The pandemic steered the Indian education system in a completely new, digital direction last year, giving edtech platforms a huge boost. Today, with more and more classrooms moving online, students signing up for edtech services and top-dollar funding and investments pouring in, the sector is witnessing its biggest boom yet
By Reya Mehrotra
In June this year, edtech company Byju’s was declared India’s most valued startup at $16.5 billion, dethroning digital payments firm Paytm, which is valued at $16 billion. Over the past 12 months, Byju’s has been on an ambitious acquisition spree, acquiring WhiteHat Jr, Aakash Educational Services, Epic, Scholr, Great Learning, HashLearn, and is now in talks to acquire Gradeup and Toppr, spending $1.1 billion in the process.
The company’s acquisition spree in the middle of the pandemic, the huge amount of foreign funding it has got and a consumer base that grows constantly, all point to the fact that the edtech sector is booming. One of the major reasons behind this is, of course, the pandemic. As parents turned to online schooling last year, edtech platforms came to the rescue, providing additional support and learning tools for children. In 2020, edtech platforms entered their golden phase, and the trend continues this year. Not just Byju’s, other platforms like Vedantu, Flintoclass, Toppr, etc, are also seeing huge growth.
With more and more schools going online now, these platforms are complimenting online classes and consequently witnessing huge traction.
Last year, responding to the high demand for online education solutions, Byju’s, Toppr, Unacademy and Vedantu started free live classes for students. Flintoclass introduced Flinto@Home services to deliver hybrid preschool education at home. In June last year, it raised $7.2 million in pre-series B funding from Lightbox Ventures. Toppr witnessed a rise of 220% in student attendance in live classes between March and April last year, along with an increase of 300% in watch time. Platforms like GradeUp and ConveGenius, too, saw considerable growth during the lockdown last year.
This year, the growth amplified and new services were introduced. Mrinal Mohit, chief operating officer, Byju’s, shares that they introduced learning programmes in different languages like Marathi, Malayalam, Bengali, Kannada, etc. “While the importance of schools will remain uncontested, learning with the help of online platforms will help enhance a child’s conceptual understanding and offer them a holistic learning experience from the comfort of their homes,” he says.
Tech giant Google, too, partnered with Byju’s to offer a learning solution for schools amid the pandemic. The tie-up aims to blend Byju’s content pedagogy and Google Workspace for Education for educational institutions to facilitate digital learning. It, in fact, continues to attract investments, raising $50 million recently . In the past, Google and Facebook had also announced their partnerships with CBSE to digitise classrooms across the country.
In August, upGrad hit a valuation of $1.2 billion, with a funding of $185 million from investors. To make the most out of the situation, platforms like Saar Education (an education consortium for students from kindergarten to class 12), too, did a little ‘makeup’ to their existing brand image and reaped great results. With schools closing, there was slow growth in the B2B sector initially, which led them to look at the B2C sector and take digital marketing more seriously, shares Rohan Ravi Bhatia, director, sales and marketing, Saar Education. “We liaised with digital marketing partners and ran strong social media campaigns, changed the face of our site, got experts from around the world to conduct informative and insightful webinars, turned towards creating marketplaces, and that led to 6x growth in B2C revenue,” he says. Saar Education also recently launched its Homeschooling Kit for children between the ages of five and 12.
Talking about the growth, Vamsi Krishna, CEO and co-founder of Vedantu, says they have witnessed a surge in the number of users accessing their platform and a growth from about 50,000 paid users every year to more than 20,000 every month now. “This has been a great indication of the acceptance of online learning,” he says. “We are seeing good engagement with high session attendance of 80%. With the rise in user base, as well as subscribers, in the entire core matrix, we have seen a growth of 7x so far,” says Krishna.
Clearly, the sector is shining bright, which is why huge investments are pouring in. Investing in the space is proving to be a win-win situation for both investors and startups. In June this year, Gurugram-based Swiflearn raised $3 million through investments. Another edtech startup Classplus raised $65 million from investors like Tiger Global. As per reports, it will use the funding to enhance its team and services. Other platforms aren’t far behind either. Foreign education consultancy and admissions platform Leverage Edu has raised $2 million, while Kolkata-based Nalanda Learning has raised `40 crore from Aavishkaar Capital.
