘cheaper products’, even if it comes in poor quality or if the employees who developed them are subjected to inhuman practices. Its time that global clients shed their ignorance and act responsibly by seeking detailed credentials from smaller e-learning vendors in India on their HR processes, employee welfare schemes and workforce competence. Failing to do this will not result in the development of shabby e-learning courses.
The state of e-learning in India, particularly the frenzy in North India, remains a serious concern for the industry. Either the law of the land has to haul-up the desperados or wait till the hawks eat up the industry for the worse. A regulatory authority is essential now, if the industry is to survive and prosper. Money-eyed hawks can’t be allowed to have a field day. If they hang around for long, the death of the industry in India is imminent.