How Indian education-tech firms stack-up against US, Chinese ones

Updated: July 18, 2016 7:37:46 AM

Ed-tech, or education technology companies, are selling the concept of “personalised learning” or “adaptive learning”.

narendra modi, digital indiaTutorGroup of China appears to lead in ed-tech for synchronous tutoring with a live tutor, and the concept of connecting anytime from anywhere using current and emerging devices.

I remember, as a kid—having only seen the Ambassador cars—getting a shock when I saw a foreign car with an open hood. Compared to what was inside the Ambassador, what was under this hood seemed like out-of-the-world technology.

But those days for Indian technology are seemingly gone. Now, Indian internet companies are competing head-to-head with the Americans and Chinese in technology. Or are they? Let us look at ed-tech, where I have some expertise.

Ed-tech, or education technology companies, are selling the concept of “personalised learning” or “adaptive learning”. So, what is personalised learning and what is the problem ed-tech companies are trying to solve?

Let us go back three decades to the research of Benjamin Bloom. The American educational psychologist’s famous “2 Sigma Problem” is about how to recreate the effectiveness of one-on-one tutoring. His research showed that students taking one-on-one tutoring performed two standard deviations (2 Sigma) better than students who did not receive tutoring. The average tutored student performed better than 98% students in the traditional classroom. Why this jump? One-on-one tutoring is the ultimate personalisation of learning. However, Bloom noted that one-on-one tutoring is “too costly for most societies to bear on a large scale.”

What educationists agree is that each student learns at a different pace. Further, a student’s pace is not uniform but varies based on the subject or even the concept one is learning. But a teacher in a class cannot personalise for each student. So, what kind of ed-tech do we need to solve this issue, and where do Indian companies stand?

US company Knewton has emerged as the clear technology leader for “adaptive learning”. It uses a technology called Item Response Theory (IRT) as a foundation. IRT is an adaptive assessment technology used in high-stake tests such as GMAT and GRE, and is expanding to being used in American K-12 assessments. Knewton’s ed-tech has expanded IRT Adaptive from “assessment” to “learning”—a great feat. A number of ed-tech companies are now paying to use their technology, thus acknowledging their leadership.

TutorGroup of China appears to lead in ed-tech for synchronous tutoring with a live tutor, and the concept of connecting anytime from anywhere using current and emerging devices.

WebRTC (Web Real-Time Communication), started by Google but now open source, is becoming the favoured technology to base such live connections on. But open source can be a misleading term because proprietary products are being built using WebRTC. Technology and devices are fast evolving and such live person-to-person interaction will also always be evolving and remain a technology challenge. TutorGroup is an ed-tech company that has achieved unicorn status.

Another hot promise in ed-tech is gamification—interactive activities that make children learn while having fun. Can ed-tech achieve this for students and anxious parents? Age of Learning, a US company, has delivered on such products with wide adoption by parents, opening their wallets to buy gamification products.

There are many more global success stories in ed-tech, but all technology innovation is coming from the US, followed by China.

In India, terms such as adaptive testing, personalised learning, and gamification are on home pages of ed-tech firms selling products to students, but there are no technology breakthroughs that Indian ed-tech players have made. Nor have they incorporated or replicated the genuine ed-tech being made outside India. However, they have the same grand claims of technology.

Most Indian ed-tech companies might go the way of the Ambassador, once Chinese or American ed-tech comes to India, and once Indian students and parents start comparing foreign technology to Indian. But the good news is that these American or Chinese ed-tech companies are expected to employ Indian educators, content-writers and curriculum experts. So, talented educators might benefit.

Indian ed-tech players must understand that the “tech” in “ed-tech” stands for real technology. They must also realise that world-class technology will certainly come to India, and before it becomes a threat, they must start producing their own ed-tech.

By Ashish Sirohi

The author is co-founder, Eduwizards.com

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