“… 67 versions of SAP are taught here…but I don’t know how and what to choose…” — Student, Ameerpet Skill Tutoring Hub
“… I will no longer be teaching QTP, and would instead focus on ‘Selenium’, an open-source testing software platform, which is the ‘current rage in learning testing tools’…” — Instructor, Ameerpet
In this essay we probe the socio-technical characteristics of a large private skill-tutoring ecosystem in Ameerpet, Hyderabad, South India to analyze why learners prefer to enroll into a physical model of classroom teaching over online courses. The success over the last three decades of enrolling thousands of students each year notwithstanding, the situated nature of IT skill tutoring hubs in specific geographic sites in India remains severely limited in reach. Launched alongside the IT boom in India two decades ago, the informal skill-tutoring model has managed to ride the IT wave, and survives today as a solution to the rapidly changing skill-set demand in the current Indian IT job market. The marketing and course structure of these classes identifies and targets employability as the key goal of students enrolled in their classes, offering a clear link between the skills they learn and the job market they are preparing to enter. While locations like Ameerpet continue to expand, the need of the hour is melding the context-specific teaching style of Ameerpet with a massively scaled dissemination platform. Can skilling hubs be considered as places bearing tutoring models which online learning platforms aiming to skill similar youth segments can effectively borrow and build upon?
India is home to the largest under-25 demographic profile (604,394,787 and 49.91% of total population), requiring a wide-spread, skill-oriented educational model to thrive in highly dynamic job markets. Around 1.5 million students graduate each year with an engineering undergraduate degree, many with insufficient suitability for the job market. As a response to the huge demand for technical education, a number of coaching institutes have come into existence in major Indian cities, imparting skills that cater directly to the job market, offering condensed material that promise job-readiness in significantly less turnover time than incurred in the formal Indian education system. In 2017, there were a total of 6447 approved technical institutes enrolling 2,871,007 students. Out of these institutions, the top government-backed institutions that are recognized in the Global North, such as the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), make up only a small fraction of the total intake (the total number of seats offered in all Government Funded Technical Institutes (GFTIs) in 2017 was a mere 36,200). A huge majority enrolls into private colleges with dubious reputations and pedagogic ability. Uneven quality of teaching, a limited focus on practical knowledge, and lack of a participative classroom culture, creates an exam-focused atmosphere, with students focusing on memorizing material rather than developing practical knowledge of the subject. A technical report places 18.4% of the total number of engineering graduates employable in general, and only 3.2% for jobs in the IT industry.
Since 2004, engineering education is being taken online by some of the tier one institutions [like the IITs]to scale quality teaching in areas bereft of quality education. These online resources are available and accessible but offer nothing more in terms of tracking participation and improving student engagement and retention strategies. We see awareness but no scalable solution to manage the increasing numbers of young Indians seeking technical training for industry jobs.
Online Learning and India
India is becoming increasingly optimistic regarding the potential of online education with increasing enrollment in online courses. There are several online learning initiatives tailored to the needs of the sub-continent, including a partnership between IIT-Bombay and edX and an experimental design by MSR India, upcoming government initiatives like Study Webs of Active-Learning for Young Aspiring Minds (SWAYAM), Skill India. Despite the recognition that many MOOC users come from non-English speaking countries the studies discussed above continue to develop content for an English-speaking audience and their specific education contexts. The limitation of this conception is the emphasis on college-going students as primary recipients, who are incentivized via grades and kept in check by physically present professors and course obligations. An MSR India report highlights factors disengaging MOOCs in India, namely the speed of online videos, language/accent, bandwidth constraints, and the lack of support from educational institutions — the untapped opportunities for MOOCs in developing countries can address learning inequalities, if only they are able to overcome design challenges for large-scale deployment. Can an existing educational model, a grounded and commercially successful one managing challenges similar to those faced by any educational system aiming to operate at scale, claim to offer design insights for MOOCs?
Ameerpet is a dense bustling commercial suburb of Hyderabad city, and the largest IT skill-tutoring hub in India catering to students and IT professionals alike. The hub harbors thousands of skilling centers, along with peripheral infrastructure amenities such as hostels, note-selling outfits, and food and beverage services. Estimates vary about the number of students taking these courses, but peg the number of incoming students at anywhere between 60,000–100,000 students per month. Each institution offers multiple courses ranging from MS Office to Robotic Process Automation, along with placement aids, with fees for the same course varying across institutes, from Rs. 2000 to as much as Rs. 35,000 for a single course [30$US to 550$US]. The turnover time for these institutions is rapid — courses last from one to six months and multiple batches for the same course are held in quick succession. The managers of Ameerpet institutes update courses to tally with skills in the job market, mining information from online job portals and their own industry contacts to keep track of the latest demand for jobs. Students who come from near and far take residence in the many hostels surrounding these coaching centers, which have dorm-like setups of multiple bunk beds in a single room. Students pay on average anywhere between Rs. 7,000 to Rs. 15,000 [80$US to 140$US] per month to stay in Ameerpet. All of the students we encountered possessed smartphones and had access to social network and messaging apps such as Facebook and WhatsApp. Many of them used either devices to browse job portals, such as monster.com and naukri.com. The reputation of Ameerpet being the ‘best coaching center’ is fortified in the way information circulates through students who have benefitted and found jobs — many do not even attempt to probe alternative options such as exploring local institutes or online classes before settling for Ameerpet. None of the students we spoke to had ‘casually’ stumbled upon Ameerpet — even those living in Hyderabad chose to come to Ameerpet over other coaching institutes because of its acquired reputation amongst student’s trusted circles. Once inside the Ameerpet hub, students have evolved distinct ways to navigate and customize skills and course offerings. Every student we spoke to [without exception] listed landing jobs in the IT industry as their top priority for enrolling in an Ameerpet institute. Many of them weren’t concerned with the job profile, or even the salary. Students hear and believe that stable jobs in the IT industry, along with opportunities to go abroad, are definitional as career prospects.
