The Learning Channel

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"The goal is to create for our Silicon Valley an institute that will do for us what Stanford did for the real Silicon Valley," says Ajay Sawhney, the special secretary of IT and special officer of IIIT-Hyderabad. "We want to see a mix of high-end educational research, development of IT and entrepreneurs."

The Triple ITs certainly are wired for high-level learning. In addition to the ultramodern facilities, students have access to computer labs with almost round-the-clock Internet access. By contrast, at the prestigious IITs, students and faculty alike are housed in aged dormitories with cranky infrastructures. And, in a benefit not available at the IITs, students at the Triple ITs are also given the chance to network and even intern with IT companies located in the tech parks around their schools.

Since opening in September 1998, the IIIT-Hyderabad has attracted about 300 full-time students, while the IIIT-Bangalore has about 150. "Students are not an issue," says Sadagopan. "We need faculty." Currently, the Bangalore school has five full-time faculty, but Sadagopan hopes to hire 15 more -- if he can find them. The story is the same in Hyderabad, which would like to grow its enrollment to 1,500 students -- if it can hire enough teachers.

One hope of the Triple ITs is that, through the private sector partnerships, they can find new ways for students to stay in India rather than emigrate to the United States or United Kingdom. "Possibly only 5 [percent] to 10 percent will really stay in India, buut 5 [percent] to 10 percent can make a huge difference," Sawhney says.

When the Triple ITs first started taking shape over two years ago, the local excitement was over the involvement of big-name vendors such as Motorola and Oracle. But that enthusiasm is changing, Sawhney says. "Now in the last 10 to 12 months we've seen a lot of [new ventures] sprouting up. We're going to create our own big names."

In Bangalore, Sadagopan is thrilled to see interest in the field to which he's devoted his life's work. But he is also realistic. "It is not that the students love the computers; they want the dollars."

NIIT: Bringing IT to the People

On a well-traversed backstreet in Delhi, there is a hole in a stone wall. In this hole is a PC with a 24-hour Internet connection. It doesn't cost anything to use; there are no rules, no supervision, although the computer is securely in place to discourage would-be thieves. This is an experiment to see if common people -- the 99 percent of Indians who don't have formal exposure to computers -- will learn to navigate the Internet on their own. And they do. Not constantly, but frequently there is a small crowd of people -- children mainly -- gathered around this hole in the wall, tuning in and turning on. Will these children grow up to be the IT superstars of tomorrow? Who knows? But they stand a better chance of it since the appearance of the hole-in-the-wall PC than before.

The hole-in-the-wall experiment is the brainchild of NIIT, one of India's top IT training and software export companies. Based in Delhi, NIIT operates 1,113 IT training centers in 21 countries, offering skills-based training to corporations and common people alike. And nowhere does NIIT have a higher profile than in India, where company founder and Chairman Rajendra S. Pawar wants his company to be the one that ensures equal opportunity for all Indians in the growing IT industry.

Founded in 1982, NIIT began as a computer-skills training vendor, even though at the time India's import regulations were such that incoming hardware and software products were slapped with a 114 percent duty fee. Still, enough PCs and software were made in India that during NIIT's first 10 years, the company was quite successful as a training center. From 1982 to 1992, 80 percent of the company's business was education (20 percent software products), and 93 percent of it was conducted domestically.

But beginning with the federal reforms of 1991, NIIT's business model changed. Suddenly, with the advent of free(er) trade with foreign partners, the company's international software products swelled to occupy a significant part of the business. Today, 53 percent of NIIT revenues come from software products and 47 percent from training; 47 percent from the domestic marketplace and 53 percent overseas.

By virtue of its software business, NIIT has already grown to be India's sixth-largest exporter of software products. But Pawar understands that the country's real IT growth hinges on development of a strong domestic marketplace for IT products and services. "We should do as much for the rest of the country as we do for the rest of the world," Pawar says.

Already, NIIT provides IT education through classrooms and via the Internet. The company has created a library of 335 multimedia titles, and it has partnered with vendors such as Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Microsoft to develop customized training tools. A person preparing for Microsoft certification, for instance, can take an NIIIT preparatory course.

But the key to reaching the common people, Pawar believes, is to equip them, then educate them. The hole-in-the-wall computer was one step; next, perhaps, NIIT will place Internet kiosks in remote villages. "All villages have TV and telephones, but not every house does," Pawar reasons. "They become a shared service. So, what if we put Internet kiosks in slum villages as a shared service?"

There are critics, certainly, of NIIT's approach. "Yes, [NIIT and other for-profit education vendors] develop people with IT skills, but only for repetitive tasks," says N. Lakshmi Narayanan, president and COO of Cognizant Technology Solutions, a Teaneck, N.J.-based outsourcing vendor. Narayanan argues that the Indian IT industry needs more people skilled in multiple IT and business practices, not just discrete skills.

Arguably, Pawar's village kiosks could spawn some self-taught IT whiz kids who, with some further guidance, could become the skilled people Narayanan wants. Pawar argues that this indeed will happen, given time. "We can't take people off the streets and make them productive [in IT] today," Pawar says. "But it won't take years. It can be done in just weeks and months."

This story, "The Learning Channel" was originally published by CIO.

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