According to the December 2020 report The Great Un-Lockdown: Indian Edtech (by Indian Private Equity & Venture Capital Association and PGA Labs data), by FY2025, the education market will grow 2x to reach $225 billion at 14% CAGR over FY2020-25. As per analysts, the estimated market size of the Indian edtech sector will grow by 3.7 times in the next five years to touch $10.4 billion by 2025, from $2.8 billion in 2020. A report by EY-IVCA suggests that the segment will see more than 37 million paid users by 2025.
Edtech platforms are proving to be a great bet as they supplement learning and provide additional support that schools are struggling with currently. Their curriculum-based modules, personalised student-teacher interactions, self-assessment tests, provision of study materials and tablets are attracting students and parents alike. Byju’s provides curriculum-based books and a tablet to help a child learn through pre-recorded lessons and also lets them interact with a teacher when required.
Bengaluru-based Shashikala Sunil shares that she got a three-year package from Byju’s for her 13-year-old son Darshil, who is studying in class VIII. “His friends were joining Byju’s and everyone in his age group was recommending it, so we tried it ourselves. He listens to pre-recorded lessons whenever he wants and refers to the books they have provided. There are also weekly tests for assessing oneself and a teacher keeps a tab on how often a student is attending the class. One moves to the next chapter only after the assessment for the first is done,” she shares. “If there’s a doubt, the child can request a call any time,” says Sunil, adding that learning has become easy for her son now.
Similarly, Ruksana Mohammed Shaikh, a resident of Goa, took a subscription of Flintoclass and a few additional worksheets to homeschool her four-year-old twins Aairah and Amirah Shaikh. They were admitted to nursery last year, but the classes went online. As the second wave hit, their LKG classes this year went online too. Thanks to Flintoclass, though, they have learnt more than what was prescribed in the syllabus, she says. “I kept the admissions and continued schooling them at home. I don’t follow the school curriculum as they are just teaching the basics and my kids have learnt more than that at home through worksheets and online classes,” says Shaikh. To teach them the concepts, she takes them to different places. When teaching about the post office, for instance, she takes them to an actual one.
In a world that is increasingly going hybrid, with work-from-home complimenting work-from-office, the same model can be imagined for the education sector, too, say experts. Mohit believes we will see the rise of a blended model of education. “The ‘classrooms of tomorrow’ will have technology at their core, empowering students to cross over from passive to active learning,” he says.
To aid learning during the pandemic, several edtech platforms have joined hands with schools. Unacademy and Toppr opened up for schools across the country to conduct classes online last year. State governments, too, leveraged tech platforms to digitise education—Rajasthan State Board joined hands with Toppr, Haryana and Nagaland State Board with Bright Tutee, and Bihar State with Eckovation, to name a few.
The homeschool way
Mumbai-based Shikha Bhardwaj takes her four-year-old daughter Kalki to public parks to learn about types of leaves, plants and the process of pollination. They then go back home and Kalki studies books on the same topics for a better understanding. “I don’t see the need for schools now as I am focussing on her skills. I have put her in concept-based tuitions for cursive writing, mathematics, etc. The pandemic has changed the perception of school education. One can study from anywhere online and doesn’t necessarily have to live in the same city as the school,” says Bhardwaj, who makes it a point to teach her daughter two-three new concepts every week and also purchases worksheets for practise.
Bhardwaj and Shaikh are among the many parents who have embraced the idea of homeschooling their children since last year with the help of edtech apps and study materials. While it’s true that the concept of homeschooling has existed since a long time now, it was only after the pandemic that the country welcomed it wholeheartedly. While in traditional education, a set curriculum is followed for all, in homeschooling, the syllabus can be customised according to a child’s interest, often taking learning to the outdoors.
Byju’s, which grew multifolds during the pandemic, endorses the idea. “The rapid adoption of online education has emphasised the fact that every student has a unique learning journey that can be enhanced by various e-learning approaches. It is crucial to ensure that children discover their own learning path and enjoy learning,” says Mohit. “At Byju’s, we believe in creating state-of-the-art learning programmes that adapt to each student’s pace, size and style of learning, thus enabling them to become active learners.”
Home has always been the first school for every child and the pandemic has only reiterated the fact, says Bhatia. “Before Covid-19, learning academic skills was restricted to the school. However, the sudden change in the teaching-learning process during the pandemic made it evident that learning can even continue at home when supported with appropriate resources, effective strategies and continuous scaffolding by experts,” he says.
