More than meets the eye: For-profit edtech is impacting education, just not in the conventional way

The present edtech companies have played a key role in increasing the reach of online education. But there is clearly a lack of serious thinking about how education delivery will evolve.

The edtech sector is in a phase of transition.

By Shikhar Sachan

Edtech giants have been in the news for all the wrong reasons in recent days. It started when clips showing managers abusing sales executives to meet aggressive targets surfaced on social media. Parents came forth with complaints about being coerced into buying courses for their kids. What followed was an exposé of the internal workings of these companies by ex-employees, who quickly found more supporters. The real fire lit up when some of the critics found their social media accounts blocked and defamation cases filed against them. It’s no surprise then that edtech platforms found mention in the Parliament.

While the organisational issues that came to light are very real and indisputable, certain fundamental questions around how education and edtech are evolving require a relook.

First, why pay for education when it should be free, especially when a lot of educational content is freely available online? Second, how does one judge the qualifications of the teachers teaching online? And third, does focusing on extracurriculars like programming make sense for young kids who are already burdened?

To answer the first question, the proponents of the idea that education should be free, present it as a binary and oppose any for-profit organisations operating in education. Free education is not exactly the opposite of paid education. They can exist together, and it has been that way. The government through its vast machinery, and various initiatives by non-profits are trying to make education affordable and accessible for the underserved, which is a large population in India.

However, we know that governments and nonprofits struggle to bring all the pieces – product, design, technology, analytics, partnerships, deeper insights, talent, funding – together. This leads to challenges with enhanced learning experience, lag in completion rates and learning outcomes – all of which pose a big challenge in today’s fast changing world. We are also seeing a paradigm shift in the study patterns of students – short attention spans, excessive competition, general lack of self-worth and intrinsic motivation. This makes education a layered problem and that’s where the for-profit edtech businesses step in.

A recent study on Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), which follow a self-study based approach, showed a 3.13% completion rate in 2017–18, down from about 4% and 6% in the previous years. From this, one can conclude that only a small margin of students are able to complete study through such unassisted learning platforms. The rest require assistance, and for-profit edtech companies can make a real difference in this sphere. As a society, we have shown an inclination to prefer quality over price. Parents tend to be willing to pay extra if it means giving their child access to better and innovative learning experiences.

This brings us to the second question about the qualification of the teachers employed by edtech platforms and their ability to maintain the teaching standards. Anyone judging these teachers through the lens of traditional teaching qualifications is bound to be hung up on degrees, diplomas, and prior experience. EdTech firms, by design, are very different from how schools and colleges operate. A critical element is the transparency brought in by reviews and testimonials for teachers on these platforms. Making the right choice of an educational platform was never easier and more importantly, clearer. Traits such as patience, strong communication and teaching skills, passion for students’ progress, hence play a more important role than degrees alone.

Third, many have aired concerns about the relevance of teaching young kids programming. The key argument is that these six-year-olds will learn in a year what high school kids can learn in a couple of days. But kids must learn to walk before they run. Are subjects like calculus and probability a prerequisite to understand machine learning? For advanced levels, yes. But the objective here is to pique curiosity and create a sense of wonder at an early age.

There is a lot of noise around the business models that are led by sales-driven growth and rely heavily on burning cash. Any serious businessman is well aware of the fact that online businesses require capital in their formative years. Post which they reach the phase where they generate revenues. Byjus is profitable and has been multiplying its revenues and profits. Many others are eyeing profitability in the coming years. Similarly, there is nothing wrong in taking the sales-driven growth route. As an entrepreneur, you look for the easiest path to grow your company. In this case it turned out to be sales-driven growth. Their business models have been vetted by top firms who have a long history of making the right bets. We can safely assume that the best business minds in the world know what they are investing in.

The above discussion hints that the problem is not as simple as free vs paid education, original vs curated content, or the qualification of teachers. The focus should shift to crafting an experience that is effective and helps everyone learn faster, better.

The present edtech companies have played a key role in increasing the reach of online education. But there is clearly a lack of serious thinking about how education delivery will evolve. What are the new age teachers going to look like? What will be their desired skill set? How can we create more value for students? What will the ideal product look like? What kind of technologies will be leveraged to create an engaging learning experience? How will it enable collaboration and co-creation?

Few new age companies are thinking deeply about these questions and trying to find answers. The edtech sector is in a phase of transition. The big companies of today do not provide the ideal services and do not represent the full potential of edtech. They have played a role in opening up the market, making learning beyond school more acceptable, and paving the way for other companies to create a more meaningful impact. Creating an atmosphere of cynicism could roll back the progress we’ve made in edtech. That is definitely not the direction this evolution should take.

(The author is co-founder of Habitat and an angel investor. Views expressed are personal.)

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