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Microsoft partner willing to set up digital schools on 2G for Kashmir

Srinagar: Two years after it was snubbed by J&K government, a Microsoft partner company is still interested in setting up a secure and reliable digital medium of education for Kashmir students and provide free Microsoft software package which will work on a slow internet connection as well.

Tech Avante-Garde (TAG), a Bangalore based IT Company and a designated Microsoft partner, which first approached J&K Government in 2018 during Mehbooba Mufti’s tenure as Chief Minister, had pitched the idea of setting up a Connected Learning Platform for schools badly hit by repeated shutdowns and internet suspensions in Kashmir.

The proposal then got tangled in bureaucratic and administrative knots even as the CEO of Tech Avante-Garde had travelled to Kashmir and met Mehbooba Mufti, her brother Tasaduq Mufti and top officers of the education department.

The meetings had happened days before Mehbooba Mufti led government collapsed as BJP broke its alliance with PDP after which the proposal was silently shelved.

In a detailed interview with The Kashmir Monitor, CEO TAG, Ali Sait said that his company, along with Microsoft, was still interested in reviving the proposal if the government in Jammu and Kashmir showed any interest.

“Education is like water for a civilization. If the water flows, the civilization thrives. If it is choked, there is no civilization,” Sait said.

Schools in Kashmir have been shut since August 2019, when government of India revoked Article 370 and divided the erstwhile state into two Union Territories.

Now the latest lockdown due to coronavirus has yet again impacted the sector even as majority of the schools struggle in absence of any reliable digital medium through which students could have been taught.

All of this while the high-speed internet continues to remain suspended in Kashmir.

Together with Microsoft, TAG has been working for almost two decades on developing a system for digital transformation of education across several states in India. It provides IT services and Connected Platform Learning solutions to scores of schools across India.

The company is working with many schools in several states of India including Bangalore, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Haryana even as its focus is on budget private and government schools, which may not be able to set up a digital classroom environment on their own.

What was the 2018 proposal?

In 2018, Sait, through Private Schools Association Jammu and Kashmir (PSAJK) had floated an idea of a Microsoft CSR project in Kashmir.

“I had proposed setting up an intranet service in Kashmir only for education. Microsoft has a CSR product called Airband and TV White Spaces. We could have an intranet set up in Kashmir that would only be available for schools and students and would function even if the commercial internet was suspended, as happens very commonly in the valley,” he said.

The Microsoft Airband Initiative partners with organizations to utilize TV Whites Space (TVWS) devices and other low-cost wireless technologies to make it easier and more affordable for people to get online.

Sait had discussed the proposal with Mehbooba Mufti, then education minister Altaf Bukhari, who had given him an audience with all the top officers of the education department.

“They all seemed very interested. I proposed a Private-Public- Partnership model under which we would have trained 10 private schools which in turn would have trained another 10 government schools,” he said.

But the PDP-BJP government soon crumbled halting the proposal at its very outset.

“There wasn’t any response after the government fell as most top officers of the education department were transferred before they could understand the project,” he said.

What now?

As COVID-19 lockdown persists, TAG believes that Kashmir needs more than ever a secure and reliable digital platform for teaching students.

“We understand we cannot deliver any hardware to Kashmir in these times to set up that intranet. However, for now we can set up an ERP for each school plugged in with Microsoft Teams package to ensure a virtual school is created,” he said.

Microsoft Teams is specialised software package for Education providing an online classroom for students and teachers.

An enterprise resource planning (ERP) is a business process management software that allows an organization (here a school) to use a system of integrated applications.

“Our learning system is on Teams of Microsoft. It is the world’s best system today in terms of digital training and education because one, it occupies very less bandwidth, and two, it can create a virtual end-to-end school,” Sait told The Kashmir Monitor.

He added that his company was ready to provide the Teams package for free until the COVID-19 crisis remained and would train the schools as well.

TAG, he said, was also doing field trials on a software which can allow users stich two or more internet connections to increase the bandwidth.

“So if someone is using a Jio connection and an Airtel connection, both having 2G internet right now, we can stitch the two connections to up the internet speed,” he said.  

“We want to deliver something which is mobile friendly. And a platform that is very efficient even in low internet speeds. We would only charge a one-time fee for installation and backend support until the COVID-19 crisis remains,” he said.

Security and system

As per Sait, Zoom, the video-conferencing application flagged worldwide for its security issues, was not made for delivering education.

“I understand what is happening in Kashmir. The authorities are tinkering with free software. Some say they will use Google, some say ZOOM, but they are not a viable option at all. You need to have an ownership of a company that can take responsibility and land the solutions at your doorstep,” he said.

Microsoft Teams on the other hand, he said, was a specialised package designed for education.

TAG is ready to set up the system, and handhold the teachers and students on how to use it properly, he said.

“Teams has 32 apps in it. Unlike open source applications, this is like setting up a full-fledged digital school. We would train the teachers and students to use it, and if they have any issues we would have a 24×7 backend support to resolve their queries,” he added.

Once set up, a school using Teams will be provided proper credentials for teachers and students to enter the system, which will be a closed in platform managed and run only by the school.

“Besides, all the Microsoft network is managed on Azure, which is the most secured platform in the world,” he said.

Azure is a cloud computing service created by Microsoft for building, testing, deploying, and managing applications and services.

“We will give the entire licensing of the software for free. We will need to register the school online, create the passwords, train the teachers, and provide technical support for which we will charge a one-time fee,” he said. “Provided the government of Kashmir are willing to change, we are there and Microsoft is also willing to back us up completely,” Sait said.