Pitfalls & problems
Almost the entire nation watched a six-year-old Mairoo Irfan ranting to ‘Modi saab’ about the burden of homework last month. “Assalamualaikum Modi saab,” she greeted the PM in a video message before going on to complain about the burden of homework. Taking immediate notice, Jammu and Kashmir’s lieutenant governor Manoj Sinha directed the school education department to come up with a policy change in 48 hours to decrease the burden of homework on students.
For students as young as her, adapting to online modes of study and the burden of homework can be a tad bit too much. Additionally, online education has added to a child’s screentime. Earlier a supplement to school education, edtech apps have now become the main mediums for study for many. Complaints of headaches and poor concentration because of long hours of online classes have become common.
Taking note, the ministry of human resource development and the department of school education and literacy announced in July last year guidelines titled ‘Pragyata’, which suggested limiting the number of sessions in a day. When Irfan’s video went viral, Sinha, too, announced limiting the daily hours of online classes as prescribed in Pragyata—not more than two sessions of 30-45 minutes each for classes I to VIII.
On their part, some edtech platforms, are making an effort to lessen a child’s screentime. “With the government addressing this issue with limitations on weekly classes for different age groups, both learning continuity and student well-being have been covered. Our programmes, too, are a balanced combination of self-study and live classes, and do not overburden learners,” says Krishna Kumar, founder and CEO, Simplilearn. Blackstone is acquiring around 70% stake in Simplilearn in a $250-million deal. This marks Blackstone’s first private equity investment for a majority stake in Asia in a consumer technology company.
Vedantu has also incorporated time checks in each class, which include taking a break after every 20 minutes from the screen, doing eye exercises, etc. Its content was also improvised to ensure that, in a 60-minute class, three-five minutes were dedicated to offscreen activities.
In July, Mumbai-based child psychologist Aruna Agarwal started an online platform for homeschooling children upto class II. Named Viola Juniors International School, the platform doesn’t require children to login everyday, cutting their screentime. Worksheets and assignments are given to children, with weekly or fortnightly meetups with teachers to guide parents and students on the progress. “Online is not the only medium of studying in a homeschooling model… and so there are no daily classes. It gives parents time for their work life, as well as lessens the screentime of children,” says Agarwal, who is also the founder of Enhancing Behaviour Analysis Psychological and Therapy centre, which deals with ADHD, autism, behaviour modification and language delays.
Lack of homeschooling options under professional guidance made her come up with the platform, she says. Additionally, Agarwal says, online classes have become a huge barrier for differently-abled children and this too inspired her to start a homeschooling platform. “I saw differently-abled children who had forgotten language during the lockdown last year. We had to work with them again to bring them to a level. This year, I don’t want them to regress again and so our telehealth services cater to their needs,” says Agarwal. Through the service, teachers guide parents of differently-abled children, helping them teach their kids through activities under their guidance.
There are other challenges as well in online education besides increased screentime and lack of access for differently-abled children. There is a need, for one, to upskill and familiarise teachers with digital concepts and methods of teaching. The government’s Pragyata guidelines, in fact, lay emphasis on teachers’ training as well. It suggests that teachers explore digital technologies, attend webinars, online training programmes, online courses on ICT-PedagogyContent integration, use appropriate technology for teaching, learning and assessment, and use digital resources embedded in Alternative Academic Calendars (AAC) developed by the NCERT for different stages, etc.
Another hurdle that many students are facing is getting used to taking exams online. For many who had to give their board exams, in fact, uncertainty loomed large as the exams were postponed multiple times. Delhi-based Bhoomi Khanna, who recently passed class X, says confidence was a major issue while taking exams online as the mode was new. “The teachers put in all the efforts in clearing doubts and the experience of online classes was good. I faced difficulties only in a few chapters, but taking exams online was a hurdle,” says Khanna.
The classrooms of tomorrow will have technology at their core, empowering students to cross over from passive to active learning
— Mrinal Mohit, chief operating officer, Byju’s
With the rise in user base, as well as subscribers in the entire core matrix, we have seen a growth of 7x so far
— Vamsi Krishna, CEO & co-founder, Vedantu
Our programmes are a balanced combination of self-study and live classes, and do not overburden learners
— Krishna Kumar, founder & CEO, Simplilearn