Two significant investments related to Indian business education were announced in the last ten days. Here is a brief roundup.

1. Great Lakes expands beyond Chennai in partnership with Educomp

Not wanting to be left behind the ISB, IMT or IMI franchises in creating a national footprint, Great Lakes Institute of Management, Chennai on May 6 announced its own plans to expand operations to Gurgaon and Orissa in addition to its earlier takeover of Mumbai Business School.

However, unlike ISB, IMI or IMT whose expansions have either been funded by their promoters or by industrialists and on new campuses, Great Lakes has taken over the academic management and content of two existing business schools — Mumbai Business School (MBS), Mumbai and Institute of Energy Management and Research (IEMR), Gurgaon — in order to increase its spread. The expansion is assisted by a strategic tie-up with the BSE-listed Educomp Solutions which has announced an investment of Rs 150 crore in the partnership via its affiliate company Beacon Learning, the promoter of IEMR.

IEMR Gurgaon has already been renamed Great Lakes Institute of Energy Management and Research. According to Great Lakes Dean Prof Bala V Balachandran, Mumbai Business School, which was earlier a commercial entity has been turned into a non-profit trust and brought under the Great Lakes management.

The Great Lakes-Educomp partnership will also build a business education-oriented university in Orissa, tentatively named ‘University of Corporate Excellence’. Once the university kicks off, Great Lakes would have had spread its presence in all four corners of the country, says Prof Balachandran. While Great Lakes – Chennai has built a strength around marketing, IEMR will focus on the energy sector and MBS on emerging markets.

Educomp’s Rs 150 crore investment is part cash and part infrastructure and technology, such as its e-learning platform which will be powered using Great Lakes content to offer distance learning. Great Lakes will extend its partnership with the Bauer School of Business, University of Houston to IEMR and offer the Global Energy MBA for executives at Gurgaon.

The announcement is important because it is the first time that an important Indian b-school is upsizing its geographical footprint by becoming a service provider to existing b-school setups in partnership with for-profit educational solution providers.

In an additional announcement, Prof Bala also told PaGaLGuY that starting 2013, Great Lakes will start a two-year PGPM program at Chennai in addition to its existing one-year PGPM. The two-year program will be on the lines of the standard two-year PGPMs offered by most Indian b-schools and will open for freshers.

2. Education tablet iProf raises Rs 5 crore from Kaplan Ventures

A number of technology-based test preparation startups have tried to tap new opportunities spawned by the Common Admissions Test (CAT) becoming computer-based. However, all of them have been software solutions.

iProf, an e-learning company offering study material on a personal tablet device last week announced raising Rs 27 crores collectively from Norwest Venture Partners, IDG Ventures India and Kaplan Ventures to expand its operations India-wide.

The company is curating video, animation, text and e-testing content for engineering, medical, management and civil services exams which it will provide exclusively on the iProf tablet. iProf plans to launch its MBA test-preparation content module in June. Besides investing Rs 5 crores, Kaplan is also providing the GMAT preparation content on the iProf tablet.

By buying the Rs 8,000 iProf tablet, says the company’s CEO Sanjay Purohit, anybody in Patna or Patiala can download video lectures, animations and assessment tools by the best teachers of a particular subject from the iProf online e-learning superstore and learn the material at their own pace. iProf is opening ‘iStudy Zones’ across small town India, where it will provide the necessary broadband connections and payment facilities for customers to buy and download the high definition test-prep material. These study centres will also hold doubt sessions with teachers using videoconferencing facility.

According to Mr Purohit, one will typically end up spending between Rs 20,000 and 25,000 to prepare for the CAT through the iProf platform, including the tablet cost. The target market for the tablets is those people who do not yet own a computer or have broadband access.

Our take on the iProf tablet

There is a serious shortage of good teachers in India and technology that connects good faculty to students across geographies will solve the problem of quality instruction for the short-term. But in order to offset the interactive experience of a real classroom and position video lectures as a compelling option, iProf will have to select teachers who are not only subject competent but also engaging communicators who come into their own in front of camera. Whether by a supposedly-competent teacher on video or by a bad teacher in real life, a dreary lecture is a dreary lecture all the same. I noticed that most lectures snippets shown in the demo examples by iProf at its press conference in Delhi were of this kind. If they are representative of all the lectures on iProf, they will have to improve the quality.

Although on the face of it iProf looks like a hardware and content business, their actual product is the test-prep content for a wide variety of courses put behind a paywall. In some of its press material, the company also describes itself as an online marketplace for e-content on entrance exams.

Which begs the question — why not make all this content available on PCs? Why force people to buy the tablet to access iProf’s content, while ignoring the existing market that already owns personal computers and would find the content useful?

Ease of piracy of content on personal computers is a natural concern which may have prevented iProf from making its content marketplace accessible on PCs. and the only way they can prevent piracy is by introducing a device whose operating system and content access they can control — which is what the reason of existence of the tablet seems to be. In which case, the tablet solves iProf’s problem more than it does of its customers.

As iProf will make most of its money selling digital content, the bottleneck would be making customers spend on the tablet. It can make the tablet more compelling by making it relevant even after the entrance exam phase by signing up a wide spectrum of universities to deliver their course material via iProf. Otherwise, spending on a tablet that does nothing else apart from displaying test-prep content does not sound like a captivating proposition.

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