Pedagogy at the Hub
The pedagogical tools and techniques employed by the Ameerpet keep in mind the student’s goal of job-attainment and optimize course material to this end. We outline key pedagogic techniques adopted by tutors below:
- Repetition. The most significant technique used in class is constant repetition of course material. The instructor gives a broad overview of course topics, then moves to explaining specific concepts. Once a concept is explained, the instructor repeats the definition several times, emphasising key words. After the first two or three passes, this is combined with engagement techniques discussed below.
2. Engagement and Examples. Despite large class sizes, there is considerable effort by the instructor to maintain a high level of student interaction. The primary techniques of interaction include:
- Asking students to repeat after him
- Questions (easy multiple choice, fill-in-the-blanks, single line answer types) addressed to the entire class
- Questions addressed to individual students or sections of students (boys vs. girls, for instance)
- The questions are kept purposefully simple to help students revise content being taught and gain confidence in that knowledge.
- Context-specific examples are often used in order to make course material more intelligible to students. At times, examples pertain directly to the material being taught. For instance, the instructor may explain organisational hierarchies in an IT firm by referencing classroom setting. At other times, the instructor draws analogies to help students understand a concept from life around them, or specific technologies popular at the time. The goal of this engagement seems to be geared towards helping students contextualize educational material for better retention, and in preparation for in-person job interviews. Student responses in class help instructors gauge in real-time the degree of comprehension about a topic being taught in.
3. Verbal and Visual Cues. The style, accent, and flow of the English language adopted by the instructor, despite sharing a reasonable level of socio-linguistic conventions with his/her students, still prove difficult for the class to grasp. Unable to switch to a local language to deliver the course in the class room, tutors rely heavily on voice modulation techniques, non-verbal cues, and visual demonstration aids, in order to explain material. Instructors combine a series of prompts and querying techniques into their teaching styles consistently prodding students towards correct answers. Verbal cues include voice modulation to emphasize the correct answer, while visual cues can range from pointing out the answer on the black board to changing body language. In this way, classroom questioning does not necessarily serve to test students on their knowledge, but function as a proxy form of learning and revision.
4. Dictation of Notes. Since there are no textbooks or reference materials provided by the institute, notes taken in class are a critical tool for self-study. The instructor sets aside a portion of class for dictating notes — note-taking is serious work in an Ameerpet class room, with students often using different colored markers to organize written notes. The instructor was often heard saying ‘don’t write while listening, you won’t write clearly, I’ll tell you later… notes are very important, everything should be easy to understand and neat so you can revise easily’. Outside of class, these notes stand-in as the only study material. Students are often seen sitting in empty class rooms, before and after instruction, studying from their notes.
5. Detailed Demonstrations. There is reliance on using projectors in order to show documentation templates, code excerpts, as well as guide students through the installation processes for software tools. When a new software is being introduced, the instructor takes nearly an entire lecture to walk students through the installation steps — from a demonstration in using Google search to find the installation link, to familiarizing them with the product. In addition, the tutor uploads step-by-step instructions with screenshots onto his website that students are encouraged to consult in case of doubt.
Instructors are a key industry link — a majority of them are employed IT professionals who moonlight as tutors in Ameerpet. They have insider knowledge of job profiles and skills in demand; the kind of skills and knowledge needed to learn tools; and modes of classroom instructional delivery of a course material for students to fare well in job interviews. For instance, instructors stress on the difference between ‘course knowledge’ and ‘job interview proficiency’ — tutors highlight sections of coursework that are important for interviews, and train students to answer basic yet critical interview questions. Tutors decide course syllabus, and could choose to cut on redundant software tools in favor of new industry standards.
The structure of off-site work in Ameerpet involves setting up a work environment, complete with desktops, employee ID cards, and biometric swiping, all within the precincts of coaching hub. Students immerse themselves in this work universe, often a hierarchy of team leads, project managers, and clients, much like in the regular world of IT employment. These are generally short-term unpaid stints, anywhere between 15 days and a month, that periodically convert to an employment opportunity. Institutions prominently advertise job placement aid as one of their unique selling points, both on banners adorning the entrance to the institute and during counselling sessions.
How to take Ameerpet online?
How can the learning models at Ameerpet be translated to re-model online learning environments for improved engagement and relevance: How the tutoring hub develops a strong understanding of the cultural contexts of students; tweaks course content and pedagogic style to match student learning capacities; revising the syllabus to reflect current market and job readiness. The translation of these features into the structure of an online or blended learning environment requires rethinking platforms from the ground up; from marketing these courses to platform user-interface and a relevant course/syllabus oriented towards student goals.
- Repetition as pedagogic style requires incorporation as the default settings of educational videos
- Engaging learners through language [and accent] intonation and gestures that act as cues for online course instruction.
- Identifying Industry Demand and revising course syllabi
- End-to-End Project Oriented Courses focusing on teaching the entire skill set required for entry level work in a particular job profile or stream.
Our primary offering is to suggest a shift in perspective of online education platforms, to include job readiness and accompanying changes in course content and delivery, and point out directions for further work.
Joshi M, Joshi T, and Rangaswamy N. Scaling Classroom IT Skill Tutoring: A Case Study from India, In Proceedings of the 2018 ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.