Teach your children well

Covid-19 has led to a rapid growth in EdTech, but challenges remain

Yesterday we saw how the covid-19 pandemic and the associated lockdown has led to the revival of the biscuit industry in India. Another sector that has seen a significant positive uptick thanks to the crisis is education technology, or “EdTech”.

Schools and colleges were among the first set of institutions to be closed due to the pandemic, and they are yet to be allowed to reopen. This has created a natural market for learning at home, through online lessons.

Some of this is very likely a coincidence, but at least 14 EdTech startups in India have closed funding rounds after the pandemic started. And the existing biggies all saw massive growth during the lockdown, even if some of them did so on the back of offering some of their services for free.

BYJU’S, India’s earliest and most valuable Edtech startup, saw 7.5 million new users on its platform since it started offering free access to content. The time spent on its app increased from 70 minutes pre-lockdown to 91 minutes during the lockdown. 

The story is the same for other edtech players in the arena. Unacademy recorded 1.4 billion watch minutes while Toppr saw 100 percent growth in free user engagement in March.

Even before the pandemic hit India, EdTech was already a fast-growing business, thanks to the growing penetration of smartphones and the willingness to pay for educational content. The two big areas of growth were test preparation and skill development.

Limited intake and the growing number of aspirants are making competition fierce across all national level examinations which means that the opportunity for capitalisation is growing as well.

In older times coaching institutes were the go-to place for students to prepare for such examinations but with edtech platforms getting more prevalent, online test prep has boomed. The advantages are clear — cost and convenience. Fueled by these, the online test preparation market in India is estimated to be worth 515Mn by 2021, growing at a CAGR of 64% since 2016.

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The effects of the primary school learning deficit are felt at college and university level, where students have made it after rote learning and striving for marks. Skilling and certification startups are cashing in on this deficit. As per a study by KPMG, the estimated market size for the online certification and the reskilling industry is estimated to be $463 Mn(2021) growing at a compounded annual growth rate(CAGR) of 38% since the year 2016.

The key themes and major advantages for edtech are personalisation and inclusion.

The good thing about EdTech is that unlike other technology-led businesses in India, its reach is not limited to urban audiences or the well-off.

In a conversation with YourStory, Abhishek Patil, Co-founder and CEO of Bengaluru-based edtech startup Oliveboard says that a large part of its user-base comes from Tier II, III and IV markets. Besides, the startup also designs its curriculum in accordance with what the students from these regions need.

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Sajith Pai, Director at Blume Ventures, says the primary reason behind the success of edtech players in non-metro markets is because that is where all the growth is. He says that Tier II and III markets do not have the level of penetration with tuition centers and classroom education offerings that a Tier I city has, and that is why these players are willing to take to online content more readily.

Prior to the pandemic hitting, most of the growth in EdTech came in what can be described as the “mature” market - people looking to ace competitive exams or get other kinds of certification. However, with schools being forced to close due to the pandemic, they have been trying out online lessons for the students. While it has worked well in some cases, the story is not all that rosy.

Access to technology and devices is a major constraint to school education in India going all digital.

… only 12.5% of the households of students in India have internet access at home. There is an urban-rural divide: 27% have access in urban areas and only 5% in rural areas. Given the current crises, this does not auger well for holding online classes for students who have gone back home. It is perhaps this view that makes people apprehensive about online classes. 

Moreover, the sudden closures of schools in the wake of the covid-19 pandemic means that teachers and students were ill-prepared for online classes, as this Op-Ed in the Times Of India explains.

Several associated factors, which enable learning, are severely compromised at this time such as the health of the learners, increased domestic responsibilities especially for girls impairing the atmosphere of learning, unavailability of mid-day meals in some contexts, and more.

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Another problem that cannot be solved immediately is the lack of preparation for the new reality. A report by EdTech Hub and Digital Pathways at Oxford highlights how sudden school closures left little time to adapt the curriculum for online instruction, especially because no one can still say how long national lockdowns will last.

Therefore, while elite private education institutions and deep pocketed clientele might find it relatively easier to make the transition, under-resourced communities will likely be on the other end of the gap.

There are other constraints that make school learning through technology challenging as well.

The major impediment to e-learning has been lack of vernacular content. English has been the preferred medium for digital educational solutions, unintentionally excusing vast numbers. It will be beneficial to focus on low tech, mass solutions such as SMS, WhatsApp or YouTube videos in regional languages.

It is unlikely that all these constraints will be overcome very soon, so even if the lockdown is prolonged it is unlikely that school education is likely to be disrupted due to technology or online learning. However, as the rapid growth both before and during the pandemic has shown, there is tremendous promise in higher education for some time to come.