What will become of India’s booming ed-tech startups once schools reopen?

Ed-tech needs some schooling.
Ed-tech needs some schooling.
Image: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui
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The Covid-19 pandemic has set off a golden era for India’s ed-tech startups. But if current trends are anything go by, this party won’t last forever.

In March 2020, when the Covid-19 outbreak started in India, the country’s largest ed-tech platform Byju’s saw six million new students join its courses. The following month, another 7.5 million came on board. Byju’s rival Vedantu, which hosts live online classes for school kids, clocked 75 million hours of content consumption in 2020 with 6.3 million students across the K-12 category and competitive exams prep accessing its material.

The strong momentum helped several startups in the sector attract fresh investments, raising a total of $2.22 billion(Rs220 crore) in 2020. While Youtube channel-turned-startup Unacademy became a unicorn, the momentum also led many new entrepreneurs to jump on the ed-tech bandwagon. Of the 92 ed-tech startups that received funding in 2020, at least 61 were seed-level firms.

However, these old and new players have made India’s ed-tech landscape so crowded that quality has taken a beating, experts say. And as schools begin to open, Indian ed-tech startups will have to go above and beyond to succeed.

Experts expect 2021 to be a year of consolidation with several mergers and acquisitions in the ed-tech space. “Once that shake is done, people will realise they have over-invested in the space. At the end of the day, there are only so many apps one person can use for education,” Anirudh Damani, managing partner of VC firm Artha Venture Fund, told digital media company KrAsia. “Eventually, there will be two or three winners in every category, and everyone else will die down.”

First-movers vs first-timers

Ventures that have been around for a while have had an edge so far as Indians adapted to the new normal. Besides a higher brand recall, these companies have deeper pockets to run ad campaigns and offer discounts.

For instance, in March 2020, Byju’s made all its courses for students in classes 1-12 free for some time in light of the pandemic, and soon after, rivals Toppr and Unacademy followed suit. For smaller companies, offering free courses or running television ads are not sustainable options.

What also doesn’t help is the fact that many of the new ventures are simply me-too versions of larger rivals. “For the new ed-tech startups that are coming up, differences are incremental and not that deep anymore,” Damani told KrAsia.

Many of the budding startups seem to have emerged in a rush without sound business models that truly benefit students.

Wishy-washy systems

The quality of online education being imparted by Indian ed-tech firms has come under a scanner as several smaller ventures offer more than they can deliver. This has led many parents to distrust such platforms.

The most popular example of this trend is WhiteHat Jr, a coding startup for kids aged 6-14 that was acquired by Byju’s for a whopping $300 million last year. There have been a host of concerns about the company’s courses giving kids “skills” without laying the right foundation.

Introducing coding classes at a primary school level is not unique to WhiteHat Jr. China, Japan, EstoniaBritain, and Israel, all launched coding programmes for young children. India’s National Education Policy (NEP) also proposes introducing coding from class 6 onwards. But WhiteHat Jr has come under fire for issues such as offering courses based on material that is otherwise available for free and hiring under-qualified teachers.

“The way the programme is portrayed is very misleading. It’s poorly structured with kids making games but basic concepts are not covered clearly. If you ask the kid to use the same concepts in another application, they will not be able to do it,” Saloni (name changed), a former WhiteHat Jr teacher, told Quartz.

The company has refuted such claims, but there is no denying the fact that Indian parents are looking at ed-tech with scepticism following the WhiteHat Jr debacle.

Of course, it’s not just WhiteHat Jr alone that has kinks to iron out. There are issues facing the whole ed-tech industry.

A second chance for Indian education?

India’s education system is among the largest in the world with more than 320 million children. And Covid-19 has no doubt made online learning more mainstream than ever before.

“There is no longer any question of whether you can deliver education through technology—because schools are doing it,” GV Ravishankar, managing director at Sequoia Capital India, told KrAsia.

However, access to this learning still has several barriers.

Only 8% of all Indian households with members aged between five and 24 have both a computer and an internet connection. And attending classes online is a big financial burden with people having to buy or share devices, and purchase bigger data packs to get through the curriculum. Moreover, access to textbooks and other study material at schools has been cut off, which means students incur more out-of-pocket charges.

The burden on instructors is no less. Among female teachers, approximately 90% have access to a smartphone but only 40% have access to a laptop, making it harder to deliver lessons.

In the last year, with external factors like lab sessions and peer group interactions out, the focus is only on teacher quality and learning quality “and this is the gist of the problem,” Sumeet Mehta, co-founder and CEO of LEAD School, which helps private schools digitise their curriculums, told Quartz. Simply moving a school’s syllabus online isn’t a solution—what is being taught and how it’s being taught is due for an overhaul.

Mehta believes a sound ed-tech platform must be able to embed skill development on collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creative thinking in their time-tables and annual calendars.

“On pedagogy, one needs to end the rule of the textbook,” Mehta added. “It is the enemy of learning for life because it promotes rote learning and puts an inordinate focus on answering the book-back questions. We need to connect learning to life, we need to make new learning connect to previous learning, and we need to contextualise learning.”