Ramanathan V Guha is among the top research scientists at Google’s Mountain View headquarters. An alumnus of IIT-Madras, Guha holds a number of patents to his name and had co-founded two companies before joining Google in 2005. At Google, he has been responsible for the Google Custom Search and is now driving the company’s online education strategy. In a freewheeling chat with BusinessLine during his recent visit to Delhi, Guha spoke about Google’s vision to promote free education courses online. Edited excerpts:
Why has Google, which primarily makes money from the search business, moved into the online education space?
Education is bigger than search in terms of impact. This is going to produce a big change. In all our discussions, we have never mentioned the business model a single time. Academics is in our DNA.
How much of this is governed by the fact that if Google wants to reach the next billion users it has to move into socially relevant areas such as education?
Today, 1.5-2 billion people are accessing Google, which means three-fourths of the people are not. At the end of the day, we want these people to reach the same levels as the developed world and there is only thing that can do that: education. The Internet is finally beginning to tackle education.
If quality education goes online what will the future hold for institutions such as the IITs and Stanford?
The need for institutions like Stanford will always be there. Right now, you can get into these institutions if you are fortunate. But for a kid who is in a village in Rajasthan or Kerala, if we could give that kid 20-30 per cent of that experience, it will be worth it. It is not an either or situation. We are thinking of having a hybrid model wherein you will get access to online course material but also have offline tutors at the local level to guide students.
Why do you think online education will work in India, with all its deficiencies in terms of infrastructure and resources?
The fundamental problem for India, if it wants to move to the next level, is that there are 150-200 million kids in the age group of 5-20 who need to get educated. It’s too late to train and deploy 10 million teachers. There’s not enough time and not enough people. But we can do some of it online. Having said that, we realise that in India there are many different ways to do assessments and different ways to teach. We don’t know what it should look like but we know there are people with ideas. Google will facilitate by bringing platforms like Course Builder. We will help institutions like the IITs to try different things using our tools and infrastructure.
How big are issues such as language and cultural differences when it comes to online education?
It’s huge everywhere but in India it is 10 times more important because of the variety of culture, teaching style and language. One of the changes on our platform is that now we are getting 20 lecturers with different styles talking about the same topic in different languages. A student can listen to whichever lecture they want depending on their preferred language. For example, we are rendering all the lectures under the National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning (NPTEL) project into multiple languages.
Are you also looking at enabling school content, especially primary-school content, online?
We are moving top down. Primary school education is very difficult to replicate online. It will be a while before we nail it.
We are starting to look into high school in the US. Higher education is more subjective.