Can coronavirus do for edtech what demonetisation did for digital payments in India?

Won’t you stay with me?
Won’t you stay with me?
Image: AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh
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On Nov. 8, 2016, digital payments companies became mainstream in India overnight after the government suddenly decided to demonetise two high-value currency notes. Now, education technology (edtech) firms are hoping for an encore in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced several schools and colleges across India to temporarily close. In Delhi alone, over two million kids are being forced to stay at home with primary schools shut until March 31. With fresh cases being reported each day, there are expectations that more schools and colleges will be closed in the coming weeks.

Edtech companies are jumping to make the most of the situation, offering free access to their courses during a time that typically flags off the exam season.

But overnight success might be hard to come for these platforms, experts said.

“While a smartphone is good enough for browsing, social media, and so on, for studies, assignments, and projects, it doesn’t suffice,” Prateek Shukla, CEO & co-founder Bengaluru-based coding bootcamp Masai School, told Quartz. “A stable internet and electricity connection is the biggest challenge.” Power outages are still very frequent across most Indian cities, especially in smaller towns.

And that is just one of the many hurdles. Companies, though, are going all out to make hay.

Wooing India

On March 11, Bengaluru-based Byju’s, the world’s biggest edtech firm, said it was making all its learning programmes for students in classes 1 through 12 free until April-end. Soon after, rival Toppr offered free access to its live and video classes for school kids until March 31, and Unacademy announced 20,000 free live classes for candidates looking to prep for entrance exams for union public service commission, banking, railways, and more.

“We want learners to utilise this time…We will support the education system in every way possible to weather the storm,” said Gaurav Munjal, co-founder and CEO of Unacademy. Toppr said it will consider extending the free access for students if schools don’t reopen after March.

Edtech is already well equipped to handle a possible surge in demand, said Akash Singhal, founder & CEO of edtech startup Illumnus. Teachers producing online lessons have already been working remotely, so there is no additional cost in producing lessons.

The initiatives are already bringing in gains.

Noida-based Gradeup has seen a 25% uptick in daily enrolments since it doubled the number of free video on its platform in light of the coronavirus outbreak.

“We operate in the test-prep space and a lot of offline institutes work in unorganised areas, usually in cramped classrooms. While there is no health advisory here (unlike in schools and colleges), students are already talking about how unsafe this environment can be,” said Shobhit Bhatnagar, CEO & cofounder of Gradeup.

But is this growth sustainable?

Effective enough?

Any influx of sign-ups at this time does not necessarily indicate a new normal.

Despite offering features like live lectures and peer-to-peer discussions for years, most edtech companies have only managed to act as an alternative to after-school tuitions at best. They are highly unlikely to become an alternative to schools overnight.

“Edtech can fill in for the gap in schooling for a temporary period of three to six months,” said Toppr founder Zishaan Hayath. “But if schools shut longer, we’ll need to find ways to enable school teachers to directly conduct live classes, figure out how kids can take exams, and so on.”

Additionally, it’s not just the kids who’re confined to their house, vying for device time and internet bandwidth. “As more parents work from home, they may consume shared device time. I can’t surely say the devices are plenty and freely available,” Hayath added.

Once schools resume and edtech firms look to monetise, every free user won’t convert to a paid one. “If 100 people try it, 20 may stay and the remaining 80 may go back but over time, more and more people might stay back,” Toppr’s Hayath said.

But then, 20 users gained is still 20 more than before.