By RCM Reddy & Devika Rae Chandra
The last two years have seen a veritable boom in the edtech sector in India, driven in large part by pandemic-induced school closures which pushed learning online. Today, over 11,000 companies are active in just the K12 space in India. At a time when it was feared that educational opportunities would diminish, edtech companies admirably stepped into the breach to keep the learning clock ticking. However, this sudden burst in edtech activity coupled with the lack of an adequate regulatory framework also allowed some questionable practices. Persistent sales calls, misrepresented subscription and financial agreements, information asymmetry about product pricing, and the lack of adequate grievance redressal mechanisms—all started being reported in increasing numbers. Ordinary families, overcome with the ‘fear of missing out’, kept signing up for these platforms, suffering the consequences of deficient and low-quality services. Parents in the middle and bottom of the economic pyramid suffered the most.
The issue has become critical enough for it to be raised in Parliament and for the government to issue public advisories on the use of edtech apps. This has drawn attention to an urgent need for a clear regulatory framework with corrective measures in four specific categories—financial, advertising, academic, and operational. In a welcome move, major players in the industry have spurred into action and formed the Indian EdTech Consortium as a self-regulatory body with a two-tier grievance redressal mechanism. But what is needed within this self-regulatory mechanism are long-term, clear, and comprehensive guidelines that specifically target financial, advertorial, operational, and academic-related issues. Effective self-regulation is key to safeguarding consumer rights and ensuring equitable access to quality education. Effective self-regulation also prevents top-down regulatory strictures which might discourage innovation and stifle the sector. These self-regulatory guidelines should include the following:
First, there is an urgent need for more robust financing mechanisms in edtech in India. They need to be stated clearly from the outset. All terms and conditions, especially concerning loans, auto-debit features, and Electronic Funds Transfers need to be openly communicated to the customer. Families who send their children to government and affordable private schools (forming 70% of the total enrolment) spend an average of `16,000 a year on after-school supplementary products, as shown in a survey conducted by Schoolnet, and thus cannot be forced to feel like they must empty their pockets for their child to attain quality education.
Secondly, there cannot be discrepancies between advertisements and the actual product, as that would amount to false advertising. EdTech is not confined to only the education sector but has its feet in marketing, digital, and e-commerce and so companies must be watchful of their operations concerning advertising and data security. Success stories and testimonials, which are increasingly relied upon by parents, must be authentic and made without compulsion with mechanisms in place for claim verification.
Third, the content, pedagogy, quality of teachers and mentors, and assessments must go through careful quality control. There needs to be a live and adaptive policy on how academic quality is maintained. Edtech firms should have in-house academic experts who ensure that content is curriculum-aligned and grade-specific to help students comprehend what they are learning. Educationists from schools, government stakeholders, textbook authors, and others need to come together to create a code for creating and monitoring new forms of content.
Fourth, if edtech companies are defined or viewed as e-commerce entities in legal terms, they would fall under the purview of the Consumer Protection Act. This would mandate that they adhere to laws that seek to protect their users’ rights, i.e., the rights of parents and students. There have been court cases against edtech firms concerning unfair practices and deficient services. In this light, it is of utmost importance that all firms have in-house grievance redressal mechanisms for quick resolution of problems, transparency in operations, sound mechanisms for data protection, and honest advertisements.
Over the years, edtech has evolved from solution providers for in-school to providing a seamless connection with after-school education. From augmenting classrooms with digital infrastructure and providing ancillary services and soft infrastructure in schools, the latest advent has been B2C or direct consumer supplementary education services. The school system has always fallen under the regulation of the government, but the after-school segment remains unregulated.
With the sudden influx of players in the last two years and the increasingly nebulous boundaries between sectors, edtech firms are doing all that they can to stand out amidst tough competition, making checks and balances much more complex but all the more necessary. The current bid for self-regulation is a step in the right direction to ensure consumer rights are protected and that bona fide efforts in education and edtech reach every student, school, and teacher, augmenting learning outcomes and improving teaching efficiency, as the ultimate and sincerest metric for success.
The authors are respectively, MD & CEO, and assistant manager, Office of Strategy, Schoolnet India.