Is India Leading The Way in Edtech?

Asish Sirohi

I remember as a kid, having only known the universe of Indian 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 this 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 Edtech, where I have some expertise, having been in Education my whole life.

Edtech companies are selling the concept of “Personalized Learning” or “Adaptive Learning.” What is personalized learning and what is the problem that Edtech companies are trying to solve by chasing this concept? 

Let us go back three decades to the research of Benjamin Bloom. His famous “2 Sigma Problem ” is about how to recreate the effectiveness of One-on-one tutoring. Bloom’s research showed that students taking one-on-one tutoring performed two standard deviations (2 sigma) better than students who did not receive tutoring. In other words, the average tutored student performed better than 98 per cent of the students in the traditional classroom. Why the jump in performance? One-on-one tutoring is the ultimate personalization of learning. However, Bloom noted that one-on-one tutoring is “too costly for most societies to bear on a large scale” and the “problem” for Bloom and how to replicate the 2 Sigma result without the high expense.

What educationists agree upon 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 class cannot personalize for each student. 

What real Education Technology is being implemented and how does Indian technology compare to other countries such as USA and China?

USA company Knewton has emerged as the clear technology leader for “Adaptive Learning.” Their technology uses Item Response Theory (IRT) as a foundation. IRT is genuine Adaptive Assessment technology that is used in world’s high stakes tests such as GMAT and GRE, and is expanding now to being used in USA K-12 Assessments. Knewton’s Edtech has expanded IRT Adaptive from “Assessment” to “Learning” – a great feat. Many Edtech companies are now paying to use their technology, thus acknowledging their leadership. 

TutorGroup of China seems to lead in Edtech 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 favored 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 always be evolving and remain a tech challenge. TutorGroup is an Edtech company that has achieved Unicorn status.

Another hot promise of Edtech has been gamification – interactive activities that make the child learn while having fun. Can Edtech achieve this for students and anxious parents? Companies like Age of Learning from USA have delivered on such products with wide adoption by parents opening their wallets to buy their gamification products.

There are other successes in Edtech, but here too the technology innovation is coming from America, followed by China.

In India “Adaptive Testing,” “Personalized Learning” and “Gamification” are on home pages of Edtech companies selling products to students. What technology breakthroughs have Indian Edtech leaders made? Not much when compared to American and Chinese Edtech, and nor have they incorporated or replicated the genuine Edtech being made outside India. But they have the same grand claims of technology. Why should they not? Did Ambassador car acknowledge that they are not world-class tech?

Most of today’s Indian Edtech companies may easily go the way of the Ambassador car, once Made-in-China and Made-in-America.

Edtech comes to India, and Indian student and parents compare foreign technology to Indian technology by looking under the hood. But these American and Chinese Edtech winners will employ Indian educators, content-writers and curriculum experts. So talented educators will benefit with Edtech adoption and growth, and that change is good because talent is often not recognized and rewarded in the education field. And they will show the Indian consumer some wonderful Edtech, which Indians have not seen the likes of. 

However, the future has not happened yet and something could happen that makes the Indians win in Edtech. That something would first involve the realization by Indian Edtech companies that the “tech” in “Edtech” stands for real technology. Second would be the realization that world-class technology will certainly come to India, and the clock is ticking for Indian companies to produce it. Indian Edtech companies must be very cognizant of the serious threat posed by American and Chinese competitors and of the increased level of innovation that would be needed to successfully battle these global competitors